After many a false start – such as boarding trains on wrong platforms, having to re-track, waiting for a train that failed to arrive at all and working out how to get a refund on our tickets, having to then work our way across the city to the bus station – we are now temporarily settled in Toledo in Spain’s central region of Castilla La Mancha. Remember Toledo steel? Well, that is only one of the things that this city is famous for.
We had landed earlier that day in Madrid, flying in from Zurich. From the air the landscape changes dramatically as one clears French airspace. Spain appears arid, burnt, even barren in comparison to its eastern neighbours over the Pyrenees. Yet in spite of, or perhaps because of this, it is the world’s biggest producer of olives.
With the intention of easing ourselves gently back into Spain and simplifying the process of finding reasonable cost accommodation, I chose at random the considerably smaller, rather newish, town of Guadarrama. We arrived on the bus, but found there was not any low cost accommodation. It did however, serve the former purpose of gently finding our way again with language, food and drink, but I could not recommend anyone visit there. The following day we bused up to Segovia, which some say is the most spectacularly sited city in Spain – and that is saying something. We were fascinated by the massive (728m in length), two tiered arched Roman aqueduct, built with huge blocks of stone: it dominates the eastern end of this ancient city. The tourist season is obviously not over. In fact I don’t think it ever is in these historically important towns, the bulk of the tourists being Spanish.
One morning, having coffee in a bar near our accommodation, I was staring at a tray on display in front me trying to discern what it was – food in the bars here is often both mysterious and an abundant delight. I thought it was a row of small birds, perhaps pigeons, split in half and displayed in layers up the tray, until we read and understood the notice: young baby lambs’ heads roasted and split open for display. I should have recognised those teeth! Interestingly, while we have been enjoying the tapas in bars, we have noted derogatory comments from English speaking persons on exiting after a brief perusal: such as, “You don’t know what you’re eating,” and “You don’t know what to ask for.” Well, fair enough, but it is their loss. If they are not prepared to at least try the food and to learn a little of the language, they will be missing out on many a gastronomic delight throughout Spain.
After 2-3 days in cramped accommodation, still finding our way so to speak, we upped our bags and left: back into Madrid by bus to find transport to Toledo. Segovia definitely warrants further investigation and we hope to return there. Can do. After about 5 days in Spain the feeling of foreignness is gradually diminishing, but in spite of my/our improved grammatical Spanish I still find it difficult to follow the very fast speech, and this makes me uneasy and frustrated. It may be their regional dialect, but I think it is my inadequacy. Oddly, this time around, neither of us have the same fascination with the grand architecture, cathedrals, or edifices and are only just beginning to warm again to the foodstuffs. Neither of us is inclined to eat so much this time. I am still attracted by the clothing and shoes for sale here however. They really know how to use colours and fabrics, and all seem very reasonably priced.
At this point, we are struggling with Spain. I know the problem is the language, or my failure to master it. I begin to plan our departure south for Seville where my bilingual, English speaking relations will, as before, make it so much easier for us.
However, Toledo became more comfortable as we became more attuned to the language and began to enjoy the food again. The region also specialises in marzipan. The real McCoy. The range of little sweet delicacies on sale is daunting, but we bravely started working our way through them. Oddly, they aren’t very sweet, just delicious. I hated marzipan as a child in New Zealand as it was always made with artificial almond essence. Believe me, these are nothing like that.
We note that the delightful and ancient Spanish custom of the Paseo is alive and well here, as is the Siesta. The Paseo has great social significance: in the cool of the evening, dressed in their finest, old and young couples, whole families or solitary Spaniards promenade up and down the streets. They stop at this bar and that for refreshments, a bite to eat and to chat with acquaintances. The Siesta is an appropriate custom for the more southern and extremely warm climate of Spain, yet extends to most parts of the country. It entails a very sensible rest or sleep after the main meal of early afternoon, and given the heat of the southern summer, is a great way to avoid the extreme heat of that time of day. Having lived in Perth, Western Australia for 12 years, where the climate is very similar to southern Spain, I can only regret as many other Europeans have, that that region was not settled by Mediterranean people instead of the British with their 9 to 5 work ethic (and insistence on forcing a grass lawn to grow where it was never intended, by nature to grow). Siesta would be most appropriate there.
The steep and narrow streets in these especially ancient towns (built again and again over Roman, Vizigoth and latterly, Arab ruins) are both appealing and a menace. Built for horse and cart traffic, when one of the many cars go by pedestrians have to step back up against the wall, or if you’re lucky, into a doorway. These aren’t flat cities: as with many Spanish towns, Segovia and Toledo were built to be easily defended and hard to attack. Set high on rocky spurs they are both bounded by rivers, and originally only approachable from 2 or 3 easily guarded river bridges. The whole city, and this goes for most of the ancient ones, were built at great expense in the grandest manner possible, and made to last. I believe the reason most Roman and Visigothic structures are now mostly in ruins and built upon, is because the subsequent conquerors chose to sack and destroy all vestiges of preceding symbols of power, both religious and governmental. The Arabs, however, tended to be more tolerant. From the entrance gates (picture Arc De Triumphs) to cathedrals, educational institutes, libraries, government buildings and museums, they are all magnificent, grand buildings. There is apparently a great collection of El Greco paintings here in Toledo, but we currently have no interest in classical painters – peasants that we are. Some day perhaps.
In the old city, buildings are rarely more than 4 stories high. The newer suburbs however, stretching away on the outskirts, have the usual multi-storied apartment blocks – but with very wide, tree-lined avenues. Very spacious after being in the old part. Our accommodation in the heart of the old city, is on the first floor and I can almost touch the building across the street from our little balcony. Unfortunately, the narrowness accentuates the noise. And if you know Spanish towns, you know noise. One of the causes of more noise than we are used to, is the cobbled streets in most of the towns. Vehicles bubble and rumble along instead of shushing by. In old Toledo most of the narrow streets are paved with fist sized river stones, inter-patterned with granite slabs. Ladies do not wear stiletto heels in such towns.
We found access to a computer, for internet use, at the Toledo municipal library, a rather imposing stone building (as are all the public edifices), but impressive all the same. It is free of charge. What can one say!
Another note on Spanish Bar Food: Young cousin Manolo, took us to a wonderful bar in Bollullos, a small town just south west of Seville. It was packed with noisy and convivial Spaniards. The food was outstanding. While we waited at the bar for some table space, drinking fresh, local Mosto wine, I was trying to identify one of the many dishes being delivered to tables and thought I detected cherry stalks sticking up from one of the plates. I thought – ah, a dish of cherries in a sauce. However, Manolo explained that they were sparrows – the stalks sticking up were their legs. They also remove the heads – I can’t imagine why! It is now illegal to serve up small birds, but they still serve them anyway in these gourmet country bars, as local delicacies. I say ‘gourmet’, but all the food served in Spain is just basic, homely, old-style cooking. Tried and trusted.
La Línea (de la Concepción), Southern Spain
A good strong wind today: the top of the tall, thin palm outside our apartment win-dow (we’re on the 5th floor) is swaying drunkenly. A good time to catch up on some hand washing. This breeze disperses a lot of the incredible pollution created by the CEPSA oil refinery and the very large indus-trial/chemical complex at Miraflores in Algeciras Bay. Think of a large, horseshoe bay: Gibraltar on the eastern most tip and Algeciras at the other. In the depth of the horseshoe is very heavy industry. The pollution can sit for days as a haze. Fortunately for Gibraltar, and La Línea just above it, the prevailing breeze is toward Algeciras at the other tip.
We have been fluffing about (after our 7 day sojourn and family reunion in Seville) in La Línea: walking across the frontier and airstrip into Gibraltar, or busing over to Algeciras for the day.
We have a large, comfortable serviced bedroom with ensuite for about $AUD40.00 per night. It overlooks an attractive plaza. We’ve learnt to adjust to the Spanish social hours so as to not be frustrated by their very late night wining/dining/partying in the cafes and bars in this plaza below. On week days even, this can be full on noise until 5am. This is not wild, brawling partying. It is just their normal, loud but peaceable socialising and courting, with loud music – right beneath our window. We sleep in late these days. Once more we have come to love Spain and will linger a little longer here.
Gibraltar is quite a curious phenomenon. Straight laced and British as it has long claimed to be, and a major Tax Free port, because of this latter fact it is notorious as the source of vast amounts of tobacco smuggling. Innocuous as it sounds, fortunes have been made, lives have been lost and whole crews of small merchant ships still linger in Mediterranean jails. It’s a game that has been played for decades. Thirty five years ago, when I was working on the yachts in the destroyer pens there, I was asked if I could navigate a small ship out to a rendezvous deep in the Mediterranean. I kept the fact that I couldn’t navigate my way out of a cardboard box to myself, until I had learned what it was all about. It was the usual: smuggling several tons of tax free cigarettes in a beat up old craft, to rendezvous at sea well out of sight of land, and to offload them onto the Italian connection. Often, old W.W.2 minesweepers were used as they were wooden hulled, large, and difficult to pick up on radar. An Australian I got to know had set himself up in Gib trading in these craft. He was doing very well too.
Regularly, on moonless nights, high speed chases would take place at sea as smugglers of smaller amounts set out from Gib. The protagonists were the Spanish navy in their old patrol boats, and the smugglers in their superior, black painted, high speed offshore power boats. These latter would hastily beach at a pre-determined spot on the Spanish coastline, to be unloaded in minutes with military precision. The cigarettes would then be distributed onto the streets of inland Spanish cities that very morning. Until very recently you could see cigarette sellers at any traffic intersection throughout Spain, flogging the goods smuggled from Gib.
There has been a recent, severe crackdown by politicians on both sides. A Gibraltarian policeman was shot dead. Young men have drowned in collisions as the Spanish modernised their fleet to match the smuggler’s speed. Several of the fast offshore power boats (cigar boats) that the smugglers used are now in a cave in The Rock, impounded and confiscated. Such craft are now banned in Gib. Anyway, people smuggling is much bigger business these days. Still, fortunes were made in Gib and Spain, and there are lots of men to be seen, even around La Línea, wearing kilos of gold chain around their necks!
We hired a rental car in La Línea to revisit Portugal. It is often referred to as Spain’s poor cousin because of its weaker economy, but parity is coming. Slowly. As we meander to the north west through Spain and enter Portugal, the scenery changes little. Vast forests of Cork (of the oak family), which produce acorns – the feed stock of the ‘pata negra’ (black feet) pig, famous for its ham, and Chestnut trees (producing the edible nut) cover the landscape. We head for Beja, a rather large inland Portuguese city. After Beja, heading north west, we entered Pine tree territory. This is the ‘pine nut’ Pine though, subtly different in appearance to Pinus Radiata. They also tap the tree for its resin: another instance of double cropping. The pine nuts are not much cheaper here than at home, but they make delicious sweetmeats with them.
However, our first day was a real bummer. In fact, the first couple of days in Portugal were rather depressing this time around. Leaving Beja, I remarked to Rachel that after driving considerable miles in Spain we had not noticed any speed cameras and found there to be little police presence on the roads. I had, however, failed to notice the police car that had been trailing us for some time: and failed to put on my seat belt. I managed to get myself hauled off to the Police Station in Beja (a town I hope I never have to see again), to pay an instant fine of 20,000$00 Escudos for not wearing a seat belt. Rachel was left in the car at the roadside about 10kms further west. No matter how I played it – the ignorant foreigner, the cash-strapped traveller, the tearful “can’t you let me off with a warning”, the incredulous “are you serious?” – the Officer was still determined to fine me. It turned out that the maximum was 1,000,000$00 Escudos (so I was supposed to feel better?). He spoke such damned perfect English that it was difficult to fudge it with the “me no speaky – no unnerstan”. So, bugger it, we were over budget ahead of time – and all those wonderful leather goods and ceramics to buy in Portugal.
Driving in the countryside, still depressed, I noticed on the right a parked car in a siding, and a woman nearby facing the oncoming traffic (we’re driving on the right here) with her skirt pulled right up in the middle, in front! I thought – Oh, lots of male drivers, myself included, stop at the side of the road for a pee, so maybe she’s thinking of having a pee … STANDING UP … Now how is she going to do that? I thought of asking Rachel if it was possible/probable for a woman to do it like that, but we weren’t speaking at the time as my mood had soured since the traffic infringement incident. This did perk me up a little though: then, lo and behold, on the left I saw a young woman facing oncoming traffic, dressed in white, preening herself, and something began to dawn on me. Not another kilometre down the road and there’s this other floozie, dressed to kill, handbag and all, just standing by the roadside (always by a siding or small lay-by: this is forest country). Then another, just sitting on an old settee, legs apart, reading some magazine. By now I’m beginning to get the picture (and curious, for the record, to get some prices) and it turns out that this whole route, which is a heavy trucking route, is just beset with women: fat, slim, old and young offering their services to the needy trucker and commercial traveller. So, if you’re wanting a trucking route, this is the place to drive through. Interesting.
Visiting Portugal, especially along the west coast, one cannot help but be dismayed at the preponderance of vast industrial complexes belching smoke and acrid fumes – frequently so close to some beautiful old fishing village that you can see the smoke stacks. To be fair, it is not only in Portugal that this happens. It seems to go with all populous countries – but certain ‘poor’ countries seem to have more than their share of heavy industry. Global corporations push their dirty industries offshore in less regulated countries than their own. Local politicians get their pockets lined. The public gets promised more jobs – ‘a boost to the economy’. A bit of new roading infrastructure is promised (to the industrial complexes mainly as it turns out), and it’s done! More pollution.
Copyright © J Cedric Watkins 2009