Thursday, 28 July 2011

Darkest Spain

When I was a kid Spain was, to me at least, a really exotic place. It was hot, they killed bulls for fun and you couldn't drink the tapwater. They even had an attempted military coup in 1981. I mean, that doesn't happen in a "civilised" country, does it? In fact they'd only had their civil war 45 years or so before this when we'd got our over and done with about 300 more. At this time I was pretty young and I'd been abroad once (and following that it would be another good few years before I once again set foot on foreign soil), to Tenerife of all places. That just reinforced my feeling that Spain seemed different and exotic.

Nowadays, of course it's not so exotic. Ok, it's still hot and they still kill bulls for fun, but the tapwater is potable. There are Spanish tapas restaurants all over the UK, you can buy Spanish beers like San Miguel in pubs on the High St and the supermarkets have almost entire aisles of Rioja alone. It no longer holds the cachè of some dark and exotic place. This is why, despite the fact that we're going to Madrid for the second time later this week, I've been pretty blasé about a trip to somewhere which now seems little different to taking a trip to a local city near home. And having been before I know I have no right to be blasé. The more I think about it, the more I rememeber that Spain is still a fascinating country with fantastic food, wonderful people and fantastic things to see. There are magnificent cities like Madrid, Valencia and Barçelona and a breadth of different landscapes from the arrid rugged centre to the more lush areas of the Basque country. Admittedly I'm talking of the latter terrain purely from TV programmes, sad to say (most recently thanks to Rick Stein's current programme on touring Spain), but Basque cities like Santander and Bilbao are both high up my list of destinations to visit. Still, this is the country that created the environment to give the world flamenco, Picasso and Gaudi. It's the place of El Cid, Don Quixote, Blood and Sand, and Pedro Almodavar. It's a rural land, most of the area seems to be cultivated in some way, but still there's an edge that seems closer to nature than in more northern parts of Europe. I keep mentioning the bull fighting, which the liberal in me is dead set against, but the idea of man against beast in full-blooded battle (however much the odds are stacked in favour of the hominid) is so visceral, there's the barely veiled sexual tension of the flamenco and living memories of a country at bloody conflict with itself and which, even now, is teetering on the edge of chaos with the current unemplymoent rate riding at about 21%. This is the allure of Spain, possibly the least European country of the western European countries

So, off we go on the Ryanair special to the country's capital for 10 nights, taking in Segovia and some places in between where we plan to do some walking. And this is how exotic it is, walking in the same terrain as the Iberian lynx, wild boar and Spanish ibex. OK, they aren't tigers, elephants or orang utans, nor does it sound all that interesting if I say they are wild cats, pigs and goats, but we don't have any of that in the UK (apart from the Scottish wildcat, but that's just like a big feral tabby and doesn't have the cute tufty ears of the lynx). The point is, Spain is as exciting as it gets in Europe for wildlife. Spain is even the only place in Europe with a colony of wild monkeys.Yes, Spain, it's still got it!