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Saved by the Olives! An Unexpected Tour in Andalusia

When organizing our tours in Andalusia we deal with an infinite number of variables – no two trips are ever the same, and that´s why we love it!  Toma Tours have a trusted network of suppliers who are just as passionate about Spain and Morocco as we are. But just occasionally, last minute changes have been sprung on us, helping to keep us on our toes…

Toma Tours recently witness firsthand the triumph of human spirit over adversity, when a day heading for disaster turned into one of the most memorable ever.

Cancelled boats, chitty chitty bang bang buses, singing spouses, 1st gear hill climbs, sherry, food and giggles and…oh yes…I almost forgot…the OLIVES!

Our dear friend and colleague Annie B of Annie B´s Spanish Kitchen in Vejer booked a day out to Tangier by coach for some very special clients.

All arrangements were set, restaurant booked and an authentic Moroccan experience planned.

On this particular Tuesday morning, there was Annie, at the door of her clients´ hotel to see them onto the bus and wave them off.

The only problem was; there was no bus! The bus service had been confirmed umpteen times, but at the last minute our shiny new coach had mechanical problems, and in its place they had no option but to resurrect a retired bus, dusted her off, hammered her back into shape, thrown on the driver´s wife for safekeeping and sent her on her merry way.

All of Manni’s worst fears were confirmed when he HEARD the bus even before he has seen it, coughing and spluttering its way up the hill into the main square. It looked like it was held together with chicken wire; a caricature of a Tour Guide´s worst nightmare.

“Bye Bye Annie,” Manni shouted through the hazy glass. “Please don´t worry. They´re in good hands,” he reassured her.

Annie B clutched at a little package she was holding until her knuckles turned white and looked as if she was sending her children off to rural England during the Blitz.

The driver Antonio´s accent was so thickly Gaditano ( from Cadiz) that his words could only be guessed at, while his wife Encarnación began singing improvised coplas (Folk Songs) about how happy she was that her prince had swept her off her feet for the day.

Manni turned around to view these 12 very important clients trying to appear as calm and collected as his experience would allow him but he very quickly gave up.

The lead man of the group was Pete Luckett, a self made man, celebrated in his adopted country of Canada as a gourmet and TV personality. He has hundreds of specialist grocery stores and is the owner of Luckett’s Vineyards.  He, as Manni was, was born in Yorkshire and he calls a spade a spade. The two men exchanged a glance and Manni´s guard came tumbling down.

“Ladies and Gentlemen. This is the worst bus that I have ever had the displeasure of travelling in. Even on the Altiplano of Bolivia, there have better ones than this.”

“I can´t hear you Manni,” came a voice from the back, barely audible over the screeches of the diesel engine that felt like it was “on” the bus, rather than “under” it.  Manni pivoted towards Antonio and asked him if he had a microphone.

“Una que?”  -“A what?”

“Un Micrófono.”

Encarnación, the singing spouse, hollered that she didn´t need one and broke out into a rendition of a local tune in exhilarated tones. Manni, Pete and Pete´s best friend all caught each other´s looks of disbelief that simultaneously transformed into peals of mass hysteria.

The day was set.

All 15 occupants of the bus could feel the springs of the seats through the worn leather as they bumbled their way south to the port of Tarifa.

Wind farms flanked each side of the highway and the mighty white blades beat a steady rhythm through the morning air.

On reaching Tarifa Manni introduced this windswept village, European home of kite surfing, to expectant ears. He touched on the hippy chic inhabitants and the high rates of suicide, especially among women. It´s the wind.

Tarifa has a love/hate relationship with its winds. Without them, it would still be an abandoned outpost close to Africa, but with them, there is no escape. The winds hurl themselves through its narrow streets for days on end, reaching every last nook and cranny of this old Arabic Medina and shaking the very foundations that the town was built on.

Arriving at the port, 13 people bade “Hasta Luego” to the comical driver and copla-singing co-pilot and headed to the terminal.

“Oh God, Please no. Please no. Oh Virgen on the Blessed Olive. Please…….” Manni muttered.

Manni takes groups to Tangier the whole time. He normally arrives at 0915 for the 1000 departure. But on this particular Tuesday, the departure board was blankety blank and his heart did a 360º.

He grabbed one of the company´s assistants. “Que pasa? Porque no hay salidas?” -“What´s the matter, why are there no departures ?”

“Sorry Sir. We´ve had a last-minute technical problem and it looks like the boat is going to be late.”

“Late or cancelled altogether?”

“Late I think.”

No-one really knew what was happening but the group were checked in as usual, shown through to passport control and there was still no boat.

No news is bad news when you´re waiting for a boat to take you to Africa from Tarifa, and then the impatient crowd drew a sigh “en masse” as word got out; there was no boat. Not today. Cancelled.

Pete looked at Manni not with a judgmental gaze but with more of a “How you gonna get us out of THIS one sonny boy?” look. Manni switched on his resourceful gear, his “how to get a group out of a tight spot” thought process clicked in and his mind raced through a thousand options until he settled on the most appropriate.

“Guys. I am SO sorry. I really am. I feel dreadful right now but I have a plan. I just need to make a few calls to see if we can pull it off. What I´m going to do is take you to this beautiful little boutique hotel, get you a drink, while I run around this crazy town trying to sort out Plan B.”

Having settled the 12 very important clients in the stunning little La Sacristia hotel, Manni´s first mission was to find Antonio and Encarnación. The bus was still parked in the port so they couldn´t be far. He found them staring at each other over their bi-focals, eating muffins in a local bar.

“Antonio, could you take us off for the day? The boat was cancelled. Can your bus make it up that hill over to Algeciras? Would you mind calling your office and asking them how much more they´d charge me. And I´ll meet you at the Port in 20 minutes.”

Back in La Sacristía some of the group had already hit the wine and the atmosphere was jovial. Manni tapped a sentimental vein, thanking them all for their collective patience and positivity and shared with them his plan for the day. They seemed genuinely interested. As they returned to the bus, Manni began making the necessary calls to set the wheels of Plan B into motion.

Now it was a minor miracle that this bus made it at all especially as the first destination was the hilltop fortress town of Castellar, perched high above the Campo de Gibraltar and commanding extraordinary views of the bay and over to the Rock itself.

Thankfully, the clouds had lifted. Once inside the stone citadel, chance would have it that the Birds of Prey man was there. He brought out a Falcon, a Vulture and even a frail Snowy White Owl.

At this point, Manni handed over the reins to “Señora Serendipity” and the day began to take on its very own shape and form. Something was happening. Call it pre-destiny, call it luck, call it Duende, call it what you will, but all 13 of us stepped over the threshold of the planned and pre-organized and began to tread the boards of an alternative walkway, one that none of us could have  foreseen, one that possessed the character of the True Andalusian; free, spontaneous and romantic.

A little Flamenco tavern welcomed us in and soon we were all enjoying a glass of Fino en Rama, pure and unfiltered, straight from the barrel. It was then, that Manni spied them;

THE OLIVES!

Two years ago Manni had tasted some olives in a bar in Algeciras. They were perhaps the best olives he had ever tasted and here were the very same ones.

“Pete, come over here. I need you to taste these”. There were none open already so Pete had to buy the whole half kilo container to be able to taste them.

“This better be worth it Manni Boy!” Pete said as he brought fingers to mouth and popped in his first. A second and third soon followed. He took a swig of Sherry and tasted a fourth and a fifth. “My God. I think these are the best olives I´ve ever tasted. “

Manni was beaming.

“No, I´m being deadly serious (speak it with a Yorkshire accent, it sounds better!) They´re amazing. They´re knockout!”

With 2 half kilo jars of olives (they bought both varieties) the group, now bonded by the gentle ties of destiny, light footed their way back to the bus.

Going down the hill was so much easier than climbing it. Until, that was, everyone began to smell the odour of burnt rubber.

“Todo bien Antonio?” – “Everything ok Antonio?”

Antonio´s face grimaced so Encarnación answered for him. “Just a little whiff from the brakes. It´s normal. Look at the size of that HILL. You didn´t tell us we were going into the mountains!”

We forked left northwards and this was when Manni was able to introduce the theme for the day and talk about perhaps his greatest passion in Andalusia; Mr. Henderson´s Railway.

In 1892 a new railroad connected Gibraltar to Madrid and brought prosperity to such towns as Algeciras and Ronda. Financed by Mr.Henderson and his company, this new route brought Railway Fever to the area and brought many isolated towns and villages firmly into the 20th Century.

Covering the same route, this service still exists and cuts through some of the most delightful scenery Andalusia has to offer. A firm believer in its significance for generations past, present and future, Toma Tours has been heavily involved in the revival of this train journey over the past few years and here on the bus, shouting over the din of the engine, Manni shared his love for the railway to 12 totally surprised faces.

Not only were they surprised that the British has built it but they were transfixed by the stories and sagas that Manni unfolded to them. And then just when they didn´t think the day could get any better, Antonio´s bus heaved its way up a lane and came to a stop outside a Victorian Train Station.

“You´ve got to be kidding! No way. Seriously. This is awesome! Wow! Unbelievable. Well I never. The dogs bollocks! I´ll be darned. Shit! ” Each person´s expletives betrayed their backgrounds and roots.

Our friend Nieves had pulled a humongous white rabbit out of an even bigger top hat and in a matter of only a couple of hours, laid a table for 13 and prepared an exquisite lunch in her railway restaurant La Estación de San Pablo de Buceite.

Nieves had purchased the old station from the National Train Company RENFE and built her home here to then convert it into a surprisingly good restaurant. The meal was phenomenal and the wine flowed. Conversations bubbled around the table while stories were shared and tales were told. It felt like a wedding feast.

Timed to perfection the local train slid into the station, and once they were all aboard they waved goodbye to Nieves and her son Samuel who had hugged and kissed all 13 effusively as they left. The sacred Olives had made it as far as the platform but as the train pulled out, there they were, sitting by their sorry selves under the station sign.

“Don´t forget the olives!” has been repeated a dozen times as we left the restaurant and there you have it, we´d gone and forgotten the olives. Quick as lightening, Rosemary managed to get THE SHOT as we pulled away.

The lone olives abandoned to their own devices. That shot basically sums up our entire day. Thank you Rosemary for sending us your fabulous photos.

The atmosphere in Cabin 1 was festive and bright banter bolstered spirits until we sneaked into the end of the line station at Algeciras and by some miracle of the Virgen of the Olive, Antonio and Encarnación were there grinning from ear to ear. They were as happy as we were and so Encarnación sang us home; one big happy family.

Saying goodbye almost hurt. They had shared something so special that day which was only made possible thanks to friends of Toma Tours but more so, thanks to the generous human spirit and sense of adventure that Pete and his team possessed. We will never forget that day and we wanted to thank all 12 for the memory and for Annie B for entrusting them to us for the day.

Andalusia tour happy clients

As Pete and Manni hugged goodbye Pete quite sincerely said, “Manni. Those olives are really special and I want them in my stores. Can you source them for me and send me samples?”

“Yeah, sure!” replied Manni, not realizing where that search might take him. But that is another story…

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