Socks, sandals and the Costa del Sol

June 13 1994

Socks, sandals and the Costa del Sol

June 13 1994

Socks, sandals and the Costa del Sol


There are people who like to travel, who are curious and eager to find new experiences, new geographies, different food, different customs. There are other people who pretend to travel, physically removing their bodies to another scene—but actually just wanting home with perhaps a little more sunshine.

And so we sit on the Costa del Sol, a little bit of Spain that has been turned into a large bit of England. Chips with everything and the Socks Brigade. It is a sight to behold, if you can stop from crying.

This is the demi-paradise that stretches from Málaga down to Gibraltar and the jumping-off spot for Tangier and Morocco. The combination of sun and sand has proved irresistible for the package tours that remove the Brits from the relentless damp that permeates their lives.

What we have done is to transport England to Spain so Englishmen will think they’ve never left home, but just get a sunburn. Fake pubs. Gravy on everything. One of the larger hotels advertises: “Dogs welcome.” That’s the only way you can get an Englishman to travel: he has to bring his pet.

Beach towns called Torremolinos and Fuengirola and Carvajal have now disappeared from view, swallowed in a never-ending picket fence of pastel hotel towers. When Portugal, following behind Spain in the tourist boom, set about building accommodations, it took as an example of what not to do the dreadful fate of the Costa del Sol, fakery gone mad.

In the early days of the Empiah, when most of world atlases were colored pink, the Brits were famous for imposing their habits on the natives abroad. Cricket was established in India and Pakistan and the West Indies, afternoon tea was mandatory and one dressed for dinner, no matter the heat.

It is another era, another time, but the tradition remains. What the Spanish regard as a pub is filled with Manchester United fans, pulling the pints and cheering their lads while the beach sits empty. The newsstands outside are thick with the London tabloids, deep cleav-

age and the latest nonsense about the Royals.

On the promenade, which looks as if it was imported from Blackpool, marches the Socks Brigade. Just as the early colonial masters were known for spats and monocles in the Punjab, the Englishman in Spain can be detected by his socks—worn under sandals.

This is a sartorial phenomenon that is unique on the world stage. The idea of sandals, one presumed, was freedom: cool and unfettered. The Englishman on holiday would like to feel free and untrammeled— but wants the security of his socks. It’s like Linus with his blanket. Perhaps Dr. Freud could explain it all.

The best way to experience Spain is to get away from the beach, which is no longer Spain but England. Ronda sits high in the Sierra Nevada, a stomach-churning climb through switchbacks, an hour or so of driving—depending on your stomach chums.

It contains the oldest bullring in Spain. Hemingway said it was the world’s most perfect spot for a honeymoon and if it didn’t work there you should go back to Paris and start all over again. After climbing endlessly through mountain slopes, there suddenly appears a vast plain covered with rich wheat fields. It’s like a flat table on top of the world. The rain in Spain falls mainly on the et cetera.

The town is split, as if by a giant’s cleaver, by a gaping gorge, separating the Moorish remains of the populace from the Spanish successors. It is one of the more spectacular sights anywhere in touristdom.

The car, dodging the massive tourist buses filled by men wearing socks under their sandals, is the secret to Andalusia. There is Granada, where the Alhambra is one of the wonders of the world, the Moors in their day of dominance turning stone tapestries into frozen lace. The visitors gape in wonderment, as they should, the artistry foreign to any craftsmen today.

There is Córdoba, surrounded by olive groves that stretch to the horizon, the city where Cervantes wrote and where the first teenage generation to grow up under democracy try to dress like punk rockers— and just miss.

There is Seville, with the third-largest cathedral in existence, after Rome’s St. Peter’s and London’s St. Paul’s. The arched ceilings reach the sky and the earpounding organist obviously is auditioning for a tryout at The Phantom of the Opera touring company.

Spain is a movable feast, as silent in its dignity as Italy is noisy in its exuberance. Spain is more enjoyable than France, in that you don’t have to put up with the French. It has better food than Germany, which ain’t hard, the Germans not having the gift of the Mediterranean, which each day shovels onto Spain’s tables the riches of the sea.

If you don’t like the blood of the bullfight, you can get it sanitized almost every day on television, each fatal sword thrust replayed over and over like the winning wrist shot of Pavel Bure, who if he had been bom in Spain would have been a bullfighter, since he has grace in his genes.

It is a land of incredible sun, more olives than you can eat in a lifetime, tomatoes as rich as beefsteak and as many old ladies who dress in black from tip to toe as there are visitors who have never bought a bikini that contained a top.

The Spanish are quiet, honest, heirs to a fascinating history—and completely puzzled why Englishmen wear socks under their sandals.