Coronavirus has hit Spain hard and its residents have endured the strictest lockdown of any country in Europe. Outside activity was banned, unless it was for going to work or visiting the local supermarket for essentials (only one member of the household at a time). The Guardia Civil rigorously enforced the law: roadblocks stopped cars, IDs, till receipts and distances travelled all checked. Illicit visitors to my local beach were reprimanded and heavily fined. Along the promenade in the village of San Luis de Sabinillas, on the Costa del Sol, the outdoor gyms, petanca courts and children’s playgrounds have lain empty, cordoned off by police tape.
Throughout the winter, I cooled my menopausal flushes in the Mediterranean. Recently I’ve dreamed of clandestine nocturnal dips, but the threat of a €500 fine has chilled my ardour. I made do with workout videos and online parchís (Spanish ludo) with my mum.
Spain is all about socialising, sitting outside till late, having fun, making noise. Children are to be seen and heard. For the first six weeks of the lockdown, the only human life I observed on the streets was from scurrying, paranoid, masked adults. On 26 April, Spanish children were freed from captivity, bringing optimism, energy and joyful noise. Last weekend was the turn of the adults. I planned yoga on the beach, then a socially distanced swim. As with many others, I’d been counting the days. At sunrise on Saturday morning, runners, walkers and cyclists began to arrive at the beach.
“Running is my means of self-care,” said Lizzie Evangelista, a lecturer and psychotherapist. “I’m an ultra-distance runner: 190km, or longer, through jungles and deserts. It’s a big deal for me. Being allowed to run means being able to breathe again.”
“Lack of exercise affects your mood,” said her husband, Jo. “It feels like I’ve been sitting with duct tape around me, not able to do anything to lift my mood. I cycled up into the hills this morning. It was amazing. I could smell the herbs and flowers. Normally, I go as far and as fast as possible, but today I took things slowly, I wanted to savour the moment.”
“Mentally oxygenated,” was how Elena, 51, described herself after her first sea swim since lockdown. Elena regularly takes part in races along the Mediterranean coast. She explained that, as the owner of an ironmongers’ shop, she has been badly hit economically, but she has enjoyed being at home and spending time with her daughter. “I’ve really missed the social aspect of swimming – I love being part of a group; the fun and laughter, the friendship. I felt a little nervous swimming on my own today and being in a wetsuit was tiring for the first five minutes, but I soon got into the rhythm. I feel great now that I’ve been back in the sea.”
Marisa was more conflicted: “I’ve been looking forward to swimming, but feeling a bit unsure about coming out and facing the world with the virus still around. It was wonderful being in the water though – a real tonic.”
Twins Lola and Angela, 65, celebrated their freedom by walking and dancing on the beach. “My soul is dancing,” Lola exclaimed. “I am free and I’ve realised that we don’t appreciate what we’ve got until we lose it.”
Diego Fernandez, a retired doctor who has been volunteering since the outbreak of the virus, took the opportunity to get back on his bike with his friend Francis, 66. “I worry that we will stop being so affectionate, which is part of the character of Andalucía. I saw my six-year-old grandson but I couldn’t hug him.”
At 8am, I was doing yoga on the beach, warming up for a big swim. Tentatively, I dipped my toes in the water. Despite the spring sunshine, the sea was cold. As always, I took a deep breath and threw myself in, letting out an exhilarated gasp of delight. For 15 minutes I left the world’s cares and the confinement of the last 48 days behind me.
• Lola Culsán is co-author of Wild Swimming Spain (Wild Things Publishing, £15.99)