andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Tag Archives: spain travel tips

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hitting the return key pushes the adverts down here. Petty, isn’t it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Preface: the best barbecue outside of Malaga

…and after the epilogue of this travel book on Spain I might be writing, here’s the prologue…

Here’s something to do if you’re in Malaga on a sunny day: do as the locals do and get the hell out of Malaga.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot to see and do in that fine city, and we’ll come to some of that presently. But for now, get yourself down to the great broad boulevard that runs along its shoreline, and is called variously Alameda Principal and Paseo del Parque, and take a number 3, 11 or a 34 to Pedregalejo.

Any of these is an ordinary service bus, and don’t bother with all that ida y vuelta stuff from the phrasebook: it’s single only, and costs 3 euros at the last count.

Stay on it as it rattles past the nearest beaches, takes a left inland, then right again. Don’t panic, just look out for Calle Vicente Espinel or Calle Pina Dominguez, and ping the bell to get off as nonchalantly as you can manage it.

You emerge to what looks like a fairly well-to-do suburb, with high walls guarding the occupants’ castles from the likes of you. Ignore them and head towards the sea, through well-kept streets and lanes until, just as you reach the last street of any note, you see ahead of you a line of blocky, low houses, with narrow defiles between them.

Through them, and you’ll find yourself on a boardwalk, stretching round the crescent of the bay, with the best fish restaurants you’ll possibly ever find. Prepare yourself, then, to be initiated into the mysteries of espeto.

Actually, it’s not much of a mystery. Sit yourself down at one of the white tablecloth restaurants on the landward side, and a waiter will bustle up, checking you’ve got the right amount of sun, dishing out menus and a carta de vinos, and before you know it a plate of olives will appear, inevitably. Ask him ‘Que hay al espeto?’ and he’ll answer, almost certainly, ‘sardinhas,’ and my personal favourite, dorada, or sea bream.

Order one of these, plus a beer, a vino rosado maybe, or, if you insist, a mineral water or a Fanta, and prepare for a decent wait.

Your man will shortly reappear with the (uncooked) fish of your choice, and head out of the restaurant, across the boardwalk, and onto the beach. The more observant of you will have noticed, directly across from the restaurant, a much less fancy barbecue-cum-shack affair on the sand, with a grizzled old punter giving the flames an occasional poke.

This Hemingwayesque figure is your Master of the Espeto. As I’ve said, there’s no great mystery to the cooking process: the Master takes the fish from the white-jacketed waiter, sticks it on a skewer, and shoves it on the barbie. They’ll have given you some bread to stock up on while the fish cooks, and it’ll feel like forever, as the smell of the barbecuing fish wafts across the sand at you.

Eventually, the old guy grunts or inclines his head, and the waiter brings the cooked fish back past your nostrils, expertly breaking any despairing hunger-induced rugby tackles you make on him, before reappearing finally with the fish dressed with something as simple as salt, some potatoes, and a bit of salad. That’s all it’ll need, believe me, because that poor sucker was swimming about just the thing a few hours before without a care in the world beyond what was on offer for its lunch a link or so down the food chain.

Seriously. If you go to Malaga, you should do this, before it gets all touristy and they start sending the coach tours along there. It may already be too late, but in 2014, at least, you could sit there and enjoy dorada al espeto surrounded by Malagueños doing the exact same thing.

If you’ve clicked on this blog in the hope of insider info like this, then the good news is there’s more of it to come: tips on roads slightly less travelled, how to travel them, and what to do when you get there.

The bad news is, these bits are interspersed with lots of other stuff: soliloquies on Spanish wine, stories of near-hostage taking, snippets of poetry, shovelfuls of information ‘borrowed’ from fellow travellers, and shedloads of asides about the food, the wine (again),  and most of all eating and drinking habits, cultural predilections and linguistic niceties of that alluring, irresistibly charming, and only ever occasionally baffling race, the Spanish.

So if all you’re after is a step by step guide on how to get to Zaragoza and where to eat and stay when you get there, this may not do it for you. Lonely Planet or Fodor’s will give you practical advice, and of course there’s always the sheer weight of numbers and opinions that TripAdvisor can command. I do mention Zaragoza, having been there twice, but more in the context of the near hostage situation I mentioned earlier: I’ll lob in some recommendations, but I’ll have had to update them and cross check with other sources, so that not may be as fresh a set of suggestions as, say, Madrid, where we’ve been more recently.

You should probably see this more as a series of dinner party stories, bolted together with some (reasonably) well checked hard fact. The advantages over real dinner party anecdotes being that you can dip in and out of them at your leisure, without having to put your interested face on; and if you get bored, you can always update Facebook or whatever on your phone instead without breaking whatever shreds of dinner party etiquette remain these days. If indeed, dinner parties remain these days. Frankly I’m hazy on that one.

However, if you’re up for it, let’s get started, and see where we get to, eh?

Brasas para preparar sardinas al peto en Pedregalejo en Málaga