far too much writing, far too many photos

[Continued from entry of 9 March.]

I got driven out of Pamplona both days of my visit (in motor vehicles, not by crowds with torches and pitchforks). Something that struck me both times: the suddenness with which the city’s reach ended. One minute expanses of apartment buildings, gas stations, industrial structures — the next: country. Not something I’ve seen many times in the States, where the tendency often seems to be to ugly up as much landscape as possible, spreading new construction across huge swaths of beautiful land.

This particular day: cool, overcast. As we drove further up into what I call mountains and what Curtis swore were not actually mountains when compared with the peaks deeper into the range (he referred to the area we were in as pre-Pyrenees), the clouds thickened and lowered, the landscape became more vertical, more dramatic.

Somewhere during the course of a discussion between Curtis and I re: the dubbed version of the Austin Powers films (according to him, the first film’s dubbing used different actors for Austin Powers and Dr. Evil, missing the point and squandering comic opportunities; the second one employed a popular Spanish comedian for those voices, as well as for Fat Bastard; something else — the Spanish version of the name Fat Bastard: Gordo Cabrón, essentially translating out to, er, Fat Bastard), Marco pulled off the highway, started up a small country road, turning off that onto a smaller country road that meandered up and down hills, bringing us eventually into a small settlement of buildings where it wound through and continued on its way. We didn’t go with it. Marco pulled up next to one of the buildings, parked, we got out into silence and fresh, cool air.

I wouldn’t have guessed there was anything approximating a restaurant nearby, but Marco and Jim seemed to know what they were doing. We walked a bit, came around the corner of a barn, headed toward what looked like a barn door. As we approached, I could see a sign indicating commercial possibilities, and on entering, we found ourselves in a good-sized basement space — low ceilings, rough, hard floor, ten or so long, wooden tables flanked by benches. Ranged across one end of the room were three or four huge wooden casks, on the opposite side were two more. All bore a one-word legend in the local language, apparently the type of cider or the type of apple that produced the cider.

The name of this rough-hewn restaurant-style concern: Martitxonea Sagardotegia. The owners: Inaxio Begiristain, Ainhoa Garaikoetxea. Walking around Pamplona amid stores, posters, graffiti written in that language -– combined with many centuries of history –- produced a vivid sensation of being in a foreign country. Factor into that the strange, intense political atmosphere, and I found myself in a milieu I’d never experienced before. More on that later.

Two tables were occupied. We planted ourselves at one in front of the smaller bank of cider casks, the owner checked us out, talking a bit with Jim and Marco about the menu, etc. I waited to see what I was in for. During the drive, conversation in the car had been compartmentalized -– front seat, Jim and Marco; back seat, Curtis and myself. Seated, waiting for food, etc., four-way interaction slowly commenced — three Americans and a tall, long-faced, long-haired, bespectacled, bestubbled Italian — in Castellano.

Within minutes, the proprietor appeared by one of the nearby casks, holding a narrow rod, maybe a foot long. He called out something to the room, people from other tables immediately flew in his direction holding glasses. Where a normal cask might have a tap, this one had a smear of putty. The proprietor plunged the end of the rod deeply into it, on pulling it out a stream of cider (sidra) emerged, looking for the all the world as if the cask were taking a whiz. The first person in line immediately positioned their glass down near the floor to collect cider while the next person waited, their glass beneath the first person’s — when the first glass became more or less half full, its owner pulled it away, cider streamed into the second person’s. And so it went, most participants collecting a fourth to a half of a glassful, then returning to their table. As I learned, substantial quantities of cider were consumed during the afternoon — taking a quarter to a half of a glass at a time was a matter of pacing oneself. Not just because the quantities of consumed food and drink added up, but because it was hard cider. For some reason — don’t ask me why; I can’t explain it, only appreciate it — the alcohol in the cider doesn’t affect me, so that I’m able to consume it with impunity. I get the impression that it may not affect anyone very strongly, the atmosphere being nothing like the drinking scenes I’ve witnessed in the States or on weekend nights around Madrid, but I could be wrong. It might simply be that the people handle themselves better.

Positioning one’s glass so that the stream of cider is as lengthy as possible seemed to be important -– I vaguely remember someone telling me about aeration and its importance to the cider’s flavor during my first visit to a sidrería here in Madrid (a very different experience, though also fun). That might be true. Or it might have more to do with ritual than anything else. Don’t know.

[Continued in entry of 12 March.]

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