Thursday, August 26, 2004

Tourists in Santiago de Compostella, and toasted ham sandwiches in Spanish bars

The interesting thing about travelling through the places I have been on this trip is that I have been off the package holiday and backpacker circuit. Bilbao now gets people visiting to see the Guggenheim, but these are more older independent travellers. San Sebastian is very much on the backpacker circuit, and Pamplona is on the tourist circuit during its fiesta and the running of the bulls, but less so at other times. But head west of Bilbao and you leave the English speakers behind, although many of these places attract Spanish holidaymakers. La Coruña is famous for its football team, but there are not many Anglophones around unless there is a big football game on. (I was of course there for a medium sized football game, which did mean I bumped into a few Irishmen. It must be interesting when Machester United come to town though).

Which is why arriving in Santiago de Compostella is a little bit of a shock. Santiago is the destination of a famous Christian pilgrimage, to the place where the body of St James was supposedly buried in 44AD. Santiago is a beautiful medieval city, and there are a huge number of people in town, some of them pilgrims who have actually walked one of the various routes to Santiago for religious reasons, some of who have walked one of the routes as they are famous walks, and some who have (like me) come to the city because it is a famous destination. In any event, you arrive in town and you are back on the tourist circuit. There are lots of shops selling souvenirs. There are lots of foreigners on the streets. There are lots of restaurants catering to tourists, the prices of which are more expensive than those in La Coruña (although still not very expensive compared to London). The first news stand I came to in town yesterday had that day's Telegraph for sale, which was nice. (I prefer to read the Times, but the Telegraph would do in the circumstances). The receptionist in the hotel I checked into spoke English. I attended a beautiful sung mass in the cathedral yesterday, and it was standing room only. (Somewhat sadly, security guards checked my bag before letting me in. In the first half of the second millennium the pilgrimage to Santiago was amongst other things a form of Christian solidarity against the Muslim occupation of Spain, and such a site is the sort of thing that the fanatics who now plague our world might target).

Of course, one can leave the medieval centre of town, and one then finds a modern town not containing so many tourists. The bars there charge prices that are about what one pays in La Coruña once more. Yesterday evening around 10pm I found myself wandering outside the medieval city. Whereas most bars have been showing the Olympics on their televisions during the day time, by that time of the evening every television had been switched to football - mostly to the Champions League qualifier between Real Madrid and Wisla Krakow. I found a fairly ordinary looking bar and ordered a beer.

In Latin countries I am never quite sure when a cafe is going to charge me extra for sitting at a table rather than at the bar. Often cafes in city centres will, but those in the provinces won't. (This seems particularly the case in France). Also, those catering to tourists are more likely to charge extra than those catering to locals. (This may be a way of charging extra to tourists given that they are more likely to sit at tables). In any event, as a non speaker of the local languages I find it easier to order at the bar. I can point at the beer tap to make it clear that I want draught beer, or I can point to the tapas in the case on the bar to make it clear I would like some of that. If I want to sit at a table, I sometimes sit at the table after this and take my beer to the table. As long as I do this before paying, the barman can charge me extra for a table if he likes, so an argument in Spanish is hopefully avoided.

And I did this last night, as I wanted to watch the Real Madrid match and there was a better view of the television from one of the vacant tables. The barman responded to this by putting a bowl of peanuts and a plate of crisps on my table. I had consumed a large meal a couple of hours earlier so I did not really want peanuts or crisps, but I appreciated the thought. However, I wasn't sure what to make of the next event, which was that the barman a couple of minutes later placed a toasted ham sandwich on my table. I wasn't quite sure what to make of this. Had I somehow made a random gesture that had been interpreted as ordering a ham sandwich? Do they provide ham sandwiches gratis to drinkers like peanuts in this part of Spain? Are ham sandwiches a way of asserting the modern Christian dominance of Spain?

In any event, it looked a nice ham sandwich, so I ate it. I am a London based equities analyst for a large international bank. I can afford a ham sandwich even if I am charged an extra Euro for it.

However, as I sat there for a little longer I realised something, which is that the mood of Spanish bars changes as the evening goes on. Whereas they are fairly commercial establishments in the daytime, later in the evening they can sort of evolve into more quiet establishments where a few regulars sit and argue about football as the evening goes on. The staff of the bar themselves get some food from the kitchen and sit down at the tables and eat their own meals, all the while chatting with customers and friends and watching football. While the bar is certainly still open and if a customer comes in and orders a beer or a cup of coffee they will certainly serve him, business is not fundamentally what it is about at this time of day. The customers made a point of not ordering anything when the barman was eating, for instance. They clearly did not want to disturb his meal. And I could see that at this hour the little courtesies went in both directions, such as the ham sandwich for me. When the football match was finished and the barman had finished his meal, most of the customers slowly got up, went to the bar, and paid for what they had consumed. I was just charged the cost of a beer. I walked out and headed to the university quarter where I had another beer in a student bar, before heading off to bed. It was a nice evening.

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