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Move to Spain, ride mopeds, enjoy life

Postby Micronaut » Thu Jan 19, 2006 6:18 pm

Every day — unless you happen to live in mist-shrouded Galicia — the sun shines. Tobacco and beer are cheap, and the optic, that Pecksniffian contrivance that ensures you get not a drop more than your one-sixth of a gill, is quite unknown.
In this country, you actually have to tell the bartender when to stop pouring spirits into your glass. These are the things that attract the majority of visitors and residents to Spain. If, though, they possess the merest shadow of a soul, they soon become captivated by the deeper qualities that the country has to offer, whether it be the awesome savagery of the landscape, or the glory of the architecture — that fabulous hybrid created by the Moors and the Jews, and latterly by the Catholics with the silver and gold they stole from the Americas. Or it might be the beauty of the language, which can lend a poetic lilt to the most banal utterance... or the music, the customs, perhaps the food and wine... the list goes on.

After many years in Spain, I have been seduced by all these qualities, but perhaps most of all by the people themselves and their attitude to life. I cannot do better than George Borrow, who wrote in The Bible in Spain: “ their social intercourse no people in the world exhibit a juster feeling of what is due to the dignity of human nature, or better understand the behaviour which it behoves a man to adopt towards his fellow human beings. It is one of the few countries in Europe where poverty is not treated with contempt, and, I may add, where the wealthy are not blindly idolised”.

There’s a much-loved story that, whether it’s true or not, goes some way to illustrate his point.

Late one night on a lonely road on the island of Mallorca, a young man riding his moped ran out of fuel. He cursed, kicked his machine and looked up and down the road for some sign of assistance. But he was way out in the middle of nowhere and there was nobody about. So, with another oath he turned and trudged back the way he had come. He had barely walked five paces when a monstrous bike pulled up beside him, straddled by a sinister-looking figure in black.

“Oh, Lord,” he thought. “Now I’m for it; in the morning, my battered body will be discovered in the ditch.”

The intimidating figure heaved the great beast onto its stand and strode towards him.

“So, what’s the problem?” it growled.

“ out of fuel...” mumbled the terrified youth.

“Hop on the back, kid,” said the dark biker.

The kid timidly did as he was bade and soon they were bowling through the black night. On they raced until they came to a petrol station, where the thug, finding that our hero had no money on him, paid for a can and some fuel. Then, together, they raced back to the moped.

The kid, a little unsure what to make of it all, dismounted and stammered: “H-how can I thank you?

I d-don’t even know who you are...”

The big biker raised the visor of his helmet.

“At your service,” he intoned, offering his hand.

“Juan Carlos.”

It was, of course, the king — who has a house on Mallorca and also a fondness for big bikes.
So what is it that shapes a people, that makes them what they are? I have read that the citizens of an ancient city may accumulate the eccentricities of its past inhabitants. It’s an appealing notion, and certainly true of the Spaniards, who have clearly absorbed their qualities from the ancient land in which they live. England is a green and pleasant land, of rolling hills and gently flowing rivers, and that inevitably has an effect on our national character.

Spain is a country of awesome landscapes, tending more to the sublime than the cosy. The mountains are colossal, cut by the deepest gorges and drained by steep, rushing rivers in chaotic beds of boulders. The roads go on for ever, cutting like arrows across the immensity of the central meseta, and the whole is scourged for much of the year by cruel sunshine or lashed in winter by icy winds.

It’s not a landscape for the faint-hearted, and if, as most do, you were to stay on that thin coastal strip, the only part of the country that stands less than 700 metres above sea level, you’d have no idea of what was going on above and behind you.

Within this landscape of primordial savagery there are patches of gentle beauty. Vergeles are what the Moors called them — well-tended gardens with just a hint of the notion of paradise. This is where the incomparably beautiful orange tree grows, the silver-leafed olive, or the lovely almond with its luminous blossom shining against the burnt black of its trunk. The air is sweet with azahar orange blossom and the scent of jasmine and the voluptuous Galan de Noche.

If this is what makes the people, I find myself thinking, then they must be pretty good.

Once, with the need upon me to do something a little out of the ordinary, I walked from Cordoba to Granada. People were hard enough put to fathom why I wanted to spend six days walking from one city to another when the bus did the trip in just four hours, but when I announced that I was doing it in the heat of summer, they dismissed me as insane.

But I experienced Andalusia at her most authentic — the summer light on distant hills, the hot dust around my ankles, the gold of fields of newly harvested corn, siestas in the shade of the pines...and, most of all, the onset of the blessed coolness in the evening.

On the last day, as I trudged through an olive grove above Granada, I came upon a man tending his vines. He invited me to sit in the shade and take a pull at his leather wine bottle, while he regaled me with his observations on his native land.

“There is nowhere like Granada,” he sighed. “It is without question the most beautiful city in the world; its women are the most graceful and voluptuous to be found anywhere on earth. Do you not see the beauty of its mountains and hills?” And he indicated with his arms the dazzling view all around us.

“Its water is the finest, its wines the sweetest; and what could bear comparison to the quality of its produce?”

“You have travelled much in the world, perhaps?” I asked. It’s easy in Spanish to fall into this bombastic mode of address. Everybody does it.

“The Host, no!” he spluttered. “I was fortunate enough to be born in the province of Granada; why would I ever want to leave it?” And he embarked upon yet another list of the delights of his beloved province.

I was with him on most of them, but I happen to live to the south of the city, in the Alpujarra, which, although an area of magnificent scenic beauty, is gastronomically a black hole — perhaps owing to its isolation, to the excessive devotion of its inhabitants to the fruits of the pig and to the stubborn refusal of mountain people to accept new ideas.

I used to think that Spanish food in general was second rate, but having ventured outside these valleys, I find this is far from the case. You just have to know where to go and what to ask for.

And of course food, too, like the people, is shaped by the landscape. Take pata negra, black-foot ham, produced in the ilex woods of the Sierra de Aracena to the north of Seville. The half-wild Iberico pigs graze among the forests and hills of the sierra, upon the acorns that drop from the ilexes, and the cured ham, lightly marbled with the most mouthwateringly sweet pig fat, melts in your mouth in the most delightful way.

Aracena is also the place to eat mushrooms in the autumn. Perhaps because of the relative moistness of the climate — it has the same rainfall as East Anglia — the woods of Aracena push up more than 80 varieties of edible fungus. Local people are passionate about fungus-gathering, and there are restaurants where jamon Iberico and locally gathered fungus is all you can get.

If it’s fish you’re after, then Cadiz has much to recommend it, for it’s just round the corner from where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic. The movement of immense masses of water to and fro through the Straits of Gibraltar makes for muscular fish, and the Gaditanos are masters at the art of its preparation.

Not far inland from Cadiz is Jerez de la Frontera, where the thin chalky soil and blistering sunshine produce the glorious sherries that are unique to Spain. And take it from me that manzanilla and oloroso, palomino and amontillado and the sweet, sweet Pedro Ximenez taste much the fresher and lighter for drinking on their home ground.

In the north are the Rias Baixas, the fjords of Spain, where the Atlantic Ocean cuts deep into the lushness of Galicia. On the steep, green banks, bathed in the mists off the water, grow the vines of Rias Baixas. These produce some of the finest white wines in the country, complex, fruity and delicate, and once again, even better for being drunk on their home territory.

Galicia is one of the gastronomical treasures of Spain. It abounds with serious gastronomic societies... and there is enough grass up there to support cows for dairy and beef, which is always a boon to the serious trencherman. Andalusia is not dairy country; it’s just too arid.

But there, too, is one of the pleasures: that the gastronomy is regional. You have to travel to root out what you’re looking for, and travel in search of gastronomic delights lends a fine purpose to your peregrinations.

Chris Stewart’s latest book, The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society, is to be published at the end of May by Sort Of at £6.99
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