Spain is an emotional country blessed with unfair weather and beautiful people. In its cities, it seems, cathedrals and cafes have come to a mutual understanding.
I've had the privilege of visiting on three separate occasions and can say with absolute certainty that I understand absolutely nothing of the complexities of this sun-kissed dream. What I do know is that is that these people know, perhaps better than anyone else, how to live life. How to eat, how to drink and how to enjoy good company under sultry star-light.
If I had a weekend in front of me, with a few bob and a few friends, this is one country in whose good hands I'd put myself in.
The Museum of Ham
Madrid was colder than I'd expected. There was a freak hail-storm the night we landed. I must have been about 10 years old so these streets upon streets of cafe dwelling Europeans came as a bit of a shock to me. In India you relax inside, in Spain you relax outside. You sit in quaint little squares under the shadow of a church and drink your coffee or beer. We were walking through the cities back-streets, searching for something authentic, homely and cheap - like most of us stingy desis tend to in Europe.
We walked past a restaurant and had to do a double-take because what we saw inside was astonishing. Hanging from the ceiling were literally hundreds of hams. Entire cured legs of red-orange meat hung tantalisingly; their earthy, salty aroma filled the restaurant with smells that made your stomach tug at your heart-strings like a child his parent's coat. We had to try this place. It was called el Museo del Jamon if I remember correctly and what we realised is that ham in Madrid is more than a dining experience, it is a spiritual experience. Around us, ham-connoisseurs far more educated than us were selecting their specific cut and tucking into each morsel like they were kissing their love for the last time. We ordered a few cuts and nibbled on them, exploring their sweetness, saltiness and character. Jamon should be nibbled.
I realised that eating in Spain is more about the journey than the destination. You need to soak in the dim light like you soak up the sauce from the suckling pig with your bread. We waited two hours for our Paella. My sister and I had lost interest in the restaurant and in fact the country, so strained was our patience! In the end though, the vast platter of still cooking rice and meat was by far the best Paella I can remember having. It is a dish that, sadly, has too many unworthy imposters all around Spain and the world. A real Paella takes time; like any woman worth caring about (or so I've heard) it will push you, tease you and even threaten to leave you but if you wait it will make you happy. Two hours is a long time, especially if you aren't of drinking age but luckily the 'exhibits' in the museum of ham kept us busy.
Literally the only thing I don't like about Barcelona is Sergio Busquets. It is probably as close to perfect a city for someone like me as one could hope to find on earth. Its people are the city. The shared sense of being Catalan is something you need to see around you to understand. It is a single entity. It loves football, food, the sea and the weekend. How long have I spent in Barcelona? 6 hours. You know how you see a girl across a room and it's enough? It was enough.
We were being shown around town by one of my dad's dear colleagues, Jordi (truly the coolest guy I've ever met), and after doing the whole touristy tour he took us to a park on a hill that overlooked the entire city. It was quiet but not empty. There no snapping cameras or gawking package-holidayers. Just the Catalans who liked looking at their home in the afternoon sunlight. Indeed, it was nearly 4 o'clock by the time we got to the Barceloneta. Jordi told us that in Barcelona, people have breakfast at noon, lunch from 4 to 6, you go for some beer and tapas at around 8 while watching the token English family have dinner in an empty restaurant, you watch the football from 9 till 11, eat dinner at midnight and go to the club at 4 in the morning. When do Spanish people go to work, I thought to myself? (*cough overvalued labour market cough*) Either ways, this life that Jordi described, soaked in olive oil and wine is something I think I could get used to!
The Barceloneta was right on the sea front and so the atmosphere was just wonderful. The sun was out, the sea breeze brought warmth and conversation and the food came in less than 45 minutes for a change! I remember vividly having squid ink rice with calamari and baby octopus. Squid ink rice? Yes. It was creamy, it was tasty and it gave the calamari an extra bit of gusto. The baby octopus was pickled and you could eat each one whole. What I remember most of that meal was what my dad had: the fisherman's basket. It was essentially a stew of fresh fish, squid and prawn (cooked whole- the Spanish, like us Indians, know that the flavour is in the shell). The fish was firm but fell off its grain with the slightest touch. The sea was all around us.
I like people-watching. At airports, in cafes or on the bus it is my pass time. Understanding their looks, their mannerisms and their style is something I really enjoy doing as I travel. I have never seen a more spectacularly good-looking bunch of people than I did in Andalucia. It was like being in a magazine. The men are not tall like those you see in northern Europe, but they take care of themselves and it shows. And everywhere you turn there is a beautiful girl with a Hazel eyes and autumn leaf skin and carefree hair that could only come from the Mediterranean.
I was in the south of Spain for a long-weekend along with two of my best friends and I suppose when you're with your mates every morsel tastes better, every beer tastes sweeter. On our first night, due to the arrival times of our flights, we missed the last bus to Granada (where one of my friends lived) from Malaga and so had to hang out in the sea-side city until 6am. I think the Spanish have cracked what it is to "hang out" - you need to have food, drink and atmosphere that is within reach and yet does not offend your peripheral vision. You should be able to have some to nibble on in one hand and a drink manageable to hold in your other, so that you can focus on the company sitting across the table.
I give you: tapas. What a great concept. Order 5 small plates of different little savouries and a few local beers, sit in the shade of a cathedral and watch the afternoon swim away off down the beach. Braised beef and potato wedges in garlic-tomato puree. Scallops sautéed with pancetta and mushrooms. Seafood cocktail. Crispy potato croquettes filled with chorizo and cheese. Deep fried calamari with lime and rock salt. One by one the little ceramic bowls came and everything moved in slow motion. We moved to a new bar near the city centre, tucked away in the folds of a cobble-stone street. The street-names were mosaics in medieval walls. With every beer, came a new plate of tapas. I remember most vividly a sort of blood-pudding called Morcilla. All these sophisticated Spaniards were unwinding after work around us and we sat in silence, spreading the delicious sweet sausage across freshly baked bread.
We laughed, we drank, we polished off the food and before we knew it, the evening was upon us. The mood had changed and that unmistakable 'buzz' that you get in a crowded square in Europe purrs into life. The carefree murmur of a young night. Everything in Andalucia is carefree. I find the Spanish don't take much interest in the rest of the world but when a simple evening among friends can be so special, why would you care what is happening elsewhere? I wouldn't.