Spanish Flames

Spanish Flames

As if they needed anything else to go wrong, the country of Spain has this last week been battling yet another of the devastating forest fires which have been plaguing it over this hot, dry and rainless summer. Upon the drought-stricken Spanish hills, like an insidious cancer that, eradicated in one place, keeps popping up somewhere else, devouring fires have consumed thousands of acres of the Iberian countryside.

The latest area to fall victim to the flames has been Malaga province. In the hills high above the glitzy resort city of Marbella (a combination of Palm Springs, West Palm Beach and Manhattan), 400 firefighters along with members of the Spanish military fought the flames with helicopters and airplanes and finally, last Saturday, brought them under control. Not before large areas of the hills were charred and blackened, however, and 4000 people were evacuated from the village of Ojen.

We know someone who lives in Ojen. He is the manager of a holiday apartment complex and country club farther down the Costa del Sol. We have not seen him in a long time and it felt strange to think of him so soon again because we had not too long ago heard that the country club had gone bankrupt.

All over the Costa del Sol, the Coast of the Sun, hotels have been folding, restaurants disappearing and enterprises of all kinds going under. In fact, the region of Andalucía in which Malaga province and the city of Marbella lie, has just this last week asked for a 1 billion Euro bailout from the Spanish central government. No one has been hurt more by the property bubble bursting than the over-built and over-leveraged Costa del Sol, this playground of Europe on Spain’s Mediterranean coast.

The apartment complex in question, which as far as we know our friend still manages, is a good example of the recent history of the Costa del Sol. It was owned by a wealthy British woman who it was said, had lived in the wild, hilly spot overlooking the Mediterranean all the way back to before Franco. It was just a house then, an estancia, surrounded by giant thistles, wild fennel and cork trees. She sold it in the early 1960’s to a group of Belgians come back from the Congo who, after so many years under the hot African sun, could not bear to face the cold drear of a Belgian winter. In the seventies, the Belgians had built upon the hill, a quadrangle of vacation apartments surrounding a central garden of palm trees, fountains and flowers. My husband and some friends bought their apartment in the 1980’s. By this time, a great many of the fields which had surrounded the old estancia had been built upon with other vacation apartments or hotels or golf courses. In the late 1990’s, when I first saw it, the quadrangle was completely surrounded by villas and now sat upon a major highway which ran along the coast toward Gibraltar. Even in the few years I visited the area, many more spaces were filled in with yet more hotels and apartment complexes and beach bars. It became increasingly difficult to get down to the water.

There was so much building that jokes about the Spanish national bird being the crane were commonplace.

But the apartment complex was at that time still bursting with florid Britishers financing the mortgages of these their second homes with vacation rentals. The restaurant was full every night, the chairs around the pool occupied. Our friend from Ojen was very busy.

Until the markets imploded and the property bubble burst. And we wonder now how he is managing with the country club closed and a dwindling number of apartments occupied. And what if in addition to that he was driven from his home by these latest fires?

You could say it’s their own fault. The Andalucians have been greedy. They over-built with no thought about the future. The property bubble was bound to burst down there on the Mediterranean, just as it did in Las Vegas and Florida. You could say that the desertification of Spain is their fault too, for the climate warms at the hands of men. Spaniards, like Californians, will have no choice but to endure summer after summer of tinder-dry mountains ready to burst into flames at a moment’s notice.

All I know is I worry about the future of that old paradise of Muslim Spain, Al-Andalus, for in recent years it has indeed been ill-treated, both by its sons and daughters as well as by its visitors. People have thought only of what they might get from it, a vacation home, a good sun tan, a fortune, and not what they might give to it, love, respect or the benefit of sensible stewardship.