Don Rowe swapped a bleak Hamilton winter for the heat and colour of late-summer Spain. In a land of good food and high passions, he found himself coming back to life.
At 6pm the mayor of Vitoria-Gasteiz, a major city in the autonomous Basque country of northern Spain, shot a rocket into the sky above the city. A short fizz as the proulsion sputtered, then a resounding explosion, echoed by a thousand smaller bangs as thousands of champagne corks filled the air. The air became thick and pungent with cigar smoke. The crowd roared. La Fiestas de la Virgen Blanca had begun.
I’d been feeling low for two months. I was working in an old farmhouse in the Waikato removing lead paint for weeks on end with a hand-held thermal heater and a steel scraper. My partner Lou had been in Spain since May and a grey Hamilton winter was particularly lonely without her. Life wasn’t a lot of fun – I thought Spain might turn it around.
I arrived in Madrid on a Friday evening. At 10pm, the city was waking up. We walked a kilometre in 30 degree night to our hostel. Families dined at tables on the sidewalk, and in the Puerta del Sol there was a live dance battle. We ate huevos rotos (broken eggs) and a plate of croquettes at a sidewalk restaurant, and drank sangria from a jug.
For three days we explored Madrid. We began a month-long hunt for the perfect tapas experience, starting strong with potato bombas at Albur, a bar in the Malasaña barrio. We ordered arroz negro and a half-litre carafe of red wine. The rice was served in a shallow cast iron pan, deep black with squid ink and smelling strongly of fish. Our teeth and lips stained black, we swilled the vino tinto from small glass tumblers.
Madrid was sun and stone, a thriving modern city rising around the king’s royal palace. Every suburb a microcosm with its own unique aesthetics and inhabitants.
From Madrid, we bussed overland to Vitoria-Gasteiz, tracking north before we attempted to cross 600km of inland Spain to the east coast. We were on a tight schedule: the fiestas started this year on August 4, as they have every year since 1884.
Above the 50,000 wine-soaked Basques in Vitoria’s main square, a life-sized human effigy began a zipline descent across the plaza. Dangling by one arm from an umbrella, the effigy known as Celedón carried a haversack and a wineskin, and was dressed in a beret and blouse.
A hairy dude with wide eyes approached. He wore a pink straw hat, and didn’t have a shirt on. He forced a plastic jug of strong spirits into my hand. I drank deep. He asked whether my shirt was important. I said no. He grabbed the shirt by the collar, tore it down the middle and threw the rag into the crowd before careening away into a dancing pit of similarly unclothed, equally inebriated locals.
Meanwhile, the effigy made it across the human sea. It landed on a second storey balcony and was dragged quickly inside. On ground level, a young man dressed as the effigy sprung forth from behind a curtain. He charged into the crowd with the umbrella held open above his head and was swallowed instantly, his progress visible only by the tip of the umbrella. It jostled back and forth, hazy through the steam rising above the surging crowd. On either side ran a militia of bodyguards in orange, clearing a path to the far end of the square.
The man gained a set of stairs and bounded up them, two at a time, snatching a microphone from the mayor and bellowing to the crowd in Euskera, the dialect of the Basque Country. And then he sang, and the crowd roared along with him. It was the first time the ‘Song of Celedón’ had been sung in Euskera, a significant moment in a region only recently at peace.
Spain is where the high culture of Europe meets the mysteries of medieval Islam. Dotted with the ruins of the Roman frontier, it is a country where the past remains physically in the present, whether in the Moorish architecture of Andalucia, the Gothic churches of Barcelona or in the psyche of the people themselves. Spain remains divided over fluctuating ethnic and economic boundaries, many of them with origins older than the discovery of continental America.
One night we drank kalimotxo, a mixture of red wine and Coke, with a local Basque girl and her friends at a street fiesta across town. In one of several beer tents was a banner with several rows of mugshots. "Euskal Presoak – Euskal Herrira" was written above them – “Basque prisoners to the Basque country”.
The men were members of the ETA, a violent Basque nationalist group fighting a separatist cause four decades old. The ETA has killed more than 800 people since 1960, many of them police and politicians. They announced a permanent ceasefire in 2011 and many of their members remain imprisoned around Spain.
We sat with Maddi and her friends on the kerb of a closed-off street. They smoked and drank slowly, speaking to each other in incomprehensible Euskera. The Basque language has no known etymological relatives and is spoken by fewer than 800,000 people.
Lou was pickpocketed shortly after midnight. Thousands of revelers thronged in the streets. The thief approached in a crowded alleyway, sidling alongside Lou and unzipping her handbag. He almost made a clean escape but was foiled when Lou recognised his shirt; white, and covered in pineapples.
“Oye, tienes mi mobíl” Lou accused. You took my mobile.
“No, no, estás loca,” he whined, pawing at his pockets.
“I’m crazy? You’re f**king crazy!” said Lou.
In San Sebastian, a popular resort town on the Bay of Biscay, sunburned Poms waddled along the boardwalk of La Playa de Concha, and the beach itself writhed with tourists. In the alleyways of the old city, criers with British accents forced flyers for cheap nightclubs on us. “Free shots on entry, yeah?”
We weren’t in San Sebastian for the nightlife, though, but for the food. With more Michelin stars per capita than any other city, San Sebastian is an international culinary mecca.
Under an almost tropical rainstorm, we slid along the cobbled streets. Inspired by a YouTube clip from an Anthony Bourdain show, we were looking for Bar Haizea, a pintxos (small bites) joint with a reputation for quality and consistency.
Reached through a nondescript door under a small blue awning, Bar Haizea could be passed over as any one of a number of small eateries. Inside, a solitary pokie machine sat against a mirrored wall.
We started with a creamy parcel of bacalao (salt cod) tied with strips of leak, followed by a langoustine in a blanket of thick butter. Next, the house specialty of the day: a thick, sea-salted bonito steak with caramelised onions and a red pepper sauce, accompanied by eggplant stuffed with cheese.
We bussed from San Sebastian early one rain-soaked morning, and headed south through the city of Zaragoza and onwards to Barcelona on Spain's Catalonian coast. From Barcelona, a train took us to the dormitory town of Vilassar de Mar, where we stayed with a local family for three days. Our hosts were a recently retired cop, his stay-at-home wife and their daughter Laura, an economics student at a university in Barcelona. Her boyfriend Mark was a triathlete and Catalonian nationalist, which caused some difficulties with Laura’s unionist father.
In the courtyard of the castle at Tossa de Mar, further south along the Costa Brava, we ate crema catalana, a Catalonian take on crème brûlée, with the same glassy, burnt-sugar skin. We pressed hard with our spoons and it cracked into satisfying shards. The castle looked over a white sand beach, cannons aimed out to sea.
“They’re for defending against pirates,” Mark said. “There is a saying around here that people use when they see their enemies. It basically translates to ‘the Muslim pirates are coming.’”
Mark told us that the Spanish government was bankrupting this part of Catalonia, skewing economic policies to take business inland and tying up tax funds in ineffectual bureaucracy. Mark worked as a tech entrepreneur and had a young libertarian vibe about him.
Laura’s father Jesus Santi, an author and collector of pre-Roman coins, held a more conservative view. At lunch, over a plate of Serrano ham and melon, he explained 400 years of Spanish history in broken English, describing fallen dynasties, homosexual royalty and the intricacies of wartime allegiances, word by agonising word. Barcelona had an obligation to the rest of Spain, he said.
We spent several nights in Barcelona itself, renting a room in the Sants barrio. For the most part we ate simple dishes like fried turkey salad with olive oil and salt. We didn’t particularly want turkey, but it was cheap and looked much better than the skinned rabbits at the supermarket, stacked in fleshy pyramids and staring at us with accusatory, unblinking eyes. There were four healthy marijuana plants growing on the balcony and their scent filled the apartment, mixing pleasantly with the smell of onions and red wine.
Further down the coast to Valencia. We ate seafood paella, anchovy salads, mussels by the bowlful, and drank chilled white wine. I floated, drinking in the experience like I was dying of thirst. I bought a copy of Kerouac’s On the Road from a bookshop near the bullring. It had nothing to do with Spain, but I was drunk on life and it felt appropriate somehow. At our hostel we stayed up late into the night, talking with a discharged Australian soldier turned-nomad and his German girlfriend. Three days later we left without their names.
Granada, in the south of Spain, shares its name with the Spanish word for pomegranate. The city is most famous not for its fruit, however, but for the Alhambra, palace of the last Muslim emirs in Spain and seat of the Nasrid dynasty. The walls are stone arabesques, carved with such intricate, recurring patterns they could have been cut from balsa wood. Exquisitely detailed ceilings recede into the domed roof, textured like honeycomb stalactites. From a balcony we looked over Granada, the air hazy with desert heat. Jazz saxophone rose on the warm air currents from the city below. Savagely hungover from a night out with hostel pals, I slept several hours on a park bench outside the palace.
From Granada to Córdoba, then Córdoba to Seville. The southern regions went by in a blur, running through our fingers like sand. Lou flourished like the sunflowers that line the highways. Every moment on the road was so rich, so vivid. And yet in retrospect it was just as Edgar Allen Poe said about life: a dream within a dream.
In a corner bar in Seville we ate oxtail and baked eggs under the gaze of the bullfighting pantheon of the last 100 years. Immortalised in flamboyant tercio de muerte (a bullfight's final stage, the “third of death”), they adorned the walls like prize fighters in an old boxing gym. From the ceiling hung thirty hoofed legs of jamon.
We explored empty cobblestone alleyways in 40 degree afternoon heat. Occasionally we caught a snatch of conversation or the hum of air conditioning from behind closed shutters, but for the most part the streets were silent. The siesta is adhered to almost religiously in the south.
Contrast with the machine gun burst of a flamenco dancer's heels hours later at Casa de la Memoria, Seville's flamenco cultural centre. The music is cante jondo - rising, falling, rising again to crescendo. Raw, full of emotion and partially improvised, true flamenco is closer to punk rock than ballet, thick with heartbreak and longing.
It’s emblematic of a certain sadness which pervades Spain as a whole. With several thousand years of history, it’s inevitable that the ghosts of the past are sometimes restless. In the last 100 years alone Spain has been through a civil war, a dictatorship, ethnic unrest, separatist movements and more.
But after backpacking through 11 cities, the essence of Spain to me isn’t melancholy, but passion. Because all the adversity, all the conquests and dynasties and revolutions and war forces people to confront the transience of everything from grand empire down to life itself. It creates, almost by necessity, a lifestyle centred on the here and now. A life built around good food, good company and the totality of the present moment.
To me, Spain is 100 people willingly squeezed in a room meant for 50, napkins on the floor, beer on the table and free food by the plateful. It’s celebration, passion and life, whatever you’ve been through.