Spain – a more sombre look

Dear Friends:

Several of you have asked me about the economy of Spain, and so when I took this photo I was thinking to write something on the subject. 

The sign says: “In solidarity with the times, we have cut the price of coffee. One Euro: always, any time.” (One Euro = $ 1.40) 

Being a tourist hardly gives one a true picture of how the Spanish people are faring in these times. We know the unemployment rate is near 25% (and even higher for young folks.) We know the economy is still shrinking, though not as seriously as in Portugal. We know that Germany’s Angela Merkel has called for more belt tightening. And in Cañar, Michael and I have acquaintances and neighbors who, after years of working as legal immigrants in Spain, have come home to Ecuador to become taxi drivers or construction workers. 

In the small town Basque region where we’ve been traveling, we see things obliquely, and probably not a representative picture as northern Spain is a more prosperous region. Certainly there are empty storefronts, and paralyzed building projects, but every village is bustling with small, family-owned shops specializing in meat, cheese, fish, hardware, and lighting, and more,. Employees and customers – all seem to know one another, exchange news, and warmly greet visting tourists buying food for a picnic.

And in the surrounding cities, central markets seem always busy, the vendors knowledgable, professional, and friendly, providing excellent service. This woman had a line-up of customers, so we got to watch her at work – managing alone, keeping an eye on the line while filling orders slicing jamon, chorizo, mortadella, and cheeses, all with this great smile.  

At the market fruit stand, Michael wanted a single orange and the woman helping him asked, dead serious, if it was for juice or to eat. She tested several before she handed him one, saying, “perfect for today.”

And during the hours between work and bedtime, every bar, cafe, tavern and restaurant is full, as are the surrounding streets if the weather is nice. Customers take their wine or beer to nearby walls, benches, or stand-up tables, to watch their kids play ball or chat with friends. (Smoking is prohibited in bars and cafes, but many many Spaniards still smoke, and every establishment has an outside area for this.)   

We are also seeing, I think, an effect of the crisis in family dynamics. Daytime babysitters, it appears, are mostly grandmothers. During work hours, these gray-haired nannies are ubiquitous on the streets, deadly serious, rolling elaborate stollers with babies cozy in fancy sleeping bags, transparent rain tents and parasols, or they sit in cafes with sleeping creatures beside them. And if you meet these grannies in the streets, you’d better get out of the way, because they ALWAYS have the right of way.

From about 4:00 to 8:00, the (presumably) working parents join the action on the streets…and it is a wonderful sight to see. Every town we’ve been has great open spaces, plazas surrounded with sidewalk bars and restaurants. Babies in strollers peer around while parents have drinks at an outside table, toddlers stick together doing what the do, and older kids play soccer or race around the space in the middle, screaming with delight. Dogs are out too, in little sweaters or padded jackets in the cold weather. No traffic, so the adults are relaxed and everyone looks out for the kids, their own and others. By 8:30, it’s time for home for dinner and bedtime, and everything gets quiet…(until the adults come out again for dinner, around 10:00)


(On the other hand, I’ve heard that few young marrieds can afford to have their own places, so they continue living with one or another set of parents. Apartments are small, so maybe all this street life is to keep everyone from going crazy.)

We see much evidence of the boom years, when the EEU and Spain were spending wildly to bring the country into the 20th century: beautiful road systems, from local byways to super highways, all well marked and maintained. Attractive housing for retired people, even in smallest villages, and tourism infrastructure that would be the envy of any country. Michael and I hang around the one-two-star level of hotels and hostals (40-50 Euros) and all our accomodations have had wonderful beds, excellent plumbing, new fixtures, efficient heat, TVs and wifi. Prices and services are carefully regulated, and personal service is exceptional, everywhere.  Cities and towns are clean and green, with recycling bins around every corner, lots of sports facilities for youths, parks, plazas and pedestrianized centers, and our most recent city, Vitoria, even had a series of covered escaltors to get folks up the hills.


So Spain, at least this part of Spain, feels prosperous and lively. 

But read the national papers and you get another picture. Drastic cutbacks of public servants, bankruptcy of big companies, scandals  of corruption and graft, and always, high unemployment. 

It’s not all about food…

Dear Friends: Here we were just a few days ago…a warm day in the mountains…

…but when we read that a “severe borrosca” – cold, rain, lightening and worse – was heading our way and would last five days, we left our car in a village and took the train to this beautiful, small city of Vitoria (pop. 225,000). It’s not a place we’d planned to visit, but now, several days later, we thank the weather for bringing us here. (Pouring rain and 8 C – about 45 degrees – when we arrived; now, several days later, it is still 45 degrees, and snowing in those mountains). 

We wanted to hunker down a place with good food and drink, of course, but that leaves lots of time for other things, such as museums, maybe movies, and even some music.

Vitoria has several quirky museums, including one devoted entirely to playing cards that we are saving for last. But yesterday was a great treat: the Belles Artes Museum, once a private house, built in 1912 as a wedding present for a titled young couple… There’s Michael, lower right, wondering what it would be like to live there…

We loved the collection of Basque painting, and since I was allowed to take photos in the museum I’ll share a few of our favorites that capture Basque culture and landscape. This one reminded us of the mountainous country we’d just left and the great spirit of the Basque people (though we saw no scenes quite like this)…

And a somber one of miners ready to go down into the mine…

And finally, this one because it reminded us that things have not changed that much – our neighbors still plow this way in Cañar (you can barely see the wooden plow between the bulls).


That left the archeology museum, the arms and armor museum, and the playing card museum – the last an amazing collection by a Señor Fournier, who in the late 19th century created the playing card industry here in Vitoria that continues today.

There we learned one amazing fact that explained how Sr. Fournier became so rich: someone in the world buys a pack of Fournier playing cards every 1.5 seconds. Wealth allowed him and his heirs to become collectors, so today – May 18, International Day of Museums – we discover when we visit the arms museum that the suits of armor, crossbows, swords, knives, spears and blunderbusses, were also his obsession. All the museums here gave out free art books today – beautiful expensive books. I had to stop after three, for the weight alone.

(…no photos allowed)

The rain and cold continued, so we extended our stay in Vitoria and I snuck off on my own to visit the sacred art museum in the nearby cathedral. Forgot my camera, but this from the booklet:

Finally, we ran out of museums and found the cinemas, where tonight we saw an excellent Danish film, “The Hunt,” dubbed in Spanish, by the same director who made “Celebration” a few years ago. See it if you can.

Well, the temperature is up to 12 degrees C (54F) and we can’t linger in Vitoria any longer. Tomorrow we’ll take the train back to the little town where we left our car five days ago, hoping to find it there still with our luggage, and head towards the Rioja region, no matter the weather. We need some of that robust red wine!

Stay tuned…

 (of course we did have to eat now and then. We splurged on one great meal that finished with this – a fresh goat cheese tart with sweet ground nut paste, garnished with a little fruit, uvilla, a ground cherry that we have in Cañar   (thanks to M. For that description)

A Change in the Weather…

Elantxobe is actually pronounced “El Anchovy,” and that is one reason we are here. A few days ago Michael, better at understanding Basque pronunciation than I, and an ardent lover of anchovies, discovered this spot at the end of the road on the far north coast. “I want to go to that place, he said. Truth is, we don’t know if it really is named for the tiny fish we’ve been enjoying, fried and pickled and cured in olive oil and salt, but the story was too good, and we wanted one more hit of the sea before we head inland for the next two weeks.


Even better was to arrive and discover, while eating lunch at a dockside cafe, that a rowing regatta was to be held on day. Within an hour, vans pulling long boats in vivid colors began to snake down the side of the mountain towards the bay, and I realized this was the traditional rowing sport I’d learned about in the Basque culture museum in Gernika  the day before. Young men, mostly adolescents, seven to a boat, six rowing and one steering and yelling encouragment, represent all the towns around. We sat on a sea wall for several hours and watched.  Our hotel was up the hill, and our car even further out of town. Like a lot of these ancient fishing villages, streets are too narrow for cars…


In the small-personal-drama department, I lost half a contact at dinner one night about a week ago, and suspected that I had a piece of lens still stuck high behind my eyelid. Not enough irritation to bother me during the day, but at night I could tell something was wrong. Five days later, in Gernika, I found a sweet optician who agreed to take a professional peek. He found the half contact and fished it out. No charge of course, so, relieved and grateful, I bought some artificial tears and new clip-ons to replace the sunglasses I’d lost before we even reached Guayaquil. O vanity!

(This story reminds me when I first used contacts, many years ago, the brother of a friend asked as a joke if they ever got lost “back there behind the eyeball where you might have a whole collection of them.” Turned out to be nearly true.)       

OK. Back to Spanish cuisine! We always have to learn anew how to eat here, as our diet in Cañar is quite spare. So a large three-course lunch with a couple of glasses of 13%-alcohol red wine and rich dessert – and coffee! – always an event of our first giddy day – puts me out of commission for dinner at least, and sometimes for the next day, with insomnia and a headache to boot. Then we adjust… For me, no more red wine at lunch (Michael always drinks beer) but maybe just a glass of txocolí, a sparkling white wine of the region, and tapas instead of the full menú, which can start with paella and go on to steak and potatoes. Still, at the coast it’s hard to resist the amazing seafood, and before we know it, we’ve had another full-on feast for lunch…


A rainy day meal in Bermeo, the famous anchovies, deep fried with potatoes.  

And our lunch in Elantxobe –  langostinos a la plancha (grilled scampi) and a salad of fresh tuna and tomatoes with caramelized onions.

And to finish, a photo from Getaria, another Basque fishing town, where restaurants start cooking fish on grills in the streets about 6:00, and by dinnertime (8:00 PM, minimum) the entire town smells delicious…


 Now we are heading inland to the mountains, so get ready to hear about “potes” – bean stews…


Travel news

Dear Friends:

Thanks for all the great comments on Michael’s banana cake story. I read them aloud to Mr. Luddite, which made him very happy.

On May 1 we are off to Spain for a month, and I will try to send a few blogs from there, using my iPad. We plan to start and end in San Sebastian, the Basque coastal city in the far north of Spain. With a rental car, we’ll travel slowly east and south, with no fixed itinerary, following guidebooks and the weather. We are really looking forward to a change of diet, so maybe I’ll practice my hand at some amateur food writing. Stay tuned!

May 3 Update: Well, we are here, but unless I can figure out how to upload photos onto the website using my iPad (ideas anyone?), I will have to take a break from my blog until June. The food in San Sebastian is wonderful, as reported, but it turns out I am not very good at remembering, or writing about, what we eat; it seems I can only record the visuals…