There’s an avenue I like to walk along in Chipiona. It has a large white villa, a semi-modern apartment block and restaurants; a mini boulevard lined with eucalyptus trees that leads you straight to the sea.
In January it is quiet. I walk across the empty square at the top of the avenue passing Manolo’s ice cream kiosk, boarded up for winter. A handful of cars are randomly parked. The only bar open serves afternoon coffee to an elderly couple. It’s peaceful, bordering on lonely. As I pass the apartment block tucked in on the left, the shutters are all firmly down.
The smell of eucalyptus
The winter sunshine struggles to find its way through the eucalyptus leaves and I pull the collar of my jacket up to keep the wind out. I walk towards the sea at the end of the avenue. The smell of eucalyptus clears my nose and lungs.
When I reach the corner shop, I stop to buy pipas. The shopkeeper is deep in conversation about the rising cost of the gas bottle with the only other client in the shop. She serves me while talking and counts out my change from the five euro note. I thank her and move on. “Hasta luego”, they both shout out as I leave.
I crunch a pipa between my front teeth and pull out the sunflower seed with my tongue. A trick I was taught when I first came to live in Spain. After all these years, I still can’t bring myself to discard the shells on the floor. I pop them into my pocket as I go reminding myself to empty it when I get home.
I reach the promenade. Below the sand is rough and wintery looking. Dogs run wild, making the most of it before they are banished in the warmer months.
The promise of more to come
In March, the sea air mingles with the eucalyptus and the promise of more to come. Restaurant owners spend their weekdays freshening up paintwork that’s jaded from a mixture of last season’s scorching sunshine and the damp winter air. On Fridays, their tables are on the pavement waiting for the weekenders from Seville to wander by, enticing them in with promises of pescaito frito and gambas from their chalk board menus.
By May the avenue no longer feels lonely. Half the shutters on the apartment block are up and cars park in organised lines. A box of brightly coloured parasols stands outside the shop that opened last weekend. My cardigan is tied around my waist as I walk in the shade of the eucalyptus trees. I have lunch on the terrace at La Concha, my favourite restaurant on the avenue. The staff greet me enthusiastically. With each delicious dish they bring, they take time to stop and draw me into conversation. The weekenders walk up and down. Dressed in shorts and flip flops, they stop and look at the menu, propping their beach chairs up against their bare legs as they concentrate on choosing good value for money.
In July I barely recognise the avenue. Around mid-morning, families move down it towards the beach. Loaded with fold up chairs, toys, patatas fritas and cool boxes full of soft drinks for the children and beers for the grown-ups, they greet other families on the way. I hear them comment on how well they are and oh, what a difference to Seville “where I can’t sleep a wink at night for the heat”.
Restaurants that closed their doors at two in the morning open again for breakfast. Small armies of summer staff start preparing lunch. When the morning shift at the beach is over, bellies full of the goodness of swimming and sea air will need refilling.
Pony rides and ice cream
In the evening ponies line up ready to take children on rides around the square. The sharp smell of disinfectant, used to wash down the road after the ponies’ calls of nature, hangs around and overpowers the eucalyptus. At midnight, when the ponies have finished trundling around the square with their precious packages and the children can no longer keep their eyes open, families amble home. As they drift away to sleep with the shutters open and mosquito nets that let in the breeze but not the bites, the avenue becomes the territory of those yet to settle down. Couples take their turn at the ice cream parlour in the seats vacated by children, parents and grandparents. They choose banana splits and exotic flavours and allow their inner child to say “ooh” and “aah” as the decorative sparklers slowly fizzle out.
Others spill in and out of the drinking bars onto the pavement, heady from the day’s sunshine on the beach and the night-time alcohol. Those who live here all year round, bored throughout the winter with the same old faces and little entertainment, revel in the noise and thrill of summer and its guests.
A is for August
Just as I think the avenue cannot possibly take more people, August arrives and with it, change-over time. After a month’s stay, some leave refreshed whilst others leave with heavy hearts; they’d like another month. For a few, it’s been too long; a month of too-much-time-together and they leave dreaming of divorce. Holiday makers return to the city with memories of long sandy beaches and thoughts of moving here for good, to drool over their selfies or fantasize over who they’ll be with next year.
On Monday I spend the day on the beach at Las Tres Piedras. It’s out of town and not so crowded. In the evening, I feel a desire to be part of the crowd. What does it feel like to be on holiday on a Monday evening in August in the town I live in? The square is brimming. Full of children who pause their moment of enjoyment so that proud parents can capture it forever on their phones. I make my way towards La Concha. The restaurant’s terrace is full. Inside there are no free tables and no space at the bar. The staff are so busy they barely have time to respond to my request to save me a table. “Come back at midnight,” Emilio shouts over his shoulder as he rushes off to the kitchen to pick up an order.
I move on towards the corner shop. There’s a queue and it takes me twenty minutes to purchase my pipas. There’s no time for friendly conversation as the shopkeeper and her team try to keep up with the demand.
A space to reflect
I find a space on the wall overlooking the sea to eat my pipas. I notice that earlier someone must have had the same idea as me; there are discarded shells all over the wall. Nela gives me a wave from the Tumi bar and make signs with her hands to ask if I’d like a beer. I nod gratefully. She brings over a cold caña, splashing froth over the edge as she carries it. I ask her how the summer job is going. “Uff”, she replies sitting next to me on the wall to light her roll up. “This is the first time I’ve stopped all evening.” We both laugh knowing that in January, she’ll be complaining how bored she is again. She finishes her smoke and disappears back into the bar.
As I sit on the wall, I reflect on what it must be like right now in Madrid. I’d once spent a few days there in July on a work trip. Hot sunny days spent indoors in air-conditioned rooms and wonderfully warm evenings wandering streets, that would normally be busy, able to easily choose the best seats at the pavement bars. I smile at the irony. My favourite time to visit Madrid is in the summer when half the city’s occupants are away at the coast. Those who can exchange the intense dry heat for milder but more humid sea air.
Dinner at midnight
Just after midnight, I wander back to La Concha. The tables are all still occupied but I spot the couple who run the estate agent under my apartment block getting up from their place at the bar. I make a beeline towards them. We exchange greetings as they hand over their position.
“Hola! Que tal?” I ask them how the business is going.
“Estupendo” replies Elena. “Ya sabes – you know, summertime is great for selling properties.”
They leave and I push the tip they have left towards the barman along with their empty dishes.
“Lo siento.” He apologises opening his arms in a gesture of ‘what can I do?’ before picking up the plates “It’s so busy.”
“No te preocupes. Don’t worry.” I reply. “Make the most of it. The winters here are long and quiet.”
“You’re so right.” He throws my tinto del verano onto the bar and swiftly moves on to the next customer. By 1.00am, I’ve finished my tapas and I head home. The ice cream parlour nearby is still open. I sit down and treat myself to a dish of ice cream with a sparkler. I resolve to resist the urge to ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ but, it’s impossible. On a balmy August evening in Andalusia, I am momentarily transported back to the excitement of bonfire nights in Britain and hot jacket potatoes wrapped in foil.
The end of summer
As September arrives, the avenue starts to change. The academic year in Madrid starts earlier than in Andalucia where local fiestas and celebrations delay the return to school. The Madrileños head off while the Sevillanos linger on, enjoying the extra days on the beach.
In Chipiona September marks the fiesta of the Virgen de Regla. Four or five days of celebrations and partying that highlight the end of the summer. The fiesta is held in the square next to the Santuario de Regla church. So, for a few days, my attention is distracted from the avenue. Lights decorate the square, tables are laid with brightly coloured plastic cloths and filled with tapas of queso, jamon and pimientos fritos. Food stalls pop up selling doughnuts and churros. Makeshift bars are set up along the sea front and stall holders sell their wares along the streets. It’s time for music, dancing and meeting up with friends.
Open Wednesday – Sunday
One Tuesday morning in mid-September, I stroll along the avenue. I move along easily and quickly. I pass a man walking his dog. A Scandinavian-looking couple are having breakfast outside the only bar that’s open. All the rest have ‘Open Wednesday – Sunday’ scrawled on their chalk boards. The cars that had not been moved for a month and were covered in the summer dust have gone. The shutters in the apartment block are down. I reach the beach. It is dotted with adults who like the quietness of September. Tourists appear. They carry small, neat beach bags with books poking out of the top and speak in German, French, Swedish and Norwegian.
In the afternoons, mums arrive at the beach with their children. While the weather is still good they save on the after-school activities and extra English classes; a necessary part of the daily routine from October onwards.
At the weekends, the Sevillanos who have second homes here, re-appear. Temperatures are still high in Seville and they are willing to brave the weekend queues in and out of Chipiona to savour the beach once more.
Breakfast on the avenue
October rolls in. The avenue is beautiful. It has just been cleaned and the truck that sweeps up all the dirt and washes down the road, rumbles off to its next destination. The early morning light is clean and invigorating. I sit on the terrace of the bar and order a tostada and a café con leche for breakfast. A group of pensioners, that have just arrived by coach, make their way noisily towards the beach. They all appear to be talking at once. The women lead the group. The men follow behind.
The evening leads me along the avenue to watch the sunset from the beach. The 12th October bank holiday brings in one last flurry of visitors before the bars and restaurants close for the season. Tables are packed away. Sunshades and blinds are rolled in to protect them from the sea air and the levante wind. The restaurant owners take their holidays. Exotic two-month trips to Thailand, the Caribbean or Brazil where the season is in full swing and the staff will wait on them.
The eucalyptus trees stand taller than this time last year. Their scent fills the air and I breathe in deeply. I see the clear blue sky at the end of the avenue. The last rays of sunshine sparkle on the sea creating red and orange hues and the golden sand lures me towards it.
“Yes,” I smile to myself. “The winters here are long and quiet.”