Spain: Rhapsody in (Smurf) Blue

Juzcar's rhapsody in blue

GLOBALISATION isn’t a topic that ever much exercised the good pueblo of Juzcar, population 221.

Tucked anonymously into the southern Spanish sierra dividing Ronda — the stunning mountain town made famous by Hemingway and Welles — from the tacky towers of the Costa del Sol, discussions in

this sleepy, whitewashed hamlet were always pretty local. Talk was of family, football and the fluctuating state of the campo, the countryside this agricultural village traditionally drew its living from; wild seta mushrooms, pungent garlic and suckling pigs reared on acorns.

Indeed, about as external as Juzcar ever tilted was the career of Jesulin, a nationally prominent bullfighter hailing from nearby Ubrique, whose frolics with models and television blondes titillatingly play out in the gossip magazines the Spanish voraciously devour.

But along came globalisation to jolt Juzcar from its torpor, first in the form of Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi, the flamenco-fancying strongman who acquired thousands of hectares of that campo in the mid-1990s, because he could. He had big ideas to develop golf courses, resorts and theme parks in these parts; endless prosperity for all, or so it was thought around here.

And when that didn’t work out — Arab Springs can put a nasty dent in a billionaire dictator’s business plan — then Smurfs chance-landed in Juzcar, resplendent in all their pastelly, sickly, euro-minting blueness.

As events would have it, Juzcar’s Smurf-led recovery has enjoyed a greater longevity than ever would the ill-fated Mad Muammar, bringing cash, international fame and chronic traffic jams to the town.

Though Spain teeters on the edge of economic oblivion, a victim of hubris and corruption in faraway Madrid to possibly take the European Union with it, Smurfonomics have saved Juzcar, for the moment at least.

Today, among Juzcar’s maze-like streets once blindingly white now dizzyingly blue, there’s a blue market in the grounds of the blue-hued Catholic church with a blue cemetery attached, where the mourning bouquets and posies adorning the Virgin Mother are arranged from blue wildflowers.

Juzcar’s swimming pool is blue, and not just its water, and so too its bank, police station and stores. The local hostelries promise beds of ‘el descanso azul,’ or ‘blue rest,’ whatever that is. There’s even an ‘adventure in blue’ a rural treasure hunt looking for, well, Smurfs in the surrounding forest.

And there’s something for the grown-ups here too. In Juzcar’s delightful Hotel El Bandolero, its American co-owner David Nuyen adds Nordic Mist mixers of blue tonic water to his pungent Ronda gin, as his Spanish chef partner Ivan Sastre despatches blue-tinted tapas from the kitchen to hungry gourmands, the two hoteliers clad in electric blue lycra bodysuits topped by curly conical hats. “I guess I’m getting just a little bit over it now,” sighs Nuyen theatrically, “but I can’t deny it has been good for business.”

About the only thing not blue in Juzcar is its mood. Its triumphant — and recently re-elected — mayor is riding a blue wave of popularity, and has ambition to take his energy to greater things, perhaps the regional seats in Malaga and Sevilla and who knows where beyond? Such is the stuff that makes a modern politician successful in crisis-hit Europe.

Thriving Juzcar is a quirky model of globalisation, squeezing everything it can from a Belgian cartoon phenomenon described as ‘kiddie cocaine’ and launched into commercial overdrive by a Japanese entertainment giant out of Hollywood.

But first there was the evil Gargamel to overcome. No, not the only Juzcareño who refused to paint his house on Calle del Sol blue (he slams the door on pesky inquiring journalists) but a murderous dictator from North Africa drunk on power and petrodollars.

Gaddafi’s flunkies arrived in 1995 in nearby Marbella, in the glitzy heart of the Costa del Sol, with a huge entourage and a bigger chequebook. Local hoteliers remember Libyans in shiny suits claiming to front for Tripoli’s central bank taking 100 rooms of a five-star property on the coast and demanding Arabsat satellite TV and hookers be installed for their stay.

They stayed a month and spent liberally, engaging local lawyers and trusted frontmen and set about diversifying ‘Gaddafi Inc’, which included stakes in London’s Pearson plc (publisher of the Financial Times) and the Italian auto giant FIAT, Unicredit Bank and the football club Juventus.

Gaddafi already owned retail petroleum interests in Spain through the Dutch-based Tamoil, but a massive property called La Resinera caught the Libyans’ attention. It was a series of rural holdings that stretched unbroken from coastal Benahavis near the exclusive La Zagaleta estate — much favoured by the suntanned gold-medallion jetset — some 30km northwest up the Genal river valley to Juzcar.

A Juzcar townsfolk not that long distant from feudalist serfdom heard lavish talk after Gaddafi bought La Resinera; of a benevolent landlord promising freeways and high-speed rail lines depositing sun-starved northern Europeans and the Arab middle class onto golf courses, beaches and vast resorts. There was even plans for a second EuroDisney for the area.

Gaddafi’s men would occassionally visit — Juzcar’s mayor David Fernandez Tirado remembers seeing a few show up in town — and the talk got warmer after September 11, when the colonel was being transformed from pariah to fellow traveller in the West’s War on Terror. Once reviled, he was now pitching his tent in the world’s capitals as the Sarkozys, Blairs and Aznars rushed to clasp his hand and his money.

In 2007, locals believe Gaddafi himself visited his holdings here during a visit to Andalucia, where he is known to have travelled to Sevilla, Malaga and nearby Marbella. This supposed great admirer of Arab culture claimed he was visiting the glorious mudejar antiquities of Moorish Al-Andalus. But in a US embassy cable of the day later aired by WikiLeaks, “unexpectedly, he left Seville on Sunday to visit Marbella on the coast, where he reportedly enjoyed a flamenco performance (and paid an extravagant amount to have the performers give a repeat performance later in Madrid)”.

Noted the cable: Gaddafi was “sporting scraggly, dyed black hair and sparse moustache and goatee”. He dined with then Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, his predecessor (and now News Corp director) José Maria Aznar and Spain’s King Juan Carlos who, the embassy observed, “was gracious and polite, but seemed to have little patience for Gaddafi’s quirkiness”.

This Gaddafi roadshow was bigger than that which bought the La Resinera property years earlier, some 350-strong, including his own butchers (and by some accounts that famous Ukrainian nurse), all moving in a motorcade of more than 50 vehicles.

Spain, then at pains to do deals with Gaddafi, would four years later freeze the dictator’s assets, including La Resinera, as Libya erupted in civil war and Gaddafi started killing his people — who would then kill him, last October by a drainpipe near his ancestral home outside Sirte.

Today, La Resinera’s formal status is unclear, its ownership murky, and all the moreso in a legal environment where long-term squatting on land can sometimes be judged by Spanish courts as de facto ownership and in a region where local dealmakers can also be the same people as corrupt politicians and papershufflers. Gaddafi’s legal representative in Marbella, Spanish lawyer Ignacio Pérez de Vargas, did not respond to The Global Mail’s enquiries.

And now the colonel is dead, and Andalucia must seem a million miles from the minds of Libya’s apprentice democrats, as they introspectively chart Tripoli’s transition from tyranny. There has been recent talk among diplomats in Madrid that the seized property will transfer to Libya’s new government, to be developed or sold. But in a Spanish property market where more than a million dwellings are empty and values have slumped by as much as 75 per cent in some regions, such ambition seems very far away.

Dodging the bullet that Gaddafi could not, Juzcareños noted his violent demise with passing interest. He made no significant impact here, and the town reverted back to being what it always has been, just another of Andalucia’s fabled whitewashed pueblos blancos, the white villages, and now an even more forgotten one.

Pleasant but unremarkable, Juzcar had only one road into town, a glorified goat-track where cars waited for oncomers to make passing room. Rather as Gertrude Stein wrote of her native Oakland, when one eventually made it to Juzcar, there was no there there. Tourists were tallied at a pitiful 300 annually, and Juzcar’s future was bleak.

But then came the Smurfs, Los Pitufos as they known in Spanish.

Inspired by the fungi fiesta Juzcar hosts every November, Sony Pictures, the producers of last year’s Smurf movie, chose Juzcar from more than 300 other villages as the centre of an elaborate — and cheap — publicity stunt to promote the film. The film’s producers claimed they imagined Juzcar as the town Los Pitufos would likely live, and that proved a major stroke of luck for the locals struggling with the Spanish recession. Insists Juzcar’s Mayor Fernandez Tirado, “there was no real reason to it, we didn’t know anyone at Sony, no money changed hands, there was no contest, it just happened and we got selected.”

This would be the municipal equivalent of Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame. Sony convinced Tirado’s town hall to legislate that the village’s whitewashed walls be painted blue, and be left that way while they marketed the film. When promotional interest inevitably dropped off after a few months, Juzcar would return to its whitewashed old self. Sony would foot the bill for the blue painting of the town’s 175 buildings — hiring 12 unemployed locals for a few days’ labour — and the subsequent return to traditional white too.

At least that was the idea. But Juzcar has been overwhelmed by the intoxicating power of the Smurfs upon children — and the desperate need by their parents to sate it.

Last year, according to Juzcar’s jubilant mayor David Fernandez Tirado, about 150,000 tourists visited Juzcar, more than 700 times its population. More than a year on, the town is still visited by 500 to 1,000 visitors a week. They traverse the town’s streets taking photographs of each other in front of blue walls and over-sized Smurf puppets, and spend an average of 100 euros per family in the bars and restaurants. Now there are blue fun runs, weddings in blue, Smurf art festivals and trade fairs promoting all things blue.

Juzcar’s mayor since 2007 and the son of a local wheeler and dealer, Fernandez couldn’t be happier. He’s a member of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party and his recent re-election as mayor bucked a national and local trend in Spain to oust the left from office.

Like all canny pols, Fernandez seems to be able to sniff out populism. Last December, when it came time for Sony to re-paint Juzcar white under the original agreement, Fernandez decided to put it — and his popularity — to a vote.

The village would stage a town-only referendum. The question on the ballot was a simple one — to be blue or white?

But like all plebsicites, there was more in it than simply the question on the ballot paper. There were rumblings in some quarters that the town was growing tired of being blue.

It would be a critical poll, one really about the town’s economy. Around Juzcareños, their beloved Spain was collapsing in a miasma of corruption, excess and malgovernance. The economic cancer was deepening in the cajas, once community co-operative banks that sponsored culture and sports but which were now imploding in the hands of greedy moneymen in Madrid, and crippling places like Juzcar. In surrounding Andalucia, one in three people were out of work, one in two if they were under 25. Local businesses were going bust, and locals feared going abroad to find work in Germany and France, just as generations before them did during Franco’s darker days. Even the usually abundant local soil was dying from drought. Drowsy from the blazing sun, Juzcar was in danger of slipping into a coma from which it might not emerge.

So what did the locals do? They stormed the ballot boxes dressed as Smurfs, carrying the poll 141 to 33. With a Smurf movie sequel in production, Tirado thinks Juzcar will remain enthusiastically blue for some years yet.

Still, Spain is a democracy and sometimes there are conscientious objectors. One house, owned by a supporter of the opposition, refused to be painted blue, determinedly staying the traditional white. Notes Mayor Tirado, “I think this is also the house of Gargamel”.

Read more Eric Ellis stories on Spain’s economic malaise, the shady side of its sunny southern hothouses, and a two-part series on Scotland’s bid for independence.