andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Category Archives: spain

The Slow Train to Caceres and the Festival of Spanishness (Thai flavourings optional)

‘Caceres?’ said the taxi driver taking us to the station at Segovia. ‘Why are you going to Caceres?’

I explained patiently that we enjoyed seeing different parts of Spain each time we came.

‘Well, there is so much to see,’ he agreed, as we careened through the narrow side streets, his castellano only slightly less rapid than his driving. ‘There’s Madrid, Barcelona, Granada, Cordoba…’

‘Yes, of course,’ I said. ‘But we’ve already been to Madrid, Barcelona, Granada, Cordoba…’ I could have added many more, but it was clear your man – who could have been on a retainer from the Segovian tourist association, even though he’d originally come from the Basque country, apparently – clearly thought Caceres was an odd choice. Which, compared to Segovia, it maybe was.

That said, although we’d enjoyed our four nights in the Castilian city of water-carrying infrastructure, we were ready to move on. It was a good choice, and deserves to be seen, don’t get me wrong. But…

Last views of Segovia’s Plaza Mayor, and that acqueduct the Romans did for them

I think, to be honest, it’s both a winner and loser from its closeness to Madrid. It’s a great place for the Madrileños to have a day trip; it serves as a commuter suburb for the bigger city, but equally you could go out there from the Spanish capital at the weekend, maybe even stay the night, and be back for work on Monday.

It’s also (a bit the same way as St Andrews, say, as regards Edinburgh) close enough for the tour buses to include it on their regular itineraries. So the coaches can arrive from Madrid comfortably in time for coffee, the tourists can be funnelled up the spine of rock that connects the acqueduct, the Plaza Mayor and the Alcazar, and be parted from their money for lunch and souvenirs with ruthless efficiency, with time still left in the day to for the tour company to either return them to Madrid or move on somewhere else, like Salamanca, for an overnighter.

Toledo is the other place that springs to mind when thinking about Segovia: the proximity to Madrid, and its airport, means, with the high-speed train connection especially, they don’t have to try too hard to do quite nicely for themselves out of internal and external tourism, thanks very much.

Storm clouds gather over Segovia Guiomar

Anyhoo. As I say, I’m glad we visited, but it was a good day to travel, with the train station at Segovia looking pretty much as dreich as Edinburgh airport had, if offering more in the way of background scenery. The rains had descended on Spain that day, and not solely on the plains, although as we crossed Madrid and took the slow train to Caceres, a landscape emerged that had clearly been praying for rain for some time.

There are basically three paces of Spanish train journey: fast, bloody fast, and quite a lot slower than either. Most of the main lines have now been made high speed, which gives you the option of the AVE (bloody fast) but also other trains like Avant or Alvia which, to be honest, don’t exactly hang around: at one point on the way down our Avant claimed to be topping 200 km/h.

The train to Caceres, on the other hand, was more like your average rail journey in the UK: loping along, stopping everywhere, and not in any hurry at any point. To give an idea of journey time, the train we got left Madrid at 10.25, was scheduled to get into Caceres at 14:19, and eventually rolled in about twenty minutes after that.

That said, even this more basic train – leaving from the commuter part of Atocha, which mainly hosts the Cercania network of commuter trains, but also those described as being of media/larga distancia, was comfortable, with a sight more legroom for the vertically enabled than most of the boneshaker rolling stock you get in Scotland. Which, given the relative amount of Viking genes in both countries, doesn’t really add up.

The taxi driver in Caceres (hot tip: they tend not to hang around in numbers at the railway station, so you may have to call them from the numbers on the sign if it’s a busy train) seemed a lot more laid back than his Segovian counterpart. Avoiding the standard conversational gambits for taxi drivers (thank you, Peter Kay) of ‘You been busy?’ and ‘What time do you finish?’ I went for the only slightly less predictable British gambit of the weather.

However, your man wasn’t concerned by the black clouds carpeting the country. ‘Ach, there’ll be a bit of rain, and then the sun’ll come back,’ he said confidently, and so it turned out to be. In the meantime, we were met at our apartment by the charming lady from BeHoliday, and initial impressions were (and remain) that we’d made a good choice: very comfortable and well located, the place had been a renovation of an 18th/19th century town house, retaining some original features but with all mod cons.

The apartment

Caceres may not be Segovia, but I’m not sure it’s any the worse for it. That distance from Madrid maybe means it has to try a bit harder: although, to be frank with you, on the basis of a couple of very brief walks around town so far, its Old Town beats that of the more famous city into a cocked hat. Comparisons are invidious, of course, but the casco antiguo is really quite a fantastic, steepling thing, of churches, towers, and tiny side streets and alleys. Like Segovia, it’s a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Some views. Better photos once Mrs F gets going with her camera

Calle del Mono, or Monkey Street. I’m sure there’s an explanation

The tourist office was a bit weird, mind. We arrived the day before October 12, which is the Fiesta de la Hispanidad throughout Spain. Crudely translated, that means ‘Festival of Spanishness,’ or maybe ‘Festival of the State of Mind of Being Spanish.’ The Segovian taxi driver had warned us that everything would be very busy: his Caceres counterpart had, typically, been more relaxed about it: the lady in the tourist office, on the other hand, was certain that everything in Caceres – shops, restaurants, everything – would be closed.

This certainty might have been related to her keenness that we take a free bus to the Feria Europea del Queso or European Cheese Fair, which was to take place in Casar de Caceres on the 12, 13th and 14th. Casar de Caceres iis a village some distance from the town of Caceres. This, apparently, was the place to be on the morrow if you were a cheese fan.

As the day of the Festival of Spanishness dawned, however, or more accurately when we emerged from the apartment as the morning reached its late middle age, it became clear that rumours of the town of Caceres closing up for the day had been, er, wildly exaggerated. Indeed, the locals appeared to be quite determined to settle in for a day of celebrating their Spanishness, loudly, right here in the Plaza Mayor, and with some relish: we were just starting breakfast when a sizeable amount of the locals were getting stuck into their first beer of the day.

Caceres, at least on the evidence so far, seems a jolly sort of place. There have been a few miscommunications – it’s fair to say the accent is stronger here than in the Castilian heartland of Segovia – but they do appear to be trying to market themselves as something worth a visit. Apart from the stunning Old Town architecture, they’re also pushing gastronomy, and given that the region of Extremadura is famed for the jamón that comes from the pata negra, or black pig, as well as Pimentón de la Vera, the smoked paprika that informs so much of Spanish cooking, they have the raw ingredients to do that.

Their wines, too, on the limited research I’ve been able to manage so far, are rich, full, and satisfyingly different from either Ribera del Duero or Rioja, the staples of most bars in most parts of Spain. More research will be undertaken.

One thing we hadn’t expected was the willingness on the part of local chefs to try something beyond the usual Spanish flavours. A leaflet we picked up at the tourist office from the Cheese Fair-promoting lady had claimed this, but I was dubious until, returning from our midday walk, we were to find a whole new café that hadn’t been there yesterday had sprung up, on the day everything was meant to be closed.

Spanish chicken kebabs with satay sauce. With patatas bravas: a killer combination

I lay before you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, Exhibit A: brochetas de pollo con salsa thai de satay. Chicken kebabs, or brochetas, are a staple of Spanish cookery, especially in the South, where the Moorish influence encourages use of Middle Eastern spices like cumin. But Thai flavours and a satay sauce? On the day of celebrating the state of mind of being Spanish, this was a whole new twist!

More from the culinary – and oenological – front line soon…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What the Romans did for Segovia: and how to get the best table in Spain

Ok. For those of you benighted enough not to get the cultural reference, I’m talking Python here, and not the computer language neither. In Life of Brian, the leader of a revolutionary group determined to overthrow the Roman occupation of the Holy Land asks them, ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’

There’s an awkward silence, before one of the group offers, ‘the acqueduct?’ There’s then a list from the others of a whole lot of other improvements, such as improved sanitation, roads, lower crime rates…

Well, I don’t know about the other stuff, but the Romans certainly did a good acqueduct for the natives of Segovia. It’s humungous! And, being one of the biggest tourist draws (interesting cultural note: this is the first time I’ve seen signs in Spanish, English and Chinese – sign of the times, or indeed the new world order) it’s encircled by restaurants and cafes.

Which brings me to a bit of advice on Spanish restaurants and bars in general, and how to get the good stuff, eats and drinks wise.

Ok, so basic build philosophy for your average Spanish city – perhaps not so much Madrid and Barcelona, although the overall principles are the same. They were, originally, built in defensive positions, close to a river. They will generally be on a hill (castles built in a valley tended not to last very long, as the invaders were able to stand on the hills and lob stuff in). This initial settlement will be known as the Old Town, or casco viejo.

In most Spanish cities, there will be two or three major buildings or places of interest. Almost always a cathedral, which will be Romanesque, or Gothic, or sometimes a mixture of both, if that’s your bag. Something else, like an acqueduct (Segovia) a mosque (Cordoba) or a castle (various). The central square, or plaza mayor, will be often quite grand (Salamanca). And clustered around, or in, these major draws will be bars, restaurants, and dozens of shops selling the local speciality souvenirs.

Now, these places won’t always be massively overpriced tourist traps which don’t offer good value food and drink, right? Right. You might decide, for example, it’s worth shelling a couple of extra euros for a beer, sitting in the sunshine in the plaza mayor, watching the world go by. But for eats? General rule – the closer to these major draws, and the more multilingual the menus, the less good value you get.

So where to go? Stretching out from these major draws, and often stretching between them, the streets will have been widened. They might even resemble avenues, and here you’ll find the commercial sector of the city – the fancy clothes shops, scary-looking high end chemists, lawyers’ offices, and banks. There may well be restaurants and bakeries, too, along these avenues, which will almost always be pricy, too. So where to go for the good stuff?

In my experience, you’ve generally got two options. Head out of the Old Town, outwith the original city walls, across a bridge, perhaps, to where the locals can actually afford to live – and eat. Or, in the Old Town itself, lose yourself in the back streets.

Segovia’s Old Town

Often the latter option will take you into the Jewish Quarter, where the people of that faith lived centuries ago before the Christians kicked them out as part of one or other ethnic cleansing (don’t worry, this was a long time ago – the Spanish are, in general, pretty tolerant these days, although the current refugee crisis is causing some strain). In these narrow, corkscrewing alleys, there might well be the best restaurant or tapas bar in town – far enough off the beaten track to be able to have lower overheads, but not so far off that the locals don’t know about it.

And it was a combination of those options that led us to Calle Hermanos Barral, and two restaurants well worth recommending. Down the hill from the Acqueduct, not far from the bus station, we reached it via a couple of flights of stone steps and some unpromising side streets that held little in the way of anything. It was in the lee of the city walls, but not so far out of town as to be completely unreachable.

Praying for wine

The first day we went to the restaurant attached to the Hotel Ayala Berganza, and had an excellently priced menu del dia in a patio courtyard that was just about warm enough to sit out in at this time of year. This showed up all the strengths and weaknesses of the menu del dia concept, which most Spanish eateries worth their salt will have: it had local dishes (the Segovians go big on their local white beans, for example) but a limited selection, and the price included a drink which, in the case of my wine, wasn’t the best wine ever, but wasn’t at all bad. The service was great, although the menu was delivered verbally at some pace, so had to be slowed down while I translated.

Really? You’re leaving the entire bottle? You know he’s Scottish, right?

I had a beef stew which, I have to say, was the best beef stew ever, and that includes the ones I’ve slow cooked myself. The meat was tender, the sauce was rich, and it was accompanied by nothing more complicated than little circles of potatoes, deep fried. In terms of value, the meal was at least 50% cheaper than the menus del dia on the main drags in town, only 5 or 10 minutes’ walk away, and I guarantee you as good, if not better, quality.

 

 

 

The next day, after seeing the Alcazar (the castle that apparently inspired Disney’s one) and having a general poke around town, we found nowhere better than the other restaurant in Calle Hermanos Barral, La Codorniz. This time, we took a different tack with the menu options, and choice of drink for that matter. Suitably fortified by a bottle of Estrella Galicia (great beer, unfortunately very rarely on draft) I asked a local whom I’d heard discussing the wines with another table what he’d recommend, and he then took upon himself to order for us. A man of exquisite taste, as it turned out!

For eats, as the restaurant advertised itself as an asador, we tried two of the roasts on offer: the local speciality, cochinillo, or suckling pig, and lamb, another favourite in this area.  So far as the former’s concerned, don’t be put off by the pictures in the restaurants that show an entire baby piggie being served up: for individual portions, at least, you only get a bit of the rib cage, so you don’t have to look the poor beast in the eye when you’re eating it.

For afters, we tried the local delicacy Ponche Segoviano, a sort of orangey, creamy, custardy thing which probably had some booze in it. By then, suitably fortified by the Estrella and your man’s Ribera del Duero recommendation, I’d got into a lengthy conversation with a lovely Argentinian couple at the next table, so I wasn’t paying much attention to it. To be honest, it was hard put to follow the roast meats, both of which were absolutely delicious.

So that’s it, really. Segovia, like most, if not all Spanish cities, is full of hidden gems of restaurants, but often they’re not the first ones you come to. Head for the narrow side streets, or the newer part of town where the non-tourists eat. The menu del dia can be a good option, but not always: and eating off the main menu might be more expensive, but can bring its own rewards.

And if in doubt, have a beer and chat up a local.

P.S. Other places of note in Segovia –

Hotel Spa La Casa Mudejar turned out to be an excellent choice. Located just off the Plaza Mayor, we had asked for a room that looked out to the internal courtyard, and it was extremely quiet, and comfortable. Not the biggest room ever, but nicely done out and clean. Very, very, good value. Don’t know about the spa bit, as we ran out of time to try it – make sure you check its opening times. It’s definitely a spa rather than a swimming pool though.

Cafe Colonial, Plaza del Corpus – just down the street from the hotel – great traditional style cafe for breakfasts and more.

Diablo Cojuelo, Calle Juan Bravo – a bit further down the street that connects the Plaza Mayor with the Acqueduct, this is a deli with tables which has a whole lot going for it: lots of local produce, and not just the big white beans which, frankly, can lead to high winds later on; they produce their own off-denominacion Ribera del Duero, and the Diablo Cojuelo Rojo (there’s a younger black label, which we didn’t try) was the best wine we had in town. And the rest of them weren’t too shoddy.

The only thing that let this place down was the crammed cafe bit and substandard tapas. But still worth a visit for a copa of that wine.

 

Segovia – how to get there from Madrid

Edinburgh airport. A picture may say a thousand words, but most of them for this one would be dreich.

The Spanish national railway website, renfe.com, may be many things. However, model of clarity isn’t the first thing that springs to mind.

Take, for a non-random example, getting a train from Madrid to Segovia. No problem, it says: you can get one straight from Barajas T4, which, to the uninitiated, is Terminal 4 at the airport (known as Barajas, although also, confusingly, as Adolfo Suarez sometimes, after the first post-Franco prime minister).

Which is sort of true. It just doesn’t tell you there are intermediate steps.

So. If you’re coming from the UK on a budget flight, you almost definitely won’t arrive at T4, which is the multi-award winning, Richard Rogers designed modern one. Not for the likes of you, Easyjet punter!

However, you can get there via a free shuttle bus which goes between Terminals 1, 2 and 4 (if you arrive at 3, you’re not completely stuffed – fairly sure you’d just walk to T2). Once at T4,  if you have time, take a moment to savour the architecture and design – it really is impressive – and then get the lift to the basement level, and the Renfe station.

Once there, you’ll find the barcode on your ticket – which, confusingly, says you’re going from Chamartin, one of the main Madrid stations, not T4 – lets you through the electronic barrier. After a couple of goes, probably. Don’t panic!

Pic: RHSP. You can read more about it here. Nuns optional.

You then arrive at a couple of platforms, with trains arriving fairly regularly and then setting off again for places like Recoletos and Principe Pio. You may never have heard of these places, but don’t worry: T4 is the end of the line for a couple of overground/underground train lines – Cercanias – that serve Madrid and its outskirts. Most, or indeed all, of these trains will take you to Chamartin. If in doubt, ask a local.

Once on the train, the ticket lady will check your ticket – again, don’t panic: there is, in tiny writing, the script that says this connection to the main station is included in the price. The journey to Chamartin takes ten minutes or so, with a couple of stops in Madrid’s graffiti-strewn hinterland on the way.

Chamartin doesn’t have the old-world charm of Madrid’s other main station, Atocha, but it’s modern and has plenty of places to refuel. I should have said at the start that you want to get a train to what the Renfe website calls ‘Segovia AV,’ also confusingly known once you’re on the train as ‘Segovia Guiomar.’ This is on the high speed line, which means you get there quickly, but do have a further journey from there into the city.

Madrid to Segovia. Scenery passing at speed.

 

You can get a number 11 bus from the station and it takes you to the Acqueduct, but frankly, having been on the go from about 9 in the morning and this now being half six at night, we’d had enough planes and trains and took a taxi (about 13 euros).

All very efficient, by the way, and the connections went like a dream. Knowing about the in between bits in advance, we allowed a couple of hours to change terminals and take the cercania into Chamartin, but that left us plenty of time.

Which takes us, literally, to Segovia: on which more later, but the initial signs are good!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Bohemian Quarter’s Blood Harmonies

Translation of an article that appeared in El País on 14th July last year, when we were in Madrid: I’ve not quite spent the whole year translating it, but just about! Starting with the title, any Spanish speakers will recognise I’ve opted for style over literality in the translation. You can read the original here.

Photos courtesy of my friend and colleague Manicpopthrills, who’s just back from Canada.

Thanks as always to my utterly wonderful Spanish teacher, Ana Maria Duffy, for her help with the translation. The infelicities are all mine.

 

It’s difficult to imagine that anything, beyond the ding of the paper boy’s bell, changes the Pax Americana that reigns in the gentle slopes of Westmount. Leonard Cohen, who died a year past November, was born here in 1934 amongst anglified houses and perfect flowerbeds; in a city set apart, in a minority set apart. Westmount is a Jewish quarter in Catholic Montreal, an Anglophone enclave in a city where above all else French is spoken; a wealthy pool surrounded by difficulties of financial and other sorts.

By the side of the St Lawrence

When Leonard was 8 years old, the most vibrant avenue in the city, St-Laurent, caught alight with an anti-Jewish gathering. In full cry, the far right had chosen the street that separates the French-speaking quarters from the English, to accuse the Jewish shopkeepers of selling ‘indecent’ clothing to girls, as if, instead of the beatific Montreal, they were in sacrilegious New York.

The demonstration ended with smashing of shop windows. Meanwhile, in his privileged redoubt, Leonard, a clothes shop owner’s son, was reading his Spiderman comics peacefully. In Westmount, the sole contact with the Catholic, French, population which flows like lava round it on all sides, were the Quebecois women who arrived, daily, to work as domestics.

But this security didn’t last long. At 9 years old, he lost his father. And it’s possible that, in the garden of his then house at 599 Belmont Avenue, one of his ties still lies buried. When he heard of the death, Leonard took a tie from the wardrobe, opened it, and put a piece of paper inside it he had written on. Then he buried it beneath the snow.

This ritual, in changing form, would repeat itself in the future with one constant: writing as liberation from sadness. And Westmount would always be the place where a tie was buried beneath the snow.

The rest of the world awaited, and close to home gave him his first opportunities. As an adolescent he reached out into his city as far as St-Catherine (the street map of Montreal is very saintly), the seat of night life, jazz, cafés with marble topped tables, the underworld, and men who wear raincoats even in summer. The far-right fanatics were right only in one thing: the city, much to their chagrin, is the Canadian New York, the difference being that the Montrealese give three kisses when greeting each other.

Montreal by night

 

Today, St Catherine Street has completely lost the clandestine air it had in Cohen’s youth, and stirs with the spirit of businesses, and the multiple points of entry to the Subterranean City: kilometres of shops beneath the surface, taking refuge from the 30 below zero temperatures which can hit in winter.

In an old bookshop, you can find a translation of the Gacela del Mercado Matutino by Garcia Lorca, and coming across a reference to Arco de Elvira de Granada, you find yourself for the first time in Andalucía.

After a while, you buy yourself a second hand guitar. At the back of your house, on a tennis court on Murray Hill Park, you get to know a Spanish lad surrounded by girls – the mechanism of seduction, the seduction itself, always urged upon Cohen – the strumming of a guitar.

In broken French, Leonard asked him for lessons. The Spanish boy only turned up three times to Cohen’s home, but it was enough to teach him 6 flamenco melodies. On the fourth the teacher failed to show, and when Leonard called at his pensión to find out what happened to him, the landlord told him he had committed suicide.

‘Those six tunes … have been the basis of all my songs and all my music,’ he confessed, moved, on collecting a prize in Asturias in 2011.

His world grew bigger when he entered McGill University, the main academic destination for English speakers. It coincided with the climax of the conflict between the two communities. Cohen began to be known as a poet, but expressed himself in a language that, for the majority of his countrymen, is foreign. Refusing to speak French, in that period one could hear in the shops ‘speak white!’ (also expressed as ‘speak Christian!’) Today, in the businesses that locate on the ancient frontiers between languages, you can hear a crossbred ‘Bonjour hi!’ greeting customers without distinction.

The politics of language underlies the smallest public message in Montreal life. French is the only official language of Quebec since 1977, but Montreal, the most populous city in the region, is a bilingual universe, with two universities and various hospitals English-speaking. Even so, on notices, English will appear in second place and in appreciably smaller lettering.

Although some of his lyrics, his own or adopted, exude political flavours (The Partisan, Democracy, First We Take Manhattan) Cohen always skirted around the political conflict between communities that has shaken Quebecois life during the last few decades, including the toughest years, of attacks by the Quebec Liberation Front. When, at the end of the Seventies, a Francophone journalist pressed him to pronounce on why he hadn’t supported the region’s struggle for independence, he replied with some sharpness: ‘I’m for the Free State of Montreal. I don’t live in a country, I live in a neighbourhood, in a universe completely set apart from the others. I’m neither Canadian nor Quebecois. I am, and always will be, from Montreal.’

His political positions were always, like his dress sense, elegant. He crossed all fashions on tip toe because he always knew that although they had their moment in the sun, at some point they would reach the shade.

His music doesn’t lay claim to the city, except in the sense of the shadow it casts in the resonances of litanies and choirs of his synagogue. He loved Montreal, and yet also hated it, and, in either case, as he confessed in his early twenties, he had to return to it now and again to, as he put it, renew his neurotic allegiances.

Even so, one of his most famous songs deals with a subtle journey; and it is Suzanne (Suzanne Verdal, a platonic relationship) who leads him by the hand to her ‘place by the river.’ She goes dressed in the ‘rags and feathers,’ of the Salvation Army store in Notre-Dame, near the Cathedral. It’s Suzanne who offers him tea and oranges that come, all the way from China, to the port, long ago one of the most important entry points for trade and immigrants in North America.

The song mentions ‘our lady of the harbour,’ which in truth is Our Lady of Good Help, a 17th century church, built and rebuilt several times since, which served as a safe place of pilgrimage for Catholics alarmed by Iroquois aggression, and which also acted as a meeting place for the small community of anglophone Catholics. A sculpture of Christ, crowned, tops the church (on a solitary wooden tower, the song asserts) and turns its back on the faithful entering by the front door; he is turned instead towards the river, with arms spread, blessing the departing sailors.

The beatific Montreal

A walk around the area of Vieux-Port, the old port, offers the possibility of attending a Cirque du Soleil spectacle, in their permanent site in Quebec, or simply to enjoy the views, at the bottom of Jacques-Cartier, a majestic bridge, currently illuminated for Montreal’s 375th anniversary in 2017.

The whole of Montreal is a gift of the St Lawrence River, which splits Canada’s geography in a gigantic breach. The majority of Quebec’s inhabitants arrived across it, like the Cohens, fleeing the Russian pogroms. From the rest of the world, people got off the boats and travelled along the street above to found, at some point, their little Italy, their tiny slice of Greece, their piece of Portugal. In the Seventies, precisely in the ancient Jewish quarter reconquered by the Portuguese, Cohen staked his claim on a Montreal refuge from the harvest of his successes in the rest of the world. In front of the three storey house he built, the Portuguese park opens out, small and timid. A plaque and some tiles record the origins of its inhabitants. In the middle, a roofless kiosk serves as a refuge for musicians.

Following in Cohen’s footsteps in this Montreal that he never stopped leaving, but, with age, each time more sporadically, is as easy as imitating those of any other neighbourhood. You can buy bagels that, unlike those of New York, are smaller, malted, with honey and egg, and are therefore sweeter and more substantial. Leonard’s choice was the café-restaurant Bagel Etc. (St Laurent, 4320). For takeaway, it’s possible to get bagels direct in Fairmount Bagel (Fairmount Avenue, 74) not far away, and in St-Viateur Bagel (St Viateur 263).

For something to eat, treat yourself with a sandwich of delicious meat, smoked for days, which melts in the mouth when you sink your teeth in. There are many places to try a taste, but Cohen used to prefer Main Deli Steakhouse (St Laurent, 3864). A good alternative is Schwartz’s (St Laurent, 3895) where they keep, without any concession to interior design, the same atmosphere of years ago: bright frozen refreshments from previous decades; formica counters; veteran waiters threading conversations one with the other. For dinner, the musician would be seen at Moishe’s Steakhouse, an elegant, copper-toned, restaurant. Following the singer’s death, the back of the restaurant carries an enormous mural of his face and hat.

Spice Shops

The area of Plateau de Montreal, joins alongside Vieux-Montreal, that flanks the river, the oldest story in his city, told in this enormous extension of reticular streets.

A few years ago the cost of living in these ancient immigrant quarters went up massively, and, in part, it’s the fault of the last wave of ‘foreigners:’ that of well-off French who are transforming it into the perfect destination for the bohemian bourgeois (the naïve bourgeois boheme).

Already, they have domesticated St Denis Street with their craft ice-cream parlours and clothes shops, decorated with perfectly interchangeable ‘vintage’ items. In parallel, the main street, St-Laurent, keeps running wild, the true main artery of this Montreal, shabbier but more surprising with its Hungarian, Jewish, and Spanish spice shops (La Librairie Espagnole, on St Laurent, 3811, that in spite of its name is a grocery) its coffee shops and old bookstores like Westcott Books (St Laurent, 4065) where the books are so numerous and disorganised that it’s impossible to discover, after spending a short time there, where the bookseller is.

In a city overflowing with music, there is no lack of clubs, like the Pink Room, that occupies the upper floor of the Centro Social Español de Montreal (St Laurent, 4848), a meeting point for the tiny expatriate Spanish community.

It’s agreeable to get away from the brouhaha of the main streets, and to go into the outskirts and discover old synagogues, coquettish brick and wood houses, and a sight as Montrealese as the boats crossing the Saint Lawrence: the orange traffic cones of public works. These are, for the summer streets, like Christmas decorations: they arrive with the heat, because in the winter cold the asphalt dissolves like sugar, and therefore the good weather is the chance to repair it quickly.

Wandering through the streets, the visitor will discover the epicentre of Montreal’s poetry in the tranquil St-Louis, which for years hosted one of the most active creative movements in the city. The writers’ gatherings seethed beneath ceilings of buildings so Victorian and gloomy that they would have delighted Tim Burton.

In his own way, Leonard Cohen had taken Manhattan, and then Berlin, but for all his dwellings round the world, at the end he only owned his main residence in Los Angeles, where he died, and the house on the Plateau. Always, a Westmount neighbour of his testified, he maintained his connections with his community of origin. Knowing perhaps that his end was approaching, he entrusted his synagogue’s choir, Shaar Hashomayin, to record with him the songs on his last album, You Want It Darker.

The cemetery on the outskirts is an appendix to Mont-Royal, a mountain of the dead invaded by lawn and headstones, with a roll-call of alphabets and surnames that forever displays the cosmopolitan nature of the city. Lost between solid blocks of marble with the family names recorded on them, the difficulty of finding Leonard’s tomb tells you that the Cohen name is everywhere. To the eternal fan’s good fortune, there is a trail to identify the clothes shop owner’s son.

Placed in the earth, in the trail there is a small painting of a hand’s breadth with a black bird sitting still on a cable, like that of his song Bird on a Wire.

A Cohen tribute, this time in Toronto.

All pics copyright Mike Melville

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Word On… Spanish Stuff

Here’s a couple of what I’d plan to be sidebars in my book on Spain. As ever, be delighted to have any feedback!

A Brief History of Spanish Time

If you ever need a reminder that the Mediterranean peoples, including the Spanish, are the cradle of Western civilisation as we know it, come with me of a summer’s evening to any one of Spain’s regional cities and sit at a table in a café watching the world go by.

It might be 9 or 10 at night; it might be a Monday. If it is, the only difference might be the cafes are slightly less jam packed. Everyone’s eating and drinking like it’s going out of fashion. There’s still a significant amount of them smoking. They all look fantastic on it.

A satisfied customer at a Madrid cafe

What’s more, nobody’s drunk. Nobody. You might see drunks in Madrid or Barcelona, but they’re probably foreigners. Instead, in this regional city – let’s say Léon, for the sake of giving a recent example – there are all ages out and about, from immaculately-dressed elderly couples, to middle aged folks with their teenage kids, to younger mums with babies; the teenagers out on their own, by the way, are sitting at the next table, drinking coke politely, checking out the opposite sex discreetly as they walk past, and not being any bother to anyone. If they are being a bother, they’re probably French.

And, although it’s ten at night, nobody looks like they’re in a hurry to go home. Indeed, some of them are still going in to eat their main meal of the day, inside the restaurant, in the air-conditioned salon comedor. For the rest of us, the atmosphere is relaxed, congenial, and unhurried. It is as if everyone has all the time in the world.

Now, if this seems to give an idealised portrait of the Spanish way of life, let me just say, ok. The health stats aside, the Spanish are as worried about their health and happiness as the rest of us: the telly adverts are as full of stuff about slimming, gym memberships and how to stop smoking as anywhere else; I saw an advert in Spain recently that claimed that the Spanish have the greatest amount of cosmetic surgery in Europe. But let me take you on that evening out (you’re buying, obviously) and you’d be forced to agree.

So what are they doing right? Can it really all be down to having a wee sleep in the middle of the day?

Well, the concept of siesta isn’t without its Spanish critics. My friend Rufino, for example, has a much more northern European approach to work, and wishes he could do without the midday break and be home at a reasonable time. As an abogado – a lawyer – he’s expected to be available for clients till around 8 at night, in the same way shops and other businesses stay open till that time. The Catalans, too, tend to dismiss siestas as a soft southern invention they don’t need to adhere to.

But, for the majority of Spanish people, time is still a much more fluid idea than for us northerners. They might rise early, particularly if they commute. However, going to breakfast in a café between 9 and 10, you’re quite likely still to see office workers and construction guys dawdling over a café con leche even then.

That may explain why, when British and American tummies are starting to rumble at one o’clock, the Spanish restaurants aren’t really filling up and you’ll have your choice of table. Almuerzo, the big middle of the day meal, often happens well past midday – at 2 or 3; it can be a family meal, or one with colleagues; but either way, many shops and businesses then close up for a couple of hours at least. Whether people have time to go home and get some kip may, again, depend on the size of the city, and its property prices. However, in general, most people seem to.

Things only really start to get going again around 6 or 7. By then, shops will open up again, the inevitable drilling of roads and buildings will recommence: and people will drift towards cafes and bars for a drink, unless they’re working. And stay there, meeting friends and family (most socialising happens outside the home in Spanish culture) until whenever it suits. And that could be the wee hours.

The good news is that the restaurant/café culture is a lot less rigid than it used to be. In most places, they’ll serve you a range of things from tapas, ranging up through racion-sized portions to the full bib-and-tucker three courses more or less at any time.

 

Tapas, Raciones, and all that sort of stuff

So most of you will know the story by now about tapas, right? That it originated in the deep south of Spain, where the waiter brought you your drink with a tapa (cover) on top, consisting of a bit of bread or something similar, to keep the flies off your drink.

Well, maybe. That story always seemed a bit hokey to me, particularly given the likelihood that, as soon as you took the bread off, the flies would dive right in if they were interested. Although, in my experience, insects are much more likely to settle on something solid like bread than they are to ever dive-bomb your glass of tinto de verano.

 

Madrileño tapas bar. Great street for tapas; for sleeping, not so much.

So, in the interests of research, I had a look at an article from the southern Spanish newspaper ABCdeSevilla, which offered a number of theories, alongside the insect repellent one:

  1. King Alfonso X ‘The Wise’ needed one or two glasses of wine a day for health reasons (nice one, royal doc!) and, to avoid the effects of alcohol, asked for a wee something food wise on the side;

 

  1. During the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, taverns noticed that, at putting out time, the patrons were, well, a bit drunk, and possibly somewhat hard to handle, so hit on the idea of giving them something to eat alongside their wine;

 

  1. It was a 19th century invention to keep the farm workers refreshed, by giving them a bit of nutrition as well as a drink while they worked (and with no need for them to stop working – take note, modern day office workers who moan about lunch at your desk);

 

  1. It was an early 20th century invention in Almería to keep the flavour of the sherry in, by covering the glass in a slice of ham.

 

Well, it doesn’t really matter. However, it is interesting that two at least of the theories centre around the idea that, by eating at the same time as drinking, you become less likely to end up falling down drunk after a few glasses of wine.

So what’s a tapa, and what’s a racion? In general, the second of these is a bigger portion, and you have to ask for it: tapas will, sometimes, come with your drink whether you ask for it or not, and if you haven’t asked for it, is included in the price of the drink.

Of course, generosity and complexity of free tapas in particular varies hugely. In Madrid or Barcelona, you’ll be lucky to get a bowl of crisps most times: in the smaller regional cities, however, you can sometimes just about eat for free.

The most generous tapas-you-didn’t-ask-for culture we’ve come across so far was in Léon, where a morning coffee produced a free slice of almond cake; and later drinks might be accompanied, unbidden, by a plateful of calamari, deep fried peppers, and other such delicacies, for no extra charge. And it’s not even as if the drinks cost as much as in Madrid!

Traditionally, many bars would specialise only in one or two tapas dishes, so that you would have a drink and their speciality, and then move on. Similarly, the glass size of the alcohol you were having was small, to reflect that you might be having a few drinks in different bar, and you weren’t actually setting out to get hammered.

Inevitably, commercialism has taken over a bit, so that each bar will serve you something for free, but also have a menu or carta de tapas so that you can stay in the same bar all night. If you’re not planning to get hammered and you’re drinking beer, ask for a caña, which is generally a small glassful of the house lager.

Plaza Mayor, Madrid. Traditionally the place for the first beer of the trip.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An Encounter in Mérida: Fellow Travellers

Another extract from what may turn into a book on Spain…

The fact the quiet American had reached such a relatively obscure place as Mérida gave him, using my admittedly somewhat arbitrary points system, a double bonus for effort. That, and the way he kept claiming to be Brazilian.

We’ve actually met very few English-speaking folk on our travels. Of course, in the bigger cities – Madrid, Seville increasingly, and especially Barcelona; but not so much in the more out of the way places. Which is part of the point, of course.

The Roman Bridge at Mérida

The Americans, though. The Americans abroad are  – in general – more extroverted than us, shattering that icy Scots reserve as they include you into their evening, asking you to translate for them, joshing with the slightly stunned looking bar staff in high volume Spanglish, and generally being, oh, what’s that word there’s no positive equivalent for in Scots? Oh yes: confident.

Anyway, Don didn’t quite fit that stereotype. He was keeping himself to himself, and the only reason we got talking was because I offered a translation of something on the menu for him. However, he did then get to talking, he joined us at our table, and the next night we both happened to be in the same bar again.

That second night, the conversation – and the good local wine – was flowing. Don was extremely entertaining company, and Daughter and Heiress was of an age that I wasn’t too discomfited when he extolled to her the benefits of lysergic acid. I mean, it wasn’t like he offered us all a tab right there and then.

It was just – in the morning, thinking back – none of us could tell very much about what your man actually did in Brazil, for example, or why he went there in the first place. We got that he was divorced, that he knew his Iberian food and wine – especially the Portuguese variety – and was a fan of mind-expanding substances of the less than legal variety. But beyond that? Nada.

But then, being a stranger in a strange land can do that for you. If you want to give the impression that you’re a CIA agent operating under deep cover in Extramadura, then you can.

Our regular fellow travellers in this book, however, are a slightly less mysterious bunch than Don – all except one, perhaps.

Ernest Hemingway, to start with the most famous, is really too famous to need much of an introduction. Novelist, bullfighting enthusiast, big game drinker and thinker, Papa H drove an ambulance for the Republicans in the Civil War. Much of his best work is set in Spain, and the way he renders the language in For Whom The Bell Tolls is a particular favourite for me.

He may pop up at various points, by way of Hemingway and Spain, by Edward F Stainton (University of Washington Press, 1989).

Giles Tremlett is the Guardian’s Madrid correspondent. Although his book, Ghosts of Spain, (Faber and Faber, 2006) bears the imprint of a series of articles woven into a theme they didn’t necessarily start out with, it’s still a brilliant introduction for anyone who, like me, wonders what it’s really like to live in Spain with the Spanish.

It’s particularly strong on the pacto del olvido, the collective act of forgetting that the Spanish entered into after Franco’s death, allowing the wounds of the Civil War forty years before to crust over without healing; and the political and other circumstances around the Atocha bombings in 2005.

Gertrude Bone is the change-up pitcher, though. A couple of years ago, my sister gave me a copy of a second hand book: Days in Old Spain. (MacMillan and Co, 1939). I’d never heard of Gertrude Bone, or her husband, Muirhead (later Sir Muirhead, don’tcha know) who provided the illustrations. But the introduction hooked me in, for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, by the time the book was published, it was already a historical artefact. The result of travels throughout Spain in the late 1920s, it described a country on the cusp of change, if not yet in the shadow of war: ‘Disaffection to the Monarchy was everywhere audible, and an impatience of backwardness and old fashions manifest in all parts of the country.’

Second, unlike Laurie Lee, who covered Spain on foot in his classic As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, on the very eve of the Civil War, the Bones got about by train – much as we do.

One of the other reasons I came to like Gertrude so much was her modesty. The introduction stresses that the text was really only to supplement the hubby’s drawings – something rather belied by how good the writing is, as I’ll demonstrate presently. More than that, just how misleading it is to think of Gertrude as the wee wife jotting down some footnotes to the artist husband’s great work only becomes clear with a bit more research.

Gertrude Bone (1876 – 1962) was the daughter of a Wesleyan minister (who had previously been a blacksmith). Brought up in Glasgow (which may explain the modesty), she was the author of at least three other published books: Women of the Country, The Furrowed Earth, and Mr Paul.

And…

And then, at least so far as internet research goes, it all becomes a bit second-hand, as she gets a mention, not in her own right, but as wife of Sir Muirhead, and mother of Stephen Bone, who followed his Dad into the war artist business. The picture you’d get from the Internet, with father and son both meriting a Wikipedia entry but not her, would be that implied by Gertrude herself: the supportive wife and mother, playing second fiddle to the men of the house.

This is not the place for a feminist discourse on the innate bias towards DWEMs in cyberspace. But when you look at Gertrude’s published works, the reality is that she was the writer, and father and son illustrated her books.

More: in one of my internet searches, I turned up a page about a letter signed in 1913 by the ‘Manchester Suffragettes,’ amongst them that faithful wife and mother Gertrude, or ‘Mrs Muirhead Bone,’ as she’s quaintly termed.

To return to the subject of Spain, her book on it is very far from being a bit of hack work to accompany the illustrations. Mrs Bone has the eye of a true poet. Take, for example, this turn of phrase when writing about Andalucía: ‘Shadow is hoarded in the streets and in the churches, and where old men follow the shade for their rest as in England they follow the sunshine.’

Or this description of the Spanish character, allowing for it being the language of an Edwardian (are you even allowed to call Spanish people Spaniards now?): ‘The reserve of the Spaniard is never surly. He requires his own personal dignity, but he will invariably allow you yours. If he knows what will please you, and you are a well-behaved person, he will of his own accord open an entrance to the interests you seek in his country.’

That, to me, is a perfect way to describe the Spanish, and their kindness to strangers. English, Scottish or American: treat the locals with respect, give them their space, and they’ll go the extra mile for you every time.

Even if you want to claim you’re from Brazil.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mother-in-law jokes and other bus-based beach-bound banter in Valencia

 

Your man on the bus seemed unpromising at first. In his seventies, and swaddled in one of those indeterminately brown coats favoured by pensioners the world over, he was complaining about the heat to start with. He stood up to open a window, and that got us talking.

I’d said I wouldn’t complain about it being 20 degrees at the end of December, like, ever. He asked me, in Spanish, ‘Are you French?’

To be fair, I often seem to be mistaken for a Frenchman in Spain. Given that they’re no more known than the Spanish for producing over six foot specimens with pale skin, blue eyes and a ginger beard, I can only assume it’s my accent: I explained that, no, I’d learned it at school, but as soon as I learned Spanish, all the French had gone. Desaparecido. Disparu, for that matter.

He confided in me that he spoke five languages: ‘Español, Valenciano, Frances, Claro, y Directo.’ Then, as the bus rattled on, he was full of banter: recommendations for the restaurant to go to when we got to the beach; notes and queries on the English sense of humour; and a story about his Edinburgh-based nephew’s medical career in Edinburgh when I assured him I was no more English than I was French.

He really was the best kind of random bus companion you could encounter: interested, interesting, an inquiring mind full of wisdom and humour. Although I didn’t try out my French on him – as I may have said already, it takes a left turn south of the Pyrenees these days before the end of the first sentence – he was obviously serious about his study of that tongue. And Clear and Direct, for that matter.

In language, he opined, there are often layers of meaning that are hard to appreciate as a non-native speaker. For example, he said, he had asked his French teacher what the difference was in that idiom between horrible and terrible. The Frenchman thought for a moment, and then gave the example of taking your mother in law to the beach with your family.

If your mother-in-law went swimming and was swept out to sea, he said, that would be horrible. On the other hand, if the tide brought her back in again, that would be terrible.

He got off well before the beach, having given me directions to the restaurant, and a recommendation that I try a dish of baby eels there as an aperitivo. He was going to eat, he said, at his wife’s house. Which was also his house. He was gone before he could explain that one more fully.

So, every guide book will tell you one of the places to visit when you’re in Valencia is the beach. And they’re right: I can imagine on a summer’s day the place is rammed with locals, tourists and beach bums alike, each of these tribes vying for supremacy, or at least first dibs on looking cool with a glass of something in hand.

On the other hand, we went on 30th of December, but even then it was pretty busy. So, to add in the boring travel book bit, the bus you get is a 32, and the area you’re heading for is variously called las Arenas, Playa Malvarrosa, or after the fishing village a bit inland, El Cabañal. We followed our new friend’s advice and got off at the first stop as the bus swings left along the sea front. From there, you head onto the front and turn right for a boardwalk cluttered with shops and restaurants, with a massive flagpole along at the far end.

To be honest, we didn’t follow your man’s recommendation of La Pepica – which I’d already read in a guide book was the one to go for. It had obviously benefitted from quite a few recommendations along the way; it was the swankiest of several restaurants who were aspiring to be swanky, and the prices were of commensurate swankiness. This isn’t like the beach front places I mentioned in Malaga: it’s been discovered long ago, so there are menus in English and meeters and greeters trying to grab you in – something that always makes me want to walk on.

That said, the inevitable paella we had in the place we went to was first class – we shared a vegetable one and an arroz a banda, similar to paella with shrimp and squid, preceded by a first course of calamares and salad. Not cheap. However, they have a bit of a captive audience: I set off in the direction of El Cabañal to see if there was something more authentic and inexpensive, but there seemed to just be block after block of flats before you got to anything approaching a village centre. Maybe worth a further explore if you’re feeling adventurous and you’re up for a decent walk.

Despite that, the beach is well worth a visit when you’re in Valencia. The locals still go there too, and it fairly buzzes with life. Even if you don’t get the best mother in law jokes on the way there.

Beginnings: the bus to Burgos and other false starts

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.

* * * *

‘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:

  1. Outwith the tourist areas, very little English is spoken.

 

  1. No one, over or under thirty, speaks French. At all. Ever. Why would they?

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. Spanish food and wine, even more so in its country of origin, is the stuff for us.

 

  1. In Rioja, they’re very proud of their asparagus.

 

  1. 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).

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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…

Léon at last

This is a bit backside forward, as we say round these parts. It’s the story of our most recent trip, but it’s planned as an epilogue to a book about Spain that I might get around to writing some time relatively soon. If I did, would you read it?

Long years have passed since our first encounter with a bottle of Léon, the cheap Asda wine that (in part, at least) inspired us to set off on our travels round Spain. In the meantime, we’d brought Daughter and Heiress into the world, I’d learnt passable Spanish, and the world had changed around us. By the time, this year, we prepared to finally take a trip to the city where the wine (at least for marketing purposes) came from, a majority of those qualified to vote in the United Kingdom on the matter had elected to take us out of Europe.

To be fair, that had happened the previous year, before our 2016 trip to Salamanca. However, by July 2017, the relevant notice to quit the Continent had been served, and a bizarre (at least to me) series of exploratory talks had taken place amongst the politicians.

This piece isn’t going to go into the politics of it – for any number of reasons, the simplest of which is you can read much better analyses elsewhere – but it did feel a bit odd, travelling in Europe when the UK government was essentially negotiating a divorce from a community of nations that, of course, included the country we were travelling in. Especially when, at the same time, the central government in Spain was grappling with the problem of the Catalans having decided to hold a referendum on October 1st to secede from the rest of the country – a referendum, one suspects, which many Castilian Spanish would feel was only encouraged by the Scottish independence referendum of 2014.

Leaving all that aside, it was the first trip to Spain we’d taken since Daughter and Heiress had gone off to university, and, as any parents of adult children will know, whether said children will continue to travel with you is dependent on a complex set of interrelated factors such as said adult child’s relationship status, alternative options involving mates, and the basic economics of a potential free holiday courtesy of the old folks.

Fortunately, the stars were all aligned in favour of her coming with us this time, but we knew that it might be the last time. Indeed, if all goes according to plan, our next trip might involve us visiting her on placement in Seville, but that’s another story.

If the planets were in the right configuration for D & H’s company, however, they seemed initially firmly set against us making it to Léon. We’d arranged to fly out on the Sunday morning red-eye to Madrid, only to be rudely awakened from our early night by a text from Easyjet telling us our flight had been cancelled. Out of internet range in our flat, we had to wait till the morning to go home and look up alternatives, convinced that by then they’d all be gone.

It made me remember how we’d got as close to Léon as Logroño, many years ago, only to fail to find a bus to the place: it started to feel as if we’d never get there, in the depths of that sleep-deprived night.

Fortunately, although Queasy’s flights were booked up for the next four days, we managed to grab a place on an Iberia Express flight the next day, and, despite increased anxiety levels brought on by the change of plan, found ourselves in Léon by nightfall that same day.

The first thing to say about Léon is that its wine shops and bars held no evidence of a wine of the same name. There is a nearby wine growing region, and you can certainly get the local stuff, but it goes by the name of the local grape – Prieto Picudo. More on wine (and food) presently, but a pause to say thanks to whoever in Asda’s wine labelling department, all those years ago, came up with the wheeze of calling a decently drinkable plonk after such a fine city, and giving us something to aim at.

Because Léon is more than worth a visit. About as northerly as you get before leaving Castile for good, it has the feeling of a hill town: not in the sense of being built on one, but more in the way its rustic charm references the cordilleras to the north. There is lots of evidence of wooden beams holding up ceilings and walls, a bit like the quasi-mock Tudor we’d encountered in the hills beyond Salamanca, the previous year; lots, too, of references in the menus and delis to produce ‘de la montaña.’

Another self-conscious touch of rusticity was in the hotels and hostals, many of whom choose, like our accommodation, to style themselves ‘posadas,’ or inns. In the case of the one we stayed at, La Posada Regia, (Regidores, 9 – 11 24003 – Léon; www.regialeon.com) this meant wooden floors in the rooms, oak beams on the roof, and a general décor that Hemingway would have expected to come across on one of those fishing trips of his.

I mean that in a good way, by the way. Located near the action but in a (relatively) quiet street on the edge of the old town, the two rooms we stayed in were absolutely gorgeous – roomy, with modern bathrooms and all the facilities D & H in particular craved, like wi-fi: it had pleasant, multilingual staff and a friendly, inn-like ambience. Some of the otherwise positive reviews on TripAdvisor had moaned about noise, but although our second floor windows looked out onto the main street and a courtyard restaurant, the windows were modern and shut out any disturbance.

I suppose the only criticism might be that there wasn’t air conditioning, and we arrived in the middle of a heatwave, but hell, I’d put up with sweating the night away in return for all the other good things this place offered at a more than reasonable price.

Léon Cathedral

So far as attractions are concerned, Léon has, of course, the obligatory cathedral plus a few extra chapels and other religious buildings, so if you’re into that sort of thing, you can knock yourself out. The other main building to visit of note is Casa Botines, built by a young Gaudi on a rare excursion from his native Barcelona. This is worth a visit, and by the time you get there might be even more so, because it had only opened earlier in 2017 when we went, and was still a work in progress.

If you do go, drop the few extra euros for the guided tour version, because you won’t get much otherwise – a static exhibition about how and why and for which bozos the building was built, a couple of examples of its life as a textile warehouse and a bank, and a basement gallery, which at the time of our visit, was to be fair hosting a fairly startling set of Goya’s etchings.

The guided tour, however, takes you up to the third floor, where there are not only more significant artworks from contemporaries of Gaudi, but examples of flats on the upper floors that the master architect had designed himself, right down to the window openings and the door handles.

Casa Botines, Gaudi’s Léon masterpiece

Apart from that, there’s not much in the way of things to go and gawp at in Léon. There are some caves, but you’d need a car to get there. Ditto any vineyards, although they’re pushing the nearby wine regions hard at you, along with the gastronomy. The other big tourist magnet for them, of course, is the city’s being on the Camino de Santiago, so they’re used to feeding and watering hungry and thirsty pilgrims.

And that’s where Léon really scored for us. It has all the usual favourites of Castilian cookery – its own version of cocido, all sorts of stews including carrillada, the ever-present fish dishes like tuna, bonito, and gambas, and good local tatties to go into things like the patatas bravas/con alioli you’d get most other places.

Add to that, though, the local specialities. They have their own version of morcilla, which, visually, doesn’t look much (blood sausage usually ends up as, well, some sort of sausage, but here is served up as a sort of black slurry) but is well worth a try. They’re proud of their cecina, a cured, smoked beef, and of course the poor old piggie has ended up in local versions of chorizo, jamón, and so on. The local manchego’s good, too, although be warned – when they say it’s curado, it’s had a proper length of time to sit down and think about what it’s done, so it’s plenty strong.

And the wine? Well, it’s a tale of two halves for me, because there are two regions which Léon lays claim to: the wines from the immediate area, Tierra de Léon, and the denominación of Bierzo, still within Léon province, but off to the west. To me, on an admittedly limited (no, really, we were only there for five nights, remember?) amount of research, the stuff from Bierzo won hands down.

Having said that, in the wider wine territory of Castilla y Leon, bear in mind there’s Ribera del Duero and even the eastern edge of Rioja, so you won’t peg out from lack of good red wine in the bars round town. The wider Tierra also includes the area known as Rueda, and I had three of the best glasses of Spanish white wine I’d ever had, on consecutive nights here.

As for where to eat and drink this stuff, again, you’re spoilt for choice. The old town isn’t perhaps as historic-looking as some other cities we’ve been to, but there are plenty of narrow streets opening into squares with tapas bars and restaurants ready to serve you at the drop of a napkin.

Key hunting grounds are the areas marked on the street plan as Santa Marina and San Martín and the usual rules of good tapas hunting apply: the closer to the cathedral, the main drag (the imaginatively named Calle Ancha, or Broad Street) or in the Plaza Mayor, the higher the prices and lesser the value.

In passing, Léon’s is the only tourist street map I’ve ever been handed which carries an advert for a brothel: we decided ‘Latin Lover’  – Avenida Alcalde Miguel Castaño, 114, if you’re interested – wasn’t for us. So we never found out what tu copa … tu ambiente …  meant in that context. You can probably get it on TripAdvisor though.

Sticking to food and drink, you could have a very fancy meal at Mercado (Las Varillas, 3) – a very imaginative twist on the traditional stuff, if that’s your kind of thing. However, we found the traditional much more to our taste in places like Plaza de San Martín, which is next door to the Plaza Mayor, but much, much livelier and more atmospheric. Do go to the main square for the market on Thursdays, though.

Going a little bit more off-piste, you can eat and drink where the locals do in Plaza Santa María del Camino. A slightly rough and ready looking place with cobbles with grass growing through them rather than the usual spotless flagstones, this square hosts three bars in opposite corners, none of them with any airs and graces or translated menus, but some of the best food and drink we had in our five nights there.

Plaza Santa María del Camino

If the mention of brothels and rough and ready bars puts you off, though, don’t be. There was no red light district we ever came across, and we ranged pretty widely across the centre of town; and we felt as safe in Plaza Santa María del Camino as we’d done in any other Spanish city. Which is to say, very safe.

To sum up, Léon was well worth the wait and the fractured travel arrangements. Despite being on the Camino de Santiago, it’s pretty well off the beaten tourist track: apart from the occasional northern European types we’d see striding purposefully along the Calle Ancha of a morning, walking stick (or is it pole?) in hand, one more cathedral ticked off their list, the only other Anglophone person we regularly encountered was a stressed Irishwoman who seemed to be spending her entire holiday taking her children to the local branch of chocolatier Valor to shout at them.

That may make it more the thing for us, (the lack of tourists, I mean, not the shouty Irishwoman) but it is, be warned, less geared up for non-Spanish speakers than the bigger cities like Barcelona and, now, Madrid. When we stayed there, in July, it was at the edge of a heatwave affecting the whole peninsula, and temperatures were in the mid thirties. However, that was, we were told, unusual, and I suspect it might well be a chilly place still most springs.

However, as part of a tour of northern Castile, it would be a pity to leave out Léon. In a longer trip I would probably combine it with a visit to one of our favourite places, Salamanca, contrasting its more rustic (that word again) charms with the dreaming-spires opulence of Spain’s Oxford.

All things must pass. The bottle of plonk that inspired our journey has long faded into Asda’s back catalogue, overtaken by rebranding and the supermarkets’ relentless search to bring us cheap wine at least cost to their profit margins. Daughter and Heiress has grown from a tiny infant, to a cheery blonde tot the Spanish waiting staff doted on, to a self-possessed, green-eyed young woman with her own ideas and an amused tolerance for her eccentric mop n’ pop (at least, I think so).

Spain, having endured its share of terrorist atrocities both from ETA and Islamic extremists, now faces constitutional issues of its own, not to mention the continuing economic woes that have dogged the western world since the bankers we trusted our money with blew half of it away on dodgy deals. The United Kingdom, having set itself on a path to divorce from the rest of the EU, remains mired in a set of problems that none of the politicians seem to have seen coming, or now to know what to do about.

For the Redoubtable Mrs F and me, the only constant is likely to be change: our little one having left the nest, our respective day jobs starting to bank round in the long approach to retirement, a house move at some point on the cards. With all of that going on, there’s only one sure thing: as long as we can, we’re going to keep exploring the Spanish mainland. Cadiz is definitely on the radar, and the trip to Léon gave me the beginnings of a plan: a heretic’s journey, going backwards from Santiago de Compostela against the tide of conventional pilgrims.

Destination? I’ll come back to you on that one, but you can bet your bottom euro it’ll be somewhere in Spain, and food, wine and a damned good time will be involved.

Daughter and Heiress