Between the Oranges and Olives: Periana, Malaga

For the past 15 years I’ve lived and worked in Barcelona. Barcelona is beautiful, and vain. She spends her time looking in the mirror, making herself alluring and interesting, imagining how others see her. She is hard-working, but with a rebellious spirit. The past has taught her to mistrust. She keeps many lovers, but cannot decide between them. She has a split-personality. She is stylishly aloof, and yet has a weakness for kitsch ornaments and artistic excess.

Nothing like Periana. Periana was the first town I knew in Spain.

It’s 25 years since I first came to Periana. What is it that brings me back, year after year? The texture of the earth, generous and soft like warm, brittle cake. The white gleam of the other towns on distant mountains. Watching the sinking sun from the shade of an ancient verdial olive tree. The silent jury of mountains; El Chanizo, el Gallo, el Vilo, el Fraile y Dona Ana. The turquoise slither of Lake Vinuela and the silver sea beyond. The sombre volcanic potential of Mount Tejedo. The rattling of maquinas leaping with mounds of fruit over bumpy tracks. Some words by Miguel Hernandez, ‘el naranjo sabe a vida, y el olivo a tiempo, sabe…y entre el clamor de los dos, mis pasiones se debaten.’

In the late 1980s, my English parents bought a cortijo in the valley. Thirteen years old, pink as a melocotón, and with a comical smattering of Spanish, I immediately made friends with some boys above the Camino de Velez. Roaming through the olive groves down to Moya, blowing pocket money in the old Recreativo Bar on Pacman, drinking cubatas in the Kaya disco-pub, hitch-hiking down to the beach in Torre del Mar; the valley of Axarquia was too good to be true for a little guiri from the English shire. My hometown of Stourbridge was right in the middle of the country, about as far from the sea as it’s possible to get. There were no olive trees. You weren’t allowed in nightclubs at my age.

Like Gibraltans, I spoke a strange hybrid of Andalu and English. It always makes me smile when I hear English kids who have been raised there switching back and forth from the Queen’s English to colloquial Axarquian.

Somehow, in Periana, my family found a place to all come together. My aunt and uncle, both journalists in Colombia, my mother, an archaeologist, who worked for long periods in Peru, and my father, an art teacher from London; we looked in on all the charm of Periana’s world and desperately wanted to fit in.

For my mother, who’d been brought up in the warm, friendly clime of South America, it was a return to a half-recognized world, away from the damp, ‘sickly’ green of England, where she’d never felt at home. My father, meanwhile, was English to the core. He loved the landscape and food of Andalusia, but couldn’t learn the language and pined for home comforts. For my aunt and uncle, Periana meant tranquillity away from the chaotic metropolis of Bogota, a dangerous place to be during the politically unstable times of the 80s and 90s.

I was just an awkward kid. My attempts to fit in included smoking Ducados, dropping all my d’s and s’s, and wearing a Heroes del Silencio tee-shirt.

But it was impossible to hide our foreignness. Not that anyone else cared. Just us.

Now when I come to Periana I see it through different eyes. My wife and I live in the hills to the north of Barcelona’s Tibidabo mountain.

The air in Catalonia is humid and very cold in winter. The predominant trees are wiry aleppo pines and squat holly oaks, with the occasional beech or stone pine.

In Periana, beyond the universal olive groves, the variety is startling – the lemons, pomegranates, quince, oranges, carobs – there is a fragrant feel to the air. In autumn, the landscape is on fire with flaming poplars.

After the chaotic architectural hotch potch of where we live in Catalunya, with its late 19th century neo-Gothic palaces, its vangardista ‘cubos’ of steel, glass and concrete, and medieval and renaissance buildings of dark and forbidding stone, the simple whitewash and Moorish tiles of Andalucia’s houses is pleasingly pure and simple, in harmony with the landscape.

My wife is from Argentina. She came to Periana for the first time two years ago. Last autumn we returned with her parents. They come from a small town in Argentina’s Pampa Humeda, called Chacabuco. It’s six hundred kilometres from there to the sea, and seven hundred kilometres to the nearest hill. The distances are vast. You can go for hours in the car without seeing a single change in the landscape.

Periana meanwhile has everything within its reach. The sea, rivers, highland meadows, oak woods, rocky cliffs, ancient ruins, the mall, the city. There has rarely been a town so handsomely located.

For my father and mother-in-law, accustomed to the flat landscapes of the Pampa and the grid-like road systems of Argentine towns, the Andalucian landscape, so topsy-turvy, is a different world. For 40 years my father-in-law worked as a lorry driver, delivering flour back and forth to Buenos Aires and Rosario over the endless featureless plains. Though he said little, I could tell he found the mountainous landscape of Axarquia disconcerting, offering a terrifying variety of possibilities.

Approaching through the mountain pass at Zafarraya, he gasped at the vertiginous descent. When we turned off onto a dusty track to take the back road to Periana, he clutched the seat.

Que barbaro, che!’

And yet, despite the spectacularly different geology of Axarquia, of the Mediterranean, our in-laws feel at home there. It’s the people that do it. The importance of the family. The stools out on the streets. The chattering queues in the bank and the market. The community, focused on its almazara, the oil press. Instead of an oil press, Chacabuco has its flour mill, but like Periana, is an agricultural community, where everyone knows each other’s business and each family has its nickname, its mote. In spite of all the mountains, the distant glimmer of the sea, it’s a world they recognize and understand. One perhaps, that their ancestors left for the Tropic of Capricorn a century or so ago.

Ours is a family scattered around the world. But in Periana we find a place to come together, a place between the oranges and the olives, where our passions debate.

Periana, one of Malaga's typical pueblos blancos, is located in the stunningly varied Axarquia valley, half an hour's drive inland from Velez-Malaga. You can get there via the Alsina Graells bus company, which has regular buses leaving from the Torre del Mar estación de autobuses on the coast. The Verdugo is an excellent place to try the local cuisine, while there are stunning walks to enjoy down to the Viñuela reservioir, to the arty village of Moya and up along the old rail tracks to Alfarnatejo.

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