Ooops, I see a further blip in my blog-constancy: nearly 4 months is a long time. No excuse except life! So here I am bringing you the outer world seen from my snug compartment in the Transcantabrico train as it rolls across northern Spain. From Santiago de Compostela it finally reaches Bilbao, before curling south through the Sierra Cantabrica, seen outlined by sunrise in the next pic. Not a bad start to the day!
Having just completed two more train journeys (as a National Geographic ‘expert’) chugging through such sublime landscapes, I thought it was time to flag up a few less obvious aspects. There are umpteen masterpieces en route, but for once let’s forget the monumental Romanesque churches and cloisters, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim, the botafumeiro swinging insanely across the nave of Santiago de Compostela’s cathedral (you almost expect to see the priests take off with it), the seductive medieval streets of Oviedo, the scintillating La Concha bay of San Sebastian – and plenty more postcard sights. For what I love even more about Spain is its daily life packed with quirkiness. So here we go on a little tour of daily eccentricities.
One day in Santiago (incidentally a town I never tire of) I came across a group of bag-pipers and local clog-dancers, all dressed to kill, bouncing their heels and blasting away. It was a spirited, seemingly impromptu performance in a square of not great importance, and didn’t feel like Spain AT ALL. Whirling dervishes? The costumes looked Austro-Hungarian, and the bagpipe music was deeply Celtic, but of course this is Galicia, where they speak a language closer to Portuguese than Castillian and are increasingly beating the drum of their cultural identity.
They also consume hummungus amounts of octopus, as opposed to the pork which rules the rest of Spain. I’ve blogged about Galicia’s food before, the divine, often obscure shellfish and the ultra-fresh fish (leaving Atlantic stocks even more depleted, & forcing their trawlers to go further & further south, far down the African coast).
But Santiago’s covered market, a beautiful granite affair built in the 1920s to resemble a Romanesque structure, does actually display a few piggy items, as below. Fear not, the head never appears on a plate – well as far as I’ve seen.
Another day brought me face to face with a bizarre mini-replica of Lourdes. This is tucked away in the back-streets of Viveiro, a Galician coastal town of the Rias Altas – a dizzy coastline with a crazy pattern of inlets like spaghetti. Initially I thought the wax limbs were an art installation, then realised they were actually ex-votos dedicated to a statue of the Virgin Mary – who comes complete with sparkling halo. Ironically, this outdoor altar and ‘cave’ belongs to the next-door convent of the ‘conceptionistas’ – conceptual nuns?
Beyond Asturias, over into Cantabria where their greatest sights are undoubtedly the fantastic Paleolithic cave-paintings (including, even, the replica at Altamira) I was particularly struck by the perfect simplicity of a bread delivery. This happened in the justifiably touristy town of Santillana del Mar – picture-postcard-perfect with cobbled streets, spectacular medieval architecture and dozens of specialist food-shops. Of course I dive into them instantly, but this time stopped in my tracks to watch a little van stop and lay a fresh loaf of bread on a windowsill. Service indeed.
More on the foodie front: in Bilbao, just round the corner from its snazzy modernista railway station, I found a vintage ice-cream (helados) parlour called Nosse-Bé (a name that rings a loud Madagascar bell to me). Unusually, their chalk board stated ‘no gluten, no sugar, no lactose, no cholesterol’ – all their home-made ices turned out to be made from rice-milk. And this was a parlour that had been going for a century. Next time I’ll have one, as the range of flavours looked totally addictive, seconded by horchata, a yum Valencian drink made from tiger-nuts.
Borsalino hats? Yes, they still wear them. All those dapper old gents of the Iberian peninsula who while away their retirement on sunny benches, shooting the breeze, they ALL NEED THEM! I love old hat shops, they take me back to some bygone age of pure style. These all look pretty similar, but I’m sure a discerning local would know exactly which to pick. In fact I bought a genuine “Panama” hat in the Yucatan peninsula many years ago, and always loved the way the soft, tightly woven fibre could be rolled up to pack away, then sprang into shape again at a flourish.
And a last pic, this time of a more typical sight: candles. Here they light the tunnel at Covadonga that leads to Asturias’ patriotic shrine to Pelayo, the hero of Catholic Spain. It’s not my favourite place, however scenic, due to the deeply religious fervour in the air, but I love the flickering scarlet flames glowing against the rock. So glow on Spain, and roll on train, it’s always a great experience.