Extract from “Slow Travels in Unsung Spain”

Slow Travels in Unsung Spain eBook and Paperback 




1 To Zaragoza –  a local train not actually on strike – The Distress Jazz Club – a public scolding – “Ah, Cricket!” – “Hoy, Mañana” top mantas and ‘poor quality’ sperm – the river Ebro – “here there are no tourists” – but George Orwell was here – Franco’s ghost town – food politics – gourmet beggar – Saint John of the Bread Rolls – a key to pregnancy – Goya: “not of this world” – walk like Quasimodo – Chihuahua and a pot plant – El Tubo/Maggie the nanny – the ‘Spanish Joan of Arc’ – yet more bloody angels.

2 To Extremadura – silence in Spain – the Spanish ‘bullet train’ – preguntita-ed in Madrid – playful Marta – the ‘empty’ plains – Los Milagros aqueduct – Mérida the magnificent – Juan the Gypsy singer – from across the Roman centuries – scrap metal entrepreneur and The Crisis – “the Catalans think we are lazy” – pioneering Sue – the wrong ham – “I shit in the milk!”

3 Córdoba– “The Andalusian Wolfman” – Beer Wars – Sixto, Sitges and Barcelona’s Camp Nou – ‘Tarshish:’ legendary place of riches at the end of the world – into the Frying Pan of Andalucía – two Koreans – covered by a carpark: “one of the great cities of the Roman world” – Jesus’ black tears – a most discreet casino and ‘The Spanish Robin Hood’ – “Take neither too much nor too little sun.” 

4 Interlude: As it is, as it was: Asturias – Asturian coal miner: a portrait – The colours of Asturias: a poem 

5 To Frigiliana – moseying not dithering – white hill towns: Aguilar de la Frontera, Monturque, Lucena – Truman Capote’s spare shirt – Linda: a pilgrim’s progress halted – A Shropshire lad in the ‘sierras’: – the wandering funeral – Virgil’s fennel – nightmare in Nerja. 

6 In Jaen  where the dogs roam free – graffiti battles – liquid treasure – the mystery of the tram that wasn’t – Arab Baths – no Hard Rock Cafe – Flamenco: a declaration, a pre-industrial human howl – a homeless couple – Tarbut Sefarad: Rafael – ‘miracle’ on Maestra street – bumping into Judaism – cheesed off in ‘The Little Fishes’ – the town at night redeemed.

7 In Ubeda  the disappearing captain – Aunt Caterina – a certain house on a certain street: Antonio Muñoz Molina and the meaning of a chickpea – the hint of a Rambla – Synagogue of Water

8 To Home  early Sunday morning: thirty teenagers on a train – “a self-banished Spaniard: Juan Goytisolo” – preguntita-ed again  – a young man and his beard – “so sad I will never live here in Barcelona” – “don’t go to La Mina” – the mean streets – ‘books by the metre:’ – Lucia Graves – the King’s Mills – Fungilab, Topcon, Rammer – The Devil’s Bridge and Chupa Chups – Catalan nationalism: Josep  – return to the grape.


Man, who travels through worldsWith freedom as his only baggage

Evolving on a decorated Earth


Sephardic Song (Unknown)




I am the one who feels more grateful for the almost miraculous fact of finding a reader like you: literature is nothing if not a resonance in someone else’s mind.


Antonio Muñoz Molina in an email to the author



1 To Zaragoza 


Today I was leaving my familiar little home patch to explore a much wider home. I took myself to our local train station and instead of heading into Barcelona city, as I usually did, this time I made sure to remember to go to the other side of the platform and get on a train going south – the way out of Catalonia. In my head was the idea to follow up on a desire to travel further into Spain’s heated-up summer interior, especially to parts of it that I had not yet experienced and to places that were off the standard tourist trail.


In short, I had the appetite to see more of the country I had come to call home but this time bear witness with a different sensibility. I wanted to be a solo traveller again and find that other Spain, that elsewhere. I was hungry for the largeness of Spain, the expanse of it, but I had a destination in mind. Almost nine hundred kilometres away, I imagined the town called Ubeda as old, dusty, white and dry, and I planned it to be my turning circle, after which I would head home.


Ubeda was somewhere I had never been before. It is the hometown of Antonio Muñoz Molina, a Spanish writer I greatly admire. Amongst other desires, I had a question about him that I wanted to try to get an answer for. Could I recognise if the town of his upbringing had affected his novels? For many years, he had lived with his wife (also an accomplished writer) in both Madrid and New York, but as a young man he couldn’t wait to get away from small-town Spain as quickly as possible.


I had a theory though that despite everything else in life, our childhood places make a mark on us all. Hesitating to think of this trip as a pilgrimage, for the moment I accepted that it may well look like it. As well as that, I had that fundamental buzz of excitement in the stomach that travel brings. And I was harbouring a wider and less specific urge; the very same one I had felt for the first time twenty years before: I wanted to find and live the great night of Europe.




At this rural train stop the sharp sun told me it was mid-morning. Usually near-deserted, before I lived near it this station had seemed to be in the middle of nowhere in particular. Over the previous couple of years it had become my routine to stand and wait for a train to the Catalan capital while looking across the vineyards to Montserrat’s rock mountains, abruptly placed in the near distance. On clear days like today this range was like a well-painted backdrop to a stage set. On other days it gave the impression of a series of nature’s gothic cathedrals clumped together. Montserrat: with its pre-Renaissance Benedictine monastery that Nazi SS leader Heinrich Himmler visited during World War II, bizarrely expecting to find the Holy Grail there for him to steal away.


Standing here alone, I typically also saw it as a kind of personal victory that no one was calling me on my mobile, bothering me. I breathed a sense of liberation from being released out of the decade-long bondage of being in a classroom with teenagers all day. I’d moved on to earning a wage by zipping around the edges of Barcelona city teaching adults English in different company offices and that was fine with me.


The train I was waiting for turned out to be twenty minutes late. But today it was not only the direction I was travelling in that was different. Stepping through the carriage doors, the first thing I heard was a young man singing. Probably Moroccan and with headphones on, he was making a throaty Arabic wail, which he soon mixed with Spanish words, completely indifferent to any other passenger’s wishes for a quiet time.


Across from him, behind me, was an older man talking loudly in what seemed to be a drunken voice. He was telling a woman reading a book near me how pretty she was, slurring “…Que linda…” but he was still wearing sunglasses and this made him look insincere. She smiled shyly and when he got off the train fifteen minutes later he put on a baseball cap backwards. I saw he was wearing baggy trousers with his underpants showing – what one American writer calls “the uniform of the defeated.” I wondered if this man knew that having his pants as low as this was originally a signal of sexual availability in prison[JJ1] [PH2] .


At the medium-sized town of Vilafranca del Penedès a crowd got on the train, seemingly heading for the final stop on this line that curves back over a dozen kilometres to the beach. It was the last day of July. Eight years ago, to the day, along with my wife and our then-five year old son we had arrived in this town (which we had never seen before) to try living here. We had taken a week to drive through France and across the central Pyrenees mountains into Spain from our previous home in England. We’d made a good life here since then, though it was certainly not always an easy life.


The train rolled through the ever-present orderly lines of the vineyards of this region. The Phocians, an ancient Greek people (not to be confused with the Phoenicians), were the first to cultivate grapes in these fields in the fourth century BC. I looked back and gave a mental wave to the apartment block on the very edge of the town where we spent the first half of our time living here.


That memory made me think that surely, almost every time we travel there is an element of escape. In my case, I was glad to be getting away from some of the routines of domestic life. As comforting and familiar as repetition can be, and as much as I knew I’d be happy to eventually get home (just as I always did after being absent) I felt a touch of guilt at leaving my wife with our son. Recently he had seemed intent on getting all his teenage bile out of himself in one foul burst before the age of fourteen.


The day before I left we’d just finally relented after a long period of resistance and allowed him to use his birthday money from his grandfather to buy an iPod. I just couldn’t understand why he had gotten angry when we refused to give him our credit card details to pay online for some damn game. Peace and quiet had been avoiding me for what seemed like months. But sitting in my seat on this train, my mood was relaxed. In fact, my physical preparations for this trip had been minimal: packing cotton clothes, sunscreen and a couple of good books to read. Readying myself psychologically though had been extensive started months before.


Firstly, I reread Margaret Sayers Peden’s clean and crisp English translation of Muñoz Molina’s masterpiece of a novel titled "Sepharad." I had already read it once on a rare visit to Australia a couple of years before. Then, the book had given me an escape from a heavy sadness of the house we stayed in. I engrossed myself in it every night, lying with my wife Paula in her mother’s bed in Canberra – while just ten metres away in the lounge room her eighty-five-year old mother, now with a jaundiced yellow-brown face, was flat out and unmoving on a special adjustable bed. She was slowly dying of cancer, hallucinating, eating very little and barely speaking. This for four months, with Paula as her main carer.


In Muñoz Molina’s sweeping novel he had both invented the leading Jewish characters as well as taking them from real life, including authors Franz Kafka and the Italian genius Primo Levi. By the end of the book, his writing had left musical embers in me. I clearly knew his voice: (soft but clear) and when I heard him interviewed on a podcast months later he sounded confident, thoughtful and gentle; very much like I had expected.


Back home in Spain, I looked up possible train routes to get to Muñoz Molina’s hometown in the inner south of the country and I studied maps of where I was thinking of going. Just like one of his frustrated males in the novel, "in the midst of such a low-key life, the [mere thought of] the trip was an almost physical pleasure, a sensation of … lightness, as if leaving the station would free me from the habits and obligations that weighed me down."


From a piece of truth that I scarcely wished to fully admit, I had another motivation that had acutely sharpened my will. Like my mother and her mother before her, both of my kidneys were slowly failing: crammed with cysts and stones put there by a malevolent inherited trait. I had come to realise that if I didn’t make this trip soon while I had the benefit of still-decent health, I may never get the chance to do something as strenuous again; at least until I had a transplanted organ.


Opposite me now on the train was an older man with a prominent bottom lip that jutted out. On his face he had a confused expression and he was looking at a mobile phone. As if to illustrate a worldwide generational difference, a few metres away a group of young girls were looking into the hand of the loudest one, peering at a little screen, pointing and laughing. Above them was an advertising sign for one of the Barcelona tourist buses. It pictured a few of the usual tourist sites in the city, featuring Gaudí’s giant, still unfinished Sagrada Familia church and had the word “Puja!” in large text, meaning: climb, or in this context “Get On!” The train stopped at El Monjos (“the monks”) and then slipped past twenty massive wine silos and the equally huge concrete factory that dominates the village. Local people here had for years been complaining about the pollution it created. A few short kilometres back down the line and through the stripes of vines in Vilafranca, where we used to live, on some windy days I would catch a whiff of what smelt to me like burnt cheese – a pong emitted by the concrete factory. Today, I poked my head out of the train door but there was no strong odour.


After the next stop at the town of L’Arboç were large olive plantations. This was a sign that the wine growing region around had once been eclipsed by more Arab traditions, though for a long time this was no man’s land: a border between the Christian and Moorish kingdoms. I’d driven through the town’s main street dozens of times and always got the feeling that I half-recognised something there that I couldn’t put my finger on.


What I later learnt that I partly remembered was the sight of a half-scale replica of Seville’s very photogenic Giralda minaret tower. The local myth was that it was built by a married couple homesick for Seville but in truth it was simply a homage to a memory, pointing skywards in this Catalan town, so far from Andalucía. Out of the train window I glimpsed the occasional ‘masia’ (large country house) and running parallel with the line again were the blue lines of the AVE high-speed rail which I guessed I might be on when I came home later in the month.


Soon though I was surprised to be almost alone in the long carriage. El Vendrell – hometown of Pau Casals, the great cellist, conductor and Catalan political exile – had passed by, but not before my eye picked out the Magic America Sex Shop on the edge of town beside the railway line. Along with everybody else who was left, I got off at the final junction, Sant Vicenç de Calders, where a different line runs along the Garraf coast and then through Barcelona. At the ticket office I discovered that my next train inland was a few hours away.


Outside, near the station car park there was a sign that interested me. It said that this little corner of the country had been a strategic communications connection and that the brick station and surrounds were bombed and wrecked during the Spanish Civil War. Mussolini’s Italian air force and German seaplanes were responsible for eighty-three deaths as well as injuring at least two hundred people from early 1938 until January the following year. In Mediterranean Europe, wherever you go, the past is close behind you.


In this part of Europe, ‘the Med’ – that often glorified five-million-year-old liquid highway, the world’s largest inland sea – is also close. There was a holiday feel to the streets a few minutes’ walk from the station. Groups of young girls were wearing that virtual summer uniform of cut-off jeans hot pants, in the style that some in the Catholic church were still publicly objecting to. Middle-aged couples in swimsuits struggled along with that particular heaviness that people can get when they are near a beach but not on it. I walked past restaurants with Russian language menus posted up and noted the Distress Jazz Club (not “de-stress” as they surely intended to call it).


Some of the visitors here today may well have been the same ones who had threatened to have their holidays away from this part of the coast. In the local media, a few Spaniards had made the absurd claim that the displays of the Catalan Flag (at least the version with the independence star on it) around the beach zone of Coma Ruga, were a “symbol of confrontation” to them and they had complained to the town council. Today would be the last I would see of the ocean for at least several weeks and that was exactly how I wanted it to be. I’d long had a theory that it was impossible to have an intelligent conversation on a beach and I was happy to leave it and the petty politics behind for an extended period of time. Catalonia was in the throes of trying to establish whether to continue as a part of wider Spain, or if not, how it would somehow gain its independence after a kind of referendum in the autumn. The possible breaking up of the Spanish ‘union’ was closer now than it had been for a long, long time.


But these concerns were the furthest thing from my mind. I had a train to catch but was getting a taste of that waiting time that travellers know so well, time to kill or fill, and like a particular strata of traveller, I was thinking that on my first day out and about I should conserve funds. To the sounds of a Romanian accordion player I sat with a beer for company and looked across the sand, ocean and horizon. As usual, I could never look at waves or surf for more than a couple of minutes. There was a very, very long pier on the northern side of the beach and it struck me that in all the years I’d lived here I’d seen very few of these structures at the Spanish or Catalan seaside.


Maybe I just hadn’t been looking, though. Being in a place outside of the usual can, at its best, have a sharpening of all the senses. As Alain de Boton found while philosophising in The Art of Travel, our state of mind is one of the most crucial factors when we get on a bus, a plane or even just go for a walk in our own hometowns. He suggests that with the right attitude we can find a freshness and new stimulation from the all-too-familiar locations we take for granted every day.


Now though, it was two o’clock and people were starting to leave the beach. This was something I had noticed many times before – the entrenched custom of local people was to get out of the summer heat and go to lunch at this time of the day. Those who stay sunning themselves after that hour are almost entirely foreigners.


Across the road near the beach showers I watched a mother telling off her son in front of what seemed to be a large group of relatives. At first I couldn’t hear her words, which turned what she was doing into a something like a silent movie pantomime. She was using some of the range of gestures that are characteristic of not just Iberian folk, but of Mediterraneans in general: the prayer hands turned inward to the body, the open palm indicating a grievance that no one could see and the pinching of the air, as if trying to grasp the essence of her point and trap it in her tanned fingers.


What was also interesting to me in the few moments when I could hear her were the pauses and the ‘rhythm’ of this woman’s diatribe. (Rhythm being a very popular word across the country and in many different and surprising contexts.) She would break off from her ranting to chat with a member of the group for a few minutes, then turn back to her young victim and restart her task of castigating him. She did this several times, but after twenty minutes of standing around going nowhere, she eventually gave her son a few playful and forgiving slaps on the back and everyone went away together smiling, at peace. Here was a mini-episode that illustrated something I had also seen before in different situations. It was the Spanish habit of taking something unpleasant, wringing the emotion out of it, then going back to the good-heartedness that is such a marked part of life lived in public here. Even a severe scolding can end enjoyably.


At the station I waited for my regional train that would take me almost directly west to Zaragoza, the modern day regional capital of what had once been the medieval Kingdom of Aragon. Other different lines from here on the coast could have taken me through the biblical sounding Salomó and across to Lleida or along the coast through the tourist resort of Salou, onto riverside Tortosa then, after oceans of orange groves, a final stop at the large port city of Valencia.


Today was the first of two days of industrial action on all the lines across the country that were run by the organisation known as RENFE.



 [JJ1]Snopes says no: “Sagging pants became the behind-the-bars thing thanks to ill-fitting prison-issue garb: some of those incarcerated were provided with clothing a few sizes too large. That oversizing, coupled with the lack of belts in the big house, led to a great number of jailbirds whose pants were falling off their arses. (Belts are not permitted in most correctional facilities because all too often the lifeless bodies of their inmate owners have been found hanging from them.)”





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