A Very Rough Guide to Gijón
Situated on the north coast of Spain, some 150 kilometres from the border with Portugal, Gijón is a real treasure. It is a provincial town encompassing a reposing mix of sea, greenery and cultural events. At its heart is an old quarter, established on a square mile of land that juts out into the Cantabrian Sea. As I walk around the old quarter, I take in the Roman baths and an array of café bars. There is also a park that climbs the contours of a hill - whose summit gives a great view of the sea and the surrounding town. To the east of the historic quarter, Playa de San Lorenzo, a kilometre stretch of beach, serves as the focal point for sunbathers and swimmers. There's room for everyone, and in the summer weeks you can go down, get an ice cream and do pretty much whatever you like. Some people spend a bit of time in the water, many people come to lie down on their towels, look at each other, sleep and read. There are a couple of volleyball pitches and during the summer they hold a late night football tournament.
San Lorenzo is bordered by a tastefully designed esplanade, which follows the lie of the beach for a kilometre. There are plenty of older people leisurely walking its length during the day, sitting down on one of the liberally distributed white metal benches and taking shelter. The general style of all the people who walk along the esplanade is hands behind back, looking at the ground, looking at the sky and pondering life. Some of the elders make it onto the beach. One afternoon I saw a twenty-a-side football match taking place. Some of the players were pushing seventy.
Each day I saw the same guy, a stocky fifty-something, half-jogging and half-walking the whole length of the Playa with a sense of unparalleled urgency. He didn't wear a t-shirt but didn't need to either. The amount of hair growing on his upper body, which warranted him a place at the nearby 'ape to man' evolutionary exhibition, also served as an incomparable shield against UV rays. As he walked his furious pace, he would constantly check his watch and you could see his mobile phone, clipped on to the back of his shorts, bobbing up and down like a buoy in choppy waters. What was all this haste and anxiety for? Was he trying to break the land speed record as it pertained to the San Lorenzo esplanade? Or, as suggested by his mobile phone, was he an important businessman trying to fit exercise into his busy working schedule? Or was it an attempt to take up his rightful place as the progenitor of the species in the 'ape to man' exhibition? If you know him do tell me.
Although San Lorenzo was well supplied with lifeguards, ice-creams and older people, there was only one toilet. If you're desperate, and there's a big queue at the toilet, then walk to the east end of the beach, where there is a park. The park, resplendent with peacocks and statues of old queens, provides welcome shade from the sun. There is a bird and small animal sanctuary with a fascinating mix from the mundane to the exotic, all living in the same place. One day whilst sitting with my back to a fenced off part of the sanctuary, I heard a squawk and looked round to see a blur of feathers. The squawk led to a cacophony of sound as the action had clearly agitated and worried all the other birds there. They puffed up their features and let out warning cries, cries of discontent and disapproval, and many cries of bluff 'I'm here, I'm not nervous, I'm ready for it if you want it'. The peacocks which had been idling elsewhere, had heard the noises and having made their way to the sanctuary in a concerned but slow manner, hopped over the fence, one by one, to see what all the fuss was about. For these few minutes, the birds, despite belonging to a variety of different species, clearly exhibited shared understandings, shared cultures - they were altogether human.
The San Lorenzo esplanade goes on for a kilometre before winding towards the north east, cutting the beach off, and winding its way past countless pebbly coves, parks and camp-sites. The coves are marvellous places for sitting and thinking, and meditating on the different shapes of the pebbles. You see the marvellous concrete monument 'El Elogio del Horizonte' which has been adopted as the symbol of Gijón. It looks like a shocked woman. Palm trees begin to command the pathway and the green hills of the surrounding countryside come into view. At the foot of the hills sits the most beautiful of parks, a wide open space speckled with palm trees and bushes, entangled with footpaths, white metal fences and elegant white lamp posts. This park is magnificent. I can't imagine what it must be like to wake up in one of the houses that borders it, to look across its greenery and beyond to the sea - no matter what kind of weather. Eventually the esplanade evolves into a picturesque stone pathway and soon all you know is the serenity and cool breath of the sea.
A STORM IN GIJÓN
For me, the day had started in the early evening, with the sea slowly moving into shore of San Lorenzo. During the afternoon the beach becomes unbearably claustrophobic. However as it was the evening, the advance of the sea served to facilitate the departure of many sunbathers. The remaining revelers were sandwiched into the remaining twenty feet of sand between the sea and the seawalls of Gijón. Others stood on the esplanade, leaning over the white iron bars that decorated the entire edge of the seawall. They just stood there and watched. Its amazing how the sea can transfix so many people for such a long time.
In the wake of the departing sunbathers, there was a number of generously sized patches of unoccupied sand. I took one. Reading and dozing for half and hour, I lay on the sand and occasionally opened my eyes to check the progress of the sea. At first I hadn't been sure whether the sea was moving out or in, as most of the sand looked as if it was drying out. However, the sea was definitely moving in. I watched the waves come in. For twenty minutes they had been flirting with an area of the beach some fifteen feet from where I was laying. I was laying, incidentally, with my bag underneath my head, grammar book hanging from my wavering arm, half serving as shade, half serving as tool of learning. I looked again. One angry but small wave was making its way towards the shore. I had been observing waves for the past week, and was savvy of the potential of each one. This wave would advance the aqua-vanguard, but only by some feet. However, two others were hastily chasing it, both successively smaller in size, but each with as much gusto for reaching the seawall. I laughed with nervousness, as I jumped up quickly, taking my bag and running to the seawall. Would I end up looking like a paranoid aquaphobe? Well before I´d got to my feet I knew the answer. Wave one prepared the way for wave two and then wave three. A thin sliver of sea, hot on my heels, advanced some fifteen feet in two seconds. I escaped and the people looking on from above laughed at my haste, and also at the unfortunate bathers next to me who had been caught completely unawares. The sea had saturated their towels, clothes and whatever else was prostrate on the sand. That was it, this bit of the beach would soon belong to the sea. I took my things and walked towards the historic quarter. As the sea wall winds its way to the old town, it cuts into the sea. Consequently as I neared the quarter, the sea had already reached the wall and each wave was sending fountains of water into the air. Some were big enough to vault the sea wall and soak those watching form behind the railings.
Just before the sea started to converse with the sea wall, there were two sets of steps one going left and one going right, both protruding from a circular platform of some ten feet in radius which jutted out into the sea. I decided to sit down on the platform, read my grammar book and watch the sea lash out at the onlookers. I watched, half-hypnotized by the power and sound of the waves, half absorbing the intricacies of relative pronouns. As the evening grew in, the skies began to darken and grey clouds gathered high in the sky behind the apartments, hotels and cranes to the south. The colour of the clouds was in contrast to the yellowy blue twilight of the sky - it was like something from a Dahli painting.
The sea advanced and the sea wall took the waves earlier in their furore. It became too dark to read and drops of rain started to fall. I stayed on the platform, thinking whether to go. The raindrops started to feel heavier, it was threatening to lash it down. The onlookers, families and elderly people began to run for cover, some squealing, as if they were pigs being taken to slaughter. I advanced to the front of the platform. The night began to fall, immediately below, the dappled waves whipped the bottom of the platform. The sea's horizon, veiled by the rain's vapour, had become a ghostly dark blue, merging into the grey blues that reached high into the sky. Streaks of lightening some hundreds of feet in length revealed the colour of the clouds for split seconds, like a beautiful computer graphics effect.
Few had stayed to watch. I turned to by my right and saw some swimmers some fifty feet along the beach towards the right, advancing into the water. I began to feel a breeze. When I first felt it I expected it to feel uncomfortable against my wet body. But the breeze was strangely warm. And the temperature varied, at times it was almost as if it felt like a hairdryer on medium heat. The wind got stronger and stronger and as I put my glasses in my pockets, speckles of rain and sand blew around my flapping bag. The people who were stood on the platform were looking into the sky, hair flailing around their faces. They looked quizzically at each other, as piqued by the warmth of the winds as me. The lightening continued to light up the sky both above us and above the sea. This was a magical experience. I asked one guy who was standing on the platform whether this was usual and he said no. In the center of the platform was a column that stood some twenty feet high, with an electronic thermometer consisting of red lights, built into the top. It read 29 degrees. It was pure darkness. The night was set against the pretty lights bordering the seafront of Gijon. The thunderclouds began to pass, setting out for the Atlantic Ocean.
THE WEST OF GIJÓN
The west of Gijón is more industrial and therefore uglier. There are three principal beaches in Gijón. Two of them are artificial. Behind the first artificial beach, Playa de Poniente, new designer flats are surrounded by the residue of building sites - cables, manholes yet to be covered, crumpled old Coke bottles, bits of brick and rusting metal wires. The flats are also the targets of graffiti artists. One of the flats is built in the shape of a ship - the artist's slogan reads "Barcos si Pisos no". Wandering further westwards, behind the streets of the new flats and away from Playa de Poniente, the buildings are aged haggards. There's crumbling brickwork, fly-posters, flats demolished but yet to be buried. I turn down a side street and look through the shutters of what looks like an abandoned shop. Inside the room is a till and weighing scales on a big table. Further on there is a small triangular green. The footpath curves round forming one of the green's borders. The green is strewn with dog shit, fag ends and beautiful purple flowers. There are three old ladies on chairs in the corner of the green, none of them are looking at each other, but they're all furiously talking to each other. They animate this place. I find a place on a bench in the green, not covered in bird shit, and stare at the warehouse in front of me. There are some cars parked outside it and the elbow of a crane climbs into the sky behind it. The continual yelping of seagulls suddenly becomes a point of focus for my consciousness.
Wandering down one street, intimidated by the warehouses and factories, and sensing a lack of humanity in this place, I see the image of an alsation dog pinned to the doors of one of the warehouses. Whilst reading a description of the disposition of the dog, and what it might do to me if I were to break in to the warehouse, I am startled by the sight of a forty year old woman. The woman is in swimwear. She's been roasted by the sun and she's carrying a plastic bag full of beach things. I am close to Playa de Arbeyal, Gijon's second artificial beach. I go and visit. Here, the beach drops quickly into the sea - there are no real waves, no real sea noises, so all you can hear is people - chatter, screams and laughter. Most of the noise is emanating from the prefab bar erected at the back of a beach, under the shade of a corner where two walls meet. Playa de Arbeyal is set against the backdrop of Gijon´s port - it's a strange place. Why is industry so ugly? Can you really relax looking at that all the time? I pass the ice-cream booth wandering if the depressed social status of the area would be reflected in the prices for ice cream. Maybe I could take advantage. Alas, no. You know, I'm seriously skint.
Carrying on in a northwesterly direction, I leave the beach, hop across a busy roundabout, under the bridge of a motorway and arrive at LIDL. LIDL is supermarket warehouse stylie. More ugliness, but a store of cheap food and drink. I buy a 2 litre peach and grape juice and a pack of 8 croissants. Dirt cheap. I sit outside in the car park. It smells dirty and polluted round here. Its dusty, but I´m tired from walking and enjoy the rest. I´m also drinking my juice and eating my croissants. The croissants aren't croissants, they only look like croissants. The juice has an awkward spout system and most of it is dribbling down my beard and onto my t-shirt. I don't mind as long as I get some in my mouth. I am sitting next to a car that is parked away from the other cars. The owner comes over and gives me a quick look, turning away as soon as I look up. LIDL car park is a non-space. People do not socialise here - they just do their thing and get out of it - it is not the same as Playa de San Lorenzo. It would be great if I could convince everyone on the beach to bring all their stuff and sunbathe and chat in the car park amongst all the cars.
I put my provisions into my pockets and carry up the road towards the port. It is late Saturday afternoon, there is an occasional car and there are very few people. It's a little bit eerie. Where is everyone? Why is it that no one ever comes here? What is so good about everywhere else? I reach the port, and to be more precise, Puerto de Musel, gate C. There is a criss-cross of roads, a rail track and fencing all around this port. I sit down because I can't quite work out whether the public is allowed into the port. If you're not sure what to do in a situation, you sit down and watch others. Two men appear from nowhere and walk through the checkpoint, which would seem to be there principally to stop vehicles. I wait and watch, and take notes like a member of ETA. I decide to walk along the footpath towards the port. I walk past the checkpoint. I haven't set any alarms off. I stand at 100 yards from the sea, bathed in the hum of industry, looking at a ship in port. I don't want to go any further. I have the feeling that something criminal is going on. There's all this big machinery everywhere, and a few people - what are they doing in this port on a Saturday afternoon? They could be doing anything and the rest of the world and maybe even God herself would not know. I turn around, and walk backwards. As I walk back I pass two obsolete concrete posts, each a metre high, and each with a cup-sized hole in their tops. The second post has a plastic bottle stuffed inside and there is a hundred ants scurrying inside and outside of the bottle. I drop them a bit of one of my croissants and watch them smother it. I spend quite a lot of time watching them. These little ants, doing things which no one, but me, is aware of.
Gijón is a well-proportioned measure of city, sea and industry, but it also conserves its rural spirit in the twenty-five parishes that surround the town. There are some cliffs, or a hillside, or a ridge - call it what you like - which overlooks the port and all its business. Situated on the top of the hillside is a quaint looking settlement. I walk up to the hillside, and find a dust track taking me to some settlements above the port. It's very quaint. Everything is green, luscious, but also rustic, overgrown and scruffy. The roads are the kind you get in the countryside and there are no footpaths. Fantastic! There is an overgrown football pitch, with rusting goalposts. Some people will have great memories of this pitch in its prime - they'll reminisce each time they pass it. I can only imagine. One complex of maisonettes has a park with an outside table football. This is a great place. Once you're in the parishes, you realise that Gijón is a gigantic village network - not a town at all. This is a fascinating place.