Monday, 7 January 2008

A Backstreet Bar in Spain by Captain Sensible

In February 2007, we were lucky to be offered a friend's holiday villa in Spain for a bargain rent. Although located near Alicante of which one hears some pretty dreadful stories, the opportunity to get away and enjoy sunshine and a different culture was very tempting. Alicante itself is actually worse than what you hear about, and should only be visited if, for some perverse reason, you feel the need to visit a town and observe how to completely ruin it by corruption, lack of planning, greed and appalling taste. Fortunately we had our car and took off into the mountains nearly every day. Here, remarkably, old Spain still survives with its neat whitewashed villages and incredible mountain terracing alight with the vivid colours of orange trees and almond blossom. It looks as if it was painted by a 16th century artist and then superimposed on the landscape. On one particularly memorable early evening we were slowly wending our way home having spent the day tramping across mountains, albeit small ones, and visually feasting on landscape masterpieces round every bend, when we spotted, and decided to call into, a bar tucked away in an otherwise innocuous row of shops. When entering it soon became apparent that we had stumbled upon a 19th century mini-institution for manic depressives. Dark, gloomy, high ceilings, deathly quiet and with just three other customers all of whom sat gazing blankly into space, smoking continuously, making no conversation whatsoever, and generally appearing as having been struck by lightning and turned to stone. The only occasional signs of life were them taking another slug of their respective poisons, or dropping yet another fag butt onto the floor beneath their stools to add to the daily, possibly weekly pile. Later it was confirmed by others that the way the average Spanish bar customer tells a good bar from a bad one is whether they have a mountain of fag butts beneath the bar stools. Clean floors are a sign of a bad bar! Deciding that this was just the place for us to observe real Spain with real people, ( what does an unreal person look like? ) we sat ourselves down and waited for the proprietress to walk from behind the bar and take our order which is what would have happened in France. No. Madame kept pottering away behind the bar, looking as if she was at least clearing up the days accumulated debris on her side of the action. Eventually we got the message, rose from our seats, took one pace to bring us up against the bar and waited to catch her eye. After a seemingly interminable length of time, Madame looked up and with the slightest motion of one eyelid, indicated she was ready to possibly take our order. The request for two glasses of vino was silently dealt with, but the request for tapas was answered with a shake of the head. We took our glasses and returned to our seats. Several minutes later we noticed that Madame had moved from behind the bar and was standing in front of a gigantic open fridge and casting an eye at the contents therein. After several minutes she turned, looked over at us, flicked her head with just the slightest movement at which we dutifully trotted over. There before us, inside this monster of a fridge were rows and rows of tapas and it became apparent that Madame was indicating we should take our pick. At this point we were almost in hysterics, but because we were incredibly hungry and the tapas looked magnificent, we pulled ourselves together and chose three dishes. They were all wonderful, totally totally wonderful. A plate of black beans unlike anything we have ever experienced before, black olives by which we now measure a good olive, and sardines with out of this world flavours. It was literally, a small feast and with extremely good wine to boot. We stayed for about an hour, sipping, munching and murmuring in low voices as we built a possible world for our fellow drinkers, all of whom stayed rooted to their original spot except for the occasional lifting of the right arm and the dropping of yet another fag butt.. At one point, one of the customers made a comment which the others ignored but continued to gaze into the far distance with the butts steadily falling and mounting. Finally, "el hombre" appeared from the back, and began clattering around removing empties, wiping and flicking the tables, and we gradually began to realise that the slightly increased speed of the fellow drinkers' eye movements indicated that chucking out time was upon us; Gathering our belongings, paying about £2.50 for the entire meal, with wine, we emerged blinking into the evening sun which had just begun to drop behind the mountains creating this extraordinary panoply of pinks, browns, shadows and silhouettes. It was how I imagine prisoners must feel upon being let out and suddenly, after the gloom and silence, having been surrounded by people whose size of sigs would overwhelm all but fellow sufferers, they finally emerge into freedom and daylight, and find, that life, landscape, colours, shapes and are all quite beautiful in a way it is so easy to take for granted.

Crossing the Pyrenées to Spain
Our holiday villa
A Spanish lavoir
Almond Blossom beauty
Taking a stroll
A Moorish fort
Sunrise over the Med
Going home from Spain

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