The Light in Andalusía

November 9 – 23, 2013
El Gastor, Spain

El Gastor is the little white-washed pueblo even the Spaniards have never heard of.  It sits huddled along the northern face of a dry, olive-tree freckled hillside, and leans heavily into the shade of the towering Tajo de Algarín during long, scorching summer afternoons.  We, of course, happened upon the place in early November; at the precise moment the winter wind came blustering up from the throat of the Sierra de Grazalema, rattling the pines along her lime-stone ridges and sprinkling her peaks with an early dusting of snow. We were therefore grateful when the little home we found for ourselves was steeped in the hazy light of the afternoon sunshine that lay long and heavy on the town’s south-facing hillside.

Our rincón, a corner of earth and whitewashed clay, was at once beguiling and welcoming, like an old friend from a faraway land that we had taken great pains never to forget. Beneath Moroccan tin lanterns and colored glass, crimson tiles pointed the way inside.  Past the doorway, Moorish arches and arabesques concealed all manners of treasure and memorabilia from various points of the world. Antique leather-bound books in a variety of languages tumbled from reclaimed bookcases and called out to be read again: Burgess, Borges, Beckett.  Glazed tagines and hammered bronze trays that had once borne glasses of mint tea led the way to the pantry; strings of multicolored beads trailed from curtain rods, and ancient timber beams with delicately carved corbels framed the entrance to the sitting room where a potbellied stone warmed the walls from within.  A stairway wound past false windows where wrought-iron lattice-works had been set inside.  Facsimiles of 17th century naturalist engravings jostled for wall space with Parisian Belle Epoque postcards and Indian Shisha.

All at once, inside this home, my life as a traveler in composite rushed back and flooded me with memories faster than I could place them.  An ornate haveli in the Rajasthan city of Bikaner; the old antebellum mansions lining New Orleans’ Garden District; the quiet riads and carmens of Granada’s Albaicin.  Places that dwelled in the convoluted lining of my subconscious, perhaps even those I had never before even experienced, lived in this house as well: the souks and kasbahs of Morocco’s great cities and palmaraie, the savannahs and rift valleys of deepest Africa.

But what stopped my heart and then soothed it like a balm was the light, the buttery afternoon glaze that reflected off the reservoir in the valley below. It was here, throughout every long afternoon, that my eyes were drawn.  The long, azure-blue fingers of the lake, fed by mountain streams, filtered through the gathering clouds that hemmed in the limestone backbone of the sierra and spilled across the troughs of valleys that bore a patchwork of olive trees right up to our door.  The air of pines, the very breath of the pinsapo, emanated from deep within the forest for which Grazalema is famed.  It mingled with the mineral atmosphere of the mountains and held itself apart from Andalusia’s brittle and dry surrounds.

As I chopped carrots and skinned potatoes for dinner, the light arranged itself westward in delicate rays that softly spotlit a small herd of goats on the chaparral of our hillside. Among the scrub grass and milkweed, the young bleated after their mothers as they, bells-to-throats, rambled along the hillside.

Just before dusk, Ryan and I tucked ourselves into the chairs on the stoop to watch the sunset.  The light lifted higher and higher and blazed the reservoir a burnished gold in one final thrust before it retreated to the core of the sierra, westward. There it simmered long and red behind the mountains that flanked the pueblo of Zahara on the opposite side of the water.

Because the clouds forever held court in the microclimate of the national park (Grazalema receives the most rainfall anywhere in Spain), the sky was streaked an alternating red, pink and searing orange that, at perfect angles, cast the mountains into sharp relief.  In this way, each evening’s spectacle carried on more than thirty minutes before being swallowed entirely by the mountains.  The last of the light haunted the edges of the lake before it finally trailed away into night.

Once inside again, Ryan would revive the fire in our stove as the kids were chased in by the cold, eager for their supper.  A stew simmered in the kitchen while something sweet baked in the oven.  Our nighttime rustling had become a familiar ambient hum that we savored for the moment we called that hillside our home.


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