A Great Escape to Central Spain

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE JUNE 2016 EDITION OF LONELY PLANET TRAVELLER MAGAZINE

Madrid

LIKE RONALDO VERSUS Messi, Catalan independence and the specifics of King Juan Carlos’ love life, the question of where in Spain you’ll find the best food is a discussion that should be initiated with caution (possibly ending in waving fists and looking up rude words in your Spanish dictionary).

The logical answer is Madrid, for it is here that you can taste the A–Z of all Spanish cuisine, from Andalucían gazpacho to lamb cooked in a Zaragoza style. And, thanks to the tapas philosophy, it is quite feasible to eat your way across the entire country in one evening.

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‘When you go for a night out, you don’t drink beer and wine because you’re thirsty,’ says José Angel Mozos García, welcoming customers into his seafood restaurant La Mar beside the city’s Opera House. ‘And it is the same with tapas in Madrid – people don’t eat because they are hungry, they eat just because it is fun. You start at your local and you keep going through the night.’

Outside José’s restaurant, the evening tapas crawl is slowly gathering momentum, while inside, the kitchen shuttles off steaming plates of things that only this morning were happily swimming off Spain’s Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts: rich and creamy Valencian seafood paella, and prawns from Cadiz now drowned in garlic to make the classic dish gambas al ajillo, beloved of Madrileños.

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Gambas al ajillo

‘Food in Spain isn’t about formal dining, white linen and good manners,’ continues José, scooping up prawns with a chunk of bread in his handsome, Moorish-tiled dining room. ‘It is food you eat with your hands; food designed for socialising.’

Madrid is a capital that is decidedly short on formalities. Unlike London, Paris, Berlin and Rome, it has few iconic landmarks – no famous triumphal arch, no truly colossal cathedral. It is a city whose spirit comes more from its atmosphere than its bricks. And at no time is Madrid more spirited than the depths of night, when tapas expeditions are full swing – at an hour when London and Paris are tucked up in bed, when even Rome has paid its bill and is ready to go home.

Navigating between eateries, you might cross lamp-lit squares where crowds spill out from the tabernas and lean on the pedestals of statues; or stroll beside the locked gates of parks like Buen Retiro, the scent of pine wafting over the railings through the air; or potter beside the façades of vast galleries where, inside, the gaunt faces of El Greco portraits watch over empty rooms that hours ago were busy with crowds.

Some tapas places are pit stops, like Casa Labra – the founding spot of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), in whose boisterous wood-panelled interiors cod croquetas sell for the democratic price of 1 euro 25 cents to standing customers.

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La Bola

Other restaurants invite you to linger longer; one such is La Bola, home of Cocido Madrileño – a ‘Madrid stew’ of sausage, ham hock, beef, chicken and potatoes, cooked in ceramic pots following an Asturian recipe unchanged since the 1870s (and served in interiors that have likewise barely altered since). And then there’s the joy of making your own miraculous Madrid tapas discovery – finding a bar squirrelled away on a backstreet off a backstreet, a place which serves the greatest tortilla española tasted by mortals and which, no matter how much Google Map detective work is done, cannot be found the following evening. Or indeed ever again.

Toledo

APPROACHING TOLEDO BY road, the city reveals itself bit by bit out of the heat haze, in the manner of some grand civic procession. First and foremost comes the spire of the town’s 13th-century cathedral, soaring triumphant and unchallenged in a cloudless sky. Then follow the turrets of the fortresses and the towers of lesser churches, jostling for prominence down below. Finally, as you draw closer, the rest of the city barges into view: an exquisite muddle of pastel-coloured villas, colourful flower boxes and higgledypiggledy rooftops, cascading down a hillside by a long, languorous bend in the Río Tajo.

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Madrid is the Spanish capital, but Toledo – its far older little neighbour to the south – better embodies the history of the nation in miniature. A 6th-century Visigothic capital, it was the first major city to be reclaimed under the Reconquista and has ever since been a powerful seat of the Catholic Church. Toledo’s golden age, however, came in the Middle Ages when it was known as the ‘city of three cultures’: a time when Christians, Jews and Muslims lived together in peace and harmony, making their hometown renowned for academia and philosophy. Wandering around Toledo today, it’s curious to think that a citizen might in one morning have heard the clanging of church bells, the muttered prayers of a rabbi and a muezzin’s call echoing down from the minarets. And, in amongst the cacophony, they would have surely heard the clanking of blacksmiths making Toledo’s most famous export.

Toledo swords are the best in the world,’ enthuses Mariano Zamorano, in his workshop. ‘Customers might have chosen one particular sword for stabbing people, and another sword for breaking bones.’

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Mariano Zamorano

Throughout the Middle Ages, knights cantered across Europe to shop for Toledo swords – famed for the strength of their steel. For 150 years, the Zamorano family have kept this tradition alive as the last local dynasty of swordsmiths, and Mariano still makes swords for every occasion. Shuffling around his sooty workshop, amongst anvils and biscuit tins full of bolts, he points out blades used in theatrical productions, ceremonial swords and replica swords of the kind the Conquistadors used to threaten Incas and take the Americas. They are still manufactured following the medieval Toledo process – fired in a forge and bashed into shape manually, work which Mariano insists isn’t dangerous, despite missing a few fingers on one hand as a result of one unfortunate episode in his workshop.

‘All children like to play at being knights,’ he says picking up a Moorish blade and waving it about. ‘However, my father never let me play with real swords when I was little.’

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If ever there was a city in which to play at being knights, it’s Toledo. Outside Mariano’s workshop, cobbled alleyways ramble beneath mighty ramparts and fortified gates. Charging past, you might miss the humble Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz with its silent, shadowy prayer hall – the last surviving Moorish mosque of 10 once dotted across the city. Not so far away is the Sinagoga del Transito, a whitewashed synagogue with swooping horseshoe arches beyond a leafy courtyard. The city’s time as a bastion of tolerance ended in the centuries following the Reconquista, when anyone who wasn’t Catholic was forced to convert or ushered out of Spain – probably at the sharp end of a Toledo sword.

Consuegra and Castille La Mancha

OF ALL THE HEROES OF the Spanish-speaking world – from footballers to bullfighters, painters to kings – one man in particular stands out. His face grins at you on bank notes; his silhouette appears on postcards; his story has been told in ballet, opera, film, a Broadway musical, a Picasso painting and even a Coldplay song. And rather uniquely among national heroes, he is revered for being useless. This man is the great writer Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th century comic creation Don Quixote, and his homeland is Castile-La Mancha. It is a landscape in widescreen mode – big skies and arrow-straight roads, a patchwork of scrubby fields extending to the horizon. Every so often crumbling castles appear, indistinct on hazy hilltops. It is a place where temperatures are high, mirages are many, and inhabitants are few.

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Santi Moraleda

‘La Mancha has a long history of locals who are considered a little bit crazy,’ says Santiago Moraleda – a man who, dressed in a long black cloak in the midday heat and with a large tawny owl pecking at his ear, would seem to affirm his own theory. ‘But we are also people who are known for being very courageous, too.’ Santi isn’t as peculiar as he might first appear, for he is taking part in the annual medieval festival in the market town of Consuegra. For much of the year it is a sleepy place, where old couples perch on windowsills watching farmyard traffic rumble past.

Every August, however, its citizens engage in weekend-long binge of mead glugging and pork roasting in the main square, plus some energetic battle re-enacting in a medieval castle, which rises regally over the town. Minibuses full of archers shuttle about the streets, Moorish encampments are pegged beside the football pitch and processions of monks walk solemnly beneath the tourist information office. Though his day job is as a guide for birding trips, Santi has dressed up as a knight for the occasion and has brought his own collection of birds of prey to the party.

Consuegra’s most famous chivalric hero was, of course, Don Quixote – for it was here, some say, that he charged on horseback, lance in hand, at his most fearsome enemy. Santi happens to be standing in the shade beneath this particular foe, which was in fact not a many-armed monster at all, but a windmill. It is one of a great many whitewashed towers that still stand sentinel on rocky bluffs overlooking the plains of La Mancha – some preserved as museums, but most abandoned, their sails and cogs jammed solid and their roof spaces home only to nesting birds. They were spinning long before Cervantes published his novel in the early 1600s, and have forever been an icon of the region.

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Fighting a windmill, and losing, is a defining moment in European literature and encapsulates the story of Don Quixote: a daydreamer who chose to live in a make believe world of heroic adventures rather than humdrum real life. To some readers of Don Quixote, the hero is a blundering lunatic – but to others it is he who is sane, and the rest of the world that is crazy.

Santi has decided to name his various eagles, owls and kestrels after characters in the novel. And, just like the Don, he and other the inhabitants of Consuegra have decided for one weekend only to play at being lords, ladies, archers and knights – to briefly inhabit their own world of make-believe.

The festival draws to an end; siege ramps are packed away, arrows pulled out of targets and Santi gathers together his feathered friends to head home.

‘The most important ingredient in the story is craziness’ he says. ‘For only with a little craziness can you truly live a life of dreams.’

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Merida

ALVARO GONZALEZ PICKS up a knife and begins scrutinising his subject with the intensity of an artist about to touch a canvas with a first blot of paint. Shoppers passing on their weekend rounds in Mérida peer at him through the shop window, but Alvaro’s concentration never wavers.

‘Sometimes I think about the pig, and the life it has led,’ he says, poised over a leg of Ibérico de Bellota in the jamón store where he works. ‘My work is about respect for the animal and respect for the skill of cutting. I know it has been a happy pig.’

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Alvaro at work

With surgical precision, Alvaro cuts a slice so thin it is almost transparent. The happiness of the pig isn’t clear, although the happiness of anyone eating it is beyond doubt: it is jamón that almost dissolves on the tongue – first with a nutty tang, then a meaty punch and a subtle aftertaste like fine olive oil.

Nowhere in Spain is the business of jamón taken more seriously than in Extremadura – the province of breezy sierras, rolling hills and lonely farmhouses backing onto the Portuguese border, of which Mérida is the capital.

It is the stomping ground of the black Iberian pig, the Rolls-Royce of Spanish swine, and a breed fatally fond of wandering around oak forests and scoffing acorns from among the leaf litter every autumn. Its diet gives its flesh an earthy taste, and its regular exercise and intramuscular fat produces a flavourful, juicy, magnificently marbled meat. A leg of the best jamón Ibérico de Bellota can fetch as much as £700, meaning a single pig might be trotting about on almost £3,000 worth of limbs.

Rearing and curing is only part of the story: just as important is the craft of the cortador, tasked with cutting slithers of jamón as thin as possible so the meat can breathe. It is a skill that takes time to master – expert cortadores are highly sought after for weddings and not a few amateur cutters end up in A&E with bloody hands.

‘The very first time I tried to cut jamón, I made a mess of the leg,’ says Alvaro, having produced a platter of neat symmetrical cuts. ‘But you learn something new every time you cut a leg. Cutting is part of our identity in this part of Spain.’

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Merida

Love of jamón is nothing new to Extremadura: many credit the Roman senator Cato the Elder as the father of the original recipe. It is not the only legacy of Roman rule here – the very name Extremadura is said to derive from the Latin for ‘extremely difficult’, on account of the long, exhausting march from Rome out to the western frontier of the Empire.

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Taking an afternoon stroll around Mérida, it’s clear the Romans nonetheless found the energy to build monumental structures once they’d arrived here. Ancient buildings pop up unexpectedly beside their modern counterparts: a street away from Alvaro’s store, a temple of Diana sits matter of factly between a pharmacy and a bank, and not so far away, a railway line rattles beneath a Roman aqueduct. Summer nights see 21st-century audiences filling the town’s greatest architectural treasure – an exquisitely preserved 1st-century BC theatre, dug up only in 1910 after being used for nearly two millennia as a rubbish dump, now restored to its original use.

And then there’s Mérida’s vast collection of mosaics, recovered from the foundations of villas, reassembled in the town’s museum and variously depicting favoured Roman pastimes: glugging wine, charging about the oak forests of Extremadura and, of course, hunting wild pigs.

Salamanca

ONLY WHEN THE LAST rays of afternoon sunshine clear the sandstone façade of Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor does the most magnificent town square in Spain begin to come to life. Old couples shuffle along colonnaded walkways; children play tag and dribble melting ice cream over the paving slabs; students clatter away on their laptops in the cafés. Gazing sternly over the whole scene are the greatest minds and bravest souls in all of Spanish history: explorer Columbus, conquistador Cortés, writer Cervantes – their profiles etched into the stone arches. Inches above their heads, local residents lean on cast-iron balconies and study the square in expectation.

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Home to Spain’s oldest and most prestigious university, Salamanca has the double fortune of being quite possibly the nation’s brainiest and most beautiful city. Biscuity-ochre towers rise over the city, sending long shadows creeping down alleyways along which students pedal to their lectures. Ancient faculties line cypress-shaded squares – their stones bearing Latin inscriptions from alumni who graduated centuries ago, some painted in bull’s blood. Hogging the skyline are twin cathedrals that survived the 1755 earthquake which destroyed Lisbon, and still sport broken windows and cracked walls from the tremors, while south of the city is the wide, sluggish expanse of the Río Tormes slipping beneath a Roman bridge on its way to the Portuguese Atlantic.

Gaining admission to Salamanca has never been easy, nor has paying the tuition fees. Fortunately some especially bright students hit on a novel solution to this latter problem. On the stroke of nine, two groups wearing shiny shoes, tight trousers and colourful sashes shuffle into the square, armed with an assortment of accordions, double basses, mandolins, guitars and tankards of beer. Soon the far corners of Plaza Mayor are noisy with the twangs, claps, shouts and whoops of the ‘tunas’, groups of troubadours who have busked to pay their study fees since the 13th century, with each band linked to a particular university faculty.

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Fernando and the tuna band

‘Doctors have always made the best tuna bands’ says Fernando Yunta, an architectural student who nonetheless plays guitar in the company of surgeons and psychologists. ‘Some of the songs we sing are about love or bullfighting. Some of them are about the university. We play for the music, for the fun. And also because it is a good way of getting girls.’

Salamanca’s traditions have endured through the many turbulent chapters of Spanish history. The university’s most famous story concerns the poet Luis de León, snatched from a lecture for heresy during the 16th-century Spanish Inquisition, locked away in solitary confinement for four years before returning to the same lecture theatre on his release with the words ‘…as I was saying yesterday’. Another professor exiled from Spain for six years during the political unrest of the 1930s returned to the lecture theatre and made exactly the same joke.

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‘You feel history in the atmosphere when you study in Salamanca,’ says María José Gonzáles, a student currently taking a master’s degree in psychology, swinging on a café chair as the tuna bands retune their instruments. ‘You feel you’re studying where generations studied before you. And, of course, it helps that the whole town looks a bit like something from Harry Potter.’

PHOTOGRAPHY: MATT MUNRO