We leave Cáceres at midday, having climbed up the cathedral’s bell tower and down into an old aljibe, or water cistern, left here by the Arabs and drive over some hard, hard country, Extremadura explaining its name to us as we pass through it. One wonders whether anything here is ever green – at any time of year – but certainly not now in high summer.
They say Ireland is like a wet sponge clinging to a rock. I say they – it was probably me. Well, this is like a baked crust. The ground is strewn with sizeable boulders and partitioned by dry stone walls. The kind of skies you only see in big country – multiple categories of cloud wisp into the distances.
I can’t resist – I put some flamenco on, reminded here of my earliest notion of Spain, born not of my first visit but long before that, of a painting my father owned that depicted a señorita standing next to a table in some makeshift tavern, her stance that of a bailaora, the hem of her dress caked in mud and dust. The impression I had was of a people who lived without finery but not without style, and for all the talk of Spain’s homogenization, for all the “we’re all Europeans now” chatter – as if being the same was a good thing – I think I can still see it. You don’t have to look for it in poverty anymore and the Spanish need no longer live in some romanticized past, but it’s there. A people who provide spectacle and drama without any apparent effort.
Salamanca itself is Hogworts in the sun. Spain’s Oxford forward slash Cambridge. Reams of University buildings in a beautiful sandy colour, encrusted with gargoyles and skulls and crests. The obligatory cathedral. Actually I shouldn’t be dismissive – it’s the most enjoyable cathedral visit I’ve done. They let the visitor climb up and walk along those scary-high galleries you can peer up at and wonder about from the pews. A cathedral tour with added adrenalin rush.
I love recommendations and seek them out, but when the dueña of our hostal tells us that the best place for tapas in the old town is a bar called Bambú I have a bit of trouble processing the information. I’m picturing fruit smoothies, faux bamboo paneling, the ubiquitous Bob Marley soundtrack. I’m not picturing tapas. I’m not picturing good.
For someone who has pretty much always, since age seven or eight, been in love with that temple to good living, the Spanish Bar, qualities such as chic or trendy can seem a little vacuous next to the smells and sounds of a no-frills tapas joint. In Andalucia, where we live, they’re almost all tapas places; wine bars and gintonic clubs and so on tend to do their business in summer and close down for much of the year.
The “real” spots, with local clientele, are tapas joints and they don’t do trendy. They’re never called Manhattan, for example, or Twinkles. There was a place called Zinc, last year, but it didn’t last. No, they’re just called Bar Something-Or-Other or Bodega Imagery-That-Invokes-Traditional-Values or Meson Good-Spanish-Family-Name or whatever it might be.
When we get to Bambú though it turns out I’m right to value recommendations. It’s smart in terms of its modern, minimal décor but decidedly down-to-earth in terms of its noisy, anything-but-minimal customers. For one euro ninety we get a drink of our choice along with a generous tapa each which we can select from the literally dozens of options not merely listed on some laminate but displayed under glass along every inch of the horseshoe bar. Tostas (toasted bread slices) topped with meat and seafood, pizzas, salads, fish and vegetables, stews and soups.
It’s a godsend in a city that though beautiful does not wow us with its food, just off what might be Spain’s most impressive Plaza Mayor – an irregular but somehow cohesive burst of baroque ebullience and bravado, balcony upon balcony upon balcony, lit at night, only the odd open shutter to perturb the symmetry. Those happy to be overcharged for coffee can sit here and sip it – the rest congregate in huddles and sit on the ground enjoying the view, or just stroll through.
In León the following day another Plaza Mayor, more modest but no less beautiful, and another cathedral. Spain’s Gothic masterpiece, it says here, and although the visit is conventional and lacking in Salamanca’s thrill, the interior is bathed in coloured light from God knows how many square meters of stained glass. From the outside too, this is one impressive church, strikingly positioned in the centre of a huge open space.
People in León paint their homes and businesses the same colours as elsewhere in Spain, but they choose darker shades, as if the cathedrals’s shadow casts an aesthetic influence over the rest of the city. The tapas are good, the barmen are rude and they substitute the otherwise ubiquitous jamón for cecina, the beef equivalent. I enjoy a portion but the flavor does remind me somewhat of the aroma that rises from the inside of a wallet.
At the rear of the cathedral a little piece of public art. Two armchairs in wrought iron, on a scale which makes it clear they are there to be used. That night we sit in them and talk. It’s like being in front of the TV only instead of The Wire or Britain’s Talentless Wannabees we have the soaring, illuminated spires of the cathedral, close enough to our feet to make it necessary to tilt our heads back and watch the tops taper into a black sky.
As black fades to grey the following morning we say goodbye to León and to cities as we make for the mountains of Asturias. After a good three-day run of urban pleasure – a mélange of culture and drink – we’re heading for the hills to hunt. I have two preys – Asturia’s brown bears and the legendary fabada asturiana, a bean stew with my name written all over it.Follow @RobinJGraham