My love affair with Iberia has always been rooted in one region: Catalunya. It was there I first learned to love Spain, then slowly realised that most people in Catalunya do not feel they are in Spain at all. I progressed to love other areas of Spain : Aragon in particular, but also Andalucia (hard not to love it), Navarra, Valencia, Islas Baleares. But even in the throes of delightful infidelities with other areas of Spain, my heart wandered back to Catalunya. To Barcelona, that most magical of cities, and to the north of Catalunya: Emporda, Garrotxa, Cerdanya, Val D’Aran. What places, what times, what memories. Places with a vitality to them, a sheer joy of living, which I’d never come across before. Barcelona, a metropolis that was exceptionally cosmopolitan and exceptionally local at the same time, respecting its past absolutely, and simultaneously turning that past on its head in ways that were exciting and radical. And Cerdanya, having nothing really outstanding to recommend it : a flat plain surrounded by (objectively) modest mountains, a few towns that were (objectively) rather similar to many other Spanish towns. And yet Cerdanya spun its magic, and I couldn’t wait to get back there. I’m still not sure intellectually what the magic of Cerdanya is, but I know it experientially.
And now, 24 years after first visiting Catalunya and falling head over heels in love with north east Iberia, I am wondering if I missed a complementary jewel of the Iberian peninsula: the Atlantic coast.
To equate Spain and Portugal as variants of Iberia is both true and incorrect. Yes, there is an Iberian aspect to both : life lived outside in cafes and bars and restaurants, a gregarious sociability, a deep belief in family, a conservatism, a joie de vivre. And there is that grand contradiction: the conservatism (confirmed by the dominant presence of the Catholic church) that is offset by a tangible radicalism – remember that Spain elected anarchist and communist local governments in many places in the mid 1930s, which so upset the conservatives that they launched a coup to replace democratically elected officials and drove the country into the fractious and bloody Spanish Civil War. Puigcerda, the rather non descript but intensely alive town in Cerdanya, was one of the many flash points, having elected an anarchist government (surely an oxymoron…). Spanish anarchist thinking has spawned many hair-splitting “isms”, including the dada-esque anarcho-naturism (a political philosophy confined to warm days, and certain to be opposed by cloth manufacturers). The richness of this radical tradition continues into the present day, sits strangely for me with the conservatism of Spain, and is an essential part of the magic of the Catalunya : the spirit of Durutti lives on. (Digressing, a Manchester band from the Factory Records stable took inspiration from his exploits by naming themselves The Durutti Column. I idly wonder if Vini Reilly, lead singer of the band and a collaborator of Morrissey, is thinking of the classic Smiths lyrics <In the days when you were hopelessly poor I just liked you more> seeing the overblown hype surrounding Morrissey’s autobiography).
There are plenty of differences between Spain and Portugal, though. The language sounds very different, with Portuguese sounding somewhat Russian to my ears. Portugal seems a bit more fashion conscious, a bit more glamorous. There are plenty of beautiful women in both countries, but perhaps Portugal has the edge. The influence of Portugal’s ex-colonies are much more evident than Spain’s.
Lisbon has been a revelation. A little over four years ago, heading south to the Med, Wendy and I explored Lisbon for just one day – a Sunday lunch and an afternoon of walking around. The bohemian bits of Lisbon we encountered felt very good indeed, so good that I wondered about coming back, and perhaps even living in Lisbon for a time. I didn’t, sailing on to Sicily, Morocco and the Caribbean instead. Wendy went to live on an organic farm in Andalucia and write a novel.
A friend from Budapest, Szilvia, decided 3 years ago that the next step in her wonderfully peripatetic and liberated life should be Lisbon. Maret and I met up with Szilvia and Carlos, and had a re-introduction to a small sample of the pleasures of bohemian Lisbon. First stop was a bar in a fishing tackle shop, Sol e Pesca, followed by a converted brothel (Pensao Amor) complete with fur-covered chairs, subdued lights, lots of velvet, low seating, and a double bed. It was a taster of bohemian Lisbon, and it was lovely.
There’s more to Lisbon than bohemia, though. Otra Vida was berthed in the Parque das Nacoes marina, part of the Expo 98 area of Lisbon. The area is what would be called a new town in the UK – entirely planned, entirely postmodern – and it works brilliantly. Places like Canary Wharf in London or Cuidad Olimpico in Barcelona don’t come close (and I won’t even mention the disaster that is the Forum/Diagonal Mar area of Barcelona). In Parque de Nacoes every turn provides something new and interesting to look at –a curved sheet of water projected over a walkway, the Vasco de Gama tower in the shape of a spinnaker, a Japanese styled water garden, a promenade for evening paseos - interesting public spaces, places to meet and mingle, often with public sculptures - a white giraffe peering at itself in a mirror, a surfing wave by Anthony Gormley, a fountain made of rusted slabs and blocks that could well be by Serra. The world-class aquarium, many of the offices, the shopping mall and the railway station are all inspiring examples of contemporary architecture. The apartments, too, are built with considerable thought for human occupation – huge outdoor terraces, cleverly tiered so that apartments on different floors can still have terraces flooded with sunlight and with sea views, and so that viewed from the street they are architecturally interesting. It’s a place for living well.
|Parque de Nacoes|
Paulo and Lino, two Portuguese colleagues from Vodafone, who I had last seen in Istanbul about five years ago, came onboard while we were in Lisbon. A memorable lunch at a local restaurant followed, including Massada – something like a saffron bouillabaisse with pasta, exceptionally good – and enjoyable conversations about old times, new times, and putting the world to rights. A lovely day.
During the same overly-rapid trip south to the Mediterranean four years ago we stopped on the Algarve coast for 1 night. Rounding Cabo San Vicente at night in thick fog, Wendy had a scare when two boats came out of nowhere and passed very close to us. She had been watching the radar and saw nothing concerning. Turning the radar onto a higher range, we found the headland slowly circling around us. Pondering this, I wondered if Dali had made an error when he declared Perpignan railway station the centre of the universe, but quickly realised it improbable that Dali could have been out by more than 1000km, and concluded that Otra Vida needed a new radar unit.
Later that morning, after the fog had lifted and we’d calmed down, we motored along the coast in zero wind, passing many resorts. Not knowing anything of the coast we randomly anchored off a tourist beach, and after being moved on, ended up inside a river breakwater nearby. We jumped in the dinghy and went upriver, coming to Ferragudo. What a delight. Grilled sardines on the quay, a beautifully quaint little village, pretty houses, a small square, and burned lips for me from trying unsuccessfully to match Wendy’s skills in flaming mouth shots. Returning to the boat late in the evening we noticed a lot of phosphorescence in the water, with fish darting out of the way of the dinghy appearing as streaks of green light. Back on Otra Vida we swam in this amazing fluorescent soup, every hand movement creating bursts of green sparkles, reminiscent of the old movie Fantastia.
Ferragudo is apparently the most photographed village in Portugal. It’s rated as the “best” place on the Algarve to see real Portugal. Lino and Paulo recommended it as a stop. It’s rated highly. And Wendy and I stumbled across it. We could have stopped almost anywhere else on the Algarve coast and our experience would have been of a large holiday development. We were lucky.
So this time, on a more leisurely trip, Maret and I anchored near Ferragudo. It’s a lovely spot with several wide sandy beaches, slowly crumbling honey-gold cliffs, and the dark green shrubs so reminiscent of the Mediterranean. The river also acts as the stopping point of the tsunami of crass holiday developments from the British/Dutch colonies west of it – the eastern side is the lovely village, somehow still managing to remain relatively unspoilt.
What is it about the northern European colonies in Iberia that feels so awful? I sometimes wonder if I am applying a double standard – after all, I relish those parts of London that are unashamedly foreign. Why do I feel that the Arabic colony around Edgware Road, the Bangladeshi colony around Tower Hamlets, and Chinatown are all positive, and yet the British colonies here are negative? On reflection I think it’s to do both with what is being displaced, and what it is displaced with. In London, as in Barcelona, foreign-dominated small areas provide diversity, and crucially are not bland or dumbed down. And they don’t really change the overall nature of the place - these are large cosmopolitan cities. Areas like Torremolinos or Benidorm on the other hand have all but eliminated any trace of Spain, and replaced it with a depressing predictability of sports and TV bars, irish pubs, kebab shops, burger outlets, chinese and indian restaurants, generic clothing, fake handbags and so on. Try speaking Spanish or finding Spanish food in some of these areas … it’s an experience. And it’s nothing to do with these being lower-end places – the same can be said about upscale generically-international resorts with golf, tennis, brunch, cocktail bars, designer brand shops, shrimp Caesar salad by the pool, minimalist-styled beach clubs, and so on.
But still, am I applying a double standard? Is some of my dislike of Britain showing through a little too much? Recalling the places we visited in Scotland earlier in the summer, I think I would feel the same way about a Chinatown or an Arabic area on Islay. Even if the areas were authentic and vibrant it would materially detract from the local culture, and the local culture is something worth celebrating. I know this could easily be recast as an argument for cultural purity, or even as closet racism, but I’m a million miles from both of those. And I’m certainly not advocating worshipping of a congealed past. Somewhere there’s a balance though, and it seems to me that the decent British pubs I’ve known in Barcelona and Houston are positives, while the stuff infesting San Antonio (Ibiza, not Texas), La Duquesa and Praia da Rocha are not. And that while the wonderful Bangladeshi food markets of Tower Hamlets are a positive, the same on Colonsay would not be.
Ilha da Culatra, an island in the Faro estuary, is lovely, and entirely uncosmopolitan. More reminiscent of Mexico than Europe, the small village we anchored off has sand as its primary surface. Small concrete slabs form walkways in the sand, there are no cars, and the houses are low and square roofed, mostly white with brightly coloured detailing. The village continues to makes most of its living from fishing – the harbour is chock full of small fishing work boats, and each morning boats came near to us pulling up gillnets. It supplements fishing with catering to visitors in the summer – there are about half a dozen restaurants/bars in the village, far more than would be necessary for the small population. It is most definitely not developed or spoiled.
During the time we were anchored off the island, back in the UK the comedian Russell Brand was guest editor of the New Statesman, a respected political and current affairs magazine. He wrote an essay promoting non-voting as a protest. His basic reasoning was: the western model of today produces unacceptable results (environmental, wealth inequality, reduced opportunity); the political system within that model has been bought and twisted, and consequently offers only an illusion of choice; voting implies tacit acceptance of that political system; therefore do not vote. Brand’s articulation of this is chaotic, but much more entertaining than my rather dry summary. The right, naturally, had a predictable spasm of outrage, trotting out the old canards of “champagne socialist” and “corrupting our youth” (yeah yeah, whatever).
Anyway, it so happens that the people on this sandy island have some relevant experience of not voting. Frustrated by the lack of progress on basic infrastructure on the island, they decided to organize themselves into a union. After trying other tactics and getting nowhere, not one person on the island voted in a particular election. This worked beautifully, and things got better for the residents of Culatra: reliable electricity, street lighting, harbour protection, and a new ferry terminal followed. Maybe they are champagne socialists and have corrupted their youth. We didn’t see any evidence of either, but we did see the streetlights.
A short dinghy ride from Culatra is Olhau, an important fishing town with a large fish market. Courtesy of a restaurant in Ferragudo we discovered a fish new to us. Called cantarilho in Portuguese, in English it is the blackbelly rosefish (according to Wikipedia). Never heard of that one before. It tastes somewhat of seafood, with a texture like a delicate form of monkfish (but much easier to prepare). Given its deep-water habitat I doubt we’ll ever catch one (not that we’re great at catching fish in general anyway, although we got one tuna last week) so it’s been a pleasure trying this fish while it was available from a market.
We’ve now moved further south to the Cadiz area : home of sherry, one of the world’s great drinks. It’s also a foodie area of Spain, bullfighting country, and a place of much sunshine. I think it will be enjoyable.
Swordfish with rice
- Stock for the rice: garlic, chilli pepper, star anise, coriander stalks, lemongrass, fish stock. Boil and strain. The stock should be quite spicy.
- Cook the rice in the stock and vegetable oil, then add chopped coriander leaves.
- Trim swordfish steaks, soak in 4% brine for 30m. Sweat garlic in olive oil, add chopped coriander leaves, and cook the swordfish gently in this.
- Remove the swordfish and reduce the juices. Avoid browning the garlic. Pour over the swordfish.
- Serve with lime segments.
Dorada with vegetables
- Bake a whole Dorada in a salt and egg white crust to a core temperature of 44C. Remove crust and skin, remove fillets carefully, remove any bones and fat.
- Cauliflower puree: cook the cauliflower, puree with cream, butter, a little mace, and white pepper. Char a slice of cauliflower with olive oil and white pepper.
- Turnips: boil, glaze.
- Potatoes: make cylinders (apple corer), cook in vegetable oil twice. First time at 130C to cook through, then remove. Heat oil to 190C and brown/crisp the potatoes.