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 – we’re in Spain and J’s place, though handsome, is new and purpose built – the winery and guest house dwarf the little old mill that the family originally owned and lived in, generations ago. The one al fresco seating area overlooks a plain tarmac yard where trucks pull in and out to load up on pallets of wine and a shaggy, one-eyed dog looks for shadows to stretch out in. It’s a working bodega.
So we don’t get Italian movie vineyard. We do get something extraordinary, starting the moment we pull up in Polly. We’ve timed it to disturb the family at their lunch – J, his wife and son and a few sundry others, the table cleared and a mess of broken bread and watermelon rind. Instead of rushing to reception to proffer a professional welcome and check-in, he pours us a wine and they proceed to interrogate us, charmingly. It’s the most disarming arrival I can remember and a taste of what’s to come over the next few days.
We’re the only guests so we have the run of the place. We use the kitchen ourselves to prepare our meals which we enjoy outside in the cool dark of the late evenings, bottles of J’s wine to wash them down. His mother-in-law who comes round at night to sit on the terrace is unable to accept our willingness to eat without bread; on each occasion she hauls herself out of her chair.
“Pan!” she exclaims and goes to get some. When she gets back she explains it isn’t any old bread.
“I’m from near Nájera, you know,” she tells us with pride. “The bread in my village is very good. Muy rico.” She turns and makes her way back to her chair. “Not like the rubbish you get around here.”
Nájera is a few kilometres away.
Later that night I take my camera and tripod out into the blackness of the vines. I long ago promised to make a star trail for K and she has told me she won’t marry me till I do so it’s time to make good. The location, devoid of light pollution, is perfect but even beneath a sky littered with stars, it’s deathly dark at ground level and not easy to set up. When I switch on the torch on I’m set upon by swarming bugs so I take my time doing it in the dark, then leave the camera there to work away for an hour or two while I head back to the hotel and the swimming pool which we have to ourselves.
It’s an indoor pool on the first floor, lined with floor to ceiling window walls on two sides for views of the vineyard, that now blackly reflect the water, lit from beneath. The effect is blue and clean and dreamy, like a nocturnal Hockney. It occurs to me I’ve never had this before – a pool at my own disposal to use day or night. K pushes me about gently on a yellow inflatable and I watch my drifting reflection in the skylights, both body and mind blissfully afloat on the illuminated water.
Afterwards I stumble back out through the vineyard to retrieve the camera and sit up very late, stacking the hundred or so shots. The following day J gives us a tour of his winery. He does it with obvious pride and an utter commitment that takes on a comical aspect when he shows us around his under-construction, underground, perfectly round new facility. Light pours in from the roof and the scale is immense as the winemaker’s voice echoes around the circular space. It is the lair of a James Bond villain, eventually to be lined with wine vats but just as credibly filled with monitors, bleeping servers and missile silos.
We sit in the village square that evening, a glass of sixty-five cent wine each in the sweltering heat and when we get back to the bodega the family are out on the terrace as usual. I had promised the curious M, J’s wife, that I would show her the star trail and I go up now to get the netbook. When I return she has the family on their feet and they crowd around the little screen, looking genuinely enthralled.
“I never knew that such a thing existed,” says M, who has shown K around her vegetable patch and spoken to her of life and family in intimate terms, as friends do. I am proud to entertain and please this family, who failed to tick our initial boxes but who have so thoroughly pleased and entertained us in the days since, especially M, who we will not see in the morning before we leave – she has to go to Logroño with her son, who has health issues. One of the others talks of astronomy and another of astro-photography. Only J is uncharacteristically silent as he looks at the photograph, at the circular paths of light the stars describe as they rotate around Polaris, above the vines he planted himself. I point out the North Star and a bunch of grapes at the bottom of the picture. He shakes his head and finally says something.