Dear fellow travellers
You might be forgiven for thinking that you are in the middle of the Sahara as you follow the rough tracks across the moonscapes of the Cabo de Gata. This is an unusually arid corner of Europe tucked away in southeast Spain. Forget lush images of Andalucian citrus plantations and olive groves, for here the vegetation is more redolent of a desert. Esparto grass, little fan palms, and aromatic herbs like thyme and rosemary survive in crevices and dells that afford a little moisture. Pink snapdragons add a splash of colour. The nineteenth-century traveller Richard Ford held no great truck with this desert wasteland. Although he acknowledged that the area might appeal to geologists, he dismissed the region as uninteresting and described the accommodation as wretched.
The land around the Cabo de Gata really does include many classic elements of desert terrain: a nice volcanic mesa, little alluvial fans and of course sand dunes. It is a landscape that has stood in for both the American West and the Middle East on the silver screen. Not just spaghetti westerns, but also many scenes in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. In the September 2007 issue of hidden europe magazine we shall take a look at the ways in which film directors create their own geographies.
Sand dunes are a desert icon, but you don't actually have to go to a real desert to find them. The machair country that lines the Atlantic shores of Scotland's Outer Hebrides has some fabulous dune complexes. Tufts of marram grass provide shelter for all manner of birdlife, and the ever present risk of erosion means that public access must be limited. Part of the Lithuanian coast has a Saharan demeanour too. On the Curonian spit, great wind rippled dunes tower over tiny villages that might yet be engulfed by the advancing sand. Behind the small town of Nida, one can climb one of the largest dunes and, from the vantage point on the summit, look south over the border into the Kaliningrad region of Russia. Nowhere else in Europe has so large an active dune complex.
Another superb European dune is well known to travellers making their way down France's west coast. Just south of Arcachon is the Dune du Pilat which might well lay claim to the title of Europe's highest sand dune. Like its counterparts in Lithuania, Scotland and Spain, the great dune near Arcachon will scarcely warrant a serious mention in any almanac of global sand seas, yet these fragile ecosystems, well geared to a lack of soil moisture, mark them out as places apart. Experience any of them in mid-winter, as a storm moves in off the sea, feel the grit in your eyes and the sand-laden wind chafe your cheeks, and never again will you assert that there's nothing like a desert in Europe.
hidden europe 16 is published in just three weeks. In our next e-news, we shall preview the content of this upcoming issue. Meanwhile, you can check the tables of contents of issues 1 to 15 on our website, where you will also find the full text of selected articles and an archive of all past issues of our e-news.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)