Así murió pobre Rufino, por beber agua en vez de vino. - Rufino died this way, by drinking water instead of wine.
Al vino llamamos vino porque del cielo vino. - Wine is called wine because it came from heaven
Cuando quieras llamar un licor divino, di vino - When you want to call a licor divine, say wine
Quien bebe mal vino, bebe veneno - Whoever drinks bad wine, drinks poison
Castilla y Leon: the sprawling Kansas carpet rolled out over Iberia. Great plains turned vibrant green by the spring rains. Rapeseed and emerald wheats spreading out with sensual shadows for as far as any eye can see. A land of crusty castles and towering spires where squabbling kings and queens created a world power and agreed to rid themselves of Moors and Jews. A shimmering land of golden cities that would make any Roman emperor proud.
‘…an interesting old town situated on a rocky hill rising above the Douro, frequently mentioned in the chronicles of medieval warfare as a frontier-fortress against the Moors.’
‘Don Quixote mentions Zamora as famous for its bagpipes.’
A place whose name and historical and architectural gluttony outstrips its size. Of the fifty-four provincial capitals, twee little Zamora - slinking over its ‘rocky hill’ like some stony Cheshire cat, clocks in at number forty-seven. A diminutive little place that overlooks a wide and Thamesian stretch of one of the country’s few impressive bodies of water. With the recent rains pulling the flow of the Duero over its banks around the reeds and spindly waterside trees, we headed up into the old town to eat and drink.
The streets around the small main square, whose centre is artfully struck through with the San Juan de Puerta Nueva church, are littered in that Spanish way with bars and cafes. At El Colmado we ate open sandwiches with punchy and creamy local sheep’s cheese and after that stumbled to a gleefully scummy bar called Los Abuelos V - all stainless steel, garish colours and blaring TV screens - to clog our arteries with a local figón (a beer battered deep-fried glob of chorizo, cheese and cooked ham).
Our designated driver was, quite naturally, not drinking so the decision was taken to make just one more stop for the night. The locals of Zamora were starting to fill the streets and bars. It was almost 10 o’clock and everyone from old men twirling their canes on the benches, young families with singing children, to young professionals and teenagers were out populating the east end of the old town. In Bar Chillón we were served wines with tortilla española floating in a spicy callos broth. Having paid the painfully cheap bill, we headed back to the car through the old town. A strip mall of ancient and perfectly preserved romanesque churches and chapels that somewhat surreally led the walker to the stumpy and ancient cathedral, lazing in a square for almost a millennia. Then reflections and lights and starry skies, more wine and then sleep.
With dry mouths and fuzzy heads we contemplated the bright morning that met us in Toro. It was market day and the town - a village really - felt like a tumbledown Tudor set; some early Elizabethan era place that would house writers and bandits and Spanish sword-bearers looking West. The reality was gypsies selling socks and pants and off the back of the bus shoes. But the claustrophobic streets and cat-calling lent an air of old authenticity to it.
Two rounds of strong coffees and two rounds of pan con tomate with deftly cut jamón ibérico were had at a bar where we would also lunch and stop at for tapas. The plaza mayor of Toro was low, open and colourful and reminded one of Alcalá de Henares with its naked trees, churches and balconied three-story timbered houses all snug under a canopy of swopping storks. On the north end of the main street stands the grand clocktower and its archway, that, according to local legend, had wine mixed up in the mortar. They say that in the past it was cheaper for the villagers to dilute the cement with the masses of local booze than transport water up from the river. On the south end the eye is focussed on the almost whimsically pretty Colegiata de Santa María la Mayor: a perfect honey-coloured Romanesque treasure of domes, arches and windows looking out at the expanses of the Duero river plains.
Then on to meet María Angeles and Javier at the barrel-filled headquarters of the Viña del Abuelo bodega; the wine-making arm of Madrid’s legendary centenary bar Casa del Abuelo. Their jeep bumped and threw us about as Toro wiped away past the window and we entered into those undulations and their rows of dormant vines, like so many gnarled witch hands. This, in sporting tradition of Spanish generosity, was accompanied by a guided tasting that did nothing to soften any lingering ghosts of the previous night’s headaches, but did perk up the palate.
The slow spring sun had started its descent and did its usual job of throwing gold all over the place and bringing life to trees that still had elements of winter death. Down by the now placid waters of the river Toro sat trimly up on its cliff, reminding me of the words of my literary hero. Laurie Lee’s vision of the town had not changed much since the thirties:
‘…an ancient and eroded, red-walled town spread along the top of a huge flat boulder. The plain ended here in a series of geological convulsions that had thrown up gigantic shelves of rock, raw red in colour and the size of islands, rising abruptly to several hundred feet. Perched on the sharpest of these, and scattered along its crumbling edge, Toro looked like dried blood on a rusty sword.’
It was a poetry that had become big and hyperbolic in the mists of memory, but the image had stayed with me, as had the fascination with a place named after that most Spanish symbol. Toro, the crimson crumbling bull.
Enough of poetry and waterside reflections, it was time to eat again. At La Esquina de Colás - our adopted local - we ate chargrilled octopus stuffed with crispy nuggets of pancetta, bombas of chicken, spiced chorizo and foie gras, and open sandwiches with minute steaks covered in blue cheese or chicken mixed with mustard and crunchy onion. This was but the start of our evening. There was the pincho moruno at Bodega El Pillo - a gleefully grimy little tasca sitting under the clocktower. Then to the classic tavern Mesón Zamora - all wooden beams and pillars - to partake in a calandraca - Toro’s equally artery-clogging answer to Zamora’s figón. Bellies full and buttons on the verge of popping, we decided to not return to our lunch spot of La Tinta for more lagarto ibérico (deboned rib meat) and instead ended in bar La Reja - where had been earlier in the day - and once again decided against more food - the paloma (a crisp maize wafer filled with Russian salad). The tapeo was over and it was time to put the bull to bed.
The drive back to Madrid presented our group with the joyful possibility of leapfrogging a selection of the more characterful provincial towns, starting with the riverside Tordesillas. The resting place of Castile and Aragon’s mad queen Juana, it is a lively little place reminiscent of the other Duero towns: churches, convents, and small streets high up and overlooking the wide waters. It was a place that seemed grander and more important than it was in reality.
We stumbled upon a small bodega down a street where we tried local vermouth, then strolled about a bit in that hopeful and camera-clad way of hoping to gasp and gawp at pretty things. It was a fight to stay upright against the force of the winds rushing up from the meseta so we lingered for only a while.
Rueda was a town long stuck in the Bacchian minds of madrileños. The foremost white wine growing region in central Spain, named after a tiny village that took one’s mind back to the old industrial towns littering the valleys that carve up the south of Wales. Though here, in lieu of coal ripped from the depths of the earth, the money came from grapes that flowered and blossomed gently in the plains.
A strip of two-storey brick buildings, that veered from Victorian to Wild West Leone in style, create the centre of Rueda. A near unbroken chain of homes punctuated here and there with oddities: a vast and confused Baroque church or a frilly mansion, wine-sellers and bars and the odd chapel. It wasn’t an ugly place, but neither was it objectively eye-pleasing. A wind blew dust through the village into our eye. The prospect of glossy fields of verdejo was still way off. Tucked around the back were feral and slapdash country streets where mounds studded with chimneys belied ancient bodegas. Not a place to linger long but we were glad to put a name to the bottle.
And finally to lunch in a superbly charming yet at times forgotten place. Arévalo, an old town, scattered liberally with fine Mudéjar gems, sits atop its eroded plinth at the confluence of the Adaja and Arevalillo rivers; though I saw no water. We ate at Asador La Posada: bean stews, roasted chickens, steaks and jugs of wine. And proceeded that with a somewhat gaseous whip around the old town.
It was an odd place. Faded grandeur everywhere. Under a cloud-dappled sky Arévalo’s treasures flickered and shone. Church after church after tower and square. The Plaza de la Villa, surely one of Spain’s greatest hidden wonders, was by far the highlight. Wide and Castilian: porticoes and columns holding up handsome timber houses, as they embraced the cobbles that led the gaze to the fine ecclesiastical towers around.
The sad part of the story is the vast number of empty or dead and caved-in buildings. All over these provinces ancient convents, once fine apartments, old businesses selling ice or meat, are scuffed in and broken and are being taken back by nature. One peeks through the cracks in the old doors and sees a whole world inside, green and verdant yet the buildings are extinct. The reality of a poor part of the middle of nowhere.
Castilla is perfect for touring, especially in Spring when the land is alive and colourful. Good food, great wine, long days and longer horizons, ancient crumbling places pepper the land whilst smart and well-kept towns and cities drift by with all their history. Castilla y León: the largest region of Spain, yet with often the smallest sensations.