Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Weekend In Spain

One good reason not to stay at the Hotel Doña Lola in Castellón, a small city in Valencia with a fishing and shipping harbor connected to it, is that the bullring is just a block away. Built in the 1870s, its main entrance still has a small pipe which sends a mist of water into the crowds waiting in the harsh sunlight.

Across the street, in a very nice park, there's a statue of a beloved bullfight journalist, sitting eternally looking into the ring, cigar, pencil, and binoculars at the ready.

And if you don't already have the picture, across the street from the hotel is a sculpture saluting all the brave bulls who've died there. I have no idea what kind of frenzy bullfights cause in their audiences, but the hotel might not be the most peaceful place in town when the bulls are happening.

What on earth was I doing here? The answer is simple: Blue Navigator, an Irish fanzine dedicated to some of American folk music's more arcane fringes, had alerted me that the mighty Peter Stampfel was on tour with a guy named Jeffrey Lewis, and asked me if I'd like to do a story. Most of the tour was with a full band in Britain, but there was on isolated gig at the Tanned Tin festival in Castellón, and when I checked, it wasn't that far away. Or so it seemed.

There's actually a direct train from Montpellier to Castellón, but it leaves at 7am. Its return, at quarter of two in the afternoon, is much easier. On the way down, then, I took a train to Salvador Dalí's home town of Figueres, took another train to Barcelona, and then another to Castellón. Trouble was, I had a tight connection in Barça, there was no train number on the big board to help me figure out where to go, and by the time I did figure it out, the train had left. I had 4 1/2 hours in Barcelona, so I stashed my luggage in a locker and, at the suggestion of the tourist ladies, took the subway to Sagrada Familia.

That's about as good a shot of it as an iPhone will allow. My real camera was back at the station. It wouldn't have mattered; when I took it out of its case in Castellón, the malfunction that it had had when I first got it, an inability to stay turned on, had returned. A brand-new dead camera, one day past its return date for Amazon.fr. (Still has its own warranty, though). So all these shots are from my phone. How 21st Century!

Gotta say, I wasn't overly impressed with Barcelona. I wandered around the neighborhood surrounding the church (which costs €12 to go into, so I passed), and eventually got a late lunch of some boring sausages with tomato sauce. All the restaurant/cafe type places were owned by people who looked Chinese, but, I was later told, were probably Filipino. Makes sense.

The only bright spot was that I stumbled on the Sagrada Familia market hall. Man alive! Or, rather, fish dead! I saw fish I'd never encountered, even in books, species of shellfish I was previously unaware of, and gleaming examples of fish and shellfish that I actually recognized. Razor clams, for instance. I was hoping to get some of those were I was going; it had been ages since I'd had any. Over on the vegetable side, a lot of the vegetables looked better than I see here in Montpellier. Some of this has to do with factory farming: there's no way all those luscious black tomatoes were coming in from fields at the end of January. There were also little peppers that looked like jalapeños called padrones. I'm told one dry-fries them and dips them in olive oil and that sometimes you get one with vootie. I was hoping for some of those, too.

But the delay had screwed my plans up. I'd heard that people ate late in Spain, so getting in at 10:30 might not be too bad, but unfortunately, I had to settle for the hotel's grease-pit of a restaurant. I even forget what I had, it was so unmemorable. But, as in the place in Barça, the beer was phenomenal. Spaniards, unlike the French, like beer that tastes like beer! The festival's sponsor, Estrella Damm, is just lovely, and I had enough to make that judgement.

I woke up early on my first full day in Castellón, and realized, from the map they gave me at the front desk, that the place just isn't big enough to get lost in. It doesn't sprawl as much as Montpellier does, and although it's the usual maze of streets you find anywhere the Romans didn't build in Europe, it's pretty hard to get lost. So I set out with my camera to shoot the central market, only to have it poop out when I tried to shoot the bull statue. Never occurred to me to use the phone until I was already out of the market, which, at 10 on a Saturday, was rocking and rolling, with two eating areas where the merchants and the locals were enjoying plates of appetizing-looking stuff. It was the same as at Sagrada Familia, only bigger. Same weird fish, same gorgeous vegetables. Lots of stands selling pork products, with five or six grades of ham. Ham is like a religion here: I later cruised the huge supermarket in the basement of the huge ugly department store near my  hotel and they had five-year-old Iberian hams wrapped in fake velvet selling for €450. And that was the supermarket; lord only knows what some of the superstar hams at the market went for at charcuterias that felt like chapels. I later noticed it as an appetizer/tapa on menus going for €23.50 and up per plate of a half-dozen very thin slices. No, I didn't try it.

After the market, I just wandered, and came into a lovely plaza with an ornate pavillion in it surrounded by chairs and tables, an outdoor bar/tapas joint. Just past it was a lovely red building which turned out to be the Teatro Principál, the venue for the festival. There was a door marked Prensa/Invitados, so I went in to see if my press pass was there. There was a sound-check going on and a uniformed guard who spoke no English. This was a problem: the Spanish spoken in this part of the world sounded nothing like any Spanish I'd ever heard before, which, of course, was mostly spoken by Mexicans. Not that I can even speak Tex-Mex. But it was early, around 11:30, and nobody was around. An American guy who was with Faust, one of the big-name acts at the festival, helped me out, but it was clearly too early for the press folks, who were coming in from Madrid, so I thanked the guard and wandered around the city some more. Finally, I wound up back at the hotel. A couple of hours of using the wi-fi in my room, though, and I was bored again.

More walking brought me to the stage door again. I went in, and the guard was utterly surprised. With sign language and some talking, he let me know that this was lunchtime, and nobody could be expected to be anywhere except at lunch. It was true: the theater was utterly silent. I took the hint. Did the guard have a recommendation? He gestured: just walk around until you find something. So I did: directly across the street was this place:

I looked at the menu. A couple of the small plates would make an excellent lunch. I went in. A friendly, stout guy pointed me at a chair by the bar (just the other side of that window there, in fact) and handed me a menu. I ordered a beer. Just going on familiar-sounding words, I ordered. First up were pimientos del piquillas, which the menu said were peppers stuffed with seafood. The stuffing was a puree with potatoes and olive oil, and the peppers were in a saffron, olive oil, and garlic sauce:

Sorry, I inhaled one of them before I remembered to shoot this. Trust me, you would have, too. Next up was gambas ajillo, perfectly-cooked prawns in olive oil infused with garlic, red chili peppers, and garlic, garnished with garlic and red chili peppers. Yes, folks, this is a cuisine which agrees with me.

All of this was served with slices of lightly-toasted bread, and much sauce was soaked up thereby.

The rest of the afternoon was spent walking this off, noticing the apartment-building lobbies and garages where little old ladies set up modest quantities of oranges and tangerines for sale, hanging out in the hotel, and waiting to hear that the guys had arrived. Finally, about 6:30, I went back to the theater and met the publicist, Noemi, who had my pass. She took my number and said she'd SMS me when the guys got there. I wandered around a little, noticing that there were alleys filled with people drinking and eating plates of tapas being handed through a window on the street. Big plastic tubs lay around for the garbage, and each of these places had specialties: octopus tentacles, crabs, and a couple of things I couldn't identify. I wasn't hungry, and I was skeptical about my ability to make anyone understand, but it was fascinating. After a while, I went back to the hotel, and eventually they arrived, did a great show and we did an interview.

I'd given myself an extra day in Castellón because I wanted to see what was there independent of my work schedule, and because I also hate weekend train-travel. There were two things I really wanted to do: visit the local art museum, and head to the Grao, the port, for a paella. Neither turned out to be as easy as I would have liked.

First, my approach to the museum was complicated by a huge number of horses and ponies, some drawing carts, some just with a rider. A guy in a flat, broad-brimmed traditional hat and a caballero suit on a pure white horse rode with his wife or sister on a matching horse, her skirt draped out in front of her, and, more incredibly, draped behind her in such a way that it covered the entire rear of the horse right up to where its tail started. I was wondering what this would have looked like when she got off. There was an almost endless stream of these animals , and I have no idea where they were headed, but it was definitely entertaining.

There are two art museums, one contemporary, one everything else, and I'd passed the contemporary during my wanderings on Saturday. It was no problem to get there, and it appeared from the map that the Museu de Bellas Arts, the one I wanted, was nearby. It actually was a couple of blocks away, and I was concerned because, unlike the contemporary, it closes at 2 on Sunday. Again, a nice security guard pointed the way.

The main reason I wanted to go to this place is that I'd read it had some Zurbaráns, and I'd never seen any of his work up close. But before the floor where they were, there were two floors of ceramics. If there's a subject that interests me less than ceramics, I can't really think of what it is. Still, I was there, there was a lot of time before lunch started, so I took a turn. Good lord.

Okay, still wondering where Picasso was coming from? True, he wasn't a local, but these are 19th century Valencian plates, and the entire floor was just one of these beauties after another. There was an implication that these designs are still being made (captions in the museum -- and signs everywhere, for that matter -- are in two languages: Castillian Spanish and Catalan, hugely inconvenient for non-speakers, especially because they're nearly identical), and I don't have to have an authentic antique -- I'll settle for a few of these made last year. I'm going to try to figure out where to find them, bet on it.

Upstairs, it was a typical provincial museum, some really nice medieval stuff, including a St. Michael by the Master of the Porticula vanquishing a demon who apparently had really bad breath, a cycle on the life of St. Bru, who shows up nowhere on Wikipedia or Google, but has numerous representations here (he was apparently the founder of a community of hermits who was a tourist attraction for Popes passing through), and ten, count 'em, ten Zurbaráns, the only famous ones of which were on loan somewhere. Grrr. I did, however, get my dose of magnificently-composed black tones a la Zurbarán from a Portrait of the Artist's Wife by one Josep Rubio, showing his black-clad wife standing by the fireplace. Very hard to imagine people were dressing in button-to-the-chin dresses in 1934, let alone painting such mid-19th-century-looking paintings, but maybe that's why Rubio, too, isn't in Wikipedia and doesn't show up on Google. Like I said, it's a provincial museum. That doesn't, however, mean it's devoid of its pleasures, even in the painting collection. (I looked for postcards and must report that the Museu de Bellas Arts is the first art museum I've ever been in that doesn't sell postcards. At all. What are they thinking?)

The map made it look like I could just head down the street the museum was in and wind up at the Grao, so that's what I did. And did. And did. The surroundings quickly got incredibly boring: huge boxes of buildings housing wholesale tile dealers, wholesale beverage sellers, frozen fish dealers and the odd karate studio or showgirl bar. At one point, there was a concrete monument by the side of the road, marking where the Greenwich Meridian passed. It was more 1:38 in the afternoon than it had ever been before. It turned out to be about six miles from the museum to the Grao, and I was exhausted when I got there. Luckily, a restaurant that came very highly recommended, La Tasca del Puerto, was right there, but a glance at the menu put the fear into me: expensive. Also, all the rice dishes were for a minimum of two people.

So I walked down to the yacht harbor, where there were about a dozen places all described as cafeteria freiduria, all of which also had rice menus. All, alas, wanted a minimum of two people. It's obvious from looking around the Grao that it's a tourist destination in the summer, so I wasn't too surprised when one of the waitresses at Restaurante El Galeón spoke English to me. She said I could get the day's special, paella Valenciana, for one, so I sat down at a table. I started out with sepia a la plancha, griddled cuttlefish served with olive oil flavored with garlic and parsley. There was also bread, again lightly toasted, with tomate and ajoacet. This was the local equivalent of chips and hot sauce: the tomate was even like Mexican red salsa, only with garlic substituted for green chiles, while the ajoacet was a very garlicky mayonnaise.

A great start. Unfortunately, and as I suspect happens at a lot of these places, the paella was a disappointment, made with canned vegetables and a few hunks of what could have been rabbit and/or chicken. Nice, saffron-y taste, and the rice was cooked al dente with skill, but I can easily envisage better.

That's just as it came: not a lot of goodies in there at all.

I was not going to walk back into town after all of that, though, so after a stroll along the waterfront, I got a bus. Some genius has pegged the busfare in Castellón at €.93. Bet the drivers were just overjoyed when that came down.

In the end, I realized that Castellón has just enough in it for a weekend: get in Friday night and get a meal, spend Saturday doing stuff (there's also a nature preserve the city owns out in the nearby Mediterranean that I didn't look into because it was, um, January), stroll the streets lined with orange trees, hit the museum, the market, the big square with the old tower, just relax, eat and drink well, and that's it. And off-season is both underpopulated and cheap: see my hotel rates. I want to explore this area some more, but my priority is still exploring this corner of France first, and learning more about it. Still, one huge benefit of being located here is the quick access to both Spain and Italy, and anyone with paying assignments in either place are welcome to contact me.

And another thing this trip taught me: it is not, no matter what they tell you, possible to overdose on garlic.

* * *

Hotel Doña Lola, C/. Lucena 3, 12006 Castellón. Tel: +34 964 21 40 11. Singles €43 offseason, includes free breakfast, wi-fi, large flat-screen television. 

Restaurante Eleazár, C/. Ximenez 14, 12002 Castellón. Tel: +34 964 23 48 61. Part of a restaurant group in the city, Mesón Navarro, which has four restaurants around the city with varied opening hours and slightly different menus.


  1. Barcelona is actually a fun town - it's just the area around Sagrada Famillia that blows.

    If you go back head over to Las Ramblas. The street itself is tourist central but there are a lot of great neighborhoods you can wander into with great restaurants right off the Ramblas.

  2. thanks, ed. Almost felt like I was there. :)

  3. Gambas ajillo is one of my favorites! My mouth is watering.
    And I had the same reaction to the Spanish when I went to Madrid, "this doesn't sound like it does in Nuevo Laredo"


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