I LONG had a feeling Christian Brueckner – the current prime suspect in the Madeleine McCann mystery – would have links to Orgiva, with its little-checked, free-spirited community of international travellers tucked away in a string of hidden valleys.
The Alpujarras is a region I know well having come across the fledgling Olive Press there in its first few months, while writing a travel article for a British magazine.
An area of stunning natural beauty with fascinating local culture, I had stumbled across Issue 5 of this fine organ, while staying at an earthy guesthouse, just outside of Orgiva.
Set up by a former energy trader, Jason, who was now living off grid and Mark, a grumpy journalist, who had worked for a few years at the Mercury press agency in Liverpool, it had plenty of attitude.
Full of tales of corruption and pleas for the environment, it also turned a spotlight on the drug dealing and criminality the region had started to become known for.
I was so impressed I called the pair for a meeting to see if we might work together on a launch of a separate edition of the paper over in Malaga, which came out in November 2006.
I spent the next year driving backwards and forwards to Orgiva helping them with layout, editing and, ultimately, injecting a dose of commercial acumen.
They may not have been business dynamos, but they certainly knew a lot about the weird mix of expats and Spanish who gravitated towards this inland region.
I quickly learnt about the idiosyncrasies and oddness of Orgiva, and got used to the groups of hippies who whiled away the day sitting by the side of the road, smoking marijuana and drinking from litre bottles of beer and cider.
This intriguing make-up started brewing in the 1970s, but accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s as no less than three distinct new age settlements grew up close to the town, one called Beneficio (meaning ‘Benefits’) with as many as 1,000 residents at certain times of year.
Orgiva became famous for Spain’s number one hippie bash the free Dragon Festival – which plays a part in Brueckner’s story as he attended on various occasions, I discovered.
The festival launched in the traveller settlement of Cigarrones in 1997 and ran for well over a decade. With only a vague start and finish date, usually over a weekend in March, punters often arrive a week before and leave a week later, if at all.
While largely supportive (at least accepting) of this community, The Olive Press also ran its fair share of stories about the criminals, sex offenders and drug dealers that hid out in these nearby hills.
The majority of residents were not officially registered on the town’s padron, nor did they pay taxes, despite sending their children to the local schools.
Many also used false names. So I knew that finding Michael Tatschl – a pal of Brueckner’s – or someone who knew him, wouldn’t be easy, but at least I had a head start with a photo.
Calling a few contacts en route I discovered that he was better known as ‘Micha’ and that he had returned to live in Austria some years earlier … but he came back most years on holiday. I was told he had a girlfriend, Cynthia or ‘Cyn’, and used to hang out at the so-called Metal Bar on the edge of the town.
Despite the strict lockdown in Spain at the time, the bar somehow managed to stay open, providing an unofficial community drop-in centre for the local traveller community.
There was certainly a collection of waifs and strays at the bar and on the terrace outside, many with dogs, when I arrived just before lunchtime.
Fortunately most of them were friendly, as was the landlord, who recognised Micha from his Facebook photos, which is not too hard when you have a skull and crossbones tattoo on your neck, your nipples pierced and a girlfriend half your age.
The landlord described him however as ‘un muy buen tio’, or decent bloke, and was friendly and ‘fun to hang out with’.
Another of the regulars told me he now had a small child and had been back from Austria over the previous Christmas. We scoured Facebook together and eventually found her page and some pictures of her beside a lake in the Alps with a son of around 18 months.
Then the landlord volunteered that Micha had lived with an English girlfriend, an artist called Emma, for a number of years in the nearby village of Tablones.
Excitedly, I headed to Tablones but discovered nobody knew her at all. It was a community of properties and smallholdings, many of them shacks, spread over about 16km square.
Frustrated, and melting in the 38 degree heat, I decided to take a closer look at Micha’s photos on Facebook and spotted one of him standing under a pergola of what looked like the porch of a home, clearly in southern Spain, with its line of parched hills with two fire breaks as a backdrop. The fact that he was apparently naked standing behind three huge marijuana plants didn’t even register!
Vaya suerte, as the Spanish would say – by complete chance I looked up and saw the exact same line of hills in the distance and, crucially, the same fire breaks.
It turned out I was standing just 200m away from the plot where he lived for many years and, after walking downhill for a minute, I met someone who knew Emma.
It turned out to be Llewelyn Graves, the grandson of I, Claudius and Goodbye to All That writer Robert Graves, who was living in a commune surrounded by vans. I tried to make conversation, knowing quite a lot about his British-born, Spain-based grandfather, who has a museum in Mallorca, where he wrote the seminal books in the 1930s.
Unfortunately Llewelyn was in something of a rush, but he did at least point me in the direction of Emma’s finca. And joy of joys I was ushered in through the house into the shady back garden porch, where a bottle of cold cider was thrust into my hand.
Sitting alongside another local expat Ben, we started chatting about The Olive Press.
Half an hour later we had ‘Micha’ on the phone and over the next hour he blew the case wide open.