Diego Costa and the Running of the Bulls
It was a dream come true. Well, more like a collection of faint ideas I’d once had of thundering through the streets of Pamplona, leaping onto balconies in my dashing white outfit, red belt flapping in the breeze, red handkerchief sitting adroitly around my neck as a brutish bull failed to draw blood from my muscled torso. And now here I was at last, in Pamplona, at the start of the famous encierro, a winding route passing through ancient streets and shop-lined lanes, from a small corral to an imposing bullring a mere 875 metres away. Bulls cover the distance in about two and a half minutes. Humans try to do it more quickly or escape to the overhanging balconies with superhuman leaps and the assistance of friends. I was excited. My wife was not. My mother is probably having a fit right now.
Admittedly, there were no bulls. So, no running, by them or by us. But still, it was a chance to walk the famous route, a chance to imagine the masses of people cheering crazy, adrenalin-fuelled weirdos hurtling around corners as they try to evade 700 kgs of snorting toros bravos. Who wouldn’t warm to the re-creation? Who wouldn’t feel just the tiniest surge of adrenalin as you began the storied route?
Well, my wife for one. I built tension, I provided commentary, I summoned up images of wide-eyed daredevils and rabid bulls rampaging up the street, but San-Marié remained unimpressed. She’s always hated Hemingway and his misogynistic ways and he made this place famous, so maybe that was it. Every hundred metres or so, whilst I was envisaging and describing a gored, bleeding runner or a lithe bull-dodging maestro, San-Marié drifted off course to the nearest local market or kitchen-knife shop. I had to drag her back on route to make sure that we made it to the bullring. I couldn’t understand it – sure, it wasn’t the real thing, but I thought even the most culturally disinterested soul would find it intriguing, especially if you consider that you get the chance to relive it without the risk of a horn piercing your arse.
Pamplona wasn’t our first stop after we left the Asturian mountains. We headed to the Basque Country, first to Bilbao and then to San Sebastián. Most non-Spaniards think the Basque Country is a hotbed of separatism and terrorist activity, but in reality, terrorist activity stopped a number of years ago and the focus now seems to be firmly on food rather than separatism. San-Marié saw our visit as an opportunity to explore a famous cuisine – I saw it as an opportunity to build sustenance for our impending visit to Pamplona. Nobody ever achieved anything great on an empty stomach.
Bilbao is the largest city in the Basque Country. I knew very little about Bilbao even though its name reminded me somewhat obliquely of Rocky movies. I also knew that its football team remained remarkably competitive in La Liga despite an insistence on fielding local Basque players only and that one of its former coaches was the crazed genius, Marcelo Bielsa. Yes, I know that’s not very interesting for most of you, even if I tell you that his nickname is “El Loco”, but sadly an insight into my cluttered mind is the price you pay for being a dedicated reader.
A few decades ago, Bilbao was considered a characterless, industrial city living off its roots as a major port and iron-producing region. However, it has converted itself into a bustling service town, with plenty of charm, wonderful food and new and exciting architecture. This is represented most strongly by the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum, a spectacular building alongside the river, impressive both from outside and from within. Some of the works of art, however, left me fumbling through the barren contents of my art appreciation drawers – again. The somewhat odd sculptures were not enhanced by the even more odd audio commentary that accompanied it. Call me simple, shallow or unimaginative, but for the life of me, I struggle to take an architect seriously when he says that a cornerstone of his vision was driven by the memory of the live fish that his family used to buy at the local market. Equally bemusing is a sculptor who feels the need to point out the numerous ways in which her massive metallic spider resembles her mother.
Bilbao introduced us to pintxos. They’re the Basque version of tapas – small bite-sized food that can range from average cocktail fare (although not often) to outrageous gourmet-style concoctions. Aside from one evening in a restaurant where we sampled “chuleton”, a moerse big, tasty, tender chunky piece of beef, we wandered the bars at night, sipping Rioja or Txakoli and trying out the range of gourmet delights on offer. One evening, we made use of a “free-tours-by-locals” service, where a local chap, who resembled Diego Costa in every way, bar the kicking, spitting and screaming, showed us around town, giving us an insight into the history and way of life of Bilbao, but most importantly into food and pintxos. We tasted prize-winning pintxos and we were given tips on when to leave a pintxos bar (if they ask you to help yourself from the tempting platters on the bar, it’s bad) and when to enter one (crumpled napkins ankle-deep on the floor below the bar counter is good).
Once again, San-Marié was thrilled by the discussion around food. I kept on expecting Diego’s doppelganger to tell me why he was such an aggressive bastard or at least to elbow me in the face if I asked him, but instead he launched into monologues on how certain food should be prepared, how to identify quality dishes, how sauces are often used to conceal poor ingredients and how it is the Basque men who do the best cooking on weekends (I nodded my silent acquiescence as San-Marié frowned). As with our stay in Asturias, San-Marié was astounded by the depth and detail of the food talk that Spanish men are committed to – not surprising when you consider that her husband’s cooking repertoire is limited to (an admittedly mean) spaghetti bolognaise and that he prefers to pepper his speech with bad puns and sporting references than to dissect whether a tortilla is truly a tortilla if it has onion in it.
We continued our food pilgrimage in nearby San Sebastián. It has been a popular beach resort since the 1800s, with a sweeping moon-shaped bay at its centre, and a number of hills and little islands that provide further natural beauty. We clambered up one of these hills in a futile attempt to offset some of the impacts of the rather food-centric nature of our trip and were rewarded with extensive views of the town and its surrounds. We could see the lovely promenade with a large number of seaside hotels in the background, which somehow avoid spoiling the look of the town, probably because they are old Victorian buildings, well-kept with appeal and character. Admittedly, we were there out of season, so we weren’t subjected to the massed ranks of wrinkled grannies in obscene threadbare bikinis lying suggestively on the beach creating a floor of ancient flesh, but to our eyes anyway, San Sebastián seems to have succeeded in that impossible task of blending rampant tourism with tasteful charm.
Although famous for its beach, San Sebastián is renowned as a food destination. It has the second-most Michelin star restaurants in the world per capita, but owing to our continued state of unemployment, four months on the road, diminished enthusiasm for fine dining and a plunging Rand, we kept well clear of these spots. Instead, we sampled the famed San Sebastián pintxos bars where the mini-delights were, more often than not, both exciting and exemplary. This, along with my halting Spanish and the paroxysms of joy which accompanied San-Marié’s relentless consumption of numerous foie-related dishes were probably the only things that kept me from asking why the portion sizes were so small.
A quick night in Pamplona and then westwards we went, with an eye on the wine country, a golden city and a visit to the land that inspired Nandos chicken. Hopefully we’ll tell you some of these stories before we return home (for now) in the middle of January.
To view our Bilbao and Pamplona Gallery, click here.
To view our San Sebastián Gallery, click here.