All that's New.

The man with the microphone screamed,
'Here come the next few runners! They'll be really wanting to cross the line before the hour is up!!!'
Somehow I had agreed to do another mini-marathon in Guadalajara. Back in 2010 it was the fairly easy 6km run. This time I had for some reason nodded yes to the 11km rompepiernas 'Leg-breaker' run. I flickered over the line with a time of 58:20. Under an hour. Leaking like a heffa in the Sahara.

Not to let down my 'reputation' as a traveller I seized the opportunity to visit a town the day before the run. Sigüenza lies deep in the Castillian plains, built on a small and subtle bump of ground, surrounded by low hills. It is small, has a few cobbled streets, some attractive old flats and a frankly absurd collection of monuments. Given the fact you can cross the town in about thirty minutes, it is fat and plump with more historic buildings than you would presume normal. Guadalajara, despite being the provincial capital and a far larger city, lost out on getting the cathedral. On the left flank of wee little Sigüenza you can find a most wonderful pinky-orange cathedral squatting beside a porticoed square. Continuing up the little windy avenues, passed churches and artesenal shops, the visitor is spat out grandly into an open area that is unremarkable apart from the massive castle plonked on it, topped with fluttering flags. Therefore, I suppose you could say, it is remarkable. I left Sigüena purring into the night, the sky hurling deeps reds with christmas lights twinkling into life and out on the Manchegan plains more stars that you have ever seen. Delightful.

* * * *

Christmas passed in a haze of surreality. The traditional English Christmas, those days of the ho-ho fat man, were spent, grumpily and ever so slightly Scrooge-ily, in Madrid. Such is the evil of the holiday period at my academy. Christmas Eve was a happy affair. The lemon-stuffed chicken that I crammed into the oven roasted up a treat. Matt and I devoured it with potatoes, garlic carrots, cauliflower, peas, gravy and some defrosted sprouts fried up with walnuts, pancetta and balsamic vinegar. After the feast we lugged our weightier haunches over to Matt's to watch Home Alone and Die Hard with mince pies. Classic. Christ's birthday was where the weirdness arrived. Matt and Rakel used my oven in the morning and we played Trivial Pursuit on an ipad. They left. I gathered leftovers. With my pungent tupperware of goodies, a bottle of artesan beer and a christmas cake sent to me by my friend James at home, I was off to Ed and Niall's house. We ate the leftovers. We ordered a curry. We drank the beer. A couple of others arrived. We opened wine. We watched The Great Escape - everyone being assigned a character. I got drunk. Everyone got drunk. Most fell asleep. I went home and then had the flu for a week and a half. Christmas.

Then it was the turn of the Spanish Christmas. Reyes. I think God-heads call the period Epiphany, on the 5th/6th of January. Concerned that I wasn't going to have a proper Christmas with my family, Elena's parents effusively invited me to spend the festive period with them. I had woken up at 5 o'clock in the morning on the 5th to catch my plane from England to Madrid. In the afternoon of the same day I was in a car blasting through the dusk towards an orange sky, sliding through the wide plains between the Sierra de Gredos and the Sierra de Guadalupe.

We arrived just in time to catch the small town's Cabalgata, the procession of the Three Kings. In Spain, in place of the ol' fat, port-breathed hedonist Saint Nick, the young of the country are brought their presents by the three wise men; Baltasar, Gaspar and Melchior. They arrived on the last three of a wide selection of colourful floats, covered in local schoolchildren throwing sweets to the crowds while dressed up as various themed characters. Post sweet-parade we handed out our gifts back at an aunt's house. I was very grateful to receive a shirt from Elena and her boyfriend and a selection of Spanish food and drink from 'la familia'. We ate, a lot. Ham, cured meats, cheese, bacalao, snails in a spiced tomato sauce and other tapas. As soon as we arrived and had visited one family, we ferried ourselves off to another large house when I met the rest of the family. It was a surreal wine-tippled experience where I was introduced to about twenty boisterous and felicitous Extremadurans as they got on with their Christmas. It is typical in this period to eat roscon after basically every meal. It is a large, bread-like circular cake with a hole punched in the middle, topped with sugar and candied fruits. Sounds nice. It's a bit bland actually, but you can find some decked out with cream, chocolate or crema catalana if you're lucky. The tradition is that inside the cake are two 'gifts'. One is good, usually a little king, and one is bad, usually a nut. If you get the nut you are supposed to pay for the roscon. I got the nut. Much laughter and ribbing. 'You'll have to come back next year and pay for it!!'

The following day I was driven around 'la ruta de los embalses' in the Badajoz province.
'People say that Extremadura is so dry,' said Angel, Elena's father, from the driver's seat, 'but that's because they don't know...'
A single road takes the vehicle through the village of Orellana la Vieja to an enormous area of small green hills that shelter three gigantic reservoirs: Orellana, Serena and Zujar. This whole area of Extremadura is where the productive magic happens. Murcia Community (over by the east of Andalucia) is the huerta, vegetable patch, of Spain, while Extremadura is called the despensa, the larder. The whole zone is covered in vast farms and fruit and veg producers. The reservoirs provide the water.
The only problem was that the day was foggier than any I've seen and so the majesty was all but hidden.

We finished a little deflated at the lakes and drove to the minuscule village of Guadalperales; a Franco-era grid-formation planned collectivist town. The family had booked into a family-style restaurant called Los Jamones. In its air-hanger sized dining hall we ate cochinillo (suckling pig) and cabrito (kid [goat]), sozzling ourselves on local wine. The day ended in another surreal haze of family fun, this time bingo.

The last day, well, day of any real consequence, was a burning blue day.
'Today is the matanza, do you want to see it?'
'Matanza...the killing?'
'Well yes, but don't worry, the farmers kill the pigs. It's the day my family makes chorizos and sausages'
I entered a room, was handed cheese and wine, and witnessed two burly, but light-hearted, men, sleeves rolled up, standing over a huge blue bowl filled with fresh mincemeat. One was turning it over with his hands while the other added oil and spices.

Later, the women of the family sat at a long table at proceeded to tie up the sausages that slid out of the meat grinder and into cleaned skins. Once tied, one of the burly, but light-hearted, gents - with a cheeky penchant for calling me Simon or Robinson - would hang them in a side-room where they would hang for the next month. During this process another aunt, matronly wielding a gargantuan saucepan, cooked migas - essentially breadcrumbs fried in oil and paprika and liberally sprinkled with garlic and smoked meat.

So that was that. And this is this. There are things I have forgotten. Things I'll want to have put in. Things about society, about food, about life, but haven't. This is the 'what I've been up to' blog. If you didn't enjoy it, I suggest you drown yourself in a bowl of cottage cheese. If you stuck with it, thank you, and we'll be running normally forthwith.