From the orange tree-shaded terrace of the Palacio Ducal de Medina Sedonia in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, the 13th-century palace that was once home to generations of the infamous, and slightly naughty, Guzman family, I gaze across the rooftops of the village where the conquistadores would have turned their backs on their homeland, and faced the wild unknown of the Americas. In the distance I can see the tree tops of the southern-most reaches of the Cota Doñana, Spain’s biggest national park, with sparkling glimpses of the Riu Guadalquivir, the ancient link between Seville and the sea that separates pueblo from campo.
In the patchily clouded blue sky above, I watch a hawk beat it wings as it lazily circles, scouring the rooftops and alleyways below for food. Foxes have become inner city predators, so there seems no reason why birds of prey shouldn’t. As my eyes drop from watching the hawk, I get my first sighting of El Galeon Pirata del Trujo, what looks like a beached shipwreck unceremoniously dumped in the middle of the town by a selective tidal wave. It’s as if Davy Jones had a big clear out of his Locker and the owner of the ramshackle building thought, “I can use that.” In a curious way, that’s what actually happened.
On 13 February 1959, a bitter night to go fishing, with the crew of the Amparito wrapped in heavy weather gear to ward off the Atlantic cold, twenty five-year old José María Garrido was working alongside his best friend, José Sanche Pérez. When the boat settled in its fishing grounds, they dropped anchor, and as the cable rattled with the weight of the anchor dragging it downward, the crew heard the screams of José Sanche, as he was whipped over the gun’nel, his leg caught up in the anchor cable. The forty-kilo anchor, heavy enough so that two men were needed to move it, plunged deeper, with José Sanche’s heavy winter clothing acting as a sponge, becoming rapidly sodden and making movement impossible. He was thirty-nine years old, with a wife and five children and another on the way. His body was never found, and it was the last day that José Maria Garrido went to sea.
For the next weeks José María searched the coastline for the body of his friend, asking at every village if anyone had seen him. No-one had, but twenty years later it was those same beaches that he had desolately walked along that were to provide the material for a monument to the memory of his lost friend.
José María tells me his story as we sit on the ‘deck’ of El Galeon Pirata del Truco (The Trick Pirate Galleon); in other words, the roof of his home, the Museo del Mar Las Caracolas (Sea Shell Museum), where a sign tells you that it is el museo de Garrido y tuyo tambien, Garrido’s museum and yours as well.
He is a small chap, dressed in a singlet and floral Bermuda shorts, his wispy grey hair tied back in a small pig-tail, as suits an old sea dog. As we talk, with me getting lost occasionally in the s-less Andaluz accent, his face and body are wonderfully animated, sometimes jumping up and acting out his story with theatrical gestures and grabbing a piece of the marine detritus that litters every square inch to illustrate a point.
For the decade before his friend’s death, José María had been a fisherman, but first took to the water when he was eight, helping his father on the family rowing boat that ferried the day’s catch between fishing boat and beach, at a time when Sanulcar had no wharf.
José María became a painter at the Bodega Barbadillo, but in his spare time would wander the beaches, picking up odd bits and pieces.
“I saw a lovely shell one day, so brought it home and glued it to the wall. After that I began to pick up more and did the same, and one day a friend came to the house and said how wonderful they looked, so I decided to add more and more, creating a memorial to my old friend José Sanche.” Eighty thousand shells later, the walls of his home are now, quite literally, covered with them.
We walk around the Museo del Caracolas, with José María acting not so much as a guide than as a raconteur, suddenly lifting a photo of the wall and describing it’s significance in detail, or delving into a corner to bring out something that I might have missed but “is really, really interesting and unusual because……” A shell lighthouse, shell picture frames, model boats, a fancily decorated turtle shell, shell boxes, shell….everything, all made by hand by Sr. Garrido.
It is the position of Sanlucar de Barrameda on the battleground where Medierranean meets Atlantic almost at the mouth of the Guadalquivir, that accounts for a strange natural selection process and the reason why José María was able to gather so many of the fascinating collection of shells, amphora, coins, and general flotsam and jetsam. (For the pedantic, there is a technical difference between the two: jetsam has been voluntarily cast into the sea (jettisoned) by the crew of a ship, usually in order to lighten it in an emergency; while flotsam describes goods that are floating on the water without having been thrown in deliberately, often after a shipwreck.)
“For some strange reason, with the force of the two seas coming together, the heavier things end up on the shores of the Cota Doñana, and the lighter ones onto the beaches on the Sanlucar side. This is why the big round shells are only found over there and the smaller ones on this side. Long before the river was clearly marked for navigation it was a very dangerous passage and there were a lot of shipwrecks, and with the Guadalquivir being one of the most important rivers in Spain, because it linked Seville, Spain’s most important trading post with the Americas, with the open sea, there was a lot of very important traffic passed this way.”
Which brings us back to Davy Jones!
For a change from scouring his local beaches, one day José María took a small rowing boat across the river to the Cota Doñana, long before it became a national park or even had regular visitors.
“I was amazed, because I suddenly saw all these wonderful shells and things that had been lying there undiscovered for centuries. No-one ever went there, so no-one picked anything up. For me, it was a treasure chest!” And in true piratical style, José María began to hide his treasure by burying it in holes dug in the beach and returning for it later, dragging it back by the sack load.
It took twenty years without help and without money to complete his task of covering the walls of his home with shells, but he also passed his time making his models and building the ‘deck’ of his ship. One of his most fascinating productions is a small replica of the bow and cabin of a boat, named the Amparito, and constructed of metal. In it are thousands of tiny shells, and when José María drags his hands through them, pulling them up the sides of the hull and allowing them to cascade back again, it makes the most perfect sound effect of a wave-washed beach. Add a sunlamp and you can have summer island magic even in deepest February!
‘Unique’ is a much overused word, but in this case there is no other to describe El Museo del Mar de las Caracolas. Unfortunately, it’s this uniqueness – or perhaps more correctly refered to as idiosyncracy – that appears to count against José María Garrido. He receives no help or publicity from either the Town Hall or local turism authorities, who seem to see his wacky individualistic structure almost as an insult to the image of the town – rather like a pile of dog muck on the pavement of Bond Street – preferring to promote their cathedral and castle, as something special, which they aren’t other than to cathedral and castle buffs, and tourist authorities. As if every other city in Spain didn’t have both!
So visit soon. In his mid-seventies, José María knows that it won’t be so many years before his museum’s door closes permanently. Then, no doubt, one of the weirdest little museums in the world will disappear, its eighty thousand shells consigned to a rubbish skip instead of being washed up on the beaches of the Mediterranean.