The Reins in Spain
The ride down the Pyrenees was lovely, a panorama of green-on-white peaks gleaming in the spring sun, a serenade of gurgling streams and thunder in the gorge from the melting snows. By afternoon we were in Spain.
We were almost out of gas when we reached the outskirts of the big city of Lerida, so Woodrow pulled into a service station. A few miles farther, in the heart of town, in the center of traffic, after a piston-shaking struggle, the engine stopped lead. The policeman directing traffic whistled and waved frantically. Cars and carts piled up behind us. A motorcycle trooper screeched to a stop beside us, shouting and waving. Limited though my Spanish is, I knew that he wasn’t inviting us to dinner. But the engine would only sputter.
A passerby concluded we’d mistakenly bought diesel fuel instead of gasoline. To get diesel oil you ask for “gas,” as indeed Woodrow had; to get gas you ask for “benzene.” Our Land Cruiser must have looked like a small truck to the attendant, so he’d put in diesel.
The next morning we were on the road early, driving through castle country where, on small arid hills above the winding road, mementos of the ancient glory and grandeur of Spain watched over the countryside. The land, though dry, was heavily farmed; olive and fig trees sent their roots deep in search of moisture, and shady cork oaks husbanded their water behind thick insulating bark; grape vines followed the laboriously terraced contour of the slopes. Here and there we saw dams and bridges being built, the only hints that Spain acknowledged the 20th century, that a country whose inhospitable climate and schismatic topography had long been its formidable enemies was at last beginning to fight back, that a few inches less rain would no longer mean ruin for the farmers, and that people who had long thought of themselves as Andalusians and Catalonians, Basques and Castilians, Asturians and Galicians were at last beginning to be united into a nation of Spaniards.
We camped at Osona, 20 minutes east of the heart of Madrid. And what a heart! Tapas and copas. The Echegaray and the caves in Madrid Viejo. What better treat after a lonely week on the road? What better send off for a journey across Africa!
The Echegaray is a street near the Puerta del Sol where every night is Mardi Gras, where the rich and poor alike go arm in arm from bar to bar sampling tapas and copas. Tapa and copa are a must in Spanish; in fact, it’s said a visitor can survive in Spain knowing no other words. A tapa is an appetizer, a tasty anything from fish to nuts and, to the Spanish mind, a good excuse for another copa. The Spaniards are masters at preparing tapas in unending varieties, each one an adventure in tastes. During the summer the accent is on barnacles, baby shrimp, mussels, crayfish, oysters, and prawns; in winter it’s sliced beef, chicken breasts, kidneys cooked in sherry, pickled eggs. You’re stuffed to contentment for less than what a ham sandwich costs back home.
Then it’s over to the caves of Old Madrid. There, centuries before, notorious figures of the underworld hid out in the subterranean caverns, linked by a network of tunnels to other parts of the city. Where once the caves rang with pistol shots, today they rock to the sound of a buleria; everybody is high and happy and clapping in time to guitars and castanets.
The best cognac is fifteen cents, and you warm it in your hands as you lean against moist brick walls deeply carved with names and dates. The tables and benches are dark wood, also carved and nicked. There are alcoves and balconies, all underground, all crammed with people. When you order a drink you can also order a guitar. You strum, and soon everyone joins in, the cave resounding with singing and clapping until the din reaches so feverish a pitch that men jump on the tables and stomp their heels in spirited flamencos.
Over the Saturday night roar of the cave of Luis Candela, Willy introduced us to Manu-Manu Angel Leguineche Bolar-a young Spanish journalist who wanted to join our expedition. As we approached his table he was deftly pouring wine down his throat from a bota, a Spanish flask held suspended over the head. The distance from which a man can pour wine into his mouth without spilling it is a mark of status in Spain. Six inches is considered good; Manu was doing eighteen, and I noticed his expensive London suit was spotless. A beautiful girl was clinging to his free arm as though it were already understood he was leaving soon for distant lands.
Manu leaped to his feet and embraced us, almost knocking over the table. He summoned the waiter with a clap of his hands and ordered sangria for everyone. He was of medium height and somewhat on the chubby side, and he was so good natured, with a deep laugh and infectious smile, that we liked him the minute we saw him.
“Have you spent much time outdoors?” I asked him.
“My father has an estate in the Basque country. You must meet my father. He is an excellent hunter. Doves, pheasants, everything. We Spanish from the Basque country all like outdoors.”
“How about mechanics, Manu, and automobiles, driving-“
“I am Spanish from the Basque,” he stopped me with a wave of his hand. “We can do anything.”
We found him quick-witted and quite knowledgeable about world affairs. His warm sense of humor broke through the language barrier, and his resounding voice set the tables aroar. Even as we walked back to our car through the silent streets of Madrid he occasionally broke into song. ”Africa,” he said, “I know it very good. They speak Spanish there.”