Altogether I spent eight days crossing northern Spain, camping each night in the desert. The towns were not far apart–I think the longest distance was 30 kilometers, more often 10 or 20. Some towns were tiny, especially when I got off on the secondary, sometimes unpaved roads. Many towns were eerily silent, a dog or two, a rooster crowing, a very old man or woman walking with a cane and looking at me like I was a space man. One Sunday I found myself in the center of a prosperous small city at noon, with church goers walking about greeting each other, standing in line at the bakery to buy a loaf and a treat. I sat on a bench watching the storks in their bell-tower nest while I ate my sugar-almond-apricot pastry and soaked up the sun.
Sometimes I would ride into a little dusty desert town with one adobe bar and a dog asleep in the street, and have a beer with the old guys smoking cigars. I feel like a cowboy in a B-movie western. Not a word of English around here, but it doesn’t matter. A beer in a bar is a dollar and a quarter.
The desert was not all of one sort. I climbed up into some mountains, and the scrub and sagebrush became pine forests, still with the occasional farm, village, church, old castle, or dwelling. Agriculture seems to depend on a system of canals and concrete irrigation troughs, which resemble concrete ditches when they are low, ancient aqueducts when they are raised up on arches. As I neared my destination, a town of 5000 near Barcelona, I climbed and descended through some very beautiful forest on a very nice, smooth road, sweating for two hours on the uphills and freezing for twenty minutes on the downhills. My Fedora keeps the sun off my burnt ears and neck,
I could carry on for a long time about the villages and the towns, roads and the campsites, vistas and castles, but I want to tell you about what I learned of the people and the culture. These Spaniards are a good, hard-working, tough bunch. They look at me with a scowl and dagger eyes (of course, I’m dressed in black with shades and a Fedora), but when I try my Spanish on them, they loosen up quickly.
Actually, my Spanish did me little good. In the Basque country, Euskal-Herria, they spoke Basque. They are ornery about being Basque, not Spanish. The signs near the border were in French and Basque, some Spanish. Invariably, the French would be spray-painted over, or the French spelling of the town changed to the Basque spelling. Grafitti was frequent and anti-Spain. One in English said, “This is not Spain!” One in Basque said something like, “1500 to 2000–500 years of occupation is enough!” Others I could understand from words like “revolution”, “¡No Spain!” and clenched fists. I didn’t meet anyone who spoke English; didn’t meet much of anybody but bakery clerks and gas station attendants. I went to a paint store to get alcohol for my stove, and the Spanish labels on the cans had Basque language stickers over them.
When I got past Pamplona a ways, I got into Catalunya. Another language, Catalon, and a population seemingly as ornery as the Basques. I was near Andorra, a tiny mountainous Catalon-speaking country that was never conquered by Spain or anybody else. More revolutionary graffiti, Spanish signs painted over, and Catalon language and pride evident in stores and gas stations. I got all these impressions while never really meeting anyone until I got to my Warm Showers host in Gironella, a town about the size of Middlebury. Jordi is 37, works in a factory, and has bicycled and motorcycled around the world for half of each year since he was a teen. He lives upstairs over the family grocery store, where mom Lourdes showed me to my bed, shower, kitchen, laundry, food, wine and veranda without a word of English but much warmth and pride. (Jordi’s parents live elsewhere in Gironella.) Jordi came home later; he speaks good English and Spanish; Catalon is his native tounge. Changing into clean clothes after a wonderful shower, Jordi and his cousin and three friends brought me to a place in a neighboring town (their Thursday night routine for years), a lively biker bar, standing room only, where we had beer and bacon sandwiches. These guys, all in their late thirties, grew up together, had varying levels of English, and they all understood bicycles. In fact Pep, now my pal, is proprietor of the local bicycle and motorcycle shop, and was a World Champion Trials Rider back in the nineties. World Champion! (Trials, popular in Europe and less so elsewhere, is the slow-motion, gymnastic art of riding on two wheels over a seemingly impossible obstacle course. Pep’s stripes were earned in the bicycle, not the motorcycle, but his shop specializes in both kinds of trials bike.) Later, at another bar back in Gironella, we got to meeting the other townspeople, drinking more beer, and having a good old time. They explained that my impressions were pretty accurate. Every one of them considered themselves Catalonian, not Spanish. They only spoke Spanish rarely, when they had to, and because it was taught in school. They didn’t much care who was the president of Spain, they answered only to the local police and not the national, and they considered their home to be under a 500-year-long occupation by a foreign country. Except for large and prosperous Barcelona, where Spanish was the main language and Catalon second, the whole area was said to be populated with people of the same opinion.
I was made to feel at home at Jordi’s in a most heartfelt way. Jordi left for work next morning before I awoke, and I found that Lourdes had brought a breakfast for me up from the grocery store. I did my laundry, gave myself a haircut, took another shower, and soon it was time to go to a neighbor’s for lunch, a two-hour affair with a small family. There Ramon and Antonia served home-made Patxaran (PATCH-er-RAHN), a plum liquor that my son Henry had experienced in Basque country a few years back, and Ratafia (RAHT-uh-FEE-yuh), a potent home-made liquor made from fresh walnuts, anise, raisins, cinnamon, herbs, and a lot of other ingredients. Three-year-old Elna served me ice cream, and made me miss my grandchildren once again. I enjoyed talk of bicycle touring, camping, foreign places, gardening, herbs, women and alcohol with Ramon, Jordi, Antonia, and Jordi’s sometime traveling partner, Clemente. The men and I then repaired to a cool, dark restaurant for tea and coffee, where we were joined by a couple of townsmen. One of them was Jaume, who lived in Andorra and owned an agricultural equipment dealership in Gironella. We hit it off. He’s a type I have met before; maybe you have too. Prosperous, self-confident and somewhat charismatic, he has sharp features (nose, chin, hair, smile, clothes), more than a few extra kilos, a sharp wit and a quick tongue. He spoke Catalon, Spanish, French and Portugese, but little English. He liked to joke and tease. “¡Stihl!”, ¡Husqueverna!”, “¡John Deere!” we would shout at each other, slapping backs and laughing loudly. Long story short, we were all invited to his friend’s ranch for a beef barbecue that evening (he would tell his friend later). Jordi warned me that I should not expect my planned early-morning departure to actually happen. When you are invited to dinner here, the time is not specified because it is 21:00.
Somehow I sandwiched in a visit to Pep’s shop, where he had invited me to bring my bike to clean the desert dust from my drivetrain. Pep’s beautiful wife Sylvia and charming ten-year-old daughter Julia kept me distracted while Pep cleaned my drivetrain. I was allowed to polish my frame and wheels and check my air pressure, and for a moment I wished to end my travels right there. Pep, you are the best.
We meet up with Jaume (JOW-may) at a bar across the street from the grocery store. Jordi (JOR-dee) drove his father’s VW Van II very fast and very skillfully with Clemente (cli-MONN) and Quinti (KIN-tay) in back with my mandolin. That’s James, George, Clem and Quinten for you gringos.
Forgive the excess detail here, but detail is what this evening was fashioned from. We arrived to what is called, in Catalon, a Mas, a large established rural farm home. This one was named Escrigues after the Romans left; the name was still there, carved in stone above the door. It looked to me like a three-story hacienda with lots of trees, arched terraces with arched balconies above that and arched balconies above that, an iron gate that disappeared up into the stonework, a large dooryard with a carriage house over to the side, oversized doors from antiquity with a knocker the size of a guitar, stuff like that. The largest Saint Bernard specimen in existence came out to slobber on Jorme. Our hostess Laura opened the door and greeted us in an elegant flannel shirt and blue jeans. She resembled a younger Madonna (the popular music star, not the religious icon). After some stairways, doors, vestibules and hallways, we found ourselves in a small room with a large Italian marble fireplace, where our host Jorgi (movie-star handsome and no relation to my warm showers host Jorgi, the skillful driver and world traveler) was cooking large steaks directly on the hardwood coals he had raked onto the hearth. The elaborate dragon andirons, the fireplace fittings for roasting and cooking, the dragon motif fireplace set, the candle sconces, chandelier, door and shutter hinges and locks, the doorknobs and handles, all were clearly crafted in wrought iron by the same hands centuries ago. The sturdy table and leather-seat chairs were somehow uncluttered with regular stuff; phone, newspaper, keys, sweater, books, sunglasses. Wine made on the premisis was passed around (men only) in a Catalunya porro, a glass carafe with a pointed spout coming off the side, through which you poured wine into your mouth, wine-skin style.
We were soon shown to the dining room, where fourteen-foot cielings made room for twelve-foot china and silver cabinets, huge chandeliers, bed-sized portraits and the like. We were seated at a sixteen-foot table with china, silver, linen, candles, the whole works. There were nine of us. After some translation, the rarest steak was soon hanging over the edges of my sizable plate, then piled with goat-cheese and tomato salad, what looked and tasted like potato chips but were soft enough to eat with a fork and still hot from the fryer, baked chick peas with crunchy, salty pork skins on top (served in what surely must have been great-great-grandmother’s favorite cast-iron heirloom), fresh bread in huge slices, and a sauce that resembled mayonaisse but tasted like garlic and olive oil and heaven. Salt was presented in a bowl coarsely ground, hot, and soft enough to crumble onto your steak with your fingers. Dipping everything into the garlic/olive-oil/heaven mixture, we ate. It was good. So far, except for the salt, everything was grown and prepared at the Mas.This next bit might be rated PG for excess alcohol consumption. I had just recovered from our lunch when we met for a beer before the drive to the Mas. The porro of estate wine was still being passed around when glasses of Jorme’s family wine were poured, twenty years old, dark red, sweet and strong. Salut! Some local Catalon wine was also served, red and white. Then the host brought out his father’s Ratafia. Remember Ratafia, from way back there at lunchtime? This time it was served ice cold. Walnuts, anise, cinnamon, 30 herbs, about 35% alcohol, average guess. Sweet, but bitter too. When the host saw that I liked it, loved it, he kept my glass full. It was just right to wash down the almond-vanilla cake, brownie-like chocolate cake, and giant strawberries (not from the Mas). That was all pretty easy to wash down anyway, due to the healthy dollop of whipped cream on our plates. Not stiff whipped cream, not runny, just…whipped cream. It was good. About a second and a half after I thought, “I could use a toothpick,” toothpicks appeared at my elbow on a scallopped plate arranged so that you could take one without touching the others with your fingertips. The hostess spoke to me for the first time, in un-accented English. “Was it good?” she asked. “Very good,” I said. “You speak English.” “I was educated in Switzerland.” Our host and one or two of the men kept up the lively conversation, with close attention and frequent contribution from the others. The women and I were silent, attentive, smiling. The host wouldn’t let my glass get empty. Ratafia, my new favorite drink. I said, “This is the finest Ratifia I have ever had!” in English, and we all laughed like it was the funniest thing ever heard. Clemente translated it and we laughed louder and poured more. Good; they were as drunk as I was. We had some laughter about my sunburned face and white hair and beard. As the oldest there, a traveler and a guest, I was shown much respect. I thought to myself, “I’d like to play my mandolin.” Laura said, “Would you play your mandolin for us, please?” Still at the table, I played Maiden’s Prayer and Real Laid Back to rapt attenton and applause. More Ratafia followed. More raucus laughter. There was a general getting up and clearing of the the table; Ramon and Melissa left, and Jordi (of the Mas) had to turn out the kitchen lights to stop Clement from doing dishes. (Shall I describe the kitchen for you foodies? Starts with an oversized Aga built into a hooded tile alcov; tile floors, stone walls, and arched windows; copper sinks in addition to the original massive stone ones; a chopping block the size of a Fiat holding a loaf the size of a bed pillow and a sword-like knife; big hams and cheeses, copper and cast iron hanging thick from wrought-iron racks and hooks; large wooden shelves with large white stoneware bowls and pitchers. No electrical appliances except a commercial bakery-style bread kneading machine. No fridge but a door to a pantry where a spring-fed stone water trough keeps things fresh in wood-lidded crockery and cork-stopped stoneware jugs. More. There.) Seven now, we repaired to the room with the fire, where the host threw on another burley fruitwood crotch. When it smoked and refused to catch, I distinguished myself by blowing it into flames with three big ones while the hostess was reaching for kindling. Drunken bastards hurt my sunburn slapping my back in admiration. An ancient-looking brown stoneware bottle of gin, some glass bottles of tonic water, lemons and crushed ice were brought out, and strong gin-and-tonics were prepared in long-stemmed snifters of some sort right there on the table so that the host and hostess would not miss a syllable of conversation. I picked up the mandolin and asked, “Happy or sad? Fast or Slow?” “Some of each, please.” Appalachian Spring, Big John McNeil, Ashokan Farewell and then Sailor’s Hornpipe. They thanked me profusely, pleaded for more. I tried Flintstones and it worked, Jorme howling “¡WILMA!” at the end with such perfection that the laughter went on for longer than the tune did. Now I wasn’t the only one with a bright red face. The fire and the conversation died down in a pleasant lull as we all sipped our drinks, sighed and smiled. “One more please, a slow one?” Alone Again, Naturally. All eyes were either closed, gazing at the mandolin or staring into space; all were wet, mine included. 2:00AM. Goodbyes were said, hugs and long, two-handed handshakes, and we were walked to our vehicle. The dog came out to slobber sleepily on Jorme one more time. We took back roads to Gironella for security reasons. We let Clemente out in the middle of nowhere, because that’s where he lived. Dropping Jorme and Quinti off at their car with another heartfelt goodbye, we surely woke townspeople with our cries of “¡WILMA!” Less than thirty meters from Jordi’s house he said, “There’s still one place open. Want a beer?” I said, “The night is young.” He looked at me thoughtfully for a few seconds and said, “Yes, it is.” After a few seconds more he said, “OK, you want a beer or no?” The place was still hopping with young folks watching the band pack up. Jordi finally let me pay for something after I whacked him with my hat. We took our beers to a table and met Quinti number two, a happy local fellow with English. Quinti helped to refine my view of Catalunya. “I like Spain,” he said. “But this is not Spain. This is Catalunya. I like America, too. But this is not America. This is Catalunya. I love to visit Spain, I love the Spanish people. But I am not Spanish. I am Catalon. I hope to visit America some day. I’m happy that you visited Catalunya. I hope you return.”
That would make a good ending, no? But it goes on. High on Yerba Mate, I stayed up until sunrise writing these paragraphs. In a stroke of luck (both kinds), I deleted my work accidentally and irretreivably after a couple of hours. The resulting re-write is better, richer, smoother and shorter, in my humble, biased opinion. I slept from 8:00 to 11:00 and went across the street for breakfast. Jordi was delivering grocericies with his father. At the busy cantina, Marta refused my money. “Hong Kong” she said. A couple of hours later, after a rain and a nap, I was invited to the home of Guissepe and Lourdes, Jordi’s parents, for another of these Catalunya lunches; beautiful, elaborate, delicious, exotic fare served with four kinds of alcoholic beverage, some home-made. Guissepe showed me his travels on a map of America. He has several times flown to the USA, rented a nice car, and driven thousands of miles. He has visited more North American cities than I have. He loves cars and trucks. He wanted all the details on what I drive and what I like; he approved heartily.
Now I’m back at Jordi’s typing this while he and his friends make beer in the kitchen. In a little while I will start packing, preparing for tomorrow’s ride to Barcelona and my ferry to Italy. But not before a farewell, Sunday-morning breakfast with half the town at Marta’s cantina. At Mass there will be prayers, I have been assured, for good weather and favorable winds, safety and protection from evil for the American traveler. I leave Gironella and Catalunya with regret and joy, a smile on my face and a lump in my throat.