The time I spent in Nerja was like living in utopia. I had to work only five hours a day, five days a week, doing laundry and checking guests in and out of the hostel. In my free time I got into an indulgent routine. I woke up in the morning around eight o’clock and went down to the beach for a run. When I got back I would have breakfast and a shower. At my favorite little beach, Playa el Salón, I read novels and sunbathed for the rest of the morning. I’d buy some fruit and veggies and eat lunch on the hostel’s terraza before going into the little front office. Sometimes I forgot to wear shoes to work, and I would laugh and think about how a couple of months before I was working a nine to five sitting behind a computer in an office.
After work I would go back to my room and recharge my introvert juices, or if there were any particularly interesting (read: handsome) guests, go out for tapas. We would eat tiny plates of food with our glasses of cold beer and try to understand a bit of each other before they moved on.
Pronounced like N’air’-ha, Nerja is on the Costa del Sol, in the region of Andalucia. In its narrow, winding streets leading down to the sea, you’ll pass rows of white buildings that gleam in the strong sun, with their ornate, wooden Spanish doors and tiny balconies at almost every window. The handsome plaza containing Iglesia El Salvador, a 17th-century baroque church, is surrounded by cafés and ice cream shops. It sweeps onto Balcón de Europa, the balcony of Europe, which juts out above the sea to give fantastic views of the Mediterranean coastline.
When I started traveling I had never heard of Nerja, and had no intention of even visiting Spain. But I received a message from a hostel owner who was looking for a volunteer. I initially dismissed it until I saw some photos of the area. I was intrigued by the blue sea and jagged coastlines with backdrops of mountains and bright skies. I decided not to rule it out, but I still had dreams of Tuscany and the French Riviera.
In September I found myself in a delightful little village outside of London. But come October as it got drearier and drearier, the sunshine coast was sounding more and more appealing.
So I booked a ticket.
For the first time, I arrived in a non-English speaking country alone, and of course I couldn’t find the bus station. Some people assume that because I’ve traveled a lot by myself, without a smartphone, I have some infallible sense of direction. Not true. I literally get lost every time I have to go anywhere.
I flew into Malaga and wandered the streets cursing myself for taking French instead of Spanish in High school, and sweating like hell because I was still dressed for England. I eventually saw a pretty Spanish woman standing by a bus stop handing out maps. Somewhere from the recesses of my brain I asked tentatively, and in horrible Spanish, “¿Donde esta la bus estación?” It worked you guys. She opened a map and jabbered away in Spanish patiently until I smiled back at her and said “okay, gracias.” People in Spain are super friendly, I thought. And I was on my way.
When I got off the bus in Nerja I thought it was so beautiful, and I felt #blessed that I was getting to live there for five weeks. It was just so different than any place I had been. My host warned me that I had arrived at the end of the high season and unfortunately it would be no gente, meaning fewer people and not much of a party vibe. I really didn’t care. To be honest my introverted self was quite relieved. It was still warm enough to go to the beach and sunbathe, and I was thrilled.
In Nerja there are several fruiterías, but I think those are for fools. Walking through the streets you’ll notice some of the houses keep their doors open, and there are boxes of avocados and mangoes and such on the sidewalk. Andalucia has a long history of being an agricultural society and today a good portion of the land is still used for growing. All you have to do is pop your head into the house and call “¡Hola!” and a little old lady will come out and sell you whatever you want for unbelievably cheap. It will be some of the freshest and sweetest produce you’ve ever had. Just try not to knock during siesta, that’s rude.
I settled in to my own little room on the bottom floor of the hostel. There were two little windows that were level with the sidewalk so I could see people’s shoes walk by and hear shouted greetings and conversations in Spanish. That’s something I really appreciate about Spain that you don’t get in a lot of other western countries. People are always out on the street talking to each other.
Nerja was never on any travel bucket lists. Nerja was unexpected. If you allow yourself to deviate from the plan you can find magic.