Alcalá could have been called “the Mesopotamia of Cádiz”. In the same way as in Iraq the term Mesopotamia, or “land between rivers” is used to define the region between the Tigris and the Euphrates, Alcalá could be designated “town or hill between rivers” because it is surrounded by five rivers and a rich network of springs, streams, sources and waterfalls. Its moist earth sustains an impressive range of vegetation. Federico Garcia Lorca fell in love with Alcalá and cited it as an Andalucian town par excellence. When in The House of Bernarda Alba he said that towns with no river or sea were cursed, he recalled Alcalá as a town that was blessed.
Alcalá has no sea, but it is surrounded by five rivers: therefore it doesn't meet Lorca's qualification for being cursed. The most important is the Barbate, which maintains its waters the whole year round and is the only one which runs into the sea, over on the coast at the town of the same name. The other four are the Fraja and the Alamo which join it on the right, on the way to Benalup, and the Rocinejo and Alberite which do so on the left, on the way to Algeciras. Thus, Alcalá has no coastline but it has abundant rivers.
In the decade of the 1940s, the Barbate maintained its waters even in the driest years. It went through the "Prao" [el Prado] and in summer left big ponds and pools of crystalline water. It was the only place where the youngsters could go and bathe. There were no swimming pools or beaches, even though the Paseo was called “La Playa” [the beach]. It seems to have been called that because on rainy days the water streamed down from the top square converting the streets into rivers and the Paseo into a beach. However this didn't last long, because the water found its way down the hills of “La Salá” [now C/ Nuestra Señora de los Santos] and San Antonio, and the streams of the Ortega hill, ending up in the rivers.
In summer the pools of the Barbate presented no danger, but the hollows created whirlpools and the smallest children didn't have the strength to escape them, and had to be helped. Our parents didn't want us to go down to the "Prao" to bathe. They shouted warnings that the river had swallowed up too many children, but we were not convinced because never in those years was there a serious accident. They said that some child was always drowned in the Barbate in summer. They were exaggerating and we did not believe them.
The banks of the river were a garden clothed in oleanders, reeds, rushes, small palms and lentiscos … We left our clothes piled in a heap and swam completely naked; a swimming costume was a luxury item in those days. We jumped into the water from some round rocks, which the river itself had shaped in its passing, and then we stretched out to dry ourselves on those wonderful platforms. We filled ourselves with the pure joys of Nature. We went home newly restored, our legs whitened by the limestone dragged along by the water, and in fear of our parents' reprimands. It left scratches on our legs, and if we had been swimming we were left with tell-tale marks.
One day my father found out that we had been bathing in the river. Immediately he sent a policeman to the "Prao" to take away our clothes without us noticing. He took the clothes and waited by the chapel of the Virgin of the Saints, halfway up the hill on the Calle La Salá. The policeman did the job as my father had asked him to. When we children noticed that our clothes had gone, we were full of fear and shame. We waited until dusk to go back up, running like criminals. At the chapel the policeman was waiting for us and gave us back our clothes.
We were able to enter the town with our shameful bits covered, but with our tails between our legs. In our respective houses they were waiting for us with the strap ready. We stayed away from the river for several days, but once we had got over the fright, we got back into our old habits. The Rio Barbate in the "Prao" was the place where we could be free and let off steam. The older lads had already started smoking, because it was the first act of manhood. They found it difficult to go up and down the hill of La Salá, but the younger ones went down flying and came up running.
Translated by Claire Lloyd
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