andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Tag Archives: spanish travel

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…

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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