TRAVEL / An Almerian dream: Desert cacti, flamingos, Spaghetti Western ghost towns. Where does southern Andalucia end and the imagination take over? Novelist Deborah Levy on a surreal journey

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The Independent Culture
LIKE many people I have always had an imagined life that has run parallel to the everyday drear of my real one - a kind of hazy sun-soaked Mediterranean existence in which I never have to be anything but a stranger. A stranger has an odd sort of disengaged power. She always belongs to somewhere else and to someone else and she can leave whenever she wants to. This imperfect strategy for avoiding pain - which might account for why so many expatriates are, to be honest, quite weird - means she need only ever touch with an ambivalent, sunburnt hand the landscape and culture in which she finds herself.

As a teenager, I had two role models for my highly developed other life. One was Picasso stripped down to his mini swimming trunks, all brawn and tan (that's me), knocking bits of driftwood together in his studio. The other was Martha Gellhorn journeying solo across continents with her camera, her notebook and her untipped cigarettes. I admired the bravado of her cheekbones, the zips on the sides of her pants, and wanted to be her, alone and scribbling in unfamiliar places.

So it is with some surprise that I find myself saying one night to my partner in the small town of Carboneras in southernmost Andalucia: 'I've never believed in getting away from it all. Just some of it.' I look around forlornly at the empty white plastic tables and chairs of the deserted cafe.

Across the small road between us and the sea, three tattered straw umbrellas, wedged into the sand with generous slabs of cement, flap and rustle in the September wind, eerily illuminated by the long, slow-spinning beams the lighthouse spills over the terrain. A starved cat with oozing eyes hisses for more sardine bones.

Where is everybody? I am wearing my new dress. My partner even ironed his shirt. Our baby sleeps in her basket on the concrete terrace, which is littered with cigarette butts and old peanut shells - evidence that the living also sat here once, eating tapas and making small talk. If I have mentioned cement twice it's because that is what Carboneras is famous for. A vast cement factory carved surreally into the mountain exhales a permanent cloud of smoke and dust over white Moorish houses.

During the day a covered market sells the morning's haul of fish, great waxed hunks of dry, salty cheese (queso manchego) and local vegetables, particularly tomatoes cultivated under plastic that stretches for miles alongside the dried-up riverbeds and lime quarries inland. At night, however, the futuristically lit factory transforms Carboneras into a kind of Blade Runner-on-Sea.

'What's the all you don't entirely want to get away from?' my partner asks, doggedly wiping the calamares ink on his plate with a fistful of chips.

Well, you know, bustling lively bars, waiters with Elvis haircuts and impossibly laden trays, a multiplicity of fashion garments and T-shirt slogans, family arguments, lovers flirting with each other, bored teenagers staring at adults with disgust, the sound of spoons stirring sugar into glasses of cafe cortado. Plates apart from our own heaped with calamares, frittered pimientos, mejillones and the goddam sardines, of which they gave us, their only two customers, an entire day's catch. Perhaps Club Med in Mojacar would have been more lively? Mojacar is Almeria's main package tourist destination and the much disputed birthplace of Walt Disney, who, rumour has it, was the illegitimate son of a Spanish woman. It does have the advantage, however, of providing at least 37 pizzerias, an excellent beach with warm clear water and, if you're so inclined, bars that play non-stop Spanish heavy metal. Frankly, the 'it' I don't want to get away from is bookshops, cinemas and bars that specialise in margaritas that kill you. In fact, I want to be in America.

But I am in south-eastern Andalucia and it is semi-desert of the harshest kind: a lunar landscape of parched scrub, broken silver rocks and stunted cacti as far as the eye can see. It is so relentless that it's almost admirable. Even the most depressed inner world of someone passing through would not be able to beat the vast remorselessness of the landscape. If Van Gogh had come to paint here instead of picturesque Arles, he might have cheered up.

When Lorca wrote Blood Wedding it was this arid landscape he had in mind: 'This land needs arms to battle with weeds, thistles, rocks.' In fact the spirited young woman who disgraced her family by running off with another man on her wedding day came from nearby Nijar. I have never really understood what Lorca meant when he has the young bride say to the handsome and irresponsible Leonardo: 'A man with a horse can do a lot.' Now I know.

There were no motorways in those days - as recently as the 1960s, the city of Almeria was more accessible by sea than by land. A man with a horse can take you away from this heatstruck, lonesome place to somewhere else.

William Burroughs, who probably would have run off with Leonardo too, has written nervously about his fear of being stuck in some forsaken place for ever when he was on the run in South America. 'Every morning a swelling cry goes up from the kids who sell cigarettes in the street. 'A ver Lookies]' - 'Look, here are Luckies]' - Nightmare fear of stasis. Will they be saying 'A ver Lookies]' 100 years from now? Horror of being stuck in this place. This fear follows me like my ass. A horrible sick feeling of final desolation.'

I know it well. The irrational fear that galvanises me when driving through a rural English village of thatched cottages. The local shop with its cardboard box full of yellow, wizened apples. The obligatory mad loner who has painted flames on the side of his car. What if I had to stay there forever?

To the tourist's eye, however, Nijar's narrow, winding streets (designed for maximum shade), its ancient houses and ornate wrought- iron balconies are quite lovely. The errant bride's fate seems even less enviable when you glimpse the elderly men and women sitting in inscrutable silence in the shade. A rather stern church towers over the town. Its interior includes a three-dimensional collage of marooned, yowling sinners burning in the flames of hell - but it does have the advantage of being right next to a lively bar that serves small pork kebabs and glasses of chilled rose. If you like unfinished glazes and dyes in bold colours, Nijar is also the place to buy bowls, vases and plates from the many pottery shops that display their goods on the pavements.

Comatose with late-afternoon heat delirium, seeing the words Piscina-Bar, scrawled in white paint on a wall just outside Nijar, made me bring the hire car to a screeching, dust- churning halt. I walked across a scorched football pitch and into a mirage of sparkling water and rustling trees.

There, in the middle of the desert, was a long marble-tiled swimming-pool surrounded by small pine trees, weeping willows and, for those who like to drink and dive, a thatched bar furnished with umbrellas and tables. Willows in the desert? Perhaps the Moors passed on a secret system of irrigation to a lone Almerian family before they were expelled all those years ago.

This dreamy vision, we discover, is the Piscina Municipal Nijar, and you enter after paying 250 pesetas ( pounds 1.28) to a surly boy in up-to-minute Nikes. Mountains skim the sky. Clusters of violet bougainvillaea climb the whitewashed wall of a changing-room. No one else is there, and as I dive into the cool water I'm already anxious that the municipality is going to shut it down.

It reminds me of the time my brother and sister visited our father, who had moved to Durban three years before the recent elections in South Africa. We were so traumatised by the whole sad, sick apartheid mix-up that when we found the completely multi-racial municipal swimming-pool in the city centre, we went there every day. The Pacific Ocean and miles of blond sand were only five minutes away, but somehow the small world of the pool with its cheap Malay curry lunches and beautiful children shouting to each other in six languages made us feel this was the kindest, most comforting place to be in South Africa. Back in Spain, the Nijar pool had something of the same feeling. Its shade and greenery were a relief from the cruel terrain outside its walls.

If you are not a fan of the artificial and prefer the sea, the small fishing village of Agua Amarga, a 20-minute drive to the east of Nijar, is the perfect place for gentle beach life. Clusters of white square houses and a few villas in the nearby hills are graced by a glittering bay. Abundant fresh seafood is served by five restaurants situated on the beach, a good place to watch the early-morning fishing boats come in. While the 5ft swordfish are hacked into steaks and sold to local folk, the fisherman's stoic mother scoops blood from the boat with a plastic bucket and drains it into the sand.

Who'd be a mother, eh? Holidaying with a baby has opened up a whole stratum of beach life that I simply hadn't noticed in my hedonistic past. The loading and unloading of equipment, for starters: the pram, the bouncy chair, the purple plastic inflatable hippo, the umbrella, the sunblock factor 25. As I try unsuccessfully to stop my daughter from eating sand, wondering if I'll ever have a free moment to get a melanoma, I can't help noticing gorgeous childless women lazing on vast, velvety beach towels, stretching their long bronzed limbs into sun oblivion. Now and again they walk to the sea, dip their fingertips into the water and, with that particular sun-dazed pace, lethargically sprinkle their taut golden forms.

My partner goes very intense and silent. Out of the corner of my eye I see him dribbling uncontrollably into his book. Wholesome family men nobly fight the sleazeball within and earnestly start to make sandcastles for their children.

Although Agua Amarga seems to have a regular influx of mostly French and Spanish holidaymakers who return every year, tourism has not struck in any big way yet. A few pensiones and smallish developments - the kind of standard holiday apartments you see anywhere in Europe - have sprung up recently, as has a pizzeria run by extraterrestrials, judging by the odd approximation to pizza delivered by its ovens.

By far the best eating experience is the French restaurant and pensione in the leafy, secluded part of town. Rene y Michele is situated in a halcyon square of eucalyptus trees, overlooking a swimming-pool shaded by the palms in the next-door garden. They offer a three-course set meal for an astonishing 1,500 pesetas (about pounds 7.70) including wine, coffee and cognac. The patron shuffles to the table in his tartan shorts and mutters the menu in low self-mocking reverie: a soup starter of onion, fish or gazpacho, a main course of 'poulet au citron, filet de poisson or porc au taragon', followed by fig sorbet or plum tart. Afterwards you can waddle to the pool very drunk and attempt a perilous swim under the stars.

Perhaps this is too tame for hardened cowboy romantics. In which case drive inland through the awesome mountains and struggling oases of palms and citrus trees to the Western sham of what is called Mini Hollywood - just outside the town of Tabernas. This was the set of A Fistful of Dollars, among others, and has been preserved as a tourist attraction. You can even wander into the saloon for a drink and watch out-of-work actors biff each other on the jaw. Much more authentic in its fakery, however, languishing in the sun just three miles further on, is Decorados Cinematograficos - another ghost-town film set. The best time to go is in the early evening, and indulge in the post-modern thrill of the amplified Spaghetti Western muzak as you make your heroic entrance through the swing doors of the saloon. A couple of Japanese tourists take morbid pictures of each other standing on the hustings, watched by a herd of mangy camels drowsing in a pen nearby.

Despite the muzak, the stillness and heat and parched prairie landscape beyond give the place a moody sense of foreboding.

All the better, then, to have found what, I'll hazard a guess, may be the best bar in Almeria - the Venta del Compadre just off the N340-E15. A forest of Parma hams and salamis hangs from its ceiling and the bar area is wreathed in strings of purple garlic. When we were there, a live band played in rooms at the back, the men sitting in chairs on one side of the room and the women on the other, while younger couples in their Sunday best danced to the accordion and cello. Particularly admirable were the keyrings for sale above the bottles of Soberana brandy: neon pink Christs on turquoise plastic crosses and, even more startling, Che Guevara in khaki hat staring down at customers with those famous burning black eyes.

Almeria's best beaches lie on its eastern coast, the strangest and most dramatic being the national parkland of El Cabo de Gata. On one side the beach is the stuff of Bounty Bar ads - sand dunes that slope into crystal water. Drive round to the salt flats on the other side near the low, ochre Cubist buildings of Cabo de Gata itself, and it is like being transported to a North African town in the 1950s. The howling gale, long windswept beaches and flamingos flying overhead from the nearby lake, Laguna de Rosa, contribute to the odd feeling that something is about to happen. It is desolate and exciting and the stomach knots with anticipation, rather like some of the locations for Fellini's movies where a grotesque carnival suddenly appears out of nowhere. Further on, near the lighthouse, a scattering of haciendas has been built into the cliffs alongside precariously balanced cacti, heavy with prickly fruit turning orange in the sun.

In contrast to the drama of its interior landscape, the modern city of Almeria is fairly boring. Instead, catch the early-morning train to Granada or the boat that leaves daily in the summer for Morocco. If you climb up to the Moorish fortress of Alcazaba, though, you can get a good view of the city's 16th-century cathedral and La Chanca, the cave quarter.

If you want to stock up on essentials like tequila, cognac and Freixenet before you go home (the airport is only five miles out of town), the frantic Pryca hypermarket is worth a visit. Because it is so vast, roller-skating through it is compulsory and necessary. Don't be faint-hearted, though. On entry you are fitted up with state-of-the-art wheels, and they turn a blind eye when you crash into the miles of fish still quivering on mounds of crushed ice. Once you get confident, you will soon be racing your trolley to the checkout with a Parma ham in your teeth.

As for the imagined other life that has chased me for so long, I am reluctantly coming round to the idea that the pathos of sharing bus routes and dialling codes - and even witnessing the re-emergence of the stiletto as a contemporary fashion item - is probably more interesting than a lonesome gin and tonic on a balcony surrounded by exotic blooms. Well, maybe. As winter descends, I have to confess that the sad charisma of total fugue starts to have its same old compelling attraction. Curiosity and disaffection shiver through the body and the yearning to find a happier, hotter, better place begins all over again.

TRAVEL NOTES GETTING THERE: Fly to Almeria via Madrid or Barcelona with Iberia (071-830 0011) for pounds 239 return up to 29 October; from 30 October the return fare is pounds 155.

GETTING AROUND: Avis Rent-A-Car (reservations 081-848 8733) has two offices in Almeria - one at the airport, one in the town centre. Hire a Renault 19 or similar from pounds 280 for two weeks.

STAYING THERE: The Spanish tourist office (details below) has a list of approved accommodation - write to them and they will send it by return of post. In the Almeria region, expect to pay around pounds 85 for four-star accommodation (double room with bath), around pounds 40 for three-star standard, and around pounds 35 for two- star (prices are per room per night). Rooms at the two-star Venta del Pobre hotel in Nijar (010 34 50 385192) cost between pounds 40 and pounds 43 depending on the season. Mundi Color (071-828 6021) can arrange tailor-made package tours to the Almeria area; expect to pay from around pounds 400 per person per week.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Spain National Tourist Office, 57-58 St James's Street, London SW1A 1LD (071-499 0901).

(Photographs omitted)