When the English writer and Hispanophile Laurie Lee stepped off the boat and onto the harbour of Algeciras in November 1951, pandemonium greeted him. It was 15 years since Lee had been in Spain, but the seafront of this chaotic, dirty fishing village was just as he remembered it: “Beggars crowding the quayside, picking up the heads of fish...the tiny, delicate-stepping donkeys, and the barefoot children scrambling around our legs... Here were the bars and the talking men, the smell of sweet coñac and old dry sherries”. This is from Lee’s first book about Spain, 1955’s A Rose for Winter, written after a four-month, five-city tour he made of the region with his wife Kati in 1951. Algeciras was their first - and last - stop.
Fast-forward to 2017 and you find little about the city’s now-enormous port to identify it as the subject of Lee’s description. There are no donkeys, no beggars stealing fish heads from the straw-strewn floor and no barefooted children running about. Separated from the rest of town by a busy main road is an area dominated by giant cranes and stacked freight containers - a mini-city with an angular, steel skyline all of its own.
Arabic kebab shops and scruffy stalls selling ferry tickets to Africa - the northern coast of which is only about 30 kilometres away, over the Strait of Gibraltar - line a dilapidated marina. There is still poverty here, but even someone as in love with Spain as Lee was could find nothing to romanticise. Homeless people shelter under the grim concrete canopy formed by quayside hotels, their shapes barely distinguishable from filthy blankets that provide scant privacy. Lee’s “merry, dirt-grained beggar children” have been replaced by adults who are simply and sadly without a home or opportunity.
Still very much in evidence, though, is what Lee called “the open market of Mediterranean life”, which he observed unfolding on the old town’s prettiest space, Plaza Alta. It is still true that one sees all kinds of life playing out on streets and squares of Andalucía and, as I found out when I retraced Lee’s steps to Plaza Alta, Algeciras is no exception. Moments after I’d found a bar and ordered a drink, a scruffy-looking man of about forty came in carrying a half-drunk plastic cup of beer, talking animatedly to himself and wearing denims that had obviously not seen a washing machine for years. Gypsy-dark and unshaven, his voice was gravelly and hoarse from countless cigarettes. He asked for change and, while he worked the fruit machine, embarked upon a loud and passionate monologue about the misfortunes of his gambling career.
Chuckling to themselves as he rambled on were several old men - the “talking men” that Lee identified as a staple of Spanish bars - enjoying a pre-dinner sherry and chatting to the bar staff. Outside on the square, meanwhile, a group of anti-bullfighters chanted furious slogans of opposition to the controversial Spanish spectacle, surrounded by playing children and dogs. The occasional beggar wandered among them, asking their well-dressed parents for money or cigarettes. This was perhaps a more sanitised version of the street life Lee observed in the Algeciras of 1951, but its basic elements were the same.
Harder to find are the sea-hardened fishermen that enlivened the city’s dank boozing taverns in the early fifties, before industrialisation made a relic of their way of life. Lee describes an encounter with one such character named Pepe, a wine-soaked man of the sea “who looked as though he had landed that day from a voyage that began five thousand years before”. Pepe belts out love songs to the Englishman’s beautiful wife as they all get annihilated on “black wine”. Lee admires his earthiness, his utter lack of pretension: “He reeked of wine and olives, of garlic and the sea. He also reeked of glory.” The refined English writer also envies the drunken Spanish fisherman for inhabiting the “pure sources of feeling that once animated as all”.
Visiting the city’s wonderful Mercado de Abastos, you sense that locals like this still exist in Algeciras, even though they are less conspicuous than they were 66 years ago. This is a rough-and-ready, noisy and joyful market in which old men shoot the breeze over cold beer and fried fish served out of tiny kiosks (Bar Antonio is the best). Though standing right next to each other, they talk incredibly loudly - in the notoriously thick Cadiz accent - and the clatter of their conversation cuts through the market’s hot, sea-spiced atmosphere. Though just a couple of hundred metres away from the somewhat depressing marina, the Abastos market is full of colour and life: indeed, it makes you understand more why Algeciras - with all its dirt and poverty, its beggars and its smugglers - was so special for Lee.
In some cases, as the writer says when talking about Pepe, the rough charm of Algeciras’ older citizens may be attributable to a lack of formal education or cosmopolitan “sophistication”, sarcastically described by Lee as a “triumph of enlightenment and comfort”. Certainly, there is little cosmopolitanism here: tourists are few and far between, with most of them jumping on the ferry for Morocco shortly after arriving in the city. Yet although mechanisation and industry has eaten into the numbers of Algeciras locals like Lee’s sea-hardened fisherman, the city - and in particular the Mercado de Abastos - is still rich with characters in touch with “pure sources of feeling”.