By Pete Wolstencroft
It might be easier to describe where you would not find this legendary land. It was not to be found in Benidorm, or down that long strip of tourist development that runs from Málaga to Gibraltar in a largely unbroken swathe of concrete. Most of the Canary and Balearic Islands were similarly denied this mythical title.
Having read the Spanish escapades of both Ernest Hemingway and Laurie Lee, I developed something of an obsession with sharing their adventures. At the time my quest began, I somehow forgot that the Spain they wrote about was out of bounds to me. Forty years of history created an impenetrable barrier.
Nonetheless, I embarked upon my quest. My first port of call was Córdoba, which I had naively imagined to be a one-horse town peopled by amusingly rustic yokels hanging around street corners and picking their teeth with straw. What I got was the classic model of almost any Spanish provincial capital, where the new town of modern offices and shopping arcades sits cheek by jowl with the old town – the casco histórico – full of ancient architecture, attractively narrow streets and a story that reflects the struggle to gain control of the Iberian Peninsula.
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This must be thrown on the floor in order to appease the gods of cider.
Córdoba is a marvel. The Mezquita alone is worth the trip. A Christian Cathedral built on the site of a Mosque is a fairly unsubtle way of letting visitors know who won that particular struggle. But here is a thing. The Moors invaded in 711 and were finally expelled from Iberia in 1492. At the time of their arrival, there was no country called Spain, but rather a series of warring fiefdoms under Visigothic control. Spain has still been Islamic for longer than it has been (nominally) Christian.
Islamic culture left an indelible mark on Spain. Architecture, irrigation, the use of water to temper heat, and a style of cuisine that likes to marry meat and fruit all bear the imprimatur of the great Muslim empires of the past. They are, however, no less Spanish for all that.
Those in the far north of Spain, those tough Asturians and their ilk, will tell you that anywhere that was ever conquered by the Moors can never consider itself to be truly Spanish. So perhaps I could find the real Spain to the north of its central meseta. If you want to learn Spanish at your own pace without pressure, you should consider enrolling in this clases de español.
The next time I chased this chimera was in the city of Oviedo (which featured very photogenically in the film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona). In lieu of hectares of land under vines, here I would find apple orchards and cider. The sun, when it makes an appearance, is not the brutal blowtorch of the south, but a more benign deity, whose gentle warmth is pleasant rather than fearsome.
Oviedo is part of Green Spain. And for greenery you need rain. Don’t forget that if ever you visit. Not that the weather will have a negative impact upon a trip to a typical local cider house, although you may well get wet.
Cider houses have rules. You must not pour your own drink: that is a job for the roving waiters. The waiter should pour the cider from a great height, so that it arrives in the glass full of effervescent life. Two inches at most will be dispensed. The drinker should then down their drink in one go, saving just the merest smidgen in the bottom of the glass. This must be thrown on the floor (hence my prior warning about getting wet) in order to appease the gods of cider.
I suggest limiting your calorific intake before a visit to Oviedo. The portions are not massive; they are gargantuan. Hundreds of years ago, hard, manual labour in the fields and farmyards needed to be fuelled. Beans, lentils and other pulses were bulked out by the fattier cuts of meat (unwanted by those who owned the land), chorizo and blood pudding. Fabada asturiana is the most typical dish of the region – featuring varying combinations of the aforementioned ingredients. I will wager that few could finish a full portion.
Next door in the Basque country, the Moors made uneasy alliances with these fierce, independent people. The Basques are linguistically, culturally and even physically different from other European peoples. They celebrate this otherness. Now that separatist violence is thankfully in the past, the visitor to this ancient land will find a warm welcome: providing they don’t think they are in Spain.
Bilbao is as good a place as any to dip one’s toes into Basque culture. Here too there is cider a plenty, although the Rioja alavesa wine region is just a stone’s throw away, so those whose tastebuds are more accustomed to wine will find no shortage of vino.
In this part of the world, tapas are known as pintxos and whilst even in the Real Spain you might occasionally have to put up with tired slices of tortilla or some rather less than imaginative Russian salad, here Basque chefs have taken it upon themselves to re-invent tapas. So don’t be surprised if you are offered foie gras with sea urchin or carpaccio of sea bream with kiwi fruit.
If the new wave of culinary expression is not for you, you could always go to a traditional steak house. In such establishments, vast hunks of meat are grilled over glowing coals and served to an enthusiastically carnivorous clientele. You wine will be red and served in the sawn-off tumblers known locally as chatos. As with Asturias, you will need to have an exceptional appetite to finish your meal.
The arrival of the Guggenheim Museum in 1997, put Bilbao firmly on the map as far as tourism from outside Spain was concerned. I have been to Bilbao on a number of occasions but never visited its most famous edifice, preferring instead to slake my thirst and sate my hunger in any of the beautifully tiled cafés and bars in the old quarter of the city. If you only go to one, make sure it is the Bar Iruña.
The idea of Real Spain is at odds with fairy tale castles and the whims of royalty. Yet our next destination: Segovia, has a castle that served as a model for the one used by Disney and also Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria. It also has a replica of Versailles – the Palacio Real de La Granja en San Ildefonso – ordered built by a Spanish King who was foolish enough to ask what his young French bride missed most about home.
I have an idea in my mind of a perfect Spanish city. It should be a provincial capital – to guarantee a certain infrastructure. It should be home to around 60,000 inhabitants: this means you will be able to walk everywhere. And it should be famous for: history, architecture and gastronomy. Segovia is well nigh perfect.
If there is a better place to spend a summer evening than the main square in Segovia, then I confess that I am unaware of it. As the sun goes down over the cathedral and illuminates the fairy tale castle with its last golden rays, the local storks fly home to their nests on the rooftops of some of the most spectacular architecture imaginable. A cool glass of local white wine and some tapas finish off the idyll.
Readers will know by now that the Real Spain is anywhere that real Spanish people go about their daily life. If a person were to suggest to a busy waiter in Torremolinos going out to work every day to feed their family, that they were not a part of the true Spain, I am sure they would be pretty upset. Similarly, a banker working for some international finance corporation in a tower block in Madrid is not any less an authentic ingredient in the mix. The beaches of Magalluf and Palma Nova – strewn with pink flesh as they are – are no less real than that authentic venta just 15 km down the road where the same family has been serving roasted goat since time immemorial.
Today, Spain is a modern country – a democracy and a full member of the EU since 1986. Old timers might fondly reminisce about little hostels where the sinks were plugged with freshly cut straw and you could eat and drink your fill for 10 Pesetas. But that was also the era of rickets, post civil war destruction, famine and some pretty hard repression of those groups who had fallen out of favour with the Caudillo.
Real Spain is anywhere you see the red and gold Spanish flag flying. From the mountains to the coasts and from tiny villages to elegant cities: it all looks real to me.