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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Guest Post: Trains and Butts and Plains, Part 2

From my English truckbuddy Tim, continuing the tale of his recent journey through the Spanish region of La Subbetica:

The alternative title for this post is ‘There’s no room at the Inn, try the Jail!’ Read on and you will discover why.

As promised in Part 1, our guide for this post is young Martiño Rivas. Part 1 also has a map of La Subbética if you want to follow my route.

One of the things I find interesting about him is his colouring. It’s not the typical Spanish look, his eyes are green and his hair is light brown and straight rather than dark and curly. He comes from Galicia, in the north-west of Spain. Never controlled by the moors, the region has a strong seafaring tradition, and sailors from northern Europe would have been regular visitors and eventual settlers, even 2000 years ago. This fairer colouring is therefore more common in the north, and I hope you’ll agree, makes for a nice contrast. 

Here he is with friend and fellow Galician, actor Yon Gonzalez, whom you might consider more Spanish in looks.

Oh yes, back to the trip: Lulu and I have spent the morning shopping in Doña Mencia, and then enjoy a leisurely brunch at La Cantina, just watching the world come and go, which is a favourite Spanish occupation everywhere. Although the little bar is on the edge of town, it is a popular meeting place for the locals. Reps from the agricultural equipment companies whose factories lie to the west, business men closing a deal over a glass of Rioja, the many hikers and cyclists of course, and the local boys, sadly mostly unemployed, but always with enough money for a coke and some cigarettes, raising clouds of dust with their cars as they race around the gravel-strewn car park for fun. The swallows are busy racing around too, they are building nests on the air-conditioning units hung on the outside walls.

Below them two colourful posters advertise a dog show and farm equipment. This is a very different Spain from the cosmopolitan coast. Reluctantly, we set off along the Via Verde and head back to the hotel.

It’s early spring here in the Subbética, and following the winter harvest, the olive trees are being pruned, and the diseased ones cut down. All over the rolling hills, little pillars of smoke rise high into the still air as the cuttings and old trunks are burnt. Lulu and I take our time, both of us enjoying the sights and sounds of the countryside. On the way I say ‘Hola’ to an old boy who has stopped his labours amidst the olive groves, and is busy whittling walking sticks from the cut-down branches whilst he takes a leisurely lunch. I say ‘old’ because from a distance I would say he is approaching 60, but as I near him I can see he is younger, late 40’s perhaps, but his face is tanned and cracked by the sun: it has a patina just like the gnarled trunks of the trees he tends.

His name is Juanma, and he makes a fuss of Lulu, who has designs on his mixta, a ham and cheese roll. We talk in a mixture of Spanish and schoolboy French, for like most Spaniards away from the tourist areas he has no English (and why should he?). We chatted about walking sticks and the benefits of certain types of wood over others. Then I ask him about his work, and the hunting I had seen going on in the area when I had visited before one Christmas. Mainly rabbits and partridge, he says, but sometimes hares too. I tell him about the Harris hawk I had for hunting back in England. He hadn’t seen one, but he knew someone who kept them, and he knew about Red Tailed Hawks and Falcons too. I told him about the birds I had seen at Zuheros, and he was able to answer a question that had been bothering me for the last couple of nights, indeed it had been keeping me awake. By day the olive groves ring to the cuckoo like call of the brightly coloured Hoopoe . . . hoop-hoop, hoop-hoop.

But at night, all night, there was this strange, incessant, sonar-like ping echoing through the tress and over the hills. Every 2 to 3 seconds, ping, ping, ping . . . it was keeping me awake and driving me mad. At least knowing its source would give it a name. He told me it was a little owl, a Scops Owl to be precise.

Here it is, listen to the little bugger! (I discovered that if you shine your torch out of the bedroom window at 2am you will frighten away the Scops Owl that is perched on the pine tree outside your room. You will also trip over the dog, and probably wake the French couple in the room next door!) If it had had a neck, I would have cheerfully wrung it!

As I went to leave, Juanma gave me one of the walking sticks he had finished. I offered him some money, but he waved it away - ‘I have plenty here’ - and he gestured to the trees with outstretched arms. What a lovely guy. The Spanish are often reserved with foreigners, but if you try and speak the language more often than not they will open up. I’d spent an hour chatting to him, and for that experience alone, the trip was worth it.

As I walked back to the hotel, there was a smell in the air that I could not identify, there was heat to it, it had weight. Only later did I realise that it was the land, the very soil itself. It was the great grey mountain behind me, eroded by wind and rain and time, brought down over the millennia by the tiny streams and rivulets that still flow towards the low hills stretching away before me. It was the smell of the olive trees that grew in it, and, as the old boughs crackled and burned on their funeral pyres, returned to it once more. What a magical day!

Continued after the jump . . .

That evening, rather than eat in the excellent hotel restaurant, I go back to La Cantina. There is a cheerful young waiter there, José, who had caught my eye on previous visit to Zuheros. Short, even for a Spaniard at about 5’2”, but well proportioned, he reminds me of a young Desi Arnaz, for those of you who can remember that far back! His thick black hair is arranged in a 50’s style quiff and he has an engaging twinkle in his eyes. A star-shaped tattoo encircles his right elbow – heavenly!

La Cantina is celebrating 27 years in business, which means José’s grandparents must have bought the former railway station soon after the line was closed, an astute move that, like many small Spanish businesses, has served several generations of one family. Now grandmother stays in the kitchen and José’s father and uncle run the place, so as one generation passes, the next takes over. It’s a sad reflection of passing time, but many of the young waiters Partner and I got to know when we first came to Spain are now handing over the reigns to their own grown-up children. Tempus does indeed Fugit! I seek out José.

When I meet him he is struggling to control his 2-year-old nephew Jesús. The toddler was doing his best to escape from behind the counter and run out to the road. We both caught him a couple of times as he made various attempts to escape, but in the end Grandma was called from the kitchen and she restored discipline. I’m sure José has my number, because when I went to take some photos of the bar, purely in the interests of art you understand, he called Grandma back, who then hogged the camera, damn! José kept his head down and I’m convinced he was laughing, the little tease.

When I had booked earlier he told me the kitchen would close at 9:30 pm, so I arrived just after 8:00. What he should have said was it didn’t open till 9:30. He enjoyed his little joke, as I had to sit at the bar downing G&T’s for over an hour until the restaurant opened! I know, I didn’t have to drink, but this was a holiday, and the view from my barstool was very pleasant! I order morcilla (black pudding) for starters, followed by loin of pork, both locally produced and full of flavour. I’m not sure what time I left, and the walk back to the hotel under a cold starry sky seemed endless, but I slept extremely well that last night, even the Scops Owls didn’t disturb me!

It’s my last day, so after packing the car and having an early breakfast, Lulu and I take one last walk into Zuheros. There is a museum dedicated to the village and its way of life that I want to visit. It’s closed when we arrive, so we sit outside the little cafe opposite and wait. However, about half an hour later, just as the museum opens, a coach load of pensioners arrive, probably from a nearby town and having a day out in the countryside. Some 40 couples get off the coach and whilst the men head straight for the cafe, the women head for the museum.

When I go over to the museum myself, pandemonium reigns inside, and the curator suggests I come back later in the day. Forty elderly Spanish women are all vying for tickets, guide books and gifts, voices are raised, and the noise is deafening. I leave the curator to his fate and flee back to the cafe. By now Lulu has been joined by some of the old boys, they are all tiny, possibly José’s relatives, but happy to be out of the coach and away from their spouses. Didn’t you want to see the museum? I ask. No, we’re happy with just a beer. They raise their drinks in salutation. Men, it seems, are the same the world over!

Back at the hotel, we bid farewell to Luis and his staff. I’ve decided to take a different route back and so head south-east rather than due south. First stop is Rute, a bustling town that seemingly has a museum or visitor centre for just about everything: donkeys, flowers, liqueurs, traditional cured hams, biscuits, and chocolate. No contest, I decide on the chocolate one. The visitor centre is part of the famous Galleros chocolate factory, and inside are the most incredible chocolate creations, famous buildings, life-size chocolate effigies of the Royal Family, and the world’s largest chocolate nativity scene, or Belén, which is the Spanish name for Bethlehem. I did say expect the unexpected, here is a photo.

Everything is made from white, milk, and plain chocolate, marzipan and coloured sugar, some 1450 Kg of the stuff. Apart from the numerous buildings and landscapes, there are 180 individually made figures, most of them in chocolate, but some in marzipan and sugar. Now we know why the inn was full, and the stable’s getting pretty crowded too, as you can see.

Beléns are an integral part of a Spanish Christmas, and may range from human tableaux in a village square to just a few small figurines in a manger, taking pride of place on the sitting room table. The Spanish sense of humour can be found in most Beléns if you care to look, for hidden almost out of sight you will normally find one or more of the following; a shepherd taking a pee, animals coupling, a pork butcher (in Judea?), two Roman soldiers holding hands. For the Spanish the sacred and the profane often go hand in hand as well!

And now some more friends. Let me introduce you to His Most Catholic Majesty, King Juan Carlos I and his wife, Queen Sofia. I can claim some connection to the Royal Family by the way. Lulu, who as you know, is my black Labrador, was bred in Sevillá at the same kennels where the King gets his Labradors from . . . perhaps I should have got a chocolate Lab!

His Majesty weighs in at 450 Kg, or nearly 1,000 lbs.! It took 2 master chocolatiers 3 months work to make the figure. The King at 6’ 2” towers over most of his subjects; the average male height is 5’ 7”, so it should come as no surprise that after football, the most popular sport in Spain is . . . basketball, yes really! The average height of the national team is 6’ 6”, still short for a basketball team, but they are consistently among the top 5 teams in the world, and are currently 2nd in the 2013 FIBA ranking. Here’s a photo of the team, don’t they look handsome? But those shorts are a fashion disaster and will have to go!

Next to the King, the more petite Queen Sofia comes in at a mere 280 Kg by comparison - a little over 600 lbs. She is widely loved, and remains hugely popular with the Spanish people, unlike her husband who has suffered a number of public relations disasters over the last few years, and a corresponding fall from grace. The corruption that permeates big business and politics has even reached the Royal Household: the King’s son-in-law has been accused of fraud and influence peddling, and his wife, Princess Cristina, appears implicated. If there is a melt-down in this chocolate-box Royal Family, things are going to be pretty messy!

After purchasing the obligatory bag of chocolates (white chocolate with nuts FYI), Lulu and I set off for Iznajar, where we stop for a short coffee break. It’s a tired, run-down place and I’m keen to move on to Archinoda. As I descend from the mountains that surround the stygian Lake Iznajar, a major reservoir for Malaga city, the road bends sinuously like a snake, but as the countryside flattens out, the sharp curves and s-bends gradually become much broader and softer, more like a river meandering through the countryside. I have reached the Hoya de Antequera again.

Just outside of the small village of Archinoda I see a complex of low grey buildings on my right, with a high wall surrounding them. They look like army barracks, something that always piques my interest. Sadly I’m to be disappointed, there are no soldiers here, for it is the infamous Archinoda prison. Not infamous because of its tough, cruel regime, or for the fact that no one has ever escaped from it. No, actually it’s quite the reverse, for the prison has never seen an inmate in its life and no guards have ever patrolled its high walls. Three years after it was completed the prison remains empty; no one in authority has the funds to staff it, furnish its cells, or fit out its dining halls.

This is another example of public fraud and corruption. A politician decides “we need a new prison”, a friend in construction gets the contract without competition, he pays the politician a backhander and makes his own profit on the building work, and when it’s finished no one needs it. Arguments will go back and forth, but nothing will ever be proved behind a web of lies and deceit. We also have 3 regional airports that have yet to see an aeroplane, marinas with no boats, and so on. Unfortunately it has become a way of life here. Most people just shrug their shoulders if you talk about it, so commonplace is it. If you ask about a town’s corrupt mayor, people will say “Yes, we know he’s a crook, but he’s our crook” and there the matter lies.

Talking of jail, that is where Martiño and Yon will end up if they carry on like this, a scene from the hugely popular series El Internado – The Boarding School, a preposterous tale of former Nazi scientists conducting genetic experiments under the grounds of a spooky old boarding school. Much murder and mayhem ensue, and even Mossad gets involved – yes, prime time TV again! They all look a little too old for school, but hey, it’s a locker room scene, so forget the language barrier and concentrate on the visuals.

I haven’t decided where we will travel to next, but I have selected our guide, the studly Iker Casillas, captain of the Spanish football team.

So, as we leave La Subbética (for now at least) here is a little song in English and Spanish – ‘Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps’, or ‘Quizas, Quizas, Quizas’, crooned by Desi Arnaz, whom we spoke about in connection with young José earlier. You see how beautifully put together this post is, dear reader? Just like little José, and the title of the song sums up his teasing perfectly!

Soon we're driving past Antequera again, and before long we have gone over the mountains and are back on the coast, our Spain, our home. Pundits say the Costa del Sol isn't the real Spain. Well of course it is, it's as real to the people who live and work here as La Subbetica is to those living and working there. It may be a different reality, but it’s real nonetheless.

Spain is a big country by European standards, and I enjoy travelling around it. But I have to admit to a lovely comfortable feeling as I walk through the front door and Lulu rushes in to find a favourite toy left behind and missed these past few days. Very soon the kettle's on for a proper dish of tay!

Lulu and I hope you enjoyed the trip, and we have certainly enjoyed your company. Hasta luego!


Nikolaos said...

A fascinating tale. Thnks.

I'm learning Spanish myself, from a delightful Mexicana and from Linguaphone. One day, perhaps, I shall see the country.

Tim said...

Muchas Gracias Nokolaos, y buena suerte!

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