"It's not much but it's ours"

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

In a bar called Los Mejillones (The Mussels) There were decorations of mussels on the walls and, behind the bar, pictures of all the different ways they did mussels. Mussels, in fact, being the only thing they served.

HP walks up to the only server, a suitably grumpy miserablist in the required old white dinner jacket and says “ Hay Mejillones?” (“do you have any mussels”)

The man stares at him for a short moment and then the corners of his mouths turn up and he says “chiste” (a joke?) Laughs all around. OK, well you had to be there, but it does sum up why HP is really the only person I consider going to Spain with. He just gets it.

Girlfriends are fun and all that, but after a couple of tapas bars they just want to switch to orange juice, whitter something about not eating any more fried food and complain about going from bar to bar. Male friends are a little better, but even they don’t have quite HP’s stamina nor indeed do they do his level of research.

As usual, when we got our early year Spain jones, it was HP who came up with the suggestion of Zaragoza. Relatively untouched by the hands of tourism, it is the fifth biggest city in Spain at around 650,000 and is considered by many to be one of the Tapas capitals threatening to challenge Madrid. He also came up with the idea that the trip could be his birthday present to me for which I am hugely grateful. A birthday in Spain with Jamon is hard to beat.

It is all going to change next year when they host the Euro XPO 2008 which will attract 7.5million people in three months. But, for now, it is serviced by one Ryan Air flight every other day and, er that’s it. There will be more of Ryan Air later, but of course you knew that the moment I mentioned them didn’t you?

Once the location had been decided, HP went into research over drive. Three months of late nights pouring over guide books and the internet into the wee small hours as he planned routes, targeted certain bars and made allowance for brief moments of turismo. As ever, I left it all to him. We are a good team. He produces the framework within which I extemporise by pointing down a street and saying “let’s wander down there” It works.

The hotel he chose was the comfortable Hotel Sauce which like all 2* in Spain provides ample cleanliness if precious little frill. For £30 a night, however, it allows for so much more to be spent on food.

Half an hour after landing we were checked in and out on the streets.

There is an air of civility about Zaragoza that is tangible and infectious. Without fail, everyone we met was charming to a fault and even the bar staff found it hard to maintain the grumpiness that is a badge of their trade. They have suffered precious little tourism to this point and there is little or no allowance made for the foreign visitor.

Fortunately, my Spanish is progressing enough for me make myself understood and HP is fearless in his desire to have a conversation with anyone he meets in Spain.

Zaragoza also, apparently has the highest density of bars per person in the whole of Spain and that certainly seemed to be the case as our first session of the trip was spent almost entirely in the vicinity of our hotel and the old town known as el Tubo because of the narrow nature of its streets.

There is little point listing all the bars because, quite frankly I can’t even recall how many of them we visited in each session ( I would imagine 8-10 each morning and evening ) In each, a small cana of beer which is about 0.2l or a small copa of the local grog which can either be fairly rough red wines made from somontano grapes which work in context but would remain untouched if you brought some back to the UK in a weaker moment, or they can be the better whites which are crisp, young and fruity and again compliment the tapas.

Ah, the tapas. I thought it would be hard pressed to challenge Madrid and, certainly, it doesn’t having either the variety or the scale. In it’s own rights though this is a well evolved bar culture and the quality is high. The small local bars offer a range of Montadito (tapas mounted on bread) or Picadillo (tapas on skewers, often deep fried) which are a set cost per piece and often served on the honour system where the number of toothpicks on your plate determines the cost. Larger bars will offer a wider range specialising in Jamon de Teruel (the local ham) Madejas ( lamb wrapped in its own intestines) or incredible ranges of fresh and fried seafood.

The Spanish don’t mind paying for quality, particularly when it comes to seafood. We saw plenty of people eating Percebes which we know from our own experience in Valencia last year are nosebleed inducingly expensive. Our own small plates of achingly fresh gambas or berberechos cost about EU12 a time but were worth every bite. It is not that you would pay more for these in the UK, in most cases, you simply wouldn’t get them. If you did, as in the case of the stunning razor clams we tried, they were still a lot less than in the UK.

We only made reservations for two meals. One, a slightly odd affair at a local food store called Montal. Set in the Zaragoza equivalent of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, we found ourself ushered though a set meal at such a pace that we were in an out in little over an hour. The other, was a standard, but standardly excellent meal at Asador De Aranda, a branch of that Madrid stalwart that serves slow cooked baby lamb and precious little else except a few slices of Morcilla. No trip to Spain is complete without a visit to an asador and this place was more than up to the task.

Obviously, each meal ended with a coffee and a large glass of something local and powerful to send us off to the land of nod.

Each morning, saw us leave the hotel about ten, stagger to the local churreria and centre ourselves with a thick hot chocolate and some freshly cooked churros and porros (the pornstar cousin to the churros, thicker and longer) which has an extraordinary restorative effect.

After couple of hours of wandering around Zaragoza’s historical sites (Roman remains and the Basilica Pilar in the Plaza Pilar, the longest town square in Europe apparently) it was time to start all over again as we headed further afield to places HP had targeted as having a higher density of bars. And, so it went, until about five in the afternoon when we disappeared for a much needed nap before the evening onslaught.

On the last afternoon, I was awakened by a loud rhythmic booming which for once, was not coming from inside my head. I poked my head through the shutters to see a large parade of men in frightening KKK hoods. Did the Zaragozan’s have something about half Bengali/half welsh brothers? Thankfully, no. It was, of course, Semana Santa and the locals had gone to their respective mother churches, donned these slightly nightmarish costumes and were banging their large drums as part of a parade. Not quite the accompaniment I wanted to a mid afternoon hangover, but all part of the experience I guess.

As indeed was the return journey. Well, I told you I would get back to the Ryan Air didn’t I? Unfortunatley, I didn't get back WITH them. Arriving at the tiny airport in plenty of time, we were marshalled through to the gate and penned into our various queues to await the plane which was, of course, late. It finally landed. We waited a bit more and then a bit more. Then, you guessed it, the return was cancelled. The standard Ryan Air response of no response meant we had to choose between staying another night and trusting in Ryan Air to get us home or making our own way back. Unsurprisingly, we chose the latter, hotfooted it to the train station, got on a bullet train for the hour and fifteen minute journey to Madrid and then made the last flight back to London.

A fourteen hour journey door to door. Hats off to Michael O’ Leary.

This time next year, though, the new Airport will be built, more airlines will be going there and Ryan Air can sod off.

I will definitely be going there again. Mind you, I will probably wait until after the 7.5 million people have been and gone first.

Well worth a visit.

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