Friday, 31 August 2007

Robledillo: a week in the provinces

What the Cobranas are to Valle de Lago, the Garcias are to Robledillo, a village nestling in the Amblés Valley 23 km south-west of Ávila, Spain's highest provincial capital, perching at 1,100 metres above sea level. Think beneficent Sopranos, with a dash of Arthur Daley. The older of the two brothers, Marcos, even looks a bit like Tony Soprano, but the only weapon he is likely to wield is a leg of jamón, as he gets ready to swing one onto its hook on the ceiling behind the bar.

Robledillo is a typical Castilian village, where the old people sit out on any available stretch of thoroughfare, though not, if they still have their marbles, on the road that runs through the village, the N502 to Córdoba, birthplace of three B-list philosophers, Seneca, Averroes and Maimonides. People-watching, especially stranger-watching, is such a passion in Spain that one is tempted to wonder whether the spirit of the "neighbourhood watch" scheme set up by Franco lives on more than 30 years after the Generalissimo's death, or whether that was but a sinister temporary manifestation of the national trait of benign hyperperception?

Wherever you go, on foot or by car, in a Spanish village, you sense that you are under surveillance. Slow down at a junction for just a moment to consult the map and you will feel assorted sets of beady eyes scanning you from behind shuttered windows or from the ever present chairs set out on the streets. When a donkey wanders past, you do an instinctive double-take, in case it's a pantomime version manned by the old-timer in the beret and the old girl in black who were staring at you as you reversed back towards the fountain, having taken another wrong turn in your attempt to leave their village.

Robledillo has only one shop these days for its 200 inhabitants, the panadería, which has its bread brought in from Soltalvo, eight kilometres away, in the foothills of the Sierra de la Paramera. Sotalvo's annual fiesta, held against the stunning backdrop of its medieval castle, attracts people from villages for miles around.

In contrast to Robledillo, Solosancho, two kilometres away, is quite the metropolis, boasting its own disco and swimming pool. It also has a bakery, a fishmonger's, a butcher's, a chemist's and a tobacconist's, as well as a general store, or ultramarinos - which had me humming "Marina, Aqua Marina" from Stingray, the aquatic precursor to Thunderbirds featuring a puppet called Troy who was a dead ringer for James Garner. The tobacconist's is unusual among Spanish shops in that it doesn't observe a siesta (traditionally taken from 2.30 to 5.30pm in these parts, although the latter time gets stretched a little). We reckoned this was because the proprietess was a widow, with no one to go home to chat with or no need of a couple of hours' extra kip.

Whatever the reason, she's open all hours: already open when the bakery opens at 8am and still going strong after the swimming pool closes at 8.30pm. Besides cigarettes, which still sell pretty well in Spain, the lady does a brisk trade in ice creams and gossip magazines, which rival Hong Kong for salaciousness, but outdo it hands down for mammaries.

Granted her tried-and-tested method of doing calculations on the back of a newspaper saves on a cash register, quite how she manages to make a living is a bit of a mystery. Away from the 10 percent of the shop where items move off the shelves – or out of the freezer – tins are piled high as far as the eye can see, which isn't very far due to the absence of windows, the minimum of artificial lighting and a strong antipathy to the Pledge and duster.

In response to my request for vegetables (the ultramarinos wasn't yet open), the lady disappeared from view into the dark hinterland of the shop for a good two minutes, her presence confirmed only by the sound of cans falling around her and a few muttered exclamations. In the end, I felt a bit of a cad when I rejected the proffered tin of verduras mixtas. I didn't know how to say it in Spanish, but I was thinking in terms of something more recently in a recognisably organic state.

Besides all the shops, Solosancho has a bank, where doubtless the tobacconist deposits her day's takings. Solosancho thus resembles just about every Asturian or Castilian village of its size, as Spanish consumer banking is still big on choice, with branches everywhere and a bewildering array of savings banks (cajas) available. The ones we saw included Caja Duero, Caja de Ávila, Caja de Burgos, Caja Cantabria, Caixa Galicia, plain old La Caixa, as well as the big boys, Caja Madrid and Caja España.

Returning to Robledillo, the heartbeat of the village is the Restaurante Florentino. Although we ate there only once, it provided the best food and the best value for money that we came across in our fortnight in Spain. Choose anything from the menu, apart from fish, which was generally disappointing in Spain – maybe it's the way it's cooked, as you'd expect the stuff to be fresh, especially on the coast in Gijón – and you'll hit the hay in good spirits. Here, even the crema catalana (crème brulee) is almost up to French standards. And, as always, there's no need to worry if you're running a bit late. We didn't sit down to eat until 10, and had just chosen from the desert list an hour later when in came a family with toddler in tow. In this, as in much else besides, as we shall consider in the next instalment, the province of Ávila bears more than a passing resemblance to Hong Kong.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Ciudad Rodrigo

With a name that could have come from The Princess Bride, ("My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!") Ciudad Rodrigo is a gem of a town. Its attractions are such that, though it lies just 25 km from the Portuguese border, most visitors won't be tempted to make the trip.

It's also the place where our camera comes back into the picture. (Look, geeks, it's too easy, when you've inadvertently clicked "Erase" on the menu and are confronted with the options "OK" or "Cancel", to click OK, since you think Cancel signifies reduce-to-nothingness and OK, well, o-k. Don't you guys operate with the same schemata as normal people? How about repeating Erase?)

Having been given a reminder of the ultimate futility of all human endeavour, I spent an inordinate amount of time taking snaps of storks, which for some reason – did I envy the length of their bills? – held a strange fascination for me. I liked the way individuals would occupy each spare ledge on a derelict church tower, and especially the Eeyore-like spirit in which they would amass the most haphazard heap of sticks to serve as nests. But, as always for one driven by the scientific spirit, it was the differences that raised the burning questions to which I must have answers.

One stork spent several minutes arranging and re-arranging one stick until he got it just where he wanted it. He was perhaps the stork equivalent of the anal retentive, although judging by the stains on the stonework that isn't the most apposite of analogies. Perhaps he was related somehow to the Spademan of Salamanca, who also had a thing for sticks. Anyway, my stork only gave up nudging the stick into position when he decided it was time to have a good scratch, and I would imagine a good scratch is what you'd get if you had a beak that was a foot long, even if locating the itch might be a bit hit-and-miss.

Never was I happier than when sitting on our 14th century windowsill watching the comings and goings of the bunch of storks who stood sentinel in the evergreen trees just a stone's throw away. My daughter wanted to know how birds which must weigh up to ten pounds could settle so easily on the tips of branches; no teetering, no tottering, no falling off and having another go. I could only respond in the way that marks out all the great scientists and told her I hadn't a clue.

The parador at Ciudad Rodrigo was the second to open (in 1929) – the one high up in the Sierra de Gredos just beat it to the punch – and was a favourite place for Generalissimo Francisco Paulino Hermenegildo Teódulo Franco Bahamonde to get away from it all when the cares of government or the task of remembering his name got too much for him. Between 9 and 11 in the morning they open the stairs up the tower, so you can have a stroll around the battlements before breakfast, enjoying views over the Rio Águeda, the storks' nests and the cranes. The last named are also a common sight in the historic towns of Castile y León – not the feathered variety, but the mechanical ones that do topple from time to time, keeping shoppers looking for bargains in Causeway Bay on their toes.

The cathedral in Ciudad Rodrigo is well worth a visit, and like most Spanish cathedrals the cloisters form a world of their own where you can sit and feel you are miles from anywhere. A walk on the town walls is popular with locals, tourists and dogs alike, so watch where you tread. Cafés and tapas bars abound in the Plaza Mayor, as does another feature of Spanish city centres, the date, time and temperature sign.

While they generally manage to get the first two right, the variation in the third is a source of great interest to the empiricist. On one side of the square, the farmacia registered a very pleasant 28°, while just 30 metres away on the other the perfumería displayed 34°. Sipping my Mahou, I watched as the farmacia attempted to catch up, inching up to 31°. Having set the initial pace, the perfumería couldn't sustain it, and managed only to creep up to 35° by the time we settled our bill.

The intense competition must have continued throughout the day, for when we sauntered through the square after midnight on our way back from an alfresco gig by a local folk group who sang the same song with different words for 90 minutes - think Air Supply with maracas - the farmacia had reached a staggering 41°. I was too numbed by a combination of the vino rosado we'd had for dinner and the unrelenting rustic cheeriness of Pedro, Paulo and María to see what kind of response the perfumería had managed.

Monday, 27 August 2007

Parque Natural de Somiedo 2: jamón, jamón

We arrived at Valle de Lago in Somiedo between 8 and 9 o'clock, our usual time when on the road. My wife was driving and I was navigating, while our daughter was sleeping on the back seat. The scenery, as we travelled up first the Trubia and then the Pigüeña valley, was, as always when she was sleeping, stunning.

Dusk was setting in as we negotiated the final five kilometres from Pola de Somiedo, the "capital" of Somiedo. Not an easy time to drive at the best of times, my wife's task was made harder not just by the hairpin bends but also by the fact that half the population of Valle de Lago – the only village on this road and its terminating point – appeared to be descending on Pola for dinner. We were soon to find out why.

We'd spent the afternoon canoeing down the Rio Sella, which flows the short distance from the Picos de Europa to the sea at Ribadesella, which means "the site where the Sella river finishes its trajectory", according to the Campings de Asturias website. The same site says that "the river attracts milliards of canoeists", so I'm not sure how much credence we should give this particular source. As historian R.G. Collingwood cautions us, "the important question about any statement contained in a source is not whether it is true or false, but what it means". He must have spent some time in Spain before taking up the Waynflete Chair of Metaphysical Philosophy at Magdalen.

For our first dinner in our mountain getaway, we thought we'd try the restaurant run by the family whose place we were staying in. We never did get our heads round the exact relationships, but our best guess was that the fellow with long hair whose wife looked after the flats was the brother of the fellow with short hair who ran the bar and restaurant. Between them they had produced the boy with the decent English i/c riding.

Of all the people we met in Spain, this lady was my favourite, partly because she gave us some washing powder when we asked, and partly because she was more patient with my pidgin Spanish than anyone else. After three months coming home from the office to my "Learn Spanish in 15 minutes a day" book and CD, I cannot say how much it meant to have someone who neither pretended to understand nor walked away in mid-sentence (mine, not theirs – actually, sometimes theirs as well, now I think about it). She actually took time out to rephrase her utterances if I stood smiling like the village donkey, which is a hell of a lot more than she could have expected if the roles were reversed and I was faced with some gormless Spanish tourist.

But I digress. We felt hungry after the day's excursions and decided to order a primer plato and a segundo plato each. Big mistake. It's no exaggeration to say that we didn't finish a quarter of what we were given. The portions made an American steak house look like one of those fancy Italian restaurants that use a massive plate to serve a microscopic bit of meat covered in sauce with a herb thrown on top – the culinary equivalent of the Hong Konger who drives an S-series Mercedes.

For the record, my wife had pote asturiano (soup) followed by solomillo de ternera con queso azul (fillet of veal with blue cheese sauce). The pote turns out to be a broth made from pork shoulder, cured meat (a Spanish obsession), cured sausages (chorizos – ditto), white beans (ditto, especially up north), blood pudding (yum!), potatoes, cabbage, and a ham bone. It's remarkably like the soup you get in Hong Kong, which grannie takes hours "double boiling" and which ends up with lovely soft fleshy pork falling off the bone surrounded by carrots and green turnips on a plate, the soup in a big bowl, and a little saucer of soy sauce in the middle. The three of us had a large bowl each but there was still some left over. The veal consisted of seven large pieces, of which my wife managed to finish one. But she said it was pretty good.

The nipper was the most sensible one – that power nap must have done her decision-making good – opting for sopa de pollo con fideos (chicken noodle soup), followed by tortilla de atún (tuna omelette – that dyslexic fellow responsible for rendering Algeria as Argelia had been at it again). Once more, there was enough soup for four, and the village hens must be on that stuff the cyclists take if half a dozen eggs are needed to make every omelette.

I drew the short straw as far as taste was concerned, though not as far as quantity went. There was simply no short straw in that category. Armed with my phrase book and an adventurous spirit, I decided to go native, which, considering I was a tourist, was rather stupid. To start, I plumped for entremeses, which my phrase book translated as hors d'oeuvre. Now I've been away from England long enough not to be expecting prawn cocktail or grapefruit segments with a glacé cherry on top – though a vol-au-vent would have been nice – but what I hadn't bargained for was unremitting smoked meat.

Five varieties were piled high on my plate, but, apart from being a different shade of browny-red, they all looked the same. Naturally enough, they all tasted the same. They also all shared the same texture, which might best be described as rubbery. Neither my wife (who likes Chinese sausage, for goodness' sake) nor my daughter (whose idea of ham is the square stuff you get from the supermarket in packets that flood the kitchen when you open them) wanted to try a piece. For the record, I reckon I had various incarnations of jamón serrano (smoked, cured ham – adored throughout Spain and even the subject of a best-selling film starring Penélope Cruz, Jamón Jamón) and its bovine equivalent cecina.

After that, my veal stew (contra de ternera con guisantes) was edible, but not a patch on the good old-fashioned veal steak I was to have a week later. "Veal" is big in northern and central Spain. As with African "under-17" football teams, however, age classification is more art than science, so whether what you're eating has been skipping in the mountains for 20 weeks or traipsing round after mum for a year, is very much a moo-t point.

Saturday, 25 August 2007

Parque Natural de Somiedo 1: a ride in the park

Established in 1988, the Parque (pronounced like the flooring) Natural de Somiedo is a paradise of valleys and lakes in southern Asturias. Just 50 km from the northern coast, and half as far again from historic León, you can get away from it all in the middle of nowhere.

Like its more frequently visited cousin, the Parque Nacional de los Picos de Europa, 80 km to the east, Somiedo forms part of the Cordillera Cantábrica, the limestone range that runs parallel to the Cantabrian Sea. It stretches around 180 km from eastern Galicia to the west part of the Basque Country, crowned by perhaps a hundred peaks over 2,000 metres.

We had a couple of free days between stays at paradors in Gijón and Ciudad Rodrigo, and I had identified a nice little apartamento rural in the enticingly named hamlet of Valle de Lago, five long and winding kilometres from the area's largest village, Pola de Somiedo. As is common in Spain, the accommodation was twinned with a restaurant, ten minutes' stroll down the lane, both operated by the eponymous Cobrana family. More of the restaurant anon.

The Cobranas also run a riding centre, which we were all set to use until we discovered that they were fully booked on our only full day there. Instead we used the slightly more expensive competition at the camping site, where we signed up on a whim after doing the popular walk to Braña de Sousas. "Come back at 4," said the fellow there, the kid i/c riding at the rival Cobrana operation being the only other local who spoke English.

The trail we were offered, back up the track to Braña de Sousas, was scheduled to take two hours. Since I belong to the never-go-back-the-way-you-came school of walking and had already shown amazing flexibility by not vetoing the others when out-voted on the way back on a lovely path I could see snaking over the horizon, I was harbouring a secret desire for the longer ride to the lake even as we returned to our apartamento at 2.45. Okay, that wouldn't get us back till 8 o'clock, but so what? Everyone eats late in Spain. Heck, the restaurant at the parador in Gijón didn't even open till 9.

It was also raining intermittently, and the forecast wasn't too clever, but, you only live once; nothing ventured, nothing gained. Quite simply, at the end of the day, no cliché in the book – not even wild horses! – could have deflected me from my purpose.

When we returned to the camp site, a sheep was lying down beside a car having its photo taken with some kids, while a couple of German Shepherd dogs looked on unconcerned. I took this as an auspicious omen, along Biblical lines – the wolf dwelling with the lamb – and, as if the campsite fellow was channelling me, he volunteered that we could go to the lake if we wanted. It all depended on Fernando. The sun was now shining brightly, so there was a quick vote and it was 2:1 in favour of Lago del Valle (the name of the village is reflected in the lake – just need to stick an "-l" on the "de"). As usual, my wife was the wimp. Now all we had to do was find Fernando.

After a quarter of an hour our guide arrived and five minutes later we were saddled up and on our way. The lake is 1,375 metres about sea level and 5 or 6 kilometres from the village, which nestles at 1,200 metres. So, a nice gentle climb up the valley. All went well at first, apart from the horses wanting to eat anything that was green, as we made our way through mossy woods dappled with sunlight beside and sometimes through a stream that nestled between two ridges whose craggy peaks were periodically shrouded in scudding clouds. (That's the Wordsworthian bit out the way.)

Out in front, the sun westering in the west, I feel a bit like Megayawn son of Megastore leading Giblet son of Groin, Pladou son of Dayglo, Legoland, Stan Gungee and the rest from Menthol Tardis to Apron Hem, my resolve unshakable even as the forces of Savlon range against us.

My mantle of command slips slightly as the rain starts to fall and the mercury drops. Still, sloshing through the puddles and holding the reins in one hand resting nonchalantly on that knobby bit that sticks up on American-style saddles, I feel like the Virginian. Doug McClure and Lee J. Cobb may laugh at me, but I can prove I'm no city slicker with a thing for black leather.

As if in answer to my prayers, the rain stops. But only for 20 minutes or so. By the time we get to the lake it is coming down pretty heavily. It's just gone six. The fact that we'd already be back at base if we'd taken the shorter ride is not lost on my wife, who communicates the message wordlessly as we walk the short distance to the lakeside and peer into the mist which covers it. Fernando meanwhile has done the sensible thing and is ensconced in a 4-wheel drive that magically awaits him at the lake, where he dons waterproofs and has a smoke. Generously, he lends a waterproof jacket to my 11-year old and, after a bit of prompting from me, his sleeveless fleece to the missus.

By the time we get back to the paddock an hour and a half later, it's tipping down. I'm soaked to the skin and have lost the feeling in my hands. Desperate to keep up appearances, I manage an occasional glance back to check that my family are still on their mounts. "Keep your back straight!" I tell myself, looking and feeling like Alec Guinness in Bridge on the River Kwai.

Back home, I turn on the central heating and spread the clothes out on the radiators to dry, pleased to be able to perform some act of penance but a little discomfited by the thought that what my wife and daughter have in mind for me is an extreme form of mortification. A blazing sun beams down on me from the wall calendar in the kitchen: it's the first of August.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Spanish roads 2: the road to Salamanca

Spain spends lots of money on building new roads and, especially, on widening existing ones. Since the incoming dual carriageway typically runs alongside the single lane road it is built to relieve, rather than being incorporated into it and thus replacing it, Spain is full of roads that run side by side each other. If one's an Autopista, then it will often carry less traffic than the other road (especially if the other road's a dual carriageway), since tolls in Spain are pretty steep.

Since I'm a bit of a Lonely Planeteer when it comes to not paying for roads, we avoided toll roads in the main and ended up paying just €7.60 for a fortnight in which we racked up 3k k, an accomplishment which will sidle like Phil Squod into conversations for the next year or so. (Phil Squod is a character in Bleak House, one of the only two Dickens I have actually read, the other being Hard Times, who specialises in sudden changes of direction while walking – "Phil approaches in his usual way, sidling off at first as if he were going anywhere else and then bearing down upon his commander like a bayonet-charge". Some ethnologists believe he is the progenitor of the Chinese race.)

One reason for converting single lane roads into dual carriageways is doubtless to reduce the number of people who get slaughtered on Spanish roads. I don't have any figures to hand, and if so I wouldn't use them (as Winifred Engelbert-Bumperdinck, the Chief Executive of the upper tier of Hong Kong's government, the Jockey Club, likes to say, apparently quoting Churchill – and you've got to take your Homburg off to a German who quotes Churchill – "I don't trust statistics unless I've invented them myself"), but more people die on the roads because they sit on them when they get old to shelter from the broiling afternoon sun than for any other reason.

The second reason probably has something to do with overtaking round corners while going downhill, but what I want to ask the Spanish authorities is this: "What chance have you got of producing another Fernando/a Alonso unless you give him/her somewhere to practise their overtaking?" Face facts, McLaren's losing its straight line speed to Ferrari, so it's a case of stop building all these dual carriageways now or the title will go the way of all those chicks in the paddock, and it will be posters of Lewis Hamilton that adorn bus shelters selling tinned tomatoes and slimming pills.

Despite the heavy investment in the road system, for some reason Spain doesn't believe in traffic lights to regulate single lane traffic at roadworks. What you get instead is two men, one at each end, holding a kind of spade, one side of which has a blue arrow on a white background and the other presumably not. I say presumably not because you never actually get to see what's on the other side of the spade as the spademan just lets the spade hang limply down when he doesn't want you to proceed. Can't blame him, I suppose, as it must get to feel quite heavy after you've been holding it all day.

But my experience on the road to Salamanca was so puzzling that I share it in the hope that someone might be able to shed some light. We were the first in line so had a grandstand view of the strange rite that was performed. First, the spademan, who already had the spade in the droop position when we arrived, put his free hand in his inside donkey-jacket pocket to get something. I did some swift inferencing and reckoned it had to be a walkie-talkie. It turned out to be a packet of cigarettes. He put his spade down and lit the cigarette.

After enjoying a few draughts (by the way, no traffic was coming the other way, which wasn't surprising as the road curved at the top of the incline and so there was no evident way the spademan could communicate with his colleague – except by smoke signals), he moved slowly – everything was done slowly – to the side of the road, bent down and picked up a stick. He returned to the middle of the road and placed the stick down across the centre road markings. After a few seconds, he moved it so that it ran parallel along the centre road markings. Still, no traffic came from the other direction. Perhaps he had hypnotized them.

After a minute, a lorry hove into view along the single-lane section of road, having come from around the corner. Something (probably in retrospect the fact that nothing else followed the lorry) prompted me to think that the lorry driver would have a part to play in the liturgy. Sure enough, as he approached the spademan he slowed down, came to a stop, leant out of his cab and gave the other something. Of course, it was a second stick. The second stick was placed next to the first one, the lorry drove off past us, and the spademan picked up his spade, blue side facing.

We came back along that road that evening, and I swear a certain enchantment lay there. My daughter, who had been snoozing across the back seat, suddenly woke up, and together with my wife, whose sense of direction isn't her sharpest asset, cried out, "This is the place of the sticks!" But, apart from a surface freshly and somewhat unevenly tarmacked, no trace of evidence remained: not a stick, not a spade, not even a cigarette butt.

Monday, 20 August 2007

Spanish roads 1: signs & wonders

Spanish roads are very good, but very Spanish. That is, they make more sense the less you think about them. I think C.S. Lewis was subliminally thinking about Spanish roads when he wrote as follows, ostensibly about George MacDonald's Phantastes: "The philosophical parts I don't understand, but they stir me in some strange way that they probably wouldn't if I really could follow them."

The first hint that Spanish roads are going to be a little more heterodox than, say, their cousins across the Pyrenees is the scale of the trusty Michelin atlas. Rather than the 1 cm = 2 km favoured by the Francophones, the Francophobes (I found no one who admits to be being a Francophile these days) cram 4 kilometres into each centimetre. And because they're so keen on telling you how far it is from one crossroads to the next, the result is that quite a lot of useful information, like the first letter of a town, is obliterated under a welter of red numbers, not to mention all sorts of different icons for this and that.

But where Spaniards really excel themselves is in the letters they give their roads. Now there is, as we shall see, after the Spanish style, the hint of a rational explanation, but anyone coming to Spain with the idea that you'll get A roads, B roads, C roads and D roads, plus M for motorway and an occasional daring A-(M), is in for a rude awakening. Or, depending how you like challenges and puzzles, a treasure trove.

Starting from the top, you've got APs (autopistas, or motorways), Es (European routes), Ns (national routes) and Cs (which mean different things depending whether you're in a Catalan area or not) – with a B under construction. Top of the form, as might be expected, is straight As. As a prefix to a road number, beside denoting autovias, or dual carriageways, A may also stand for the regions of Andalucia and Aragón, the province of Álava, as well as a minor road in the region of Murcia.

A nice example of Spanish-style road lettering/numbering could be found not far from where we stayed in the foothills of the Sierra de Gredos, 140 kilometres west of Madrid. Taking the scenic route from Arenas de San Pedro to Jarandilla de la Vera, you start on the AV-924 (where AV stands for the province of Ávila), switch to the CL-501 (where CL stands for the region in which Ávila is situated, Castilla y León) at historic Candelada, without appearing to change roads, and then find yourself on the EX-203 upon crossing the boundary into Extremadura.

For me, though, the numerical nuance trumps the alphabetical antics. The only example I came across (and I hope it's the only one on the peninsular – that would make it truly special, like the assistant in a Hong Kong bookshop who knows something about books) was the A-6. Like its counterpart in England, which runs from the metropolis to a distant Celtic outpost (Carlisle), the Spanish version plies its course from Madrid to La Coruña.

I don't know if Merlin escaped from his original rock and a hard place in his Celtic outpost to play havoc with the names in this neck of the woods, or if schizoid behaviour is contagious, but I don't think it's any coincidence that a road to a place that can't decide if it's A Coruña or La Coruña should have an identity crisis. Thus, in addition to A-6, you will on various stretches of the road find yourself travelling on the N-VI. Somebody will try and tell me no doubt that A-6 is Castilian and N-VI Gallego (the Galician tongue), to which I will merely look bemused and reply "¿Que?" Others might tell me that it's called the N-VI when it doesn't qualify as an expressway and A-6 when it does, but then why dump the Roman numeral? Call in Poirot, I say.

By the way, I vouch for the accuracy of none of the above. It was all written in the Spanish spirit, without (too much) recourse to Google. Okay, I wimped out half-way through, when I felt like the fellow pushing the rock up the hill. Mind you, even after googling, I still felt like Sisyphus.

"Hell is inaccurate," wrote Charles Williams. Yes, but the roads to it from Spain are paved with the best of intentions. And a little stick. But for the story of the little stick we will have to wait for the next Capriccio Espagnol.

Gijón 2: sun, sand, sex and sidra

Spanish people eat a lot and have few babies. The evidence for the first is all round you, while the second will also be immediately noted by forensic linguists, the carrot-top on CSI Miami, his counterpart in NYC - the oddly handsome fellow who used to be Lootenant Dan - and anyone else trained in the art of looking for absences.

I don't know why it should be that Catholic countries have the lowest birth-rates in Europe, but it does suggest one, or more, of three things. Either they're not quite as good Catholics as they're supposed to be, or they're exceptionally rhythmical, or they spend too much time watching Argentine soaps, re-runs of Cheers (they get the voice of the wet one played by David Schwimmer off to a tee) and old Westerns with James Stewart and Richard Widmark.

My wife found it fascinating that we had come from the city with the world's lowest birth-rate (Hong Kong at 0.9) to the country with the world's lowest birth-rate (Spain at 1.2). Looking at the women on the beach at Gijón, I have to say I wasn't entirely surprised. They were big. They reminded me of the Russian ladies who used to spread their arms out to dry in the sun like cormorants at Sunny Beach in Bulgaria back in Cold War days.

When we got on San Lorenzo beach (very nice and slap bang in the middle of town) it was already pretty bracing, 21 or 22 degrees with a fresh northerly blowing in from the Cantabrian Sea. The advantage of that was that it made the sea feel warmer – at around 19 degrees it was just about at the limit of my endurance. For my wife, on the other hand, who handles Orkney's 8 degree marine environment with the equanimity of a grey seal, it was a tad on the over-heated side. The disadvantage of the cool weather was that only the real attention-seekers among the topless brigade were willing to get their kit off. This resulted in what was a first as far as I was concerned: the only time I have ever walked along a topless beach deliberately averting my eyes – after the first look, of course.

In the end, I was left to fantasise about the lifeguard. My, was she fit! Fit as a butcher's dog. The fact that she was wearing a jacket and a bobble hat somehow added to the allure. Also the fact that I could only see her from the back and side. Anyway, I was soon as in love with her as Borat was his Pa-ME-la. After a couple of hours on the beach incipient frostbite meant it was time to move on, leaving the hardy people of Gijón still packed like sardines across the vast expanse of sand.

Our next stop was a sidrería, or cider bar. As part of our painstaking preparation for this trip, we had read about the association of cider with the northern province of Asturias. I knew I would have to try the local cider, and my wife knew this too. (One of the things I least like about marriage is that I think I'm incredibly unpredictable and spontaneous, and yet my wife seems to know everything I'm going to do – including the mistakes – in advance.) We entered with 11-year-old in tow – how nice to be in a country where a) you can go to boozing places as a family, b) hardly anyone gets drunk and c) people see getting drunk as losing control and embarrassing yourself – and duly ordered dos sidras y una fanta naranja. It was only our second day and we could already pass for natives.

Now, if you've read your guidebooks on Northern Spain (I recommend the Insight guide to Northern Spain, which has knowledgeable and literate contributors on a range of topics, including wine, architecture and the history of Basque granaries), you will know that there is an art to cider-pouring. Trust us to come across the only bar in Asturias which was hiring a temp for the summer; not only that, we got the Vicky Pollard of Gijón.

First she asked me something very fast in Spanish (why do they insist on speeding up when they speak with foreigners?). Catching the single word "botella", I did my best Manuel impression, nodding and saying "si". A green bottle appeared and the cork was taken out. Now was time for the barmaid's Manuel impression. Holding the bottle above her head and out to the left and a glass below her waist as far as her arm could extend, and disdaining to look anywhere near either source or target, she proceeded to tilt the bottle and out came the cider. After an interval that was rather longer than I expected, she raised the glass and placed it on the counter. In the bottom was less than an inch of the cloudy fluid.

Just how much was going on the floor, I wondered? Well, she repeated the show for my wife's glass. (I had chivalrously tested the first libation.) This time I couldn't help myself and hauled myself up and a little over the bar so I could see better what was going on. Sure enough, most of the cider was hitting the outside of the tilted glass and splashing all over her clothes. A large puddle would, I'm sure, have been forming on the floor, had I only been able to crane myself into a position to see.

Perhaps it was the flagrant waste of the amber nectar, perhaps our pointing and laughing, but by the time our drinks needed to be "topped" up – which wasn't very long, given the amount that had been trapped inside the glass – the senior barman had taken over. What a difference a Diego makes! Same pose, same looking into the middle distance, but ¡olé! hardly a drop wasted. An artist of the apples, a matador of the manzanas. I learned two things in that bar in Gijón (I'll call it a bar since I noticed that no one else was drinking cider) which they don't teach you at Lonely Planet: first, why it is traditional to drink cider in tumblers with only two fingers of liquid covering the bottom of the glass, and, second, why cider is so cheap in Asturias.

Gijón 1: Lonely Planet paradise

Gijón (pronounced as if you were a linguistically-trained donkey putting the stress on the second syllable when braying) is the sort of place that Lonely Planet types love. Not much to see, but loads of cheap places to stay and eat, so you can meet up in the cheapest bar in town and immediately tell fellow backpackers that you've found a cheaper place near your hostal.

"Hostal?" your friend replies in a tone found only among Lonely Planet types when about to trump another. "We found a great casa de huespedes in a former Romanesque presbytery - listed building, you know. The Moors transported the original stone to build the Alhambra. Serves authentic tapas unique to the region and there's more rubbish on the floor than at any other place in Asturias." (Rubbish on the floor being a mark of a successful Spanish bar, in case you were wondering.)

"Yeah, but you haven't tasted real ethnic food until you've been to the sidrería by the old docks. Actually, no one knows about it except us – not even the locals."

You realise your mistake even before you finish the sentence but know it's too late to do anything about it. Your only hope is that your friend is too busy thinking of his next recommendation.

"So ... not much rubbish on the floor?" he says triumphantly, after a tantalising and carefully calculated pause during which he has unzipped his back-pack briefly, but long enough for you to get a glimpse of a battered copy of Cervantes's El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha and an equally dog-eared Guia del Camino de Santiago.

Before you have a chance to say "La cuenta, por favor", your friend is counting out his share of the bill in 1, 5 and 10 Euro coins.

"I got the best exchange rate in town - old fellow in the Jewish quarter," he says, as he slips his feet back in his sandals and makes for the exit, leaving you fumbling through the various compartments of your bum bag for the exact change. He's almost reached the door by the time you realise what he's said.

"Much better to change money in Hong Kong," you yell, losing a little more of the laid-back mien you have spent so many years cultivating, but your words fall on the deaf ears of the barman as he scoops the coins away.

"¡Malditos mochileros!" he exclaims, with emphasis on the upside-down exclamation mark at the beginning of his observation.

Anyway, no hostal or casa or pensión or fonda or (¡yeeks!) albergue for us; we stayed at the swanky government-run parador in Gijón. But … we did get a special deal. Actually, not really. I made a real cock-up booking this place as one of our two paradores (that's not a misprint – that's how they do the plural in Spanish). Now, whereas most of the paradors (going back to English – who doesn't go back to Munich when they've already proved they know a little German by using München?) are the result of conversion jobs done on castles and palaces, this one used to be a mill, a cider mill.

I thought that sounded different, and it was different from the other paradors we stayed at or visited. But the difference lay in the fact that this one was nothing special. In fact, as we were shown into the nondescript room on the first floor with sweeping vistas of Sporting de Gijón's concrete bowl of a football stadium, I was left to reflect, "Damn, I wish we'd come a month later and I could watch them play Real Madrid", followed quickly by a depression brought on by the bleak reality of the situation. Sporting had been relegated to the Segunda Liga, and here we were in a place I had picked for our second and third nights in Spain and it had as much atmosphere and charm as, well, a brick building painted terracotta next to a monstrous carbuncle built for the World Cup in 1982.

I felt as cheated as the good Berbers of North Africa had done after the Pan-German Derby at the 1982 World Cup had ended 1-0 to the West Germans against their Austrian cousins in line with pre-match predictions, thus ensuring both sides went through. The "non-aggression pact", as Germany defender Karlheinz Förster put it with a commendable sense of ingenuousness and history, still angrily recalled 20 years later by the Tuareg of the Sahara in conversation with Michael Palin, allowed West Germany to take their customary place in the final after they had gone down to a shock defeat against Algeria, curiously called Argelia in Spanish, as if the bloke charged with the translation was dyslexic. The relevance of all this being that all these shenanigans (known as the Shame of Gijon by the Tuareg – they don't bother with Spanish accents) had taken place just across the road from our solitary window.