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The Game in Spain

But it would take a very puritanical heart indeed to resist the charms of the Costa del Sol. In Marbella, the Marbella Club Hotel instantly envelops you in comfort, with its lush plantings, fountains and sun-dappled lawns. At a poolside lunch, youhear birds sing in the trees overhead as a British businessman chirps into his cell phone ("C'djew call me on my mo-bile?. . . No-no-no, I'm in Spain"). Toward the end of the day you might wander down to the beach. There, her long afternoon's work done, a topless sunbather rises from her chaise, strolls across the beach with an elegant composure and slips into the quiet sea.

The late writer V. S. Pritchett in his book The Spanish Temper caut ioned that you should never make the mistake of regarding Spain as a "modern country." That was nearly fifty years ago, but there i s truth in the remark still. Even here on the coast, an epicenter of international luxury, you are abruptly reminded that you are in a place whose past is much with it.

One of the heart-lifting sights in any Spanish town is the plaza de toros, and one night in Marbella I am in luck: The country's great young bullfighter Francisco Rivera Ordóñez is in town. Reasonable people, I know, may disagree about the bullfight as an institution. Reasonable people who have never seen one tend, understandably, to disapprove. People who have seen one, unfortunately for Reason, have a much harder time disapproving. But it is useless to argue about. I will only note that bullfighting provides one of the most un-ironic hours--short of a genuine emergency--that you are likely to spend in the modern world. And if you give yourself to it, if you find yourself crying, "Dead," at the moment the Spanish fan next to you cries, "Muerto," you feel an astonished alliance with this strange spectacle, this ritual, this pagan Eucharist. . . .

Whatever it is, young Ordóñez is very good at it, the handkerchiefs wave to him, and he is rewarded two ears on each of his kills. He smiles with a winning modesty in triumph. Ordóñez is a startlingly good-looking young guy, an enormously popular figure in Spain, well rewarded, and is said to have found the favor of the daughter of the Duke of Alba (a young woman whose beauty descends directly from the ravishing woman in Goya's Maja canvasses). All in all, Ordóñez's life looks pretty good. Until you recall that tomorrow he must go out and kill with a sword a couple of wild beasts who weigh a ton and who would like nothing more than to kill Ordóñez.

Always you are aware of the mountain that looms over Marbella and of the big territory that lies behind it. You are right to want to go see it because the best of Andalusia lies inland.

T he road to Ronda climbs sharply and soon bears you up into a clear and deceiving air that collapses distance so that a sheer mountain wall zooms toward you as if in a telescopic lens. The light. Every traveler to Andalusia is transfixed by it. The intense light and, for much of the year, the dry heat. I find myself developing crazed theories about it--maybe not crazed. It affects you, the sauna air seeming to leech the toxins from your skin, and the brightness absolving the spirit.

Over a summit, you enter the thinly populated intermountain landscape, plains and stretches of cork oak, those beneficent trees that plug the world's wine bottles and whose acorns nourish the pigs that produce superb serrano ham. This is the region of the pueblos blancos, which from afar, some say, look like patches of unmelted snow in the folds of the hills.


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