Andalucia’s favourite daughter Sarah Lyon, Writer | Posted: 26 August 2016
Self guided walking holidays in Spain
Self guided walking holidays in Spain
Self guided walking holidays in Spain

Next year marks 20 years since Almeria's Cabo de Gata Natural Park was made a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Sarah Lyon looks into the life of the indefatigable lady who made it happen.

James Bond has dodged bullets here, Indiana Jones has had a death-defying jeep chase and it is where Lawrence of Arabia melted hearts with his bravery…

Now, when (slight exaggeration) the loudest noise you are likely to hear is a purring cat, it’s hard to imagine that somewhere as peaceful as Almería, tucked away in the south-easternmost corner of Spain, has been chosen as the location for so many action-packed films.

Next year marks 20 years since the region’s Cabo de Gata Natural Park was made a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and there is no doubting that the story of the woman behind it would make a fantastic film in its own right.

It is widely regarded as a miracle that this area was preserved from development. This is largely down to the tenacity of a remarkable lady called Francisca Díaz Torres, or “Doña Pakyta” as she was affectionately known. She repeatedly refused to sell her family’s estate – against considerable commercial pressures – and championed an environmental movement that saved the area from falling victim to mass tourism and intensive farming.

Born in 1911, Francisca died in 2014 at the grand old age of 103. She devoted her life to the conservation of the family estate which comprised more than 3,000 hectares of the Cabo de Gata. In spite of relentless pressure from speculators and unscrupulous officials, she fought off the blight of commercial development on this beautiful stretch of coastline. From an early age, her inquisitive nature shone through; she loved the arts and travel and formed a deep appreciation of the fragility of the landscapes surrounding her home. Her life’s mission – and that of her husband and, later on, her nephew – was to preserve and protect the area against the onslaught of unbridled land speculation. The concrete monstrosities built in the name of tourism along many of the costas in Spain in the 1960s are a stark reminder of how visually different this beautiful area could have been.

The foundation formed by the family – which owns the Hotel Cortijo del Sotillo and Hotel Doña Pakyta – is committed to Francisca’s project. Her legacy includes ensuring the area’s farmland is still cultivated using traditional methods, sustaining both cereal crops and large herds of the threatened white celtibérica goat. Not one acre of land has been given over to developers, and the only construction work that has been undertaken is the renovation of ruined water towers and farmsteads.

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The Coast of Almeria

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Francisca’s achievements are all the more admirable given the traditionally subservient and domestic role of women, especially throughout the years of Franco’s dictatorship between 1939 and 1976. She not only fought against the tide of development, but was very aware of the wider environment. She was wary from the start of the ‘wet farming’ of fruit and vegetables in greenhouses; worried it would cause the depletion of underground aquifers. Her prophecy is coming true and urgent catch-up investment is now being made in new technology such as solar power.

Before her death, Francisca was honoured with the official recognition of being named ‘Andalucía’s Favourite Daughter’. It is no exaggeration to say that it’s down to her that beaches such as Mónsul and Genoveses still appear almost untouched in a country with more than its fair share of concreted coasts. It is impossible to see even a single brick’s worth of modern building between the mountains, esparto grass and prickly pears in this corner of Spain.

Apart from her conservation battle, Francisca also endured considerable personal strife: her beloved husband Joseph was imprisoned during the Civil War, and, once reunited, they travelled extensively to many places throughout the world, appearing to live each moment as if it might be their last. They travelled to the United States, South America, Australia and Europe; and from their time in Britain they adopted the custom of taking ‘afternoon tea’, although in a distinctly Spanish way – at six in the evening and after a nap...

But back to where we started: the big screen. Almería provided the backdrop for many a spaghetti western, including The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and For A Few Dollars More. It was also the film industry that brought John Lennon here. He stayed for six weeks back in the spring of 1966 to play the part of Private Gripweed in Richard Lester’s black comedy How I Won The War. Up until that point it was the longest time he had ever spent away from the Beatles and, it seems, Almería gave Lennon time to ponder his future. Later, in interviews, he admitted that it was here he first considered leaving the band. It was also in Almería that he started wearing his trademark wire-rimmed glasses (he normally wore contact lenses, but in the film he was asked to use glasses and decided to keep them).

Thanks to Francisca – or “Doña Pakyta” – there is no need for Señor Lennon-style, rose-tinted spectacles to appreciate Almería’s undoubted beauty.

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