It was the dilemma every parent of a young child comes to face, sooner or later: whether or not to drug the little blighter into a stupor, just to get some peace and quiet for a while.
Now, before you reach for the nearest mobile device to contact the authorities, context is everything. Malaga airport was closing in on thirty degrees; we were waiting to board a four-hour flight with the then 18 month old Daughter and Heiress; and the drug of choice was the children’s medicine, Calpol ©.
Every parent who’s been on a plane with an eighteen-month old, or just been a fellow passenger, knows the score. Even the sweetest natured of them (children, I mean, not the fellow passengers, who even if fellow parents, are not generally inclined to empathy) struggle with the hostile environment of an Easyjet flight sat on their mother’s knee for what is then a significant proportion of their lifetime, with the scant distraction of a colouring book and Henderson, the weirdly-coloured bear-type creature they were handed 18 months ago.
Even the most sweet-natured of them (and Daughter and Heiress was, even allowing for parental bias, up there with the best) can get more than a little restive. And whilst a 6 month old infant may have limited options beyond a bit of wailing, at 18 months, kicking, biting and flailing wildly, whilst not strictly in the Queensberry rules, tend to come into play.
So yes, we did. We decided Diddums was developing an ickle sniffle, and we dosed her up good with Calpol ©. Whereupon she slept the sleep of the just for the entire flight and we – not to mention the surrounding passengers within wild flailing distance – breathed a sigh of relief. Good shit, Calpol ©. Although I understand they’ve watered the sleep-inducing elements of it down now, presumably in response to one too many war stories like this from the parental front line.
To be fair, it was the only time we ever did that, and it hadn’t been a great holiday. We had taken a package deal to Nerja, on the Costa del Sol, and the Redoubtable Mrs F had been unwell for most of it, so a decent amount of the week had been spent staring at the unremarkable walls of our holiday apartment.
Any time we had outside had confirmed what we’d expected of Nerja: it was perfectly set up for tourists, especially British and German ones. And for that reason, wasn’t our cup of Sangría at all.
Now then. Let’s clear this up right at the get go. If you go to the Costas every year, stay in the same hotel, like to spend half your time on the beach or the pool, and the other half deciding between the place with its menu in photographs or the Irish bar run by that lovely couple from Essex, good luck to you.
Seriously. Please, please don’t think that, because our family have moved away now from such a holiday, that I’m looking down on it, or pretending that we’re in some way more … authentic or something for going the other way.
I mean, I have at times on our travels wished for the simplicity of a holiday like that. First of all, it’s a package, right? So you know pretty much what it’s going to cost you, and even if you do it yourself over the internet these days, you’re basically a few clicks away from having your holiday organised. A bus collects you at the airport, whisks you off to your resort, and you’re sorted for the next seven or fourteen days. If you have any problems, there’s usually an English-speaking rep there to sort things for you.
And don’t get me wrong. We’ve been holidays like that before, to Crete, Cyprus, Corsica, even Tenerife. A lot to be said for them. A lot. Not for you the long march from a railway station on the edge of an unfamiliar town at stupid o’clock in the rain, with a rucksack the size of a light goods vehicle on your back, playing chicken on the pedestrian crossings, where the motorists treat the green man as for guidance only; not for you the back street hostal in what turns out to be the red light district, where the only additional facilities consist of a pubic hair in the bath and a partition wall so thin it vibrates with the guy next door’s snoring.
Not for us, either, that last bit, if we can help it (and as we’ll see, the Spanish insistence on cleanliness amounts to near-obsessive levels of bleach usage, so the pubic hair bit is unlikely). But often, there’s only a hazy internet image and your gut instinct between you and a, shall we say, less than perfect accommodation experience. We’ll deal with the French teenagers later. Severely.
Anyway, where were we? Oh yes, in Malaga airport, drugging a small child. To be honest, though, our desire to see the best of Spain reached back further, before Daughter and Heiress came along, at the bottom of a bottle of cheap Asda wine.
Or, even before that, with a trip round south-western France.
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‘We should go there,’ I announced, with possibly more emphasis than was needed, examining the label. ‘If it produces wine as good as this, it must be worth a visit.’
The wine in question was called Léon, and retailed at the time at around £3.99. It was one of the first cheap Spanish wines we’d tried, and it knocked, to our taste, French wines twice the price into a cocked hat. Léon, the label taught me, was in northern Spain, not far from Rioja, where the pricey Spanish stuff came from.
Believe me, we’d given the French equivalent a proper go by then. Brought up in Franco-phone and -phile households, we’d been to France several times, most recently when, in a break from the package holiday, we’d gone to south-western France, to places like Carcasonne, and Rocamadour, living on our wits, our (then reasonably up to date) French, and the Logis guide to get between places and find a bed for the night. It had been fun, but the food and wine, for all the French made such a big thing of it, was a bit, well, ordinaire, to our way of thinking.
And now here was this bottle of cheap Spanish plonk, calling to us.
Fortunately, I had a plan. The Fife town of Dunfermline, where I worked at the time, had a town twinning arrangement with Logroño, the capital of Rioja. Using my contacts, and the services of the ultra-resourceful Brenda, of the now long-gone travel agents AT Mays, we arranged a trip there.
This was before the days of the internet, mind, so we had to rely on Brenda’s skill with that weird proto-internet system that travel agents used in those times (and possibly even still use); it seemed, back then, as if travel agents, for all their polyester uniforms and plastic badges, had access to their own form of witchcraft, scrying for flight reservations and hotel availability through a screen you never got to see but which, it appeared, they could commune with, and by muttering some occult words of the Old Tongue, book stuff through.
At that stage my Spanish was pretty much non-existent. However, my contacts in the town twinning association assured me that everyone under thirty in Spain spoke English, and everyone over thirty had been taught French at school. Suitably emboldened, we set off for Bilbao.
That first trip to Spain away from the tourist areas taught us many things, which are probably worth listing:
- Outwith the tourist areas, very little English is spoken.
- No one, over or under thirty, speaks French. At all. Ever. Why would they?
- There is no direct bus link from Logroño to Léon. Or there wasn’t then. Or if there was, it was beyond us to find it.
- Spanish food and wine, even more so in its country of origin, is the stuff for us.
- In Rioja, they’re very proud of their asparagus.
- In Spain, you can eat your dinner as early as 9 at night, if you don’t mind an empty restaurant, with only a curious waiter for company, staring at you from the kitchen doorway as he draws on his fag (things have changed now, of course).
- The Spanish are, almost without exception, kind and solicitous for daft foreigners’ welfare, and will cross the street to help you if you stand and look glaikit for long enough. They also give you major brownie points for any attempt to speak their language.
- Just don’t get into a chilli eating and whisky drinking contest with them. It’ll end messily.
We learned this last vital piece of information courtesy of a friend of Rufino and Asun. We’d been put in touch with them through the town twinning association, and they were our patient, English-speaking guides for that first initiation into Spanish gastronomy. We came to learn that when they said they’d meet us at twelve, they meant twelve midnight, which was when an evening of tapeando might begin, at least for young, childless couples. Over the course of a few days, we realised that, although Spain is only an hour ahead of Scotland, the bodyclock needs to shift through any number of gears to keep pace with the Spanish lifestyle. (See separate blog on a brief history of Spanish time).
Away from Rufino and Asun’s assistance, however, we found ourselves strangers in a strange land. The food, though fantastic, was served via incomprehensible menus, with phrasebook lists unable to keep pace with the chefs’ creativity. The driving seemed maniacal, so there was no question of hiring a car – a decision we’ve stuck to ever since.
There was, at the time, no central bus station in Logroño, so when we decided to take a bus to Burgos (since there appeared not to be one to Léon, where the Asda wine came from) we had to queue in a side street at the bus garage, shaking our head at the neighbourhood beggar. Here was another culture shock – most of the queue actually gave the beggar money!
The bus to Burgos was a tense affair, mainly because the driver had thoughtlessly failed to learn any of the stock answers in the phrase book. Once there, we wandered half-heartedly round the cathedral, wondering where our next square meal was coming from, and when we’d have to start queuing for the bus back.
Nevertheless, that first trip to Logroño lit a fire under us even more than Asda’s wine department had. With the help of our Spanish friends, we’d been introduced to a whole different lifestyle, culture, and gastronomy. Tapas is common currency now in the UK – you can even see Indian, or Italian, restaurants, using that word now – but back twenty or so years ago, it wasn’t. Spain was emerging from the bleakness of the Franco era with a new self-confidence about its culture, but we Brits had been fed (literally) French and Italian propaganda for so long about their culture being the bee’s knees, we were slow to catch onto the Iberian equivalent.
That subsequent trip to Nerja underlined that there were two Spains: the egg-and-chips, high-rise, donkey-and-sombrero Costas, and the other Spain, the ‘real’ one, that you needed a bit of Spanish to unlock for yourself.
After twenty years of travelling in Spain, we still hadn’t been to Léon to track that mythical bottle of Asda wine down. However, in the meantime, we had been to, in no particular order: Logroño, La Coruña, Santiago de Compostela, Salamanca, Zamora, Madrid, Barcelona, Zaragoza, Burgos (on the bus), Cuenca, Valencia, Alicante, Cordoba, Toledo, Merida, Seville, Granada, Manzanares, Almagro, Valladolid, Malaga and Úbeda.
We’ve got about by plane, train, bus and taxi (of the licensed and unlicensed variety). We have, if you haven’t guessed already, totally fallen for this bewitching country. If I can, with a little help from my fellow travellers, impart just a bit of the fun we’ve had along the way, then job done.
But let’s start with that lingo of theirs…