We set off in search of these fabled pools knowing no more than that they were on the outskirts of Granada. When we got to Santa Fe, we started asking passers by for directions to the ‘agua caliente’. Somewhere in the ‘campo’, we were told. After an hour or so of driving up and down the same old roads, I suddenly caught sight of a sign marked ‘banos’. I swerved off the road, and pulled up alongside a Rasta haired girl with an enormous earring who was lugging a backpack. It turned out she was heading for the same place as us, so we offered her a lift. She was strangely silent as to the exact direction we should take when we came to the first fork in the road; she didn’t seem to understand our broken Spanish. We took a guess and turned right down a dirt track. Everything was indescribably muddy, as it had been raining for two days non-stop. We pulled up at a barricaded house, and while Michelle got out to ask for directions, I swivelled around to inquire whether the girl spoke English. No, she didn’t. French, perhaps? Indeed, she did. In fact, it turned out she was French. She told us some garbled story about living in Barcelona, coming down to Granada with friends, who had since legged it to Morocco, and having driven to the ‘banos’ at night – hence, her uncertainty about the route.
As we droved down ever more ridiculously muddy tracks, slipping and swerving wildly, I began to understand why car hire companies exclude damage to the vehicles underside from their insurance. When, finally, we had no choice but to stop, our tyres wore a two inch crust of clay that denied them any semblance of grip. Michelle and the girl got out to see if they could see anything over the brow of a nearby hill. They were looking for ‘vans’. The girl had said the pools were delightful but ‘un peu hippie’. I got out to have a short stroll around. I took a dozen paces, only to find my flips flops had become encased in a shroud of glutinous clay that got heavier and heavier until finally the thongs snapped off! Squelching back to the car barefoot, I began to despair. Would I ever be able to turn the car around? Lost in this godforsaken place, even the allure of steaming hot pools of fresh spring water faded.
The girl finally got through to her friends on her mobile, but they only had time to explain the bare outline of the route we needed to take before their batteries died. We headed back to Santa Fe, me gunning the engine over the boggy bits and wondering how soon, and where, we could ditch our passenger. Very soon, we became hopelessly lost again, but by a stroke of fortune, we spied two Italian vans in a layby. They turned out to be current residents of the ‘banos’, and after some negotiation, we followed them there.
I’ve seen many a van in my time, and many a collection of vans with their unwashed occupants, their mangy dogs and their general air of menace behind the jovial exterior. This place was not untypical. Generally, out in the world, I feel somewhat ‘underdressed’, but driving into this mud splattered valley, festooned with scores of travellers and their vehicles from every European nation, in our squeaky hire car, freshly shaven and wearing pristine trousers, I didn’t. The girl jumped out, to join her friends, explaining that the ‘pool’ – I was only momentarily disheartened by her use of the singular – was over a nearby hill, leaving us trying to decide where to park our car. I was having unpleasant flashbacks to some film I had seen or book I had read where a car is left in a dodgy area for about five minutes which is more than enough time for it to be stripped to a bare chassis by the time the owner returns.
The muddy ascent to the hill was made less agreeable, especially in bare feet, by the sheer quantity of dog shit everywhere, which was of much the same colour and texture as the earth. At least, I assume it was from dogs. Add to that a plethora of broken bottles, disgarded garbage and sullen looks, and the suspicion I was beginning to harbour that the fabled series of rock pools, with steaming water flowing from a delightful moss encrusted source, into a succession of large basins for lounging in, might not materialise, hardened by the moment.
We struggled to the top of the hill, and slid down the other side. The rising stream from an undeniable ‘pool’ of water was momentarily exhilarating, but the extreme depth and stickiness of the mud, the fact that a hippie tent enclosure more or less surrounded us, and the realisation that this pool was a man made, rather small, distinctly murky hole in the ground, fed by water spouting out of a rusty standpipe, brought us up short.
Gamely, I strode to the edge, trousering my wristwatch in preparation for stripping naked and sliding into what from the smell was unadulterated sulphur water from the depths of the earth; but looking around me, I lost my nerve. A thuggish type was leering at me from behind a nearby tarpaulin, I had just avoided stepping on a splintered bottle neck, and even now, I thought, our hire car could be being shredded. I momentarily bathed my muddy feet in the scorching water, before returning to the mire.
We hurried back by a less muddy path, passing a large number of French vans. Our friend was there and waved to us. ‘Un peu hippie’? Yikes!
It was only once we were well on our way that we realised this couldn’t possibly have been the place we were looking for. No regular Spaniard could have known about, still less recommended, somewhere so deeply ‘alternativo’. So, we’ll go back and take another look, during dryer weather.