The monument for Laurie Lee on the sea front in Almuñécar is easy to miss. A whitewashed pillar about six feet high, it squats under a palm tree at the end of a line of trendy beach bars. It looks like the chimney of an old Andalusian house - or, as Lee joked when he saw a photo of it, something else that would be “indelicate” to specify. Rarely do people stop to look at it. Yet the two plaques it bears - one a dedication to the writer from the town hall dated 21 April 1988, when the monument was unveiled, the other a note added by Lee in 1995 - tell you that Almuñécar had a close relationship with the English Hispanophile.
Lee was living in this sleepy fishing village when Spain’s Civil War broke out in the summer of 1936. By that point, as he writes in the closing chapters of As I Walked Out One Midsummer’s Morning, Almuñécar had been a “split village” for several months: Republicans and Fascists had already started murdering each other in the taverns and on the streets. Forced back to “snoozing” England by the violence, Lee wouldn’t return here until 1951, when he and his wife Kati made it the penultimate stop of their four-month tour of Andalucía.
Foreigners still visit this charming coastal town, but nowadays it is often overlooked in favour of Nerja, a more popular destination 30 kilometres to the west in the province of Malaga. This is partly because the beaches on Granada’s coastline aren’t as attractive as Malaga’s: unlike those on the Costa del Sol, they are of fine shingle and rock and the sand is black and grey rather than yellow. Yet the bathing in Almuñécar is wonderful and the seafront is lined with smart and lively chiringuitos where you’ll still hear more Spanish than any other language. Hemmed in by a jagged curve of mountains - which give it a “micro-climate” all of its own - this former fishing village has a refreshing, alternative ambience that distinguishes it from the tourist meccas to the west.
But in 1951, returning fifteen years after his departure from Almuñécar, Lee was saddened by what he found. Back in 1936, the village had quickly aligned itself with the Republican cause, its fishermen and farmhands whispering excitedly to each other about the advent of a “world Republic”. But Franco’s tanks soon rolled in to bomb their homes and their hopes. The revolution had failed and Spain’s wealthy landowners had not been overthrown: awaiting the poet was a “depressed and desolate” little town suffering under the Generalisimo’s grim dictatorship.
Lee had seen Almuñécar burst into revolutionary hope for a few months in 1936, much as George Orwell saw Barcelona flourish in the expectation of a “classless society” at the same time. Both writers were swept up in the worker-led resistance to Franco’s rebellion and enlisted as volunteers for the International Brigades early in the Civil War. Yet in the end, the result of the Republicans’ efforts was to be forty stifling years of fascism. No wonder Lee was disappointed.
In 1951, as in 1936, fishing was still the dominant industry in Almuñécar, but the paucity of the waters off Granada’s coastline meant that the daily catches - and the sums they fetched - were pitiful. After ten in the morning, Lee observes, the penniless fishermen “had nothing to do” and simply fell asleep on the beach, face down in the sand, “sleeping the ebb of their lives”. It is a singularly depressing image.
In 2017, fishing no longer defines Almuñécar. There are a few little boats at the end of the beach (that look like they’re used more for pleasure than for fishing) and you can still see some locals sitting on the rocky outcrops, half-heartedly waiting for a tug on the line. But now the main industry here is tourism, as evidenced by the high-rise, monochrome slabs of concrete facing the sea.
These ugly 1970s hotels and apartments are symbols of a coastline much changed since Lee’s visit 66 years ago - but despite the advent of mass tourism, Almuñécar has not been stripped of its charm. The old town is lovely: extending up the hillside above the beach, it is a compact network of steep lanes and white houses - many colourfully adorned with flowers and ceramics - not unlike Granada’s Albaicín. Friendly locals, their skin dark and leathery from sun and sea, sit outside their houses surrounded by cats and dogs, watching people walk past as they gossip - as much a defining scene of Spanish street life now as it was in the early fifties. Yet Lee described this quarter as “grey, almost gloomily Welsh”. Is it possible that the poet’s own gloominess during his visit to Almuñécar affected what he saw there?
In 1987, when the BBC was filming a TV adaptation of As I Walked Out in Almuñécar, Lee somewhat haughtily refused to return, describing the Andalusian coast as a “concrete cliff of filing cabinets for tourists”. Not all Andalusian towns have been spoilt in the way Lee suggests: indeed, despite having its share of “concrete filing cabinets”, Almuñécar remains noticeably Spanish. Unfortunately, though, the same could not be said for many of the south coast’s former fishing villages, since transformed by “English” pubs and beach resorts. By the late eighties, certainly, the Spain that had inspired the high-flown romanticism of A Rose for Winter was disappearing.
Nevertheless, the essence of Andalucía is just as enthralling and enigmatic now as it was 66 years ago - “neither Catholic nor European but a structure of its own, forged from an African-Iberian past which exists in its own austere reality.” If Lee could come back today he’d have to search a little deeper for the Spain he knew and loved, but he would still find it.