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Almeria – Spain’s best kept secret

Beaches in Almeria ain't half bad
Beaches in Almeria ain’t half bad

The amount of recent negative comment about Almería has driven me to put pen to paper (or the modern equivalent) in its defense. I accept that one man’s meat may be another’s poison, but usually we taste before we reject – I can’t abide oysters, but at least I gave them the benefit of the doubt once! So from someone who has been here for some time, here is the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Bad

Yes, there are issues with building legalities but with the exception of the ill-advised destruction of one (arguably legal) house, these are largely limited to one geographical area, and I venture to suggest that there is nothing worse than elsewhere, particularly on the Costa del Sol.

What's bad about Almeria?
What’s bad about Almeria?

The infrastructure has not quite kept up with the rampant construction of recent years but this is now being addressed. This is actually a source of regret for some who came here twenty years ago precisely because it was a bit rough around the edges and all the more ‘real’ for it. That there has been too much construction is beyond doubt, but that is not a problem restricted to Almería. At least the areas which have been most intensively developed, at Vera Playa and at San Juan de los Terreros, have been done in an attractive low-rise manner.

Year-round residents complain that the choice of decent restaurants serving a consistent standard is limited, although improving all the time. There are plenty of good Menu del Días, the best of which give you the chance to sample the food of the more expensive restaurants at a knock-down price at lunchtime, but the higher end is not well catered for and still too expensive for the level of food on offer. This lack of competition keeps prices relatively high – hopefully time will take care of this. It is a problem which does not really affect the summer visitors who come to enjoy the fish in the many famous chiringuitos on the beaches, especially in Mojácar.

The Ugly

From the air Almería does look rather unprepossessing: acres of plastic beneath which is growing enough food to feed the entire world. But less than 15 minutes north of the airport you leave all this behind and enter an extraordinary landscape, as the motorway runs through and alongside the Cabo de Gata, cutting through mountains and traversing deep gorges. The geology is very disturbed and the different strata of rock show up in sharp contrast of colour, ranging from ochre through olive green, grey, terracotta and even purple. Under a dazzling blue sky it has a rugged, uncompromising beauty – definitely a Marmite thing (love it or hate it) and for us it was love at first sight ten years ago.

Almeria's rugged beauty
What’s ugly about Almeria? Its rugged beauty?

The agriculture in north eastern part of the province is mainly citrus, olives and almonds and the area given over to these compared to plastic is probably in the region of several hundred to one, judging by what is visible.

Being the driest place in mainland Europe there are places which are arid, and the prickly pear and the agave flourish and there is no denying the existence of the spectacular desert scenery around Tabernas. Nearer to the coast however there are many pine-clad mountains and hillsides, and where there are no trees there are grasses, wild thyme and rosemary to providing a habitat for bees and many species of butterfly, not to mention a heavenly smell as you brush against them. After a long dry spell, even a relatively light shower can bring out a dazzling carpet of wild flower colour in the campo. The area is a known favourite of bird-watchers and within a one kilometre radius of our house a knowledgeable winter guest once counted no fewer than 40 different species in a fortnight’s stay.

The Good

The veiw from Mojacar, Almeria
The veiw towards Mojacar is good

Almería did not ‘benefit’ when all the other costas were being heavily developed in the sixties and seventies. As a result it is still possible to drive for less than ten minutes from any of the costal towns without encountering a traffic jam, and find yourself in the heart of the country. There is no high rise because it is not permitted, and thus the charm of the original towns has largely been preserved. Fish’n’chips and All Day Full English are virtually unknown, as are souvenir shops selling Kiss-me-Quick hats, shaved and tattooed heads and Union Jack shorts, because the package holiday has thankfully never caught on here. There are almost no night clubs and in the markets and supermarkets in August the voices you hear are predominantly Spanish and French.

Political migration under Franco and particularly economic migration during the fifties left many of Almería’s villages abandoned to a handful of people eking out a difficult living in agriculture. Then foreigners discovered property in Almeria. When the pioneering foreigners started to arrive in the eighties, locals who had property and land to sell were able to capitalize, and many turned themselves into builders to support the demand. Whole villages have been pulled out of dire poverty and are now thriving communities where foreigners from quite literally all over the world have integrated well with the original villagers.

There is arguably no better example of this than Bédar, a pretty white-washed village on a hilltop about 20 minutes’ drive from the coast at Mojácar. Twenty years ago it was on its knees. Today the padrón boasts a veritable United Nations of names and the village band probably has more foreign than Spanish members, yet the village remains quintessentially Spanish. Bédar enjoys enviable views right down to the coast, across a plain where one might think that a giant digger has deposited huge pyramidal mounds, interspersed with orange groves and dotted with houses, and not a sheet of plastic to be seen. To the right is the majestic Sierra Cabrera, rising steeply behind Mojácar Playa to a height of nearly 1000 metres. We consider ourselves truly blessed to live in the campo just beyond Bédar, where after a ten minute walk up a gentle incline I can look down into a spectacular gorge, look up to the North East and glimpse the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada and in the opposite direction find Mojacar Pueblo on the edge of the Sierra Cabrera, with the sea beyond. It is utterly breathtaking and no photo could possibly do it justice, but perhaps the best bit is that is by no means a unique view within Almería.

Los Pinos, Almeria
Los Pinos is good too

Property prices in the region soared dizzyingly around the turn of the century, catching up with those in the more expensive parts of coastal Spain, which means that the people buying here at that time (and they were buying in large numbers at every price level, both for permanent living and for holidays) were doing so from choice and not for reasons of economy. As well as first-time buyers, many refugees from the Costa del Sol and Costa Blanca came to rediscover what they came to Spain for in the first place but had now lost in the more developed areas. Plenty are more than comfortably off (as well as several celebrities) but they live without ostentation or the benefit of heavily guarded walls and gates. For the most part, unless you know them particularly well you would not know who is indeed seriously well off, and everyone mixes well in an environment where you are judged by your contribution to local society and not by what you drive.

The Desert Springs Resort in Almeria
The Desert Springs Golf Resort is fabulous

Traffic jams are pretty well unknown outside of August, a time when the foreign locals in particular batten down the hatches, lay in provisions and sit in the shade beside the pool to enjoy the view. When they need to shop, they try to do it during siesta when there is no traffic and almost no one in the supermarkets. When they eat out they go before the Spanish fill the restaurants at 3pm and 10pm if they want to be sure of a table.

The motorway does not, thankfully, run through or even beside the coastal towns but can easily be reached within ten minutes from most, along good local roads, twenty minutes at most in the Cabo de Gata and San Juan de Los Terreros areas.

Outside of August and some weekends in June and July, most of our beautiful beaches (and there are many outside of the main towns between Cabo de Gata and the northern provincial boundary) are almost deserted – in May you would consider ten to be a crowd! The Cabo de Gata boasts some of the most beautiful anywhere and the protected marine habitat in this area is one of the most important in Europe.

On the other hand

In November of 2006 we passed through the Costa del Sol on our way to Portugal. It was my first visit in nearly thirty years and I was genuinely shocked and disorientated. Marbella, once the jewel, had been totally swallowed up in high rise and concrete. Puerto Banus, at that time just a charming collection of pretty restaurants and a small amount of residential accommodation immediately surrounding the marina, was another high rise city. It reminded me of a cross between Los Angeles and Bangkok and I could not get away fast enough, but that was no easy matter: despite several years’ experience of driving in Spain we found it difficult to find our way out as the signing was so poor and so overwhelmed by advertising hoardings, and even in November the traffic was horrendous.

It was not hard to agree that we would not swap our little piece of paradise for a millionaire’s mansion in Marbella and our only fear was that unless a brake was soon put on development in Almería, in twenty year’s time it would be a carbon copy of everywhere else. Probably the present economic situation will come to our rescue and that vision has been pushed far enough into the future not to be much of a concern to us wrinklies. Meantime we will continue to enjoy more hours of sunshine and less rain than anywhere else, along with a relaxed way of life and all the other idiosyncracies of Spain’s best kept secret.

Jane Breay lives in Almeria and runs the gorgeous Villa for rent Las Tortugas

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