Prairie Home Compañero
After our obligatory stops in the northern coast's two major cities, San Sebastain and Bilbao, Duncan and I decided to rent a car and head west into Cantabria and Asturias, regions known for small towns, beautiful coastlines, cider, rain, and the lushest of greens abound. We'd conceived of this drive with the utmost of optimism, hoping to simply get off at the right exit onto a small road that would lead us straight through the quaint, idyllic towns that we may have very well made up.
This was for the most part foolishness, but we made a good go at it, and this part of the country made driving an absolute pleasure. We stopped briefily in Santillana del Mar, a would-be cute little medieval town, but because of the sickening number of tourist shops selling absolute shit, we decided not to hang around after our tour of the church.
We moved on to spend the night in Comillas, which had the right look to it but felt a bit dead. It was too late to move on, so we found a room above a bar, and went out for a pre-dinner drink. The bar was pretty much empty, except for a couple of older respectable guys who had come in just before us for a glass of wine or two each, which they promptly downed in about ten minutes before moving on. As soon as they'd gotten their drinks, the bartender asked them something I couldn't hear, and soon after produced a plate of about 15 small baguette slices topped with shrimp smothered in what looked like a mayonnaise sauce. After eating a couple each, the guys looked at us and slid the plate over. We accepted, slid the late back after taking one each, and I thanked them repeatedly, thinking they had ordered food for themselves and were sharing. They sort of laughed in a friendly way as if the thanks were not necessary. 'It's just to snack on,' they said, 'it's for anyone, have as much as you want.' My puzzlement deepened when the bartender slid another full plate of the things in front of us and carried dirty glasses into the back without a word. My first thought was, 'Never leave this place.' I mean, peanuts are one thing, but a free plate full of shrimp appetizers is, I mean, that's just something else. We of course chose to ignore that in eating the whole plate we might has well have been chugging from full jar of Hellman's.
The next day in Comillas we visited a small house turned fancy restaurant called Capricho de Gaudi, built by that most famous of modernistas, of whom I knew nothing about at the time, in 1885. It was as weird as it was cool, and unfortunately this picture doesn't do justice to the colors.
From there we took a drive up to the Universidad Pontificia, which was designed by another modernista, and has become a complete waste of stunning architecture and surroundings.
We then took a tour (with what looked to be the Cantabrian Geriatric Society on their weekly outing) of the Marques de Comillas' house, a bewildering Gothic...thing.
Turns out the Marques was not exactly entitled to his...er...title- he was born poor, went to Cuba and married some rich guy's daughter, then multiplied his fortune and came back and called himself the Marques de Comillas. Which really inspired my lifelong dreams of one day proclaiming myself a noble. Marques is a good one, but I think I'd prefer Baron, perhaps Viscount if I'm really feeling saucy.
Before leaving Comillas we purchased several blocks of fresh cheese from a small market in the town's square, and after tasting every one of the cow's, sheep's, and goat's milk cheeses the guy had to offer. Two huge baguettes and a few bananas in the bag, and we had lunch to go. On our way west, we got off the road and headed along a winding road that led, well, up.
We didn't really know where we were going and didn't really care much. That's how the days were- slow, peaceful; if we'd see a road we liked, we took it. After twenty minutes of winding and praying nobody would be speeding around a corner on this particular 'two lane' road, we parked and walked up to a peak to start working on that cheese; the only sights the rolling green hils and the tiled roofs of the distant villages; the only sounds the cool grey breeze, the faint ringing of bells dangling from cattle and sheep collars, and, for twenty or so seconds of natural splendor, Duncan's pee hitting the grass.
You know, it occurs to me that I haven't taken time to properly introduce Duncan to those readers who don't know him, so, let me digress for a moment...
Ladies and Gentlemen, the esteemed Duncan Randolph White:
So, yeah. I think that's good.
After our picnic, we turned back, caught the main road and kept heading west to what would be our destination, lovely Cudillero, a beautiful fishing town that we deemed, for our purposes, Perfect, or at least, Close Enough.
We managed to find a reasonably priced room managed by a sweet-as-can-be old lady and her middle aged son. They informed us of a big festival going on that night in the next town over, about a 2km walk, which celebrated the local patron saint's day. Turns out our timing and town choice was perfect. Excited, we split a bottle of wine we'd purchased earlier, and went down to the local bars to get out night started. Here was our first introduction to Asturian cider. It is served in liter bottles that cost 2 Euro apiece. The cider is kind of tart, almost bitter, so it is poured from a great height into a tipped glass in small amounts, and then drunk immediately so that the foam gives it a fresher, crisper taste. This takes practice (the pouring, not the drinking- the latter I went to college for). The bartenders would reach one arm up in the air as high as it could go, then lower the glass in their other hand as low as it could go, and tilt it slightly. The liquid being poured would fall about four feet and land on a tiny strip of tilted glass, and if the pouring hand oscillated slightly or tilted the bottle more or less (impossible to not do a little), the stream would shift and the bartender, staring not at his top or bottom hand but the moving stream, would move the glass accordingly. The bartender usually pours your first drink, then leaves you the bottle, and if you want more you can ask, or you can try to do this yourself, and inevitably pour half of the bottle all over the floor and/or your shoes. But it's cheap as hell, so whatever. Needless to say, this is an incredibly entertaining way to get drunk.
As advised by everyone, we headed out to the festival at close to midnight. It was a nice quiet walk up a slight incline that we knew was over when we heard music blaring from the middle of nowhere. There, we found a big white tent, and locals of all ages. I mean from 1 to 75, midnight on a Friday, these people were out there. The older men and women danced in pairs the whole night, maintaining perfect rhythm without thinking, smiling or showing any signs of enjoyment. Young kids scurried about, a cheesy band led by a man in all black and a terrible toupee played salsa and pop music, and everyone got wasted. Duncan and I spent our time staring- puzzled- and pouring as much cider on the floor as we did down our throats. Here's us not being very good at it:
So, this whole shindig was kind of bizarre. Maybe it was the giant tent, maybe it was the binge drinking taking place directly alongside the wholesome family entertainment, maybe it was the rhythm guitar version of Sultans of Swing that had no vocals or lead guitar but still brought the house down, I don't know. The most amazing thing was that when we got tired at 3:30 in the morning, the old people were still dancing, the younguns were still scurrying, and poeple were still showing up. I thought we'd made it a late night, but apparently we were the first to go home, because the walk back was deserted. Little town Spain's big night out I guess. Way to go, I say. Way to go.