Wednesday, 29 May 2002
Gob O’Shite writes:
There then followed a fortnight without any emails during which time Paddy Miguel roamed around northern Spain trying to get his laptop working. He also enticed DouDou to fly out to Biarritz for a weekend with promises of pony-trekking in the Pyrenees. Once DouDou had returned, bow-legged, to the UK he was back on line again, pleading man flu.
Hello again! Thank you for your ‘Welcome Back’ messages. I didn’t realise how much you were missing me and how worried you were that I had not been in contact.
Unable to write or plan or concentrate I lay, sweating, in my sick bed, assuming you were aware of my predicament.
Well, I’m better now and ready to write.
Firstly thank you for the offers to return my lost bulletins, especially the one where they have been downloaded, printed on handmade Egyptian papyrus paper and bound in Moroccan kid leather as a suitable piece of heritage literature for your great grandchildren.
Most generous and heart-warming.
Secondly, thank you to all of you who actually did return all my old emails. It took about 6 hours to download them all and cost me a fortune as I am now in Spain where not only do I have to pay for the phone call, AOL surcharge me for access and, the final insult, I connect at a pathetic 26kB/s.
In order to reduce costs, I now do everything offline and then squirt my emails in and out automatically before logging off again. This means I am not keen on receiving the latest batch of smutty jokes you have just downloaded and also explains why you will not be getting any photos from me either. Email is fine but hang on to the rest until I can find a cheap Spanish ISP.
My technical problems are caused by CompuServe closing down and ‘migrating’ me to AOL. In the process I lost my Personal Filing Cabinet and, a few days later, my entire Address Book. I have managed to get back some of the emails and have restored my Address Book.
I finally arrived in Rioja and found a delightful little B&B where I stayed a few days. I tried the local estate agents for houses to rent but with no success whatsoever. People apparently don’t rent houses around here. My kind landlady advised me to call on the town hall and ask them if anything was available. It is sort of done by word of mouth rather than an estate agent.
I was in Laguardia the other day, a superb example of a hilltop fortress town surrounded by a high wall. Built in the Middle Ages, the walls now incorporate many houses with extraordinary views across the Ebro valley and up to the Sierra Cantabria to the north. I went to the town hall and got a list of flats available but no houses. Two elderly sisters are renting out a 3 bedroomed purpose-built flat, with the most magnificent views, nestling under the walls of the old town. It has a garage and 11 elderly neighbours, all widows I suspect. It comes fully furnished right down to holy crucifixes and Madonnas in every room and frilly net curtains and heavy wooden chairs. I suppose I could shift all their stuff into one room and see if I could get mine up the stairs but it is not really what I am looking for.
I have this vision of renting an unfurnished old house, open fireplace, high ceilings, big rooms where I can have all my stuff from Qatar around me whilst I search for a place to buy and restore. I found a furnished version surrounded by apple orchards in a remote part of a National Park, miles from anywhere and at the time thought, ‘What am I going to do here?’ This was before I had got to Rioja.
My original plan was to roll up to this primitive backwater, dusty, undiscovered, unspoilt and rent a house, find a job, offer these simple peasants a little of my wisdom and learning.
Things have changed since I was last here.
Firstly the investment pouring into the autonomous regions has been enormous. Roads, hospitals, schools, bridges, tunnels are being built everywhere.
Secondly, Rioja wines are now justly appreciated for their quality and modern bodegas are springing up all over the place. The transformation has been rapid and the people are no longer unaware of their potential. Old stone properties are being snapped up as weekend houses for the city dwellers of San Sebastian and Vitoria. There are still plenty available to buy but the prices have shot up.
Another factor is the resurgence of Basque nationalism. I note every road sign has been defaced, erasing the Spanish despite Euskara being the top, first language. It seems anti-Spanish rather than pro-Euskara or Basque and is very destructive and ugly.
I thought I would really enjoy the rustic, unsophisticated charm of Northern Spain, untouched, unspoilt, undiscovered, after the haute cuisine and elegance of France.
Now, I am not so sure.
I am finding lots of things that contrast sharply with the French way.
The French bake better bread but the Spanish make better coffee.
The road signs are clearer in France but the petrol is much cheaper in Spain.
French restaurants shut at 2pm, Spanish open at 10pm.
Spanish never correct your pronunciation, French refuse to understand you if you say it wrong.
You can drink cheap Spanish red wine with everything; it still tastes like cheap red wine. In France you are tempted to go up market to match the food.
France has clean, functional, cheap, plastic hotels. Spain has luxury paradors and the sort of crummy, sales rep hotel in which I am typing this, nothing in between.
B&Bs in France cost twice the price of similar in Spain. My 15th Century stone farmhouse room in Salinillas cost only 30 euros a night.
It’s great, these euro thingies. Driving across the frontier I was thinking, ‘If it’s €1.10/litre in France what’s that in Spanish?’ before realising that the currency is the same and that petrol really was only €0.80 in Spain 100 yards down the road.
Sooner you get them in UK the better.
Only problem so far is the Spanish determination not to round up (or down) when converting from pesetas. So the toll on the motorway is €1.14, four bloody cents!!!! The queues are always interminably slow as little coins are searched for and handed over.
Also when discussing house prices they still think in millions of pesetas instead of thousands of euros so my heart skips a beat when I hear ’12 million’ for some tumbledown old wreck. Mind you, seventy two thousand euros sounds expensive too.
Having seen the investment and the prosperity of the region I am not convinced anymore that I need to buy in the heart of Rioja and have decided to look further afield. Job prospects look pretty slim unless I consider getting what I call a ‘proper’ job, a prospect that fills me with gloom and despondency. My idea of freelance wine consultant is still breathing heavily in the shadows but so far has not made an appearance. Must do more research. Into the consumption of wine, that is.
Found my first hitchhiker yesterday. Young lad coming back from one of the sawmills that cover this forested region north of Vitoria. Got in the car and sat, stunned and rigid for the first few miles then began asking questions about the Beast. Wanted to know what every bell and whistle was for and of course I couldn’t stop showing off. Didn’t try and impress him with the power and acceleration, though. Must be growing up at last. He got out and stood at the edge of the road staring wistfully as I slowly eased out into the traffic and disappeared.
Once, when filling up at a petrol station, a young motorcyclist came up to have a look. Indicating the petrol gauge he said “Chupa, no?” which means ‘sucks’ but translates as ‘Guzzles, eh?’
I told him 12 litres/100 kms and he replied, “Gua! Como una novia!’
‘Like a girlfriend!’
Off to call on all the local town halls in the area to see if I can find this dream house to rent.