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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Mystery and Magic in Marbella

A guest post by my truckbuddy Tim from England, now resident in Spain:

Tim’s Take on Spain:
Magic and Mystery in Marbella

Let me introduce you to Rubén Cortado, our guide for this trip. Model turned actor, Cuban-born Rubén has been a big hit lately on Spanish TV, playing the part of Faruq, a drugs baron in the mini-series El Principe. The series is set in Ceuta, one of the three Spanish exclaves in Morocco. Ceuta lies just a few miles across the straits from nearby Gibraltar, the two rocky promontories forming the ‘Pillars of Hercules’ in Greek mythology. The show is named after a working-class district in the small city. Ruben’s role as Faruq has set Spanish hearts fluttering, and why not? For some reason I missed the series on TV, so let’s hope for a repeat soon!

Just as an aside, I know a young policeman from Ceuta, he’s a dog-handler. We sometimes meet on the little hill when I’m walking Lulu, and he’s exercising his sniffer dog, Blas. However, that will have to be a tale for telling another day! But talking of dogs, the dog days of summer continue without letup here, each day seems hotter and more humid than the last, so joining Rubén for a cooling dip would be most pleasant – well, I can dream can’t I?

Continued after the jump . . .

Let’s get back to reality. Most Friday evenings, Partner and I go out for a meal, part of our regular routine here in Spain. Normally we eat locally in one of our favourite haunts, but the other week we decided for a change to go into Marbella, about 12 miles away. We still get a buzz going to Marbella, it holds many memories for us, and there’s always magic in the air. One of the mysteries of Marbella is its micro-climate. Whilst all around swelter with the heat and humidity, Marbella manages to remain refreshingly cool, especially at night. It’s something to do with the mountains that lie close behind the town, the same ones that shelter it from the winter rains. So we thought we would take the opportunity to dine alfresco and perhaps cool down a bit!

We had visited the town earlier in the week, for yet another hospital appointment, and afterwards we enjoyed a coffee in a bar-restaurant called Canuto, situated in a narrow side street between the hospital and the old fishing port where we usually park the car. Most of the tables and chairs are placed outside, making the street even tighter for vehicles to navigate, but magically no accidents ever seem to occur!

The name Canuto is intriguing, and has a number of possible derivations: It can mean a small (metal) tube, which doesn’t seem very apt in this case. It is a name, a form of the old Norse Knut or Canute, which is possible I suppose, given the maritime connection (Remember the tale of King Canute who commanded the incoming tide to retreat, and got wet feet for his foolishness!) However, it is also slang for a hand-rolled cigarette, and I think that’s the explanation Rubén favours!

Apart from its convenient location, Canuto also has a number of particularly handsome waiters. There is something magical about a white polo shirt tightly stretched across a broad chest, and around large biceps, the mysterious way it can emphasise the nipples!

Marbella has two ports: an old one concerned with fishing and commercial activities, and a newer one, the ‘sports’ port, where the luxury yachts and speedboats moor-up. Naturally it is the Puerto Deportivo which attracts the tourists, and it is lined with expensive bars and chic restaurants. However, the Puerto Pesquero can also boast some fine restaurants, most of them specialising in seafood. These are the sorts of places the locals choose to dine in, so prices are more realistic and tourists are thankfully few and far between!

We checked out the prospects the morning we had coffee. The menu looked good and was reasonably priced. You can make out the large range of fish and shellfish available in this picture of the ceramic wall-menu.

When we arrived on the Friday evening, the air was delightfully cool, with a pleasant breeze coming off the sea - magic! Canuto was busy, but we were quickly seated by Antonio, who recognized us from our earlier visit. The meal was great. We shared a dish of navajas for starters, accompanied by wonderfully crusty bread rolls, the size of a small loaf! You might know navajas as razorshell clams, sprinkled with a just little olive oil and lemon juice, then cooked on the griddle for only a few seconds, succulent and full of the flavour of the sea.

Next, grilled rosada, a firm, white-fleshed fish, more delicate than cod, served with small garlic gloves that have been preserved in apple vinegar, and ali-oli, a type of garlic mayonnaise much loved by the locals and which goes well with most fish, plus homemade fries. Absolutely delicious! All washed down with the house white, an excellent verdejo, from the Castilla y Léon region in central Spain. A wonderful pale yellow colour, unoaked, with an aroma of flowers and a taste of soft fruits, drier and crisper than any chardonnay and a perfect match for any seafood.

Antonio and the boys were most attentive, and the restaurant, which sits at the end of a double row of traditional single-storey fishermen’s cottages, was well attended. I had a huge slice of mille-feuille for dessert: flaky pastry layered with cream and dusted with icing sugar – scrumptious! You might know it as a ‘Napoleon’ and dust it with powdered or confectioner’s sugar. Spanish cuisine is not noted for its desserts, usually it’ s something straight out of the freezer, so it was lovely to have a proper homemade sweet!

The bill, with 3 coffees and a 10% discretional tip, was $72, which given the quaint location, the freshness of the food, and the quality of the wine, plus the . . . er . . . ahem . . . ambience of the staff, we considered good value! I know tipping is a fraught business, but in most European countries 10% is considered normal for this sort of meal. And if the service is less than satisfactory, you don’t include a tip when you pay, simple! Our waiters, however, were most satisfactory!

It was a little more than we would pay normally perhaps, but then even the locals have to pay a price for living in magical Marbella. Given that the town is a popular destination for Saudi Royals, First Ladies and the ultra-ultra-rich and famous of the world (not to mention Mr Putin), there’s no mystery there!

In the corner of the street across from Canuto is a small shrine, unnoticed by many passers-by, which houses a statue of the Virgen del Carmen, the patron of the sea and sailors. Every port worthy of the name has such a shrine, always kept clean and decorated with fresh flowers by the local fishermen’s religious order, or brotherhood, as they are known. It’s akin to having a good luck charm or a lucky mascot on permanent display. In times past, it would have been a place for the little fishing community to assemble, to offer thanks for a good catch, or to pray for those lost at sea.

To understand why the Virgen del Carmen in particular should be held so dear to the fishermen and the inhabitants of coastal towns throughout Spain, we need to go back to the Old Testament. Yes, this is the history bit! Downsizing in his old age, the prophet Elijah retreated to a cave in Mount Carmel, near modern-day Haifa, to live the life of a hermit. Centuries later, Christian hermits, following in Elijah's footsteps asked for the protection of the Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel - the Virgin of Carmen. The Carmelites, as they became known, built a chapel dedicated to her in the hermitage.

The chapel grew over the years to become a monastery that was called the Stella Maris or Star of the Sea. That also became another name (one of many!) by which the Virgin is known. Thus, through this convoluted link did she eventually come to be adopted by mariners, fishermen and indeed whole navies throughout the world as their patron and protector. And in one of those mysterious parallels and co-incidences that seem to litter my life, Stella Maris also happens to be the motto on the crest of my old hometown back in England - Broadstairs. The little seaside town was founded on the site of an 11th-century shrine to St Mary - Our Lady Star of the Sea.

Back in Marbella, every year on the 16th of July, a town holiday, a much larger effigy of the Virgin, normally kept in the crypt, 40 feet below the local church, is taken in a grand procession from the old fishing port to the sports port, carried on the broad shoulders of the fishermen’s brotherhood, who wear their traditional black waistcoats and walk barefoot.

The heavy wooden bier, or passo, carrying the effigy is lit with silver candlesticks and decked with white flowers, carnations in particular. The Virgin herself is dressed in the finest lace. At the port she is carefully placed aboard a traditional fishing boat, called a jabega. Still attended by the brotherhood, she then travels around the bay in the company of other small craft and boats whilst the sea is blessed and purified in her name by reciting prayers and scattering the white flowers over the water.

In the meantime, fireworks will have been set off and the town’s band will have kept the watchers on shore entertained. It’s a charming ceremony, and just like Marbella, full of magic and mystery. Once the Virgin is safely back on dry land, the brotherhood, and many of the onlookers too, usually end up getting soaked by jumping into the sea! Indeed many Spaniards will not swim in the sea until the 16th, preferring to wait until the waters have been blessed before going in! Does anyone fancy joining Rubén and me for a dip? I need to practice my breastroke!

Hasta la próxima!


Davis said...

I like your men of mystery, Tim.

Tim said...

Sshh, don't tell anyone Davis, but there's more where they come from!

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