Travel pioneers: so what?

I admire the pluck and determination of the great - and the not so great - explorers. To be among the first to venture into a strange land is something I take my hat off to.

Encapsulating the extreme ability and drive end of the pioneering spectrum is Richard Francis Burton, but there are many others less bragging, less worldly and less masculine too, like Rose Macaulay or Emelia B. Edwards.

They travelled when travel wasn't easy or commonplace, and their reaction to finding their quest - either long-held or accidental - can tell us a lot about the nature of our own travel desires now...

Socialite and shockingly bad driver Rose Macaulay 'discovered' the 'little playa of Torremolinos'...
posted by Richard Green on 02/04/2019

Novelist, 1920s It girl and dreadful driver, Rose Macaulay (1881-1958)

Since Rose Macaulay visit Spain's south coast in 1948, millions of us have thudded onto the tarmac of Malaga’s vast airport, and places like Marbella and Torremolinos are now familiar to the point of contempt. But when Macaulay wrote about them, she was introducing the undiscovered and the exotic. This is how she described Torremolinos:

“The mountains had withdrawn a little from the sea; the road ran a mile inland; the sunset burned on my right, over vines and canes and olive gardens. I came into Torremolinos, a pretty country place, with the little Santa Clara hotel, white and tiled and rambling, with square arches and trellises and a white-walled garden dropping down by stages to the sea. One could bathe either from the beach below, or from the garden, where a steep, cobbled path twisted down the rocks to a little terrace, from which one dropped down into 10 feet of green water heaving gently against a rocky wall.

“A round full moon rose corn-coloured behind a fringe of palms. Swimming out to sea, I saw the whole of the bay, and the Malaga lights twinkling in the middle of it, as if the wedge of cheese were being devoured by a thousand fireflies. Behind the bay, the dark mountains reared, with here and there a light. It was an exquisite bathe.

Scenes from 1950s Torremolinos

“I got up early next morning and went down to the garden path again to bathe. There were blue shadows on the white garden walls, and cactuses and aloes above them, and golden cucumbers and pumpkins and palms. I dropped into the green water and swam out; Malaga across the bay was golden pale like a pearl; the little playa of Torremolinos had fishing boats and nets on it, and tiny lapping waves.”

BORN IN 1881, Macaulay was instilled with a sense of adventure from the age of six, when her family moved to a small village in Italy. Returning to England, she graduated from Oxford and set herself up in London, where she achieved great acclaim as an author, writing 23 novels. She became something of a 1920s It girl, fraternising with Rupert Brooke, EM Forster, Christopher Isherwood and WH Auden.

She also had a passion for speed and, despite being an appalling driver, managed to survive a spin across the USA in 1929, a wartime stint as a London ambulance driver and, in 1948, the tour described above. Fabled Shore was her only factual travel book, but rarely has one account had such a profound effect on the development of a region. Macaulay missed the package boom, though — she died in 1958.

Reading the Fabled Shore on the beach at Torremolinos today is an unusual experience, so scarred by development is the landscape, but take an evening swim and squint, and Malaga still looks as though a “wedge of cheese were being devoured by a thousand fireflies”.

Torremolinos was an 80s byword for overdevelopment and overcrowding, but today is popular with Spanish holiday makers

Visiting today: the resort town had its heyday in the 50s and 60s, when - hard to imagine I know - stars like Marlon Brando, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Sophia Loren and Orson Wells would rush to be seen there.

But then the resort built too many hotels too fast and became notorious for being the very worst of the Costa Del Sol - think Kiss me Quick hats, oversized Whicker Donkeys and Watney's Red Barrel.

Today the town has jettisoned the worst of its image and has a more Spanish feel again. A few more discerning restaurants and bars have opened, and of course there are still lovely spots along the coast and just inland, and places such as Marbella have worked hard to resurrect themselves as more upmarket resorts.

One more thing...Frank Sinatra become embroiled in a nasty little incident in 1964. He was filming Von Ryan's Express in the area, and dropped into the then hip bar of the resort's first luxury hotel - the 1959 built Pez Espada Hotel. He was involved in a brawl with a Spanish tabloid journalist/photographer and his bodyguards, over a a Cuban 'singer' who had likely been planted by the journalist to get a story. He was arrested and subsequently fined fined of 25,000 Pesetas, which only added to his bad boy image.

The hotel is still there, and its bar is now called 'Frankies Bar', with Sinatra themed cocktails and a wall of his framed album covers. See Hotel Pez Espada

Getting there: Torremolinos is just eight kilometres southwest from Malaga's Costa del Sol Airport, which is Spain's fourth busiest and handled nearly 17 million passengers in 2016. You can fly to Malaga year round from across Europe, with even more destinations served over the summer months. Airlines include Aer Lingus, British Airways, Easyjet, Finnair, Flybe, Iberia, Jet2, Lufthansa, Monarch, Niki, Norwegian Air Shuttle, Ryanair, SAS, Thomson Airways, and Vueling

Further information: see Visit Costa del Sol

What to read: alas Fabled Shore is out now of print, but you can easily find the marvellous Towers of Trebizond (Flamingo £8.99) for a flavour of Macaulay’s lively and eccentric style. It begins thus: “‘Take my camel, dear," said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.”


A calamitous haircut in Freetown, Sierra Leone...
posted by Richard Green on 24/01/2017

Not every holiday can or should be an adventure, but I do like building little micro-adventures into even an all-inclusive stay. One sure-fire way of meeting locals and of having a cheap and safe little dip into a foreign culture is to have a haircut on holiday.

I've done this ever since I can remember. Such an ordinary chore back home can often be turned into something enjoyable, insightful, or at the very least just downright cheap...

Though one haircut in Freetown, Sierra Leone, went horribly wrong...

A makeshift barbers on the steps of a derelict building in Freetown. Photo Richard Green

I visited in order to write a travel story on the fact that the country is long since at peace and is a friendly and fascinating and poised to welcome tourists again. And contrary to many other West African nations that bear the scars of the slave trade - usually in their string of coastal European built forts - Sierra Leone was founded for freed slaves to be repatriated to live a new life in. Hence the name of the capital city is Freetown, and the small archway by the shore isn't a door looking out to unimaginable suffering, but one looking inland through which newly freed slaves passed on their way to starting a new life in Africa.

The street buzz is terrific, as are the colours and cacophony, and the city feels extremely safe. Certainly on my visit I found that it felt every bit as welcoming and safe as Ghana, Senegal or The Gambia, Freetown felt on a smaller scale than Accra, had more character than Dakar, and a hell of a lot more too it than Banjul.

So having a little down time in Freetown I wandered towards this derelict old building that someone had told me was the former main building of the Fourah Bay College, the oldest university in West Africa. It was now a skeleton with a few small stalls around it, and a makeshift barbers at the top of the grand entrance steps.

The former Fourah Bay College, founded in 1827, and going strong today at a newer hilltop campus. Photo Richard Green

Paradoxically I don't actually enjoy having a haircut, which may be why I have my hair cut when travelling, as a distraction from the humdrum nature of it. It was certainly a little odd sitting at the top of the steps under a tarpaulin and attended to by this bare chested local lad.

The likely lad barber who said "My brother has the same hair as you". Photo Richard Green

The poor chap was quite nervous and it didn't take long for me to realise that something was awry. He lined up the scissors with my head carefully and then with a Jacques Tati tennis lunge, made a diagonal hack that sent hair falling down my face. Then he did it again, but on the other side of my head, and then made a bizarre parry to my right fringe.

Detecting that I was becoming nervous myself, he assured me that "my brother has just the same hair as you", and then using my indecision as cover he made a few more hacks at my hair. Even after a rather English and uncertain suggestion that he could stop now, he was still at it. The determination on his face imploring me wait just a little longer, when presumably he thought he could turn the situation around.

Beaten and a little deflated, he gave me up as a bad job. But we had a laugh over it, I paid him his 5,000 Sierra Leonian Leones (about 50p) and we shook hands.

A haircut about to go very wrong. Photo Richard Green

I then walked into a more conventional street and found a more conventional hairdresser. It was a little pink and loud for my taste, but it was a little emergency after all.

Before I said a word, the local woman stood behind me and forced her comb through the tufts on my head and shrieked hilariously - "What have you done to your hair?" She pulled at tufts with her fingers, saying "Why is your hair shorter here and at the front than it is here and at the back?" Her colleagues giggled as they passed behind me and much mirth was derived by the shambles on my scalp, but all in a very good natured way.

Mountain Cut, an immensely characterful street leading down to the sea in Freetown. Photo Richard Green

Her emergency repairs worked, and though I paid about five times the amount I'd coughed up to the bare chested bloke, I could at least feel a little more comfortable about walking the streets.

 A side of the road barber's that I didn't get chance to try. Photo Richard Green

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