All winter I had dreamt about painting the almond blossom in Almería. The photographs I had seen were stunning: row upon row of pink trees climbing up the mountain, brilliantly backlit in the early light. But as our group of seven eager artists drove up from Alicante in the warm March sunshine, the almond trees in the valley were green.
“You’ve missed some of the blossom,” said Simon Beckmann, our host and tutor for the week-long “Awesome Almond” painting course.
“But don’t worry,” he laughed, feeling our anguish. “There’s still plenty further up.”
We were staying at Cortijada Los Gázquez, a new “creative retreat” set up by Simon and his wife Donna. After 20 years in Peckham, south London, the two artists upped sticks five years ago and have now converted five abandoned farmhouses into a cultural centre that offers year-round courses in subjects ranging from watercolour basics to cooking with seasonal ingredients. For much of the year Los Gázquez also hosts resident artists, who can offer help and advice.
The centre is in a gently sloping mountain valley on the edge of the Parque Natural Sierra María-Los Vélez, a remote area of Andalucía designated an alpine desert. Here are almonds and olives, forests of Aleppo pine and holm oak, a profusion of wild flowers, rare butterflies and, soaring in the sky above, golden eagles, vultures and peregrine falcons. In this beautiful location the Beckmanns have embraced the chance to live an entirely sustainable life. Electricity is provided by a 12-metre high wind turbine and 48 solar tubes on the roof – there are, on average, 320 days of sunshine a year.
If wind and sun are in abundance, water is not. As we sat before dinner, Simon explained the house rules. One shower a day and, while we were waiting for the water to run hot, could we please collect the run-off in the plastic bucket provided (and then use that to supplement any flushing of our loos). As for electrical appliances: lights and laptops were fine but hairdryers were not – we were told they use the same amount of power in one session as Simon’s cement mixer did over three days.
This brought gasps and laughter from our largely female group but any worries about this retreat being too spartan were put paid to over dinner: a delicious cheese soufflé, lentils with lemon, fresh spinach, beetroot and carrot salad, and plenty of local wine. I usually like to paint on my own but it was good to be among like-minded people, listening to excited chat about colours and canvasses. We were all longing to get out into the orchards around the house, where the blossom, if not at its first freshest best, was still with us.
We woke to pouring rain. “At least the bad weather means we get to know each other better,” said Philippa, one of the other course members, as we got stuck into still life in the studio. Simon appeared from time to time to offer advice: Colleen had got her perspective awry; Katie’s boldness was great but maybe she should attack her lemons from a different angle. All of us, he suggested over lunch, should try getting out of our “creative comfort zones”.
Finally, on Wednesday, the sun came out properly. After a hurried breakfast, there was a dash for the outdoors. In the dazzling courtyard we warmed ourselves like cats. I heeded Simon’s advice and switched to oils, a medium I had avoided for years.
The following day, we decided to take up Simon’s offer of a “painting safari”, on which he drives artists out to an inspiring location and sets up camp for the day. A picnic goes with you, and wine too, if you’re that sort of artist.
We were in luck. A few miles higher up the mountain the almond blossom was altogether thicker. But the sky was now a lowering grey, spotting with rain again. After a short somewhat heated debate, the group agreed to risk it in the shelter of some tall Aleppo pines. Our perseverance was rewarded. The clouds peeled back to blue.
“Anyone got any spare cerulean?” I begged.
By the time Donna arrived with sandwiches, tea and coffee, the sun was warm on our backs. As we worked on, to the sound of frogs croaking across the valley, the low afternoon rays lit up the blossom to perfection. My second oil was going better than I could have hoped. At which point the wind picked up. Katie’s easel blew over, then Yoko’s. Frustratingly, it was time to go.
With all the trials of painting in the open air, the group had bonded. That evening, drinks in hand, we reviewed each others’ paintings in the studio, with Simon popping in from the kitchen to add his thoughts. Looking at our collected work, we realised how inspired we had been.
On the last day, the weather was perfect, sun shining from a clear blue sky. As we drove up past the pretty little town of Velez Blanco, excitement rose. Here were rows of almond trees in full fresh bloom, stretching way up the mountainside.
“Wow! Colour!” cried the group. Philippa started singing arias.
But Simon was taking us somewhere even more special, a valley high up in the mountains of the Natural Park. We left the road and twisted up a track thick with clinging yellow mud.
As we came over the ridge into the high valley there was a surprise; the long rows of trees were bare. “Slight irony here,” said Simon. “The blossom is not out yet.”
Mark McCrum was a guest of Cortijada Los Gázquez which offers art and cooking courses throughout the year, from £270 per person for a three-night course with full board and tuition. Transfers can be arranged from Alicante, Almeria, Murcia, or Granada airports (all within two hours)