Dispatch the 2nd, El Pais Vasco

Some technical glitch, which I’m choosing to blame on the ETA (Basque country’s answer to the IRA) has left me completely unpable to access the authors’ portion of nonfamous, so big thanks to Jay for posting this in my stead.

So, I’m in Pamplona. You know, the place with the running of the bulls and all that? Well, it’s kind of cool. I mean, I came here for two reasons, right? Food and Hemingway. So I’m in exactly the right place for that. Except, I gotta say, Pamplona, as pretty as it is, sort of leaves me cold. The monastery where I am staying, on the other hand, is quite cool. And it’s a two mile drive up a mountain to get there overlooking Navarra and the Irati river.

Now the Irati excites me. I was actually fairly thrilled to spend the morning walking around Saguesa, a town straddling the river that I am almost certain was where Hemingway had n mind when he wrote the scenes where Bill and Jake stay before heading off to the feria in Pamplona, where they fish the Irati and have the last moments of peace before Brett and Mike et al show up and begin turning the whole thing into a mess of drama and tensions. That was always my favorite part of the book, the one I came to this part of the world for, and recent history being what it has been, I guess it’s no real surprise that I would connect to that part of the story, is it?

And the views from my monastery are amazing. Really, truly incredible, even though it’s been raining since I got here. I’ve taken a ton of pictures. Alas, all the stunning photos I’ve taken since leaving Madrid are of Navarra and La Rioja (where, incidentally, I’ve developed quite the stock of good, cheap wine that is going to be more than a chore to fit in my carryon getting home). Aragon, which I drove through on Monday, was outstandingly beautiful. Really, truly, dramatic lanscape, and I wish I’d taken pictures. Whereas Navarra is green and blue and lush, Aragon is all reds and golds. And mountains. Why, don’t I have any pictures of this splendor you ask? Well, there are a number of reasons.

It would appear that even Paulette’s sense of adventure has its limits. I’d like to say that it had something to do with common sense or a self-preservation kicking in, but we all know that’s unlikely to have been more than a small portion of it. No, there really weren’t a whole lot of good places to stop and take photos, for one thing. The roads were largely two lane affairs on winding switchbacks up and down the sides of mountains, and I had some concern that pulling over, despite the lack of regular traffic, was likely to get me killed. And I had a destination in mind, which I was all that much more inclined to reach owing to the growing call of nature. And I was loathe to stop in any of the small towns I passed along the way because they all had this vaguely sinister, deserted look that reminded me of the towns where the man with no name would get himself into problems in Clint Eastwood movies. And I was in a bad mood, which admittedly was most of it.

I had taken a detour through Aragon rather than heading straight for Pamplona because my guidebook had recommended a town called Cuenca as a good day trip from Madrid to see the famed “hanging” houses in the mountain and the Moorish influence that persists to this day. Yeah, well, a pox on Fodors is what I have to say. For one thing, 100 miles into the middle of nowhere is not a day trip. For another, unless the Moors invented tagging, car stripping, and urban blight in general, I’m failing to see where this influence persists. The best thing I can say about Cuenca is that it’s a lot like North Philadelphia but with a bullfighting ring. And really, I’m only trying really hard to look for the silver lining by mentioning the ring.

Needless to say, I didn’t get out of the car, as I didn’t want the same fate to befall it that seemed to have most of the cars that dared park on the streets. So it was that I was driving through the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen, appreciating it as it whizzed by knowing that by the time I reached Zaragoza, the next major town, I would have been more than 6 hours without food, water, or a bathroom, and I kind of wanted all three, badly.

Zaragoza doesn’t win many points either, but it afforded me cheap lodging, cheap food, and a bathroom when I really needed them. And I got to practice driving a stick shift, which, if you want to put a fine point on it, I’m not getting a whole lot better at. But I had the best possible chance to improve in Zaragoza. Imagine the scene. Paulette, tired, pissed, wanting to, hungry, in need of a drink, in the rain, during rush hour, at night (oh, and in case everyone didn’t already know, I’m terrified to drive at night in the rain in an automatic when I actually know the territory–it’s a long story), with no map of the city, looking for a hotel, any hotel, and barely able to communicate with anyone so asking for directions on the street would be largel fruitless. You get the picture.

Things improved upon my leaving Aragon though. La Rioja is gorgeous, and there are bodegas all around (which here are wineries, and not overpriced corner convenience stores), and wine tastings are free, the bottles of wine averaging between $2 and $5. Yeah. So I saw this one castle way up top of a hill and decided my sense of adventure had kicked back in, so I followed the road up to it, where I found the prettiest little town (Villamayor, which I took a ton of photos of) and a winery with a restaurant, where I decided to have a late lunch.

And enter the dawning of new Basque cuisine. Oh. My. God. It. Was. So. Good.

First of all, the dining room was designed so that one side looked down the hill onto the valley, the other up to the town. And the wine was good. really good. The food. Oh yeah. So they brought out the amuese geule, a potato croquette and a shotglass of a rich mushroom consomme. Tasters. Then my soup, a fish soup not unlike bouillabaisse that tasted just enough of saffron and tomato and had a touch of cream to it. Then my entree. Oh lordypants. It was that good. Duck liver (not foie gras, just foie) grilled in a reduced beef broth with two sauces. One was on the of the cold foamed sauces the chefs of this region are known for. It was a foamed pina colada. And trust me, it worked. The other was a tiny flan with a hint of rosewater flavoring. Yeah. It was good. This is the whole reason I’m obsessed with food, why I want to be a chef. Who woulda thought? And then coffee, which is so good everywhere in this country and so cheap. Another pox, this one at overpriced, weak Starbucks coffee.

So I got to my monastery last night, took some photos of the view, and didn?t want much for dinner, but I did want a little something and some wine. I ordered the house wine, which, since it was priced at 3 euros, I assumed was a glass. No, it was a bottle. And I had asparagus stuffed with spinach and shrimp, one of the appetizers, which I would have loved if it hadn’t been in a buerre blanc. They have such nice fresh asparagus, the white stuff, here that smothering it in French sauces designed to hide the taste of food past its prime seems a sin to me. But the 3 euro bottle of wine was pretty good. I wound up spending several hours at the table having a conversation, almost entirely in Spanish, with a middle-aged bar owner from Andulicia named Angel and the 23 year old waiter, Jose, who is from Sevilla. Hey, we’ve all got an invitation to visit Angel sometime. Between the three of us we finished three bottles of 3 euro wine. And my Spanish is improving. Glad I didn’t waste hundred of dollars on a course to learn the language when all I really needed was get tipsy with some Spaniards.

Yeah, so I’m now at the point where I can understand about half of what people say to me in Spanish and can respond to maybe a third of that. Which is a big improvement. And I’ve learned that starting off a conversation by saying that I only speak a little Spanish usually gets people to talk a little slower.

I’m almost up on my hour here at the Internet cafe, so I will have to wait until next time to write about my last night in Madrid, having beer with a Portuguese fado composer who couldnt speak English but could speak Spanish and understand French. And the second bullfight I went to. Which was really amazing. And why I’m now calling my rental car Toro.

Love to you all. Can’t wait to meet Dozer.

Hasta la vista.

One thought on “Dispatch the 2nd, El Pais Vasco”

  1. For another, unless the Moors invented tagging, car stripping, and urban blight in general, I’m failing to see where this influence persists.

    This made me laugh out loud at work, making Judy in the office ask what was going on. Y’know, you never do hear about the downside products of these grand civilizations. Maybe urban blight is Moorish, originally? It would explain the entire Costa del Sol, for one thing.

    Thanks for the travelogues Paulette. They brighten my workday.

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