Northern Spain seems to have a way of drawing me back. For one reason or another I have visited this rugged “Green Coast” more than any other part of my adoptive home country.
After spending Christmas home in Wales, I flew back to Barcelona. It was bright and warm and it was invigorating to see blue skies again.
I had time for a quick cocktail crusade with my friend Darren before jetting off to Asturias to rejoin Rosana and her family.
We’d spent Christmas apart and I missed her so much. I had wanted to catch up with friends and family, while it was important to Rosana to be home with her cousin Estefania (more of a sister really), who was due to give birth sometime over the Christmas break.
All in all, the following two-and-a-half weeks turned out to be one of the most authentic Spanish experiences I’ve ever had. And, more importantly, it was a chance for me to feel more a part of the Garcia-Gonzalez familia.
Touch Down ~ Back in Spain
Oviedo is a tiny airport, the sort that you wander through and out the other side while looking for it.
There were old travel stickers from suitcases and passports peeling off the conveyor belts and walls – a sort of vintage look that made me feel as if I’d travelled back to the early nighties, to a time when the newness of international travel was beginning to age.
I remember this period well because both of my parents were travel agents and I spent an abnormal amount of my childhood stamping travel brochures at their offices, blowing up balloons for their stalls at various trade events.
Rosana was there waiting for me, her bright eyes shining through the crowd as I entered the arrivals hall. I embraced her, pulling her body into mine and breathing in her sweet cherry lipstick kisses. I think we held hands for the next 24 hours straight.
Love in Llanes, Asturias
It had been raining heavily and the rambling greenery of Asturias looked much like home (Wales) but for the sheer height of the cloud-piercing mountains.
There’s something about the way the roads and villages are tucked into the mountains that makes it easier to comprehend the scale of it all.
Asturias is vast, but mentally manageable.
On our way to the little seaside village of Llanes, where we were going to stay at Lorena’s (Rosana’s sister) holiday apartment, we stopped off at the tiny fishing harbour of Ribadesella.
I had visited just a few months before, but with its rough seas and freshly-soaked streets, it looked completely different to how it had looked in the height of summer.
Hands locked together, we strolled along the water’s edge, although the biting breeze kept it short. There was a sense of preparation and reparation in the air: fishermen welding their lobster cages and people repainting the colourful façades of little bars and restaurants.
I remembered how my Asturian friend Ernesto had explained to me, as we walked these very streets in the summer, why the villages in this part of Spain have always been so colourful. “Asturias was always very poor, so the people would paint their houses using the same paint that they used to paint the fishing boats,” he said with a wistful smile that made me think he was talking about a time not so very far in the past.
We sneaked into a little bar, the wooden doors creaking as we did so. It was packed with silver-haired locals, all gathered around upturned wine barrels, sipping foamy cafe con leches and tiny glasses of beer. As seems to be the law here in Spain, a huge TV dangled precariously from a wall, flicking between Spanish football games and poorly-dubbed episodes of The Simpsons.
I sipped strong black coffee and chomped down a sickly chocolate pastry. Rosana had a beer and a wedge of tortilla served on a slice of starchy white bread. The bill came to €4. It felt warm and familiar and I revelled in the sense of being home.
Llanes too looked different than it had when I’d visited in the summer. The crowds of professional newspaper perusers were gone. The streets were no longer filled with the sounds of children playing and cider splashing into glasses from a great height.
It was empty, ours and ours alone.
On our first night we headed to one of the few bars that were open and sat at a tiny wooden table. We used toothpicks to pick the meat out of tiny little bígaros (sea snails) and mixed grape with grain. A crew of surly looking sea-dogs hovered at the bar, sinking beer after beer and huddling outside to smoke cigarettes in the rain.
We ran back to Lorena’s apartment in the rain, buzzed from the few drinks we’d had and the invigorating way it felt to be back together after almost a month apart.
That night, as we held each other in bed, I felt more in love with Rosana and my life in Spain than ever before.
Blown Away at Llanes’s Bufones de Pría – Natural Water Spouts
The next day we drove through vast stretches of mountainous landscapes to the Bufones de Pría.
Clouds of silver and gold hung low in the sky, the sun illuminating them from above like cotton balls drenched in whiskey. I detest driving in Barcelona but here, in “Green Spain”, it’s such a pleasure.
We drove directly off the motorway directly onto what I can only describe as a dirt track, which we followed to Asturias’ famous Bufones de Pría. Bufones are basically little air pockets or chimneys that have been chewed into the coast’s limestone rock by the relentless Atlantic waves.
On a wild day, the swell makes the water erupt like volcanic jets into the air from the mini pockets that dot the land.
We could see the waves rolling in and feel the earth rumble beneath our feet as the water worked its way into the burrows below.
But the roars that made me feel as if we were walking over the snout of a dragon erupted from the ground as little more than a sneeze. Albeit a noisy, raucous sneeze from a nostril the size of a whale.
After a few frustrating attempts to capture the action on video, we gave up and ambled back to the car, stopping off at a tiny cove carved into a farming field on the way.
“Apparently this is the smallest beach in the world,” Rosana told me. “I think maybe it looks more impressive in the summertime.”
I agreed. It was bloody small though!
Asturian Cider and Beastly Feasts
We drove back to Llanes from the Bufones, the clouds growing darker all the while, and made it back in time for dinner at a local restaurant.
We drank hard Asturian cider, which is poured by a professional cider pourer from a height. The long pour “breaks” the cider in the glass, releasing its zesty and palate-scouringly dry qualities in a gentle fizz.
The idea is to bosh it down in one while it’s still “alive” and it gives you a zingy kick.
The waiter comes by your table every now and again to pour you another culin, which basically translates as “little bottom”. A good pour of cider should only fill the bottom of a chunky cider glass – just enough for one or two gulps.
If your waiter fails to anticipate your thirst, you may request that he pours you un culin – a little bottom.
Asturias, and the rest of “Green Spain” to be fair, is like something out of Lord of the Rings, an unreal fantasy world that blurs the lines between fact and fiction.
It is nothing like the Spain you and I have learned about growing up. There are no Benidorms or Magalufs in Asturias, no disco buses or stupid shops selling Mexican sombreros (it blows Rosana’s mind when she see Brits wearing sombreros from Mexico in Spain). Us Brits only have ourselves to blame for our awful reputation in other parts of Europe.
We chomped on pulpo (octopus tentacles) of such girth that I pictured the beast from which they came to be one capable of upturning fishing boats, dragging fishermen to cold and merciless depths. It tasted good, rich with and smokey with paprika. Even better with the cider.
Soaked in Santander
Neither of us had been to Santander before, the capital city of Cantabria. We were both excited to see it and nattered away about what we hoped to find. I imagined a grand and colourful city similar to Madrid, but smaller. A place with both financial and cultural weatlh.
Rosana imagined it to be something like Porto, the riverside city in Portugal from which our beloved port (as in the spirit) hails.
The sulky skies were aflood with rain and despite my hopes and prayers that it would “brighten up as we get closer”, it actually got worse and worse.
We arrived late. Night had all but fallen. We drove the hilly streets for almost an hour in search of a parking space with the rain battering the roof our car.
The €15 a night parking fee at our hotel seemed a bit steep considering we were only paying €50 a night for a double room (for the two of us), which was not at all shabby for a 4-star joint.
The next morning we skipped the €15 breakfast at our hotel and went next door to an old-school Spanish bar-cum-restaurant. Waiters patrolled the trenches in their crimson velvet waistcoats and grey silk ties, shimmering like penguins’ chests against bright arctic skies.
More strong coffee. More sticky, sickly pastries. And a very tasty €5 bill.
We wandered aimlessly through the streets, which were in equal parts drenched in flashes of sun and heavy rain. It didn’t take us long to buckle and buy a flimsy umbrella for €10. It was the best investment we made the whole trip, and Rosana kept reminding me.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the place. From the quiet streets to the empty bars and shops, there was a feel of steely stoicism that felt very… well, very un-Spanish. To me, at least.
There was something about the rain that made everything and everyone seem so serious. But it wasn’t just the rain.
There were simply too many fur coats and diamond rings, and not enough smiles or the everyday scenes of life that I associate with Spain.
I’m the first to challenge people to look beyond their preconceptions and stereotypes, Spain is a huge and diverse country after all, but even Rosana seemed unenthused and a little adrift.
Waiting at the bus stop, a silver-haired lady resplendent with gold rings, burberry scarf and deluxe raincoat discarded an empty packet of paracetamol (premium brand) on the ground. Rosana, ever the optimist, darted over to help the elderly lady and picked the packet up for her, handing it back with a smile.
“No. I don’t want it.”
“OK, well maybe you could hold onto it until you see a bin?”
“There’s one over there if you want to put it there,” she said. “I don’t want it.”
Rosana snarled in disbelief and walked theatrically over to the bin in three big strides to dispose of it.
This scene paired with a brief visit to the city’s cathedral, into which flooded a gaggle of fur-coated disciples, gave us the distinct impression that this was not our sort of place.
Isn’t it funny how our perceptions of a place are so often based on such fleeting and unimportant experiences?
Kings, Queens and… Syphilis?
Despite the torrential rain, we enjoyed our walk along Santander’s handsome seafront. We watched penguins and seals prance about under the rain-speckled water and took shelter at the imposing Palacio de Magdalena. It’s not a particularly inspiring building, but it does harbour a fascinating story…
It was built in 1911 for King Alfonso XIII and his English wife Queen Victoria Eugenia, who was born at Balmoral Castle, no less. It seems that Ena, as she was affectionately known, has become the subject of Chinese whispers. On more than one occasion, either on a tour of the palace or in the company of various local guides, I was informed, albeit with chuckling shoulders and tongue in cheek, that she was “responsible for introducing syphilis to Spain”.
In reality it was actually haemophilia that she was responsible for gifting her adoptive country, a hereditary disease which impairs the body’s ability to make blood clots and stop bleeding.
Long story short, for reasons I won’t go into right now (basically the Second Spanish Republic) the Spanish royal family went into exile in 1931, first moving to France and later Italy.
Queen Victoria Eugenie and King Alfonso eventually separated and she went on to live between the UK and Switzerland, where she lived in the chateau Vieille Fontaine outside of Lausanne. Her great-grandson Felipe VI is currently King of Spain.
To me, the couple’s demise is something of a let down having heard of all the trouble they went through just to be together in the first place.
King Alfonso XIII was quite literally born King of Spain and was apparently carried naked to the Spanish prime minister of the time on a silver tray. On his 16th birthday he assumed full responsibility (and power) as king and quickly began meddling in his country’s politics.
From what I can tell, the little bugger caused nothing but trouble and brought about such political unrest that there were countless attempts to assassinate him and Ena – one attempt being made on their wedding day.
Under his reign, Spain also lost its colonial rule over Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guamand in the Philippines to the United States as a result of the Spanish–American War, which I’m sure went down just swimmingly with the Spaniards.
Anyhow, the best part of this story: Magdalena Palace was actually built and paid for by the Santander City Council, who believed the royal family’s presence in Santander would attract more prestigious families and businesses to area.
The plan worked beautifully and the royals spent every summer here for 30 years. Later, however, after the couple’s separation and king’s subsequent death, the palace was inherited by their son Don Juan de Borbón, who had the cheek to sell the property back to the city of Santander for 150 million pesetas, even though they had given it to his parents for free.
Today Magdalena Palace is the most visited landmark in Santander and used to host important government events and conferences. It also hosts the Menéndez Pelayo International University’s prestigious summer classes.
On our way back to the hotel we explored Santander’s famous tapas quarter. We were hungry and it was raining heavily, so we didn’t waste too much time picking a place.
We stumbled across a long street lined with all sorts of bars and restaurants, many of which seemed closed but for the occasional chainsmoker out front.
A group gathered outside a place called Toñin y Bruma, so we took a leap of faith. Two or three different young families took up the entire bar space, kids running wild and occasionally head-butting my knee caps.
We sat at the white-tiled bar and ordered a beer and a dry white wine – our usual round. As always, the bartender gave my wine to Rosana and Rosana’s beer to me.
We tipped ours drinks back and nibbled on Cantabria’s famous anchovies. They were firm and salty, spiked with a peppery kick. It was a moment of pure bliss.
Dinner in Santander
As the rain grew heavier and heavier we darted back to our hotel, where we spent what felt like a week in our hotel room. Rosana studied. She’s currently doing a degree in psychology, despite already having multiple degrees and master’s degrees and post grads. Her intelligence and relentless self drive is one of the things I find most attractive about her. I caught up on work, before suggesting we head out even if it was still torrential.
“We’re probably not going to come back here anytime soon, so we should at least go out for dinner,” I said, trying to convince myself as much as Rosana.
The streets were cold and empty, flooded with little streams that ran down the steep streets, forming pools where they found the chance. We held each other close under the umbrella, my arm resting heavily over Rosana’s shoulders, her arm tucked snugly around my waist. We past empty bars that glowed with the garish florescent strip-lights that they love so much here in Spain. Take it from me, mood lighting is quite the luxury in España.
We past other bars where students hunched over tiny glass bottles of San Miguel and I wondered why some bars were thriving and others were empty. I contemplated it deeply. It seems I am often far too preoccupied with questions and topics that have very little significance. “I don’t know and I don’t really care,” Rosana replied, exasperated yet again by my pointless questions.
“Like everyone else on the planet, I don’t think about such stupid things,” she said, ending my quest for answers. I guess we’ll never know.
On a particularly dark side street we noticed an intensely strong smell of what one could only describe as top quality herb. The very scent of it dried our soggy shoes and warmed our spirits. Surely we were walking in the right direction.
We followed the scent until it evaded us altogether. But we did find some people in the street and I suggested Rosana approached them to ask for help. I’d have asked myself, but my height and all-round bad Spanish tends to make elderly Spanish ladies run for the hills. And the young ones for that matter.
Dressed in brown skirts, beige tights and peacock-coloured fur coats adorned with gold and sapphire bedazzled broaches, the two ladies were happy to stop and chat from under their umbrella. I kept my mouth shut so as not to give the game away.
“Just down here, there’s one of the bars very typical of Santander, Bodega del Riojano. Very good tapas, if you don’t mind spending a little.”
It was closed, so we ended up in a random dive bar. We always seem to end up in dive bars. Spain knows how to do a dive bar. Cheap and cheerful was invented here, I’m certain.
It was empty and cold and the rain seeped in through a gap under the door. We ate tapas that the camarero heated up in a microwave behind the bar and drank two large glasses of Rioja to make it taste better. And that was our last night in Santander.
Torture in Santillana del Mar Cantabria
The sky was cloudless and welcoming as we entered Santillana del Mar Cantabria, a tiny Medieval village in Cantabria.
Again, I’d been just a few months before, in the height of summer. It had looked so different then. The little shops, cafes, bars and restaurants had all been doing a brisk trade. Tiny terrors ran riot through the cobbled streets, jolted into a frenzy no doubt by a steady intake of sugary treats supplied by their doting grandparents. They had been attending the village’s magic festival, with clowns, puppeteers and magicians on every corner.
Today, however, it was all boxed up and resting in preparation for the next season.
Unintentionally and almost without hesitation, we found ourselves in the Museo de la Inquisicion – the Museum of Inquisition, aka “The Torture Museum”.
There were saws as long as I am tall placed next to crude illustrations of men being hung naked upside down, their legs pulled apart while two other men pulled and pushed the saw between the unlucky fellow’s cheeks.
There were pulleys and clamps and whips made of barbed wire, and pyramids with sharpened metal peaks, onto which suspected perpetrators were hoisted and left to rest anus first.
“Using the rope and pulleys, the torturer was able to control the weight with which his subject rested on the spike, ranging from a gentle intrusion to being left balanced with the entire body weight resting upon the spike.”
The worst contraption, to my mind at least, was a simple spike anchored deep into the ground and pointed skywards.
“The torturer would gently place the subject on the spike anus first, leaving it to gravity to force the spike slowly up through the organs and eventually out of the mouth. To prolong the torture, the torturer may choose to round off the spike to make it blunt.”
Feeling a little queasy, we wandered the empty streets, stopping only to buy a jar of Cantabrian anchovies – our last chance before we crossed the border back into Asturias.
Home in Gijón
Perhaps it was my mind’s way of acknowledging the fact that we had crossed a border. Perhaps it was Rosana’s yelp of jubilation as we saw the “Welcome to Asturias” sign.
We’ve talked many times about moving to Gijón and I was keen to suss it out in winter, as opposed to summer. I walked to the beach with my camera, snapping away at the people in the parks, sipping coffee and smoking cigars in the colourful streets. I find that I’m far more aware and observant with camera in hand. Photography is a sixth sense, or at least a good way of honing the other five.
It’s such a beautiful city. There’s a certain style and vigour in the way people live in it, an infectious lust for life that makes you want to join in with whatever’s going on. And there’s always something going on Gijón.
The boardwalk that traces the beach was thronging with people: runners, skaters, cyclists and professional benchwarmers. I spent a few moments observing a number of slightly older locals that were gathered on the steps down to the beach.
Their group shrank and swelled as members stripped off and ran into the icy sea, others running up the beach in the sun. This is the Atlantic, and it was January, so I was very impressed.
We spent the next couple of days working during the day and going out for drinks and (free!) tapas in the evening. The weather turned bad again and we would walk to the beach to watch the wild waves crashing over the promenade. Waves. Gijón has waves, too! I could pick up surfing again, I thought. Could it be the perfect city?
Family Time in Pola de Lena
Rosana is from a tiny town, a village really, called Pola de Lena. It’s basically just one long street nestled at the foot of a valley, surrounded by huge verdant mountains that seem to erupt like volcanoes in every direction you look.
We can’t go anywhere here without Rosana bumping into her cousin or uncle or godfather or childhood friend. And more often than not we’ll have to stop for a drink or two to say hello.
Life in Pola de Lena is slow. It’s considered and reserved. Long. Sociable. In many ways, it’s everything you could ever wish for.
The people are kind and generous. There’s not an awful lot of money to be made in this part of the world, but everyone races to pick up the bill, to treat you to a drink. It’s the absolute opposite of what I’m used to as a Brit.
It was an odd scenario to be in, not that many parts of my life are particularly “normal”. We were basically there in waiting of Estefania’s baby, which was due at any moment, but we were also here to attend Rosana’s grandmother’s 90th birthday.
We weren’t in holiday mode and both of us had work to do, so we did very little out of the ordinary: we worked during the day and went out for drinks and free tapas at night.
Hip-Hip-Hooray, 90 Today!
Celia’s birthday swang round without even the slightest hint of Estefania giving birth. The entire family met for drinks at a sun-struck bar beneath Celia’s apartment building.
Alejandro, Rosana’s father, complained about the wine. Toni, Rosana’s brother in-law, smoked strong cigarettes and basked in the sun. The girls – Rosana, her sister Lorena, mother Rosa and Estefania – showed off the various new fashion pieces they’d acquired over the Christmas period.
Gabriel (Estefania’s husband) showed me photos of his band and told me about a record they’d just recorded.
I felt incredibly privileged to be accepted as part of the family unit, flattered that they would give me the time to dribble out my nonsensical Spanish sentences.
Maybe this is what it would be like if we moved to Asturias, I thought.
Upstairs in abuela Celia’s apartment, we squeezed into the kitchen. It’s a huge apartment, three or four bedrooms, multiple living rooms, but the tiny kitchen is where we gathered.
Alejandro, Toni, Gabriel and Rosa huddled around the grownups’ table. I sat with Rosana and Lorena on a smaller table in the corner, with the people who could speak English.
“Should I go and join the men?” I asked Rosana, hoping she’d beg me not to go. My Spanish is roughly at the same level of a five-year-old’s and this becomes increasingly apparent the more time I am in a situation where Spanish is the only option for communication.
I’d managed to hold my own for a little while at the bar, but I didn’t want to blow my cover by joining the big boys’ table just yet.
The food came thick and fast, in giant steaming bowls. Celia had made the most incredible Asturian fabada, a white bean stew with generous hunks of succulent pork and chorizo. Lorena ladled it into my bowl and I dunked hunks of fresh bread in to it as my face filled with steam.
We washed it down with a silky Ribera del Duero red. Lorena and Toni’s favourite. It was one of those meals that you never forget, a feast made all the more special by the warmth of the family atmosphere.
Abuela Celia on her 90th birthday with her granddaughter Estefania (who went into labour a few hours later).
Estefania seemed restless. She clung to Celia and her mother Ana throughout the meal, rubbing both of her hands over her humongous belly. She was clearly in a great deal of discomfort and more than a little scared, but she was ready for the finale.
The second and third bowls of fabada came and went, my glass either full to the brim or completely drained at all times. And then it was time for flan. I was stuffed, but there’s no way you can say no to a 90-year-old abuela when she offers you a second helping of her homemade dessert.
Likewise, I was hardly in a position to refuse the coffee that was now flowing freely, pepped up with the various bottles of anís, rum and whisky that now cluttered the big boys’ table.
Teen life. I can’t think why, but my memories of the rest of that day are a bit of a blur, but I do remember, as I was awaking from my post-lunch siesta back in Rosana’s parents’ home hours later, Alejandro announcing that he was going out to drink “unos vinos” with his friends.
I was still in a comatose state, incapable of speaking English, let alone Spanish, and I felt a wave of admiration wash over me as ‘Jandro donned his coat and waltzed out the door.
The night of Celia’s 90th birthday party, Estefania finally went into labour. I knew the moment Rosana came running into the room where I was working, in a trembling fit of tears, that the time had come. But it turned our that there was still more waiting to do, almost two full days.
Estefania’s parents and brother greeted us in the waiting room. They seemed calm and relaxed, almost tired of waiting. I think we all were.
It wasn’t quiet and hushed in the hospital. In fact it was nothing like the hospitals I know back home in Britain. No one whispered when they spoke. On the contrary, they laughed and shouted to each other from opposite sides of the room, gathering around the coffee machine as if it were an office party.
The hum of activity was silenced only when someone burst out of the birth rooms in a fit of joyous tears. “It’s a boy!” or “She’s beautiful, you won’t believe it!”. Everyone knew everyone and the joy was not only shared, but also intensified.
And then, suddenly, the waiting was over.
Gabriel, Estefania’s husband, appeared from nowhere. He was wearing his signature leather jacket with slightly torn jeans and an cryptically expressionless face. He was calm as Sunday.
He shared a few sentences with Rosana that I didn’t follow. The look on his face gave me the impression that there was still more waiting to be done. The problem with being so bad at Spanish is that I spend a good chunk of my life desperately trying to read facial expressions and pretending that I understand what is going on. I suppose it was the same when I lived back the UK. At least here I have a good excuse for being so lost.
But then Estefania’s parents grabbed him and hugged him, then Rosana did the same, and I gathered that perhaps something big had happened. But I still couldn’t’ tell if it was good big or bad big.
“Is she ok?” I asked in English (Gabriel is Portuguese but speaks perfect English. He is a safe haven for me to run to within this adoptive Spanish family of ours).
“Yes. Everything is fine. Estefania is fine,” he said as calmly as if he had been through this whole rigmarole a hundred times before (he hadn’t).
“I am now a father,” he said, a beaming smile finally taking over his face.
I hugged him as if I had just been informed of the news myself and asked him if he was sure. I couldn’t fathom that anyone could be so relaxed and composed in such a situation. Perhaps I’ve watched too many American films.
The next day we visited Estefania. The baby was wheeled into the room in his little cart by a rowdy nurse with big wiry red hair.
He was tiny and perfect and slept quietly with a look of pure bliss on his face. It’s funny how being alive feels best when you’re immersed in a delicious, unconscious golden slumber. Shame we can’t stay this way forever.
Estefania, too, seemed amazingly well. My beautiful mother told me of the horrors I caused her upon my arrival in this world, of the pain and blood and stitches. And I imagined this was what I would be greeted with when I was informed that we would be visiting Estefania a day after giving birth. But she was well and happy, seemingly completely familiar with motherhood, more concerned by the poor quality of her fish and pasta hospital meal.
The baby wrapped his perfect little hand around my finger and smiled to himself without waking.
Rosana and Estefania were in deep conversation, speaking at a million miles per hour about a billion and one things that I had no hope of understanding. Not that I would have understood even if they had been talking in English either.
It struck me that this little moment was a glimpse at my own future, at a life I was already living in a strange foreign place that had somehow become part of me, a place that I had slowly come to think of as home.
Spain was once a place I dreamed of escaping to. Today, surrounded by such strong and kind people, it was a place I could never dream of leaving.