For five weeks, we could not drive. I’m not sure what I had expected, but five weeks? Probably not. Hey, but at least we are in Spain, right? There is enough to do and the weather is fine.

Let’s pick up where we left off. Our car refused to budge on a Saturday in early April. On Monday, I called the Toyota dealer in Almería, and they gave me the number of a tow truck company. The tow truck arrived, its driver took one look at our car and… shook his head. That’s not going to fit, he said. No cabrá.

A bigger truck arrived an hour later. It took us and our car to the Toyota dealer, where we left our phone number with someone who said, confidently, “we’ll call you”.

He did, soon after that, saying the clutch had died and needed to be replaced. Fine, do it, we said.

We went to spend a few days in nearby San José, in the Cabo de Gato national park. Walks, hikes, very pleasant.

Bark of a eucalyptus in Cabo de Gata National Park – could it be river red gum? Different types of gum tree were imported from Australia in the fifties for use in the paper industry. Likewise, agaves were imported from Mexico for the use of their fibres in rope making. Both eucalypts and agave are now considered invasive species in Andalucía because they thrive at the expense of indigenous plants which cannot compete with them for the scarce resources.

Even the famously blue Mediterranean turns an angry colour when the wind picks up. Kitesurfers near Almería take advantage of an airmass that is in a hurry to reach an area of low pressure south-west of Portugal, ripping through the Gibraltar Straights before getting there.

After our return to Almería, Charlotte flew to the Netherlands for a week. I stayed and received more bad news: the clutch had been replaced, but during a test drive there had been noises from the gearbox. That was ominous. Please investigate. They did, and then asked me to come and look for myself.

What I saw was shocking. I was shown a gear from the transfer case (where two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive is selected, as well as high or low gearing). It had been worn away to an extent not easily imaginable: the teeth were practically gone. How the hell was that possible? Lots and lots of off-road driving, they said.

I thought about this. It was possible to repair only the hardest-hit parts, and even that was going to be an expensive repair. We would still face possible failure of other parts of the gearbox, perhaps in isolated parts of the world, with spares difficult to come by and visa duration potentially turning an already difficult situation into a major problem. Think Iran, Kazakhstan, think Turkmenistan with its three-day transit visas. Unthinkable.

And then there was the possibility of replacing not just the clutch and a few gears, but the entire gearbox and transfer case. Expensive, yes. Very. I’m sure many would say prohibitively. But also a way to be sure that none of that would pose a problem in the next fifteen or twenty years. I thought of the gear I had seen, the immense abuse it had suffered. Do it, I said. And I wanted to cry. Was this the right decision? I may never know. In hindsight, maybe, after gathering all the information I didn’t have when it was decision time. But hindsight is a useless adviser, it is never around when you need it.

There were some language problems, too. Although I started learning Spanish at the age of fifteen, none of what I have picked up since then had prepared me to talk shop with a head mechanic, and a southerner to boot. (Why is it always southerners who have the strongest accents? Will have to address that another time).

After I had asked him a few times to repeat what he had said, his behaviour changed. When speaking to others, he would typically talk rapidly but in a normal tone of voice. Then he would turn to me, come uncomfortably close to me, and start shouting. This went on for a number of days and then suddenly stopped. I have to assume that others told him I was not deaf, just… foreign.

Now, obviously, they did not have a gearbox and a transfer case lying around. The computer was consulted and it said: parts available in two months. It was consulted again with ‘urgent’ added to the search. Three weeks. Price difference? Don’t worry about that, they said, we will absorb that. They clearly wanted this job.

So we had at least three weeks to do something we might not do otherwise: city trips. Visits to cities we could go to by public transport, without worrying about where to leave the car. Because our car doesn’t fit in covered car parks, its height exceeds the designed allowance. Of course, it was made for being outside, in the open. Which, incidentally, was where we had wanted to be, too.

But OK, cities. I had already come to appreciate Almería while Charlotte was in the Netherlands. With little to attract tourists, Almería has retained a degree of authenticity not seen in many other Spanish cities. And after spending a week having a tostada de sobrasada with coffee for breakfast at the same café every day and a menú for lunch at the same restaurant, the staff of both places had begun to welcome me as a regular customer. Almería was beginning to feel very comfortable.

Alhambra and Granada on one of those rare rainy days. This photo was edited with the help of three apps (for Android): Vibrance HDR for rendering highlights and shadows, PhotoDirector for selective desaturisation and perspective correction, and Pixlr for frame and grunge.

Next, we spent a week or so in Granada. Lovely city, lots of old buildings, public squares everywhere, Arab quarter and of course the big crowd pleaser: the Alhambra. Did that, seen that, all very well, time to move on.

Looking out over Granada from the Alhambra

Antequera: small town north of Málaga. Home of Porra Antequerana (a member of the family of cold soups like Gazpacho Andaluz and Salmorejo) and a local version of Bienmesabe, a dessert made of biscuits, eggs, sugar, almonds and something that is called ‘angel hair’ and in this case means caramelised fibres of mashed pumpkin.

Antequera is also justifiably famous for the unusual rock formations in the nearby Torcal. We hiked it and liked it, or better: loved it.

Next, not Córdoba or Sevilla (hotels were consistently expensive) but Málaga, or Malaga as it is known in English.

Malaga is a vibrant, beautiful city. It is a celebration of the wonderful climate it enjoys: the historic centre is largely a pedestrian area with cafés, bars and restaurants that are brimming with customers throughout the day. The river that cuts the city in half but hardly ever contains any water has not been turned into a park like the Turia has been in Valencia (after its rare run-off had been diverted around the city) but it does have a pedestrian area lining it. Beaches are a popular playground, as are parks. Public squares can turn into stages at any time.

Malaga is also the only part of Spain that we have visited where people consistently spoke to us in English. This bugged the hell out of me when it started happening in Amsterdam, and I could not get used to it in Malaga. What is more, beggars with fake limps do the rounds, street musicians seem to all play the same evergreens, and restaurants with inflated prices find ways to add insult to injury. Like not including drinks in all-inclusive menus and then charging unheard-of prices for them.

Or how about this:

First, some background information. Usually, anywhere in Spain, we sit down for lunch, a waiter asks us what we want to drink and then brings us our glass of wine. In the meantime, we have made our choice from the daily menu: a first course, a second course. Bread is brought to the table, we already have our drinks, dessert will be chosen later. All that for about 10 euros, sometimes a bit more, sometimes a bit less.

In Malaga, this is what happened: as we are consulting the daily menu on the board (drinks included!), we are invited by the waiter to sit down. What would you like to drink? wine, ok. He brings the wine and takes our orders. First course, second course. How about drinks? I point at the wine he has just brought us. Not included, he says. What do you mean, not included? What kinds of drinks are included, then? Anything you like, he says, beer, white wine, red wine…

This stops me. So why not this wine?, I ask him.

Without blinking, he replies, ‘Because you ordered the wine before you ordered your meal. I entered your drinks into the computer, I cannot delete them.’

Malaga could have been heaven. It is not. Not by a long shot, because of something that recently, suddenly, everybody has been talking about: too much tourism.

Jacaranda in full bloom. Plaza de la merced, Málaga.

Thankfully, we receive a phone call: the car will be ready soon. We go back to Almería for a few days and pick up the car. Mechanics and staff show us what has been done, wish us good luck with our travels, say their goodbyes. It is an emotional moment, we had almost become family.

We leave Almería northbound, find a place on the edge of the Tabernas desert to do some off-road driving, might have stayed there but the day is still young, end up turning back to the coast and stay there for a few days, on a small beach, with no English-speaking waiters, beggars or street musicians anywhere near, and we can relax.

And then, like we have done before when it was time to find authenticity (Sicily being a strong case in point), we turn inland.

Near Freila

Ah yes, this is it. The people we meet are courteous and friendly, and we have found a municipal campsite that doesn’t seem to be known on any app or website, near a lake and with a thousand songbirds around. We are outside all day and loving it. How long will you stay?, they asked us. First we said, one night. The next day, we paid for four more. To tell you the truth, I don’t want to leave.

Bark of a tree I haven’t been able to identify.

This could be a younger tree of the same kind.