Driving over the coastal mountains from the Almerian tourist-trap of Mojácar south (or is it west?) to Carboneras is a delight. You pass through the hamlet of Sopalmo, which sits in tiny splendour over a sandy track that leads drowsily down to the sea, a mile away. Here is one of only two places in Spain where you can find a chameleon. Cristobal has a small restaurant there and will fill you up for ten euros as the kids go exploring with their butterfly nets.
We are at the edge of the gigantic – and generally rather empty – Natural Park of Nija/Cabo de Gata.
But before the large municipality of Nijar, increasingly covered with plastic farms, we must pass through Carboneras, the ugly fishing town made famous by the Algarrobico hotel.
The curving road passes the scraped hill of the ‘Moors Blood’, a colourful slab of striated rock where a battle may have taken place half a millennium ago, and zigzags towards the highest part of the route towards Carboneras, with crags on one side and alarming drops on the other: a road straight out of The Italian Job – or perhaps the perfect final scene for Thelma and Louise. At the top, there’s a small parking area, liberally decorated with graffiti, where you can see for miles. Camera-phones record an empty dry mountain, a rugged coast, that clean blue sea and – off to the southwest – the back of a monstrous hotel, several miles away and far below.
The only plant-life in this – and most – of the Parque Natural is scrub: no doubt of huge environmental value to our friends the ecologists, but, dress it how you will, it’s just scrub none the less.
The ecologists are simple city folk. They live through subsidies, European funds and obscure publications. They are like the Caliban of Shakespeare: rude destructive fellows, who flow from their apartments in the suburbs out to deal harshly with the countryside, subsidised by the gullible politicians from far-off Seville. In Almería, the ecologists must ignore the 350 square kilometres of plastic farms, which do huge damage to the environment but bring in much wealth. They will spend their time – and what European funds they can attract – on such foolishness as ripping up a small plantation of agave outside the city: a plantation that has been there for almost a century. The plants, they say, are invasive. So too, they say, are the prickly pear cactus (brought to Spain by the conquistadores) – as the entire south east of Spain is plagued by an unstoppable cactus-fly. The local tortoise must be protected, they insist (again with European backing) so the harmless creatures are collected and sent to prison camps in the high sierras, where they solemnly die of the ‘flu.
A French businessman told me twenty years ago: ‘in the next century, the two growth industries will be tourism and ecology’.
In a small and ugly town in Almería, ten years later, the two forces finally declared war.
As the car breasts the final hill on the route to Carboneras, the rear of the ghastly hotel becomes visible again: surrounded by land prepared by the builder for shops, restaurants and an urbanisation of 250 villas (land, incidentally, which does not fall within the new frontier of the Natural Park, and is thus still theoretically viable). These days, sightseers come to see the hotel. Aghast, they take pictures: perhaps they’ll stay for lunch in the town. Nearby is the small villa where Peter O’Toole stayed when filming part of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, and just past the Algarrobico on the other side is the dry river bed where the Arab horsemen attacked Aqaba in that furious cinematographic gallop.
Carboneras is a reasonably well-off, if unusually ugly fishing town. It has three ports – commercial, marina and industrial – some nice beaches, good fish restaurants, a huge power station responsible for producing 25% of all the CO2 that is clogging up the air in Andalucía, a vast and inoperable sports stadium, and an unemployment rate of only 20% (compare Almería province at around 25%).
Opening the Algarrobico and finishing off the surrounding satellite urbanisation would have brought many jobs to the town, but as a smirking Greenpeace spokesperson said after the latest judgement, ‘they can always help work on the demolition’.
The reality is that, after ten years of rotting in the sun, open to the elements, to the vandals and the ecologists, the twenty story hotel would be almost impossible to finish. Its time had come. But, what about the costs involved in demolition – money that could have been better spent? The politicians speak blithely of returning the several hundred metres of empty rocky scree back to how it was – but how impossible is that? And, is it even worth the effort?
The justification for the demolition comes from a rule that you can’t build in a national park, even though the hotel was not in a national park when work began; indeed the promoters bought the land in 1999 off the Junta de Andalucía itself (through a public company called Soprea) as urbanisable. The boundaries were subsequently moved as the PP in Madrid changed the coastal building limits. In 2006, the project which had the blessing of then President of Andalucía Manuel Chaves, fell foul of the Minister for the Environment Cristina Narbona from the Zapatero Government, who ordered work stopped when the hotel was 90% complete: it was being built on public land.
Almería is a large province of 8,000 square kilometres, of which 3,100sqkms are protected – about 35% of the entire province. We are talking here of perhaps one hectare. Couldn’t Almería afford to lose a tiny fraction of its empty, unvisited and largely pointless parkland to help create some jobs?
A recent interview with the President of the Superior Court of Justice in Andalucía says that ‘judges sometimes contradict themselves – we are human and can also get things wrong’. A spokesperson for ‘Salvemos Mojacar’ (an extremist ecological organisation) does not suffer from the same doubts: ‘it must be demolished and the promoter should not be reimbursed by as much as one penny’ (they seek 70 million).
So, as sometimes happens in Spain: the building can never be completed, and it can never be entirely demolished. Jobs are lost in an area of high unemployment, and a rotting and monstrous hulk of a building will perhaps be turned one day, after at least a decade of uselessness, into a mountain of rubble.
Perhaps the rabbits, its future residents, will be pleased.
Article appeared in The Olive Press edition 234 March 2nd 2016
Article appeared in The Olive Press edition 234 March 2nd 2016