In Plenary, Presentation on January 28, 2013 at 8:27 pm
“I’m not a conservative person, am I?” I ask K.
We’re sitting in a wood panelled taberna in Madrid, towards the end of the evening. Full of tapas and perhaps a little tipsy, we haven’t ordered anything here, content to sit side by side with a glass of wine each and fill up on all the antique eye candy around us – the (inevitable) bulls’ heads, the little sign that announces the availability of snails, the dusty old bottles of sherry, the elegant, marble-topped tables.
What I thought then: not conservative. As a matter of fact I hold views which positively annoy conservatives. Actually, I consider annoying conservative types one of life’s great pleasures. More than that perhaps – a duty. It would be no surprise to run into conservatism here, given the decor, but actually the other customers look rather bohemian. We’ve been in Madrid for less than a week and we’ve seen the inside of a lot of bars.
Many, many bars.
Apart from the fact that I probably would have done that anyway, I’ve been researching for a story I want to do on the city and its tapas. K hasn’t voiced any objection to joining me, so here we are in Bar Umpteen. More
In Practice, Presentation on January 20, 2013 at 8:55 pm
I don’t know much about geology, but the rock I’m sitting on is worn, deeply striated and covered in mosses and lichens, and I deduce from this that it must be soft and permeable. That will have helped when the caves here were carved out back in the Bronze Age for use as tombs.
That’s all I know about this place, gleaned from the engraved stone slabs that have been put outside the closed information point. I’m alone up here, having had to climb the fence to get in. The ayuntamiento, or somebody, is enclosing the rocky, cave-riddled outcrop with a fence, laying paths and installing benches for visitors.
I’ve little chance of being disturbed here on this wild, windy Tarifa day. Anybody with any sense is indoors. Over on the other mountain I can see the zig-zag sendero that leads to the wind turbines that fan out along its ridge. It looks tiny from here of course, and tempting, but I imagine it would be a two hour trial to walk it.
What strikes me most about these tomb caves (since I’m alone, I get to sit inside one), isn’t so much that they date back to around 2500 BCE, but that they were still being used for their original purpose as recently as the tenth century. Three and a half millennia. More
In Practice, Presentation on January 5, 2013 at 4:21 pm
Our introduction to Madrid would, I imagine, have a lot in common with the experiences of others who down through the ages have come from quiet countryside and little town for a taste of the metropolis. In the first week of January the city is cold, but crisp and pleasant. It’s a holiday week and Sol, the central square, is crowded with tourists. The melee at nearby San Miguel market, a food destination, is insane and deeply unpleasant. If this place is ever reasonably quiet – merely bustling, say – we’ll come back then. The food looks good.
We dive into what looks like a deliciously kitsch Andaluz bar on the Plaza Mayor – the walls are lined with photos of corrida related gore and bulls’ heads. When we order a glass of wine and a small beer they put a tasty little arroz in front of us and an equally tasty broth of jamon. I begin to relax. Then they manage to upsell us a ración of boquerones fritos.
Then they charge us 19.50 for it.
You can take the one off the beginning of that price and subtract a further two for the going rate in our neck of the woods. Also, it looks like a media to us.
Welcome to the big city, bozos. More
In Presentation on December 28, 2012 at 2:48 pm
I have powdered my groin with sugar and cinnamon.
Open-minded chap though I am, I didn’t do it deliberately. No, it was an accident, the result of taking to my dinner with a knife and a little too much enthusiasm. I’ve been here before. In this restaurant but also right here, facing a plate of this – cinnamon, fine sugar, pastry, nuts and…chicken.
It’s a pastilla, and I find myself back where I first discovered this unusual Moroccan dish, here with my parents and K. I’ve since tried it in other places but nowhere is it as good as here. I say unusual but let’s be honest; it’s downright bizarre. I eat it, as I ate it the first time, in a fitful series of giggles and sighs. I find myself having to take little breaks in order to mentally process my meal. I rest my head in my hand. I look at each of my fellow diners. Are they seeing this? Can they believe it?
You can keep your grubworms and your candied scorpions; this is food at its most surprising, challenging and wonderful. A tablet made of pastry, a disc filled with the aforementioned ingredients and who-knows-what spices and layered on its upper surface (piled, heaped) with dusty sweetness – a checkerboard of brown from the bark of the cinnamomum verum and the white of the sugar. More
In Practice, Presentation on December 20, 2012 at 7:22 pm
It’s Saturday afternoon and I get a text from L, our friend and language intercambio, to arrange some coffee and cake the following afternoon. I will meet him at the mudejar arch that leads to the old town and we’ll pick up some pastries before coming back to our place and “gowering into them”, as they say in my neck of the woods. I can’t vouch for the spelling.
A little while later though I get another text. L has just heard that there will be a traditional matanza down at the alameda earlier in the day. The reader may need some help with terms. Alameda translates as mall or avenue and just about every Spanish town has one – Tarifa’s (and I may be biased) is particularly handsome as it hugs the city walls, lined with stately palms and comparatively high-end restaurants. Parents take their young children there to stop off at the tiny playground on their Sunday paseo and little markets are often set up. There’s a book stall and a kiosk for the whale-watching excursions.
I’m still on a learning curve about the country we live in so whenever anyone slips the word ‘traditional’ in, I’m interested. I text L that, of course, we’ll meet him at the top of the alameda at one, More
In Presentation on November 16, 2012 at 9:41 am
I’m looking for purity.
Natural wholesomeness. Clean, untainted goodness. Healthy, nurturing freshness, whatever you like – you get the picture.
My search has brought me to an industrial estate just outside Tarifa – I’m walking on a cracked, ill-maintained pavement, along a rusting and dilapidated steel fence beyond which a patch of wasteland is a mess of weeds and debris. A little further up I can see a car-wash place and various noisy workshops. Trucks pass by. No sign of the goodness, as yet. I must have walked up and down every “street” in the place.
Ah, here it is: Tarifa Natural, it says over the warehouse loading dock. It doesn’t look like the kind of place I should be walking into, but I do. I’ve been directed here, by the nice women in the herbolario in the old town, and I must have walked a mile all told, so I’m going in.
I step past a forklift and somewhere at the back of the building, out of sight, someone is using a pneumatic drill. The noise is deafening and there’s no one around. I wander about and when the drill stops for a moment I yell “hola!”
In Plenary, Presentation on November 7, 2012 at 10:18 am
This week’s story is a straight-up destination piece.
Destination pieces are often considered passé in travel writing circles, but that’s a failure of the imagination. They are the most essential form that travel writing has because they are the work of a person focusing on a place and together, place and person comprise travel’s most fundamental relationship. It’s all there: person and place. Everything else is fluff.
The current obsession with novelty applies as much to this as to anything else. Our very thinking, it seems, is to be novel if it is to satisfy the demands of our chocolately-chinned, app-building age. “Why We Travel”, “How We Travel”, the titles, or variations thereof, of any number of more recent travel-related essays and articles, have become the questions to be asked since “where” , apparently, became so yesterday.
For me it’s just the opposite. While “how” has thrown up some reasonably interesting, if frequently delusional, reflections on the ethics of travel, the problem with “why” questions is that no matter how fascinating or thorough our contemplations of them may be, they can usually be replaced in an instant, and convincingly, with another well-known and very simple question: why not? More
In Presentation on October 30, 2012 at 10:31 am
Jerez never disappoints. As usual we leave the bodegas alone and find our sherry in the city’s bars. Anywhere that serves a palo cortado by the glass gets our business. You can pay as much as nine euros for a glass of good palo cortado in Jerez, but we choose to prefer the two-fifty variety.
There is this dance we always do first – a sad little conga round the clothes boutiques, K leading the way and I the downcast disciple. Apparently I can be quite annoying. First though we pause at the top of Calle Lancería for me to photograph a favourite building of mine; where Calle Larga and Calle de Santa María converge, the semi-circular Gallo Azul building is the city’s centerpiece.
A beautiful and elegant construction housing a high-end tapas bar on the ground floor and a restaurant upstairs, I have no idea what it hides in its upper floors as they taper upwards towards the neon La Ina sign in a style that seems more than a little phallic to me. The building’s name, which translates as Blue Cock, always, I’m a little embarrassed to admit, gets a giggle.
Photographs taken, it’s off to the shops and thence to a low-end bar for a low-end palo cortado. Sherry aficionados will know that even cheap palo cortado is expensive and excellent wine. More
In Presentation, Production on October 3, 2012 at 9:23 am
This makes a change.
I’m sitting in front of a half litre of dark beer, brewed just a few feet away, bubbly and flavourful. Tucked into an alcove at a wooden bench, I’ve found a space for myself. It’s a beautiful room, actually – low ceilinged on the ground floor of an impressively proportioned brewery building. The wooden beams overhead are supported by heavy iron pillars in an industrial but elegant style – I’d call it Victorian but I can’t imagine they call it that here, in this elegant little town in a quiet corner of north east Bavaria, famous for its numerous beers, on this crisply cool, dark Autumn evening.
Yes, it certainly makes a change. On the other side of the room some kind of team gathering (an all-male line up along a long bench and all wearing the same blue polo shirt) provide a robust soundtrack, but their noisy hubbub – from yodeling (I shit you not) to beer songs – blends easily with the hum of the other patrons’ chat.
K has told me to get lost. Her oldest friend is getting married in the morning and they’re having a quiet little hen night, just three of them. She has decided I’m to be left to my own devices in her beautiful hometown with a pocketful of cash. More
In Practice, Presentation on September 26, 2012 at 9:58 am
There is something about returning home from a road trip that circumvents the end-of-odyssey blues I normally feel when I complete a journey: that little sadness as I turn the key in the door, the funereal quiet as I wake up that first morning in my own bed. I often see myself as leaving behind those things that excite me – adventure, stimulation, discovery – and coming back to the mundane, the daily run of banal challenges, the schlepp. Today though, the feeling is different: one of accomplishment and gladness to be back. Indeed, after two weeks of continuous road travel a couple of personal limits have been reached, at least for us.
Firstly, we’ve been noticing for the last day or three that our capacity to get excited about yet another city/mountain/castle/cathedral/restaurant or beach is flagging. We’re full up – we need time to absorb what we’ve seen (so much!), not more stuff to see. It becomes just that after a while: stuff.
Secondly, if I have to spend one more day in a Kia Picanto I think I’m going to have an embolism. Don’t get me wrong – we love Polly. She’s ours. She’s done us proud – up mountains and down, along motorways and country lanes. But she’s small. She’s very small More