Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Squatting, Ibn al-Baitar watches the rows of orange trees. He grabs the earth and smells it. Then he smiles. He stands up slowly and walks amidst the stunted trees whose branches bear the golden fruit. It’s thick in there, a solid aroma pervading everything for a while and then suddenly vanishing. Ibn al-Baitar tugs his beard while he strolls about and remembers. He remembers the time when he decided to first plant the citrus trees in the lands belonging to Ben Ha-Maruxa. That was almost five years ago now. He had the seeds brought from far-away lands, from overseas. He’s now about to harvest his first crop, and he thinks it’s going to be good. He smiles again, getting lost amidst the rows of orange trees.

Getting Closer and Remembering Baticate

The road connecting Vélez-Málaga with Benamargosa is the Garden of Eden: trees laden with exotic tropical fruit and classic citrus like oranges or lemons. The plots of land are carefully sown. Crops look tight, green, and prolific. I drove across the quiet suburb called Triana, perfumed with fruit aromas. There’re drying sheds scattered here and there, but they’re not very common in the area –an area in Axarquía known as “Route of Sun and Avocados,” cutting across Benamargosa, Rincón de la Victoria, Macharaviaya, Vélez-Málaga, Benamocarra, and Iznate. Whereas the valleys are heavily populated with fruit trees, the hills closing in on them look bare, almost stripped of vegetation. One kilometre before reaching the town centre, I bumped into the avocados, which are typical of Benamargosa and have given rise to baticates, a sort of avocado milk shake whose full list of ingredients and their quantities are kept by local people as a treasured secret. I drove across town and, to the left, a sign indicated a parking lot. I turned left and parked.

The Tour: Up Jardines de San Sebastián and Down Ermita and Real Streets

Instead of retracing my steps for the town centre, I walked further away to reach the dry bed of the river Benamargosa, with the Puente de los Diez Ojos (Ten-Eyed Bridge, named after the ten arches, or “eyes”, it features) across it. Starting almost in the heart of Benamargosa, the bridge links it to the neighbouring town of Cútar and other villages. It’s quite a feat of engineering, sound and robust, standing on a completely dry bed. Leaning on the balustrade, I could sea a man walking across the waterless river bed toward the reed bed. I followed in his footsteps, walking under the bridge with the weird feeling that a flood could cover me any time. Of course, the feeling had no rational basis; I was just being superstitious. Here I am, after all. Crossing the bridge, I came to a park that must be crowded during summer months, when the heat is unbearable in other places, as its trees and narrow avenue by the river provide for a cool, shadowy place. There’s a fountain in the middle of the park, water gurgling in its bowl. I left the park and walked by the bridge across the road to the left. I came across a panel giving directions to get to the fountain of El Pilar, the districts of Los Pechuelos and La Solana, and the gardens of San Sebastián. I headed in this direction. The first construction I came across was Arcos de la Huerta, an engineering work channelling water through the different gardens surrounding the town. I was being rehabilitated, I could only skirt it. The only thing left is a stretch of wall and one of the original arches. Old and new constructions stand side by side, get intertwined and encircle the town centre. I found the fountain of El Pilar on the street bearing the same name: three brick arches, three spouts, two tile panels forming flower motifs. I kept walking. To the right, the streets leading to the heart of Benamargosa; to the left, standing on a hillock, Los Pechuelos: narrow, zigzagging streets, steps whose landings are full of pots and flowers, short but steep climbs. And then there’s La Solana, with similar, though visitor-friendlier, features. If you walk down some of the streets, you can have a look at the citrus or tropical fruit trees, the river bed, the cluster of houses, the sharp climbs down from the gardens of San Sebastián to the church –the whole town, in fact. The gardens in front of most houses boast beautiful orange or lemon trees –undoubtedly, the most popular crop in the area. I moved on towards the gardens of San Sebastián in the higher part of town: comforting shade and inviting benches to take a break with views of La Solana just opposite. The gardens are part of town. They’re divided by short stone walls resembling those in a castle. I climbed a flight of steps, went through a narrow passageway that led into Ermita Street. I walked down it. Most streets are narrow, most houses are clumped together, most climbs are really steep. I followed Ermita Street until it became Real Street. I turned right and left, always going back to the main thoroughfare. Men and women on their daily errands said hello. I heard a dog barking. I saw a bunch of kids playing something I identified as hide-and-seek. My relaxed stroll brought me to a little square in front of the public library. There were a fountain and a post office as well. I walked past them, coming to the back of the church of La Encarnación. You wouldn’t have guessed what the temple looks like inside from the outside. It featured a coffered ceiling, three naves supported by pointed arches sitting on a brick plinth. The altar was simple, in sharp contrast to the mahogany choir above the main door. My eye was caught by a little niche to the right, holding a humble, lonely cross flanked by two candelabra. The whole picture looked so mysterious… I came out and skirted the church to the front door, only to find a huge archway connecting the temple’s interior with an adjoining house. I took pictures of the odd construction. I went on walking for a while, understanding why Benamargosa is said to be the Mecca of citrus and avocados –they were all around. I even saw two kids playing football with a humongous lemon as a ball, until they kicked it apart. Suddenly, the autumn setting was filled with a powerful, delicious smell. This made me feel hungry. At a street junction just at the entrance of the parking lot, there was Los Pepes, a restaurant and inn. I ordered a peach juice, an alcohol-free beer, and two tapas (Russian salad and Málaga-style salad). The bill = €3. I talked and talked as time went by, wondering what the baticate might taste like.

Bidding Farewell
Ibn al-Baitar walks along the bank of the Ben Ha-Maruxa river. He watches the rows of lemon trees. He looks at the river and thinks of how to bring its water to the gardens. He fishes for a papyrus and quill in his bag. He jots something down. Then he walks back to town, the papyrus in his hands. He’s smiling.

Travel Tips and Useful Links
What to eat: I’ve mentioned baticate, this mysterious avocado milk shake whose recipe Benamargoseños aren’t willing to reveal. It’s a popular drink in the Country Fair, held in April every year. I haven’t said a word about zoque, though –“a sort of fresh salad eaten as an appetiser or as a side dish, made with a citrus variety known as ‘pear lemon.’ It’s cool and has a funny taste, as its ingredients include pear lemons, garlic, peppers, ground pepper, olive oil, bread crumbs, vinegar and salt.” (Source: Town Hall website)
Useful links: I’ve planned this trip using the websites of the Costa del Sol Tourist Board and the Benamargosa Town Hall.
Comments, suggestions, and opinions from travellers/ visitors to this blog are very welcome. This is intended to be an open door. See you under the Bright Blue Sky.