In Presentation on August 21, 2013 at 12:05 pm
J is one of those people that other people call passionate. He speaks quickly and loudly, usually beginning a sentence before he has given himself time to finish the last one, gesticulating wildly as he does so. Bearded and boom-voiced, he runs his bodega and hostelry with presence and charisma. It’s particularly striking right now because the rather large man is standing in the middle of our room, giving us a dressing down for leaving our window open during the day.
“The hot,” he bellows, his face a portrait of betrayal and shattered innocence, “is terrible!”
“It come in!”
This accompanied by more wild gesticulations to signify, I suppose, the coming in of the hot. It’s a singular approach to customer service that I won’t forget in a hurry. I close the window and shutter and this appears to pacify him. He leaves, still mumbling about the hot.
K is a little skeptical. The bodega was her idea and isn’t what she was hoping for. I find it’s usually a mistake to build up too precise a picture of a place you’ve never been to but that is what she’s done. Some Italian movie she saw when she was young was to have been replicated here – vines and cicadas, balmy nights and a rustic farmhouse, family round an al fresco table and a love affair (with me, I would hope).
We’re not in Italy though More
In Plenary, Presentation on August 6, 2013 at 4:41 pm
Usually, when we arrive in a new place we get our bags inside as quick as we can and head out to look around. Not so in Santillana – we loiter in our little studio apartment, showering and catching up on emails, glad to be inside. The truth is the streets of this perfectly preserved medieval village – famed throughout Spain for its picturesque beauty – were intimidating as we drove in, dropped our bags off and drove out again to leave the car in the mandatory car park on the edge of town.
To say the place is popular would be to put it mildly. What would appear to be the two or three principal streets and square swarm with tourists and day-trippers. Getting even our small car through them is a cocktail of fear, rage and regret. The place is awash with cheap t-shirt emporiums and the kind of mass-distributed trinkets you could pick up in Málaga or Madrid. Somewhere behind all these multi-coloured leather goods and straw hats is the place that Sartre called “the prettiest village in Spain” but, as K succinctly puts it, “I think we got here about two hundred years too late”.
There are a few genuine artisans working here – jewellery, art, furniture – but lots of it’s just tat. A little girl’s flamenco dress, in Cantabria. Really? The region is famed for its anchovies and if the shop shelves in Santillana are anything to go by, they all come from this inland town; if the prices are anything to go by, they’re golden anchovies. We don’t see a single butcher, or electrical appliances store, or fruteria. More
In Presentation on July 31, 2013 at 10:28 am
Last time it was all scorched earth and a sky the blue of blue flame.
This time: a smattering of rainclouds drifting slowly beneath a higher layer of white. Greener country, cooler temperatures – the green of the cork trees, for example, like the brush strokes of a painter on the tans of the summer grass.
Last time we played flamenco – Camarón and Paco de Lucia and all the rest of it as we set out on our first big jaunt into the interior of this intoxicating country.
This time: I’m woozy with words in the passenger seat, a headful of problems from the page. The music is americana – plucked strings as the forests slip by. The lakes, the oleanders, the country more colourful somehow this colder summer, the range of shades augmented by sunlight dapples as the heavy cloud lumbers on and breaks here and there.
A wind farm pops up, the turbines standing sentinel on the horizon. As we get closer we see that they’re spinning fast – dervishes, describing an incessant ‘now’ with the rotation of their blades over the ‘always’ of the timeless landscape. The sky over them a gun metal grey, a few rickety old horses grazing on the roadkill-peppered verge.
Finally, droplets on the windscreen. I open my window to smell the rain and stick my fingers out to catch a few drops. It’s cool out there, but as we near Seville the heat rises and the air-conditioning goes on. More
In Presentation on July 3, 2013 at 4:24 pm
Two strips of the AP-7 curve away high overhead where we park beneath a dizzyingly tall flyover and make our way down a dirt track, not all that sure if we’re in the right place. Tired legs make the uncertainty that much more tiresome but there are promising signs as we make our way – a couple of cars pass by and there are people coming the other way who carry towels and wear bathing costumes. A kitsch restaurant where the track begins proclaims itself The Roman Oasis.
We walk for ten minutes or so, reassured – once we’ve asked someone – that we’re not lost. Finally, on our left, we pass an abandoned old pension, or perhaps a spa, with the words Baños Romanos de la Hedionda on its façade and then, on our right, a path that descends to the river.
We’re near Manilva, just four kilometres or so inland from the Costa del Sol, the coastal strip of hotels, resorts and retirement communities that stretches in a great concrete swathe from La Linea to Málaga, then more quietly eastwards. There’s no sign of any of that here but it’s hardly deserted – preserved Roman baths may not have much appeal amongst the Costa clientele but they are very popular with the local families who come here each Sunday during the summer months.
We don’t have any Roman history in Ireland; I don’t think they had the stomach to pick a fight with us. My first thought as I take in the squat, white structure that houses the baths is that if we did More
In Presentation on June 2, 2013 at 1:16 pm
We go to Jerez. Our usual hostal: cheap, clean and sparsely furnished. Two high little windows into the alley, a cool-tiled floor, a double door with ornamental balcony that overlooks the inner patio, its railings hung with geraniums, a fan in the corner, a chair.
I go for a walk while K sleeps and, finding myself in an old tabanco (a sherry bar that serves from the barrel), I ask for a palo cortado; on a prompt from the ageing barman I stipulate that I’d like it chilled. Then I settle down with it at a barrel-top table and stare into the middle distance like the other two unaccompanied men in the place.
Tabancos will sometimes sell the region’s wine by the bottle as well and there are a few rickety old shelves for the purpose as well as large urns and plastic containers of sherry vinegar. I’m the youngest here by a long way, and I’m not that young. If you require vivacity in your watering holes it probably wouldn’t be for you, with its assisted-suicide-through-sherry vibe and pickled old men, but I like it. When I came in the guy behind the bar looked genuinely surprised to see me but by the time I get up to pay and leave, asking as I do if it would be alright for me to take a photograph of the place, he’s become friendly and says that of course it would. He does advise me that if he himself is in the photo he will charge me.
“Like Ronaldo does,” he says.
“Fine,” I reply, “please get out of the way.” More
In Practice, Presentation on May 15, 2013 at 8:50 am
Somewhere over France a bank of rain cloud, an inverted anvil of grey vapour, rises suddenly and singularly from the otherwise uninterrupted expanse of undulating whiteness below us. It throws a long, blue-grey shadow over the cloud canopy it defies, climbing vertically and coming to an end in a straight line that exactly describes a higher altitude, its upper limit a razor sharp edge, defying not just that lower strata but also expectations. It’s a surprise, an inexplicable shape, a visual shock.
Of course it only appears inexplicable. If I was sitting beside a meteorologist I might have it explained to me. The pressures at work, the anomalies, the weather fronts and the barometrics at play. I might be left (assuming it was a patient meteorologist) with a sound understanding, not only less mystified by what I was seeing but able, perhaps, to predict the next, capable of reading the conditions and spotting those that produce such a phenomenon. Assimilating the information, eliminating the surprise.
See it coming next time, in other words.
I’m not though. I’m sitting beside K and neither of us has a clue, so we crane our necks – her leaning over me – and stare at the funny thing till it goes past. We sit back and she returns to her book. Not a word. Sometimes it’s enough to look at something strange, then let it slip away without explanation.
Further on the cloud cover breaks up More
In Presentation on May 10, 2013 at 8:44 am
How exquisite to race along the country roads of Franconia in Spring, the sky finally clear after a dreadfully long winter, the curving, sinking fields around us dappled with wildflower. We have some sublime music on and it exhilarates – a perfect match for the serene scenery, this central European tableau of farmhouse, mill and die wälder, the abundant patches of old forest that characterise northern Bavaria. We ride the melodies through dorf and altstadt, through the rock formations of Fränkische Schweiz, the territory between Bamberg and Bayreuth they call their little Switzerland – pretty towns, dark-beamed buildings as only the Germans can build them and at almost every junction of the roads a little brewery and biergarten.
We stop in at a favourite, Kathi Bräu, for some quark and onion on heavy brown bread, then set off again along the winding rivers that snake their way from Schloss to Schloss, the imposing castles that number even more here than they do in Andalusia. Our eyes and ears are joined in pleasure as the ensemble, a quintet, race through their bright, 1979 recording of self-penned pieces. The title of the collection, “Highway To Hell”, belies the uplifting nature of the Australian musicians’ performance.
A few days later, we’re without any soundtrack at all, not even a breeze to rustle up the leaves as we walk through forest near the little town of Kulmbach. It’s the kind of country we don’t have in Ireland – there isn’t enough space between things there to fit in places like this, More
In Presentation on April 16, 2013 at 9:20 am
Half an hour ago I didn’t know there was such a thing as manzanilla amontillada; now I’m tipsy on it. I asked for an amontillado but the bartender poured me a glass of this unusual and similarly named manzanilla and, realising his mistake, let me have it as well. Between the amontillado, the amontillada and the manzanilla pasada (which I just had to try) I’m feeling decidedly warm on this hot day in Sanlucar de Barrameda – it’s the third day of a glorious spell of weather in Andalucia and I’m on my third sherry in the third town, after Jerez and El Puerto de Santa Maria, of the famous ‘sherry triangle’. The town, incidentally, from which Christopher Columbus set out on his third voyage to the New World.
Not that they call it sherry – in Sanlucar, it’s manzanilla: a dry wine that tastes a little saltier than finos from elsewhere. The subtle difference is the product of terroir – yeast and soil and all the rest of it – but it’s more romantic to believe (which is probably why people have been told as much for centuries) that the saltiness is added by the marine breezes that blow through the bodegas here, up on the hill that overlooks the town.
It isn’t difficult to see why the place has given rise to a little romance. Wine towns always have a certain something and Sanlucar has the added boon of the water. It occupies the river mouth of the Guadalquivir where it flows into the Atlantic. Sea breezes do indeed blow over the bodegas and the Plaza del Cabildo, lined with wine-from-the-barrel bars More
In Presentation, Production on April 6, 2013 at 3:39 pm
The water is high in El Tajo and roars beneath the Puente Nuevo, dropping to the lower gorge in a ragged chute where the valley opens up below me into an open vista, ringed by mountains – gloomy today but spot lit here and there by a half-hidden sun. I’ve come down to stand on a ledge in the cliff side and wait for the light; sunbeams on the horizon edge closer as the heavy cloud cover oozes overhead. I want to catch it as it passes over the arches of the bridge, illuminating them in golden light against a backdrop of stormy, dark grey sky.
It happens for me eventually – a less-than-perfect result, not as impressive as the image I’d created in an expectant mind’s eye, but worth the wait. When I photograph I spend a lot of time like this: waiting, walking, chasing the light, letting it come to me. If I don’t get the shot I’m after I get another one, or just some time to be still and unwanting. When I get this one I walk further down to the base of the two hundred and twenty year-old bridge – the newest in town – and pass underneath it. The gorge is as dramatic, looking up from here, as it is looking down from up there and the river is loud – the lulling cacophony of big water, rushing through its looped and syncopated rhythms.
I’m glad to be down here because although I’m a fairly regular visitor to the town I’ve never made the descent on this side. My mental map of the place is expanded; I feel as if I’ve got to know it a little better. This isn’t a typical visit – I’m here without K and in the company of two English lords, More
In Presentation on March 29, 2013 at 11:07 am
It’s easy to forget when you’re walking the narrow streets of the old town – hemmed in by the city walls – that you’re out on a headland here. Further up the coast and looking back in this direction it becomes obvious; Spain tapers to a fine point in Tarifa, a slender town that reaches out into the Strait like a white needle reversed. Reversed because it’s the eye of the needle that stretches seaward and not the point – at the very tip of the headland there is a thickening where a causeway divides the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and joins the town with the Isla de Tarifa, a round and rocky former island that since it was joined to the mainland in the early 19th century has qualified as the most southerly point of the European continent.
The island is military and out of bounds. Walkers are welcome on the causeway – which, with the winds around here, is an act of bravery in itself at times – but no further. The island at the far end is gated and walled in with Napoleonic and British fortifications. It’s been tantalising me since I came to this town almost three years ago – a secret Tarifa has been keeping. When a tourist stands at the meeting point of the two seas and reads the ceramic plaque that tells them they’ve reached Europe’s southern extremity, they haven’t. They can see it in the form of the lighthouse that stands on the island’s southern coast but they’re still about a kilometre away. Which is to say, of course, I’m still about a kilometre away.
It’s been bugging me. More