The Blue Beast Twenty-two

Tuesday, 2 July 2002

Leitza and Haro

You’re probably wondering where I’ve been these last two weeks. Ted, DouDou and I had driven down from Calais, through France in the Luton van loaded to the limit with my furniture. We took it in turns at the wheel and arrived at Casa Chabola on Saturday evening. Despite our exhausting ride across France we went straight down to the bar in Ezkurra on Saturday night to eat. However, a hen party had filled the dining room and we had to wait ages for a table. The wine flowed and the songs started. The bride-to-be was serenaded by a young girl with an accordion and another with a tambourine then the whole group got up from the table and danced around the room, weaving in and out of the tables and spinning and turning on their toes, all in unison. That was just the start. Old men sang lewd songs and young girls replied with declarations of modesty and shock whilst taunting them on their virility.
More wine.
Fell asleep in loo.
Slept very well and woke up feeling great. 

Man with van

We unloaded everything from the van, carting it all up the stairs and into the house. We even managed to get the huge sofa which half filled my enormous living room in Qatar through the door and into the kitchen. 
Having reassembled the beds and unpacked the boxes, the house now looks lived in and homely with pictures on the walls and rugs on the floor.

Fully furnished

It was like Christmas, opening boxes and finding stuff I didn’t know I had and hadn’t seen since I left Qatar in March. The only casualties were a couple of lampshades and a lamp, not bad for 6000 miles by sea and a couple of months in Ted’s garage plus the hair-raising journey through France. 

The feast day of St John the Baptist is celebrated throughout Spain with bonfires and fireworks on 24 June, which just so happens to be my birthday. This year, that being a Monday, the party was held on the Sunday evening. After a very long Sunday lunch and a short siesta Ted, DouDou and I drove down into Leitza in the pouring rain, too late for dinner but just in time for the ritual of leaping through the flames to purify ourselves for the year ahead. 
We helped ourselves to a couple of jug-fulls of red wine from the huge barrel set up in the covered fronton, or pelota court, where long rows of tables stretched the length of the court. It seemed the whole of Leitza had just finished eating as we joined Andy the Baker and his wife and daughter. People kept coming round offering brandy, cigars and Pacharan, the local digestif made from sloes and anis. 
Be churlish to refuse. 
Got up from table and went into cold night air feeling brave and manly. 
Queued up with kids whilst more branches tossed on bonfire. 
Watched kids skip nimbly across cobbles and fly through the sparks to cheers from crowd. 
When turn came, staggered across plaza like clumsy ox and lurched into bonfire, falling back into embers. 
Pulled out of fire by burly men with my shirt smouldering and hair on fire to cheers (jeers?) from crowd. 
Woke up on birthday morning feeling anything but purified.  
Shirt now duster, back and arms beginning to heal. 

Ted and DouDou

Ted and his sister said goodbye. Good food, good wine, good company, sorry to see the back of them. Ezkurra to Calais in 14 hours in a Luton van must have been a nightmare journey. 
Thanks Ted and DouDou.

When Llewellyn arrived in his 4×4 Range Rover the next day, I insisted he drive me around so I could look at the scenery instead of the road ahead. We squeezed it into Zubieta, a little village I have wanted to visit but could never get the Beast over the narrow bridge leading into it. 
First thing we saw in the ancient village square was another English car. Turned out to belong to an English woman called George who ran her own tour company organising mountain walking and language courses. She had just bought a small house up in the hills and was desperate to show it off to us so we all piled into the Range Rover to go and have a look. Very neat, very pretty, very tiny, fantastic views across the valleys as if you were flying, eagles soaring overhead, but outside loo, access was definitely 4×4 and she paid £69k for it! 
Had a superb lunch in a restaurant on the river at the bottom of the valley whilst she told us her life story. 
I thought she was a tour guide. 
Seems she is a cross-cultural facilitator.


When Llewellyn left it was time for me to head for Haro, for La Batalla de Vino, the Wine Battle. It takes place every year on 29 June the Feast of San Pedro which this year is a Saturday. By motorway Haro is about 160kms or a couple of hours away and I had my tent up in the campsite by early Friday evening. It’s only a 5 minute walk along the riverside to the mediaeval heart of Haro and the Plaza de la Paz. 
There are 18 bars on the plaza. 
Not knowing where to start, I took advice from ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and started at the beginning. 
A small glass of wine, hardly more than a sip really, costs around 50 cents or 30p so I had soon done the plaza and set off for the Herradura or horseshoe, a network of narrow streets lined with noisy bars that run in a loop behind the church. 
I don’t know what happened next but I woke up in my tent at 6am feeling as right as rain. 

The sun was shining and I could hear people as they trudged by. I got dressed in my best (ie worst) wine battle clothes, a white shirt and trousers and a red bandana around my neck and followed the throng. 
Instead of turning right, into town, they turned left and head for San Felices de Bilibio, some 8 kms away. Some were carrying flagons of wine on their shoulders, others had crop-spraying tanks full of wine in harnesses on their backs. All were dressed in white. 
The road wandered through the vineyards but the throng followed the old dirt track that headed straight for the peak where the hermitage stood. On the very highest point was a statue of San Pedro looking out across the vineyards. As we got closer the skies began to darken and thunder began rolling across the Ebro valley. At the foot of the mount the crowd had gathered and people were already soaked with wine thrown by the earliest arrivals. I was squirted by a lad with an enormous water pistol full of wine. As I walked away laughing, I was greeted by an old man dressed in hair curlers and floral frock who shook me by the hand then emptied a bucket of wine over my head. 
It sort of went downhill after that. 
Actually uphill. 

La Batalla del Vino

There were about a thousand steps up the rocky peak to the little chapel where the priest was to hold a mass at nine o’clock in the morning before the battle royal commenced. My legs nearly folded like a card table by half way up by which time the mass was over and the crowds began descending. Gasping and red-faced, I turned and, with a silent prayer of thanks, began the steep climb down. 
There were queues of people buying litre tetrapak cartons of red wine and pouring it over each other and into their water (wine) pistols.  
A smallish tanker was pumping the stuff out into buckets and refilling the crop-sprayers’ tanks. 
Lots of 15 litre wine-in-box bags were being squeezed and squirted everywhere. 
I didn’t see anyone drinking the stuff. 
Then the heavens opened and it began to bucket down. No one seemed to mind as they were already soaking wet and shivering. The dancing became more frenzied and vigorous. 
Each clap of thunder was greeted by a roar from the crowd. The lightening was impressive as we were able to see it slashing into the pylons and poles that stretched out across the valley below us. Then hailstones rained down on us and on the vines, a terrible disaster for the farmers if the grapes had been just a little bigger. 
By now I was shivering so violently I looked as if I had St Vitas’ dance. The water was pouring down the hillside in an orange torrent of mud and the brass band had given up. I joined the bedraggled army and sloshed my way back towards Haro. Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow had nothing on us. 

The Retreat After the Battle

I arrived back at the entrance to the campsite at about 10:30, aching for a hot shower and a change of clothes but somehow the crowd swept me along up to the plaza and into a bar. Suddenly, my sodden, steaming rag of a shirt became a badge of honour and the wimps who had not made it up to San Felices now stood at the bar sneaking admiring glances at we battle-scarred heroes. 
We regaled them with tales of the roar of thunder and the agony of defeat and they bought us drinks. So we bought them drinks. And then someone else bought us drinks and then a pretty girl from Malaga said, “You’re from England. My father owns a bodega, come and have lunch with me and my friends.” And I found myself in a cellar underneath the plaza at a long table with a roaring fire, drinking wine and eating snails cooked in red wine and garlic, surrounded by aunts and cousins and not having a care in the world. 

Brendan, the pretty girl’s boyfriend, turned out to be Scottish and entertained us with a wide repertoire of Celtic and Rangers football chants at full volume in the closed confines of the cellar. I staggered into the street several hours later, head spinning, ears ringing, shirt dry and headed for the nearest bar for a cleansing ale. The streets were heaving and people in various states of inebriation flowed and surged from bar to bar. There’s one bar in the Herradura which has a series of photos on the wall showing a man on horseback entering the bar on 24th of June every year. He couldn’t have got in on Saturday night. 

Los Caños A One Horse Bar

Pacharan on top of beer and wine is not listed in my book of common poisons. 
What I thought was a terminal hangover when the next door tent woke me at five, was the car stereo playing techno garage (or campsite?) at full blast. They had just got back from the disco at dawn and whatever exotic substances they were on were beginning to wear off. 
I packed up my tent and drove into town where I found a vinoteca open on a Sunday and bought several cases of overpriced Riojas. I say overpriced, some were as much as 3 euros a bottle. Bloody tourists. Rip off! I took the precaution of tasting them first and they seemed alright to me. 
Watched the Big Match between Germany and Brazil and ate some of the most delicious tapas in the company of the most knowledgeable football fans and finally left Haro absolutely determined to return. 

And you want to know why I haven’t written? 

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