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SPAIN : iBuenos! : Coming to Terms With a Little Spanish Town

October 20, 1985|LYDIA CLARKE HESTON | Writer / photographer Lydia Clarke Heston is the wife of actor Charlton Heston

A hundred miles north of Valencia, on a narrow spit of gritty sand thrusting into the Mediterranean, stands a great rock flanked by sharp cliffs that descend abruptly into the depths. Clinging to this precipice in a state of 14th-Century vertigo is a golden-toned village called Peniscola.

If some modern Merlin would give me a chance to return to any place in the world--I've seen most of it--my choice wouldn't be an elegant city or the African jungle or the exotic Far East, but Peniscola, that hidden corner of Spain that hypnotized me with history more than 20 years ago.

The film "El Cid" needed a setting that looked 1,000 years old. Peniscola is far older than that, with foundations going back to the native Iberians of prehistoric times, but its sea-worn battlements made a convincing substitute for what is now the modern city of Valencia, where the Cid defeated the Moors in 1096. Itching for a chance to photograph something different from the usual Spanish tour--real villagers in an untouched historic setting--I accompanied my actor-husband to the Costa Azahar.

Spain has several enticing coastal areas, including the Costa Brava near Barcelona and the Costa del Sol above Gibraltar, but the most beautiful of them is little known: the Costa Azahar, the "Blossom Coast," lying between the two. In February the Azahar glows violet-pink with thousands of acres of almond trees in bloom, wafting a fragrance that can send a smog-clogged Californian into a trance.

Today, opulent hotels surround the area of Peniscola, and the curve of the north beach sports hundreds of whitewashed condominiums. But in 1961 there were no accommodations on the rock itself. Each morning before dawn, actors and crew would leave the Hotel del Golf in Castellon de la Plana and drive 60 miles to Peniscola. There we would crowd, shivering, into a comforting little cafe on the beach to reinforce ourselves with thick coffee laced with that brutal Spanish brandy, Fundador. Crew and actors would then brace for the battle scenes, while I, a Leica M2 in one hand and a 5-year-old son in the other, would set off with expectations of photographing the uncommon people of Peniscola.

When I first saw their faces, my hand trembled on the shutter. The women appeared in high-contrast black; the fishermen wore snappy berets, and the red-cheeked children sparkled with good health in spite of the desperate economic situation in Spain. My first encounters with those redoubtable citizens, however, were less than gratifying. There was a strange coldness that I'd never experienced before. I would smile "Buenos dias!"

"Buenos . . ." they would mutter, continuing on their way. I kept reminding myself that I knew reasonable Spanish and had seven weeks to explore them and their village, but time whisked past and I accomplished little.

And then one day I happened to wear a skirt. My usual costume had been a pair of canvas pants, but this day I had switched to a cotton skirt. The difference was riveting.

"Buenos dias, senora!" called a woman from a second-story window. "Donde esta America?" asked a boy, giggling.

Suddenly it was all right to be photographed. Even the fishermen shook my hand. Those proud Peniscolans had a clear idea of what was appropriate for a woman to wear, and it did not include pants. Today a photographer could wear a bikini on the streets of that village or anywhere else in Spain.

Conservative they may have been, but they were also forgiving. Pilar invited me to sit with the women as they wove red plastic thread into shopping bags to sell in Madrid. Laughing and chatting, they enjoyed the winter sunshine, but theirs was not always a sunshine life.

Ana showed me how she repaired her husband's fishing nets. "I hope he will come back," she told me with a small, rueful smile, "but the sea is not always our friend."

The Mediterranean, I learned, has violent and fatal changes of mood. "Don't women wear black in America?" Ana asked.

"We always have breakfast on our boat," a fisherman told me. "That way, if we don't come back, at least we have something in our stomachs."

Having a child with you can be a photographic asset, I discovered, as Fraser began to play with the Gypsy children hanging about the edge of the sea. Although the wind was bitter, they wore very little, and a Gypsy mother contentedly nursed her baby while the damp breeze ruffled her rags. I began to feel guilty about Fraser's leather coat and brought the children small toys from Castellon. Soon, even the local children forgot the camera as they played "cup and ball" and showed Fraser the sea creatures they had found. Their blazing vitality, I decided, was probably due to a large intake of Vitamin C. Along with the almond crop, oranges are a principal commodity on the Azahar.

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