Published in Magill, June/July 2008
Sunday comes. There was talk of the weather turning, but it hasn’t. The wind blows cold and low, the Levante, south east across Spain, finding its way between the buildings and down the narrow streets of Tarifa, and blowing the kite surfers out to sea. We have promised ourselves an escape. The rhythm of life in this pueblo changes little, and we’re bored of walking round and round inside the old town walls.
We walk to the bus station, which is a portacabin and some bus shelters at the end of the main street. There are buses to Málaga, Algeciras, Cádiz – all cities – and to Chiclana. The portacabin is locked. The next bus to anywhere is in an hour. I ask in the petrol station beside. The woman says Chiclana is pretty. We come back in half an hour, and find the station manager sweeping the rain out of his office.
There’s not much in Chiclana, he says. Not much to see. Isn’t there a wine made there, I say.
Yes, he agrees. He brightens. A sweet wine. Very good. Well, at least we can try that, I say.
He agrees again, more voluble now. He charges me for two and a half tickets, €30 return.
We have to charge half for children up to four, he apologies. He points to a notice on the wall. Since September, he says. He scrunches his face in disgust.
Even tiny little things like her. It’s difficult for me. I’m working here 20 years, and suddenly I have to charge babies half fare to travel on the bus. He’s been getting a hard time about it, he says.
We don’t add to it, and pay our fare. An hour later, we disembark in Chiclana. It’s not in the Lonely Planet guide to Andalucía, and I can’t find the map, so we’re not sure where we are. Near Cádiz, somewhere, near the coast. An old man directs us from the dusty roundabout where the bus stopped towards the centre of the town. We walk up an elegant, almost deserted street. It’s 3.30 pm, right in the middle of the Spanish lunchtime, on a Sunday. But it’s even quieter than is usual. Nothing at all is open. A few, isolated people amble past. A well-dressed family group are idling, and we use the little one – dangling from her mother in the sling – to make contact.
Nobody stays in town on a Sunday, the mother says. Everybody goes to the beach, or to their houses in the country. It’s a real problem if you do stay here, she confides. Nothing is open. The beach is seven kilometres away, and there are regular buses, called Canaries because of their yellow colour – but we’ve to make a bus back to Tarifa in a few hours, so that’s ruled out. The mother thinks. There is one place, she says, that’s normally open. You’ll get a good tapa.
She points us towards it and, after 15 minutes misinterpreting her directions and wandering around the empty streets (of what looks like an elegant town, with a Victorian seaside touch to the rambling Andalucian design) we find ourselves walking into a bar that is quiet but for a couple of tables of locals smoking and talking – the staff, as it turns out. A young man assures us the kitchen is open, gives us the menu – home-printed on yellow card and laminated in hard plastic – and sits us down, and goes behind the bar to put on the stereo. Spanish establishments have a compulsion for playing over-loud Spanish pop. Spanish pop is abysmal.
But the menu is unusual, and the place is slightly quirky – there is art on one wall, grafitti on another, and the barman’s welcome is warm. Spanish barmen have perfected the art of ignoring their customer, and take offence if the customer politely waits for service. Only when one throws one’s order across the bar as if it were an insult will service be forthcoming. But Paco – for we learn his name, later, over a chupito at the bar, on the house, as he tells us we have a home here, now – is of a different order. We ask him what’s good, and he mentions a meat and potatoes stew that’s a local speciality, and sounds fitting for the recent weather. He says he’ll bring us a little to try. He brings a full serving, and it is just right, rich and warming. We decide to work our way through his menu.
Langoustines with jamón ibérico; freshly-made croquetas de pollo; bacalao in a house-speciality tomato sauce… Unusually, they’re served nouvelle-cuisine style, in the centre of a large plate, with flourishes of garnish – a little too much flourish for my taste. But the prices belie the quality, €4 for a small but generous portion. The house wine is a Campo Viejo Rioja, common but good. It has a rich, metallic aftertaste that I’ve never noticed before. R says she’s just read an article by a wine writer talking about discovering the metallic taste of some wines.
The little one sits on the floor, or on the table, and tears at the bread, and eventually feeds and falls asleep and is lowered into her car seat, which we carry with us for just such occasions – it hangs over my arm as we walk, like a large plastic handbag. So we eat slowly, and Paco brings us new dishes, and we keep eating. R has a thing for desert wines, and he brings us a red and a white. The white is made on the next street over, he says; the red, just outside the town. R wonders aloud about some cheese. I’ll bring you a little cheese, says Paco, and a board of Manchego cheese appears – served, again, with a flourish, of dried fruits and a tomato jam.
The little one wakes, and makes eyes at some locals at the bar, and we join them, and she gets passed around. ¿Un chupito? says Paco, proffering a shot glass. He has a new caramel vodka that he says was a special purchase. It would be rude to refuse. He pours shots along the bar, and we toast. The bar should be closed now – they finish at 5pm on a Sunday – but Paco and his wife, who is French, are entertaining us now, along with the few locals at the bar. We have coffee, and talk. They opened a year ago, and within three months had won local prizes for their tapas. They want to bring something a bit different to Chiclana: a more innovative touch with the food (everywhere else, it’s pescaditos fritos, says Paco, little fried fish, the same old thing) and a more hospitable approach to the service. The locals are open to it, they say, and they have placed fliers in the bars down by the beach, and have attracted some of the Northern European tourists that flock to this coast that way. I refuse a second chupito, we pay the bill – €30 – and we wander out with an hour to kill.
We walk past locked up bodegas and fine looking restaurants, just as closed, and back to the bus-park. We stop into a café bar there for a coffee and baby-change, and a little old man in slippers and a white cloth cap tells the barman to turn on the bulls on the telly. The barman refuses – there is football on, he says. I ask the old man where the bullfight is. On Canal Plus (the satellite channel), he says. The bar is full of old men pulling their chairs up to the telly, and this man walks out in feigned disgust and confers with two cloth-capped colleauges outside. We pay (€1 a coffee, and a little juice for the little one for free) and make our way out to the bus. Back in Tarifa, the wind is still blowing.