I love how being a tourist gives you free reign to get things totally wrong. Whether it was your intention or not, sometimes visiting a particular foreign place ensures you come across more bumbling than any fluffy character played by Hugh Grant.
On the last day of our road trip in Spain my friend and I decided to pay a visit to the vineyards of La Rioja region. We poured – excuse the pun – over the guide books and selected a small place called San Vincente De La Sonsierra that most tantalising suggested that it had sixteen bodegas in its vicinity.
Sixteen bodegas? We couldn’t wait to get there and sample some local wines whilst learning a little about its production.
And when I say some local wines, I meant to type the word all.
San Vincente De La Sonsierra
We parked by the river Ebro where a beautiful old bridge spanned the water. The main road ran alongside the river whilst the village grew upwards from its bank, with a small church sprouting from the peak. Incredibly promisingly, the signs for bodegas were plentiful and we chose to follow the road as it curved upwards into the centre of the village.
Like virtually all of the villages my friend and I had visited along our trip, it was deserted. No kids playing in the streets, no mums pushing buggies, no elderly people out for an afternoon stroll. But it was nice, albeit in a slightly baffling way, to again roam the peaceful streets of small-town Spain, far from the hustle and bustle of main tourist hubs. It was authentic, we told ourselves, as we admired the shuttered balconies and wooden doorways of the sandy coloured buildings, if a little soulless.
A glass of wine would rectify that, we agreed.
The street spread out into a main square featuring a fountain decorated with white wooden branches and several plastic swans. No bodegas had materialised, so we settled for the next best thing and ducked into a little bar on the right hand side of the square. Inside, it was canteen bright with plastic tables and hard chairs, at which several men in flat caps sat nursing a glass of wine and watching Wheel of Fortune at top volume on a large wall mounted TV. Not quite the ambiance we had expected, we nevertheless opted for a glass of local Rioja and settled down on the plastic-leather sofa.
The old men in the flat caps stared at us. It was time to move on.
Back out on the street we continued our search for a bodega. We followed some directions scribbled on a napkin for us by the young bartender that lead us out into vineyard country, but when we walked up to the vineyards the doors appeared firmly closed. We were clearly not going to experience the cellar door afternoon we had initially hoped for.
A hole in the wall bar presented itself to us so we ducked inside. On the doorstep, just leaving, was an elderly chap who smiled at us. ‘Cafe,’ he offered helpfully with a few other words in Spanish. ‘No, vino tinto,’ we replied and he emitted a great, wheezy chortle of surprise before walking off.
Inside, the place was more like a nightclub, dingy and smelling strongly of cigarettes. Not at all the kind of place you would see yourself at two in the afternoon, and probably not even at two in the morning.
In a last ditch attempt to find a cute, cosy café or bar where we could relax we discovered a nondescript place in the village square. Inside we found more old men -by the looks of the flat caps the same men from the first bar – sitting at Formica tables, this time watching a cowboy movie at full volume. Several kids played together at a table in an alcove.
The female bartender welcomed us warmly. She had long, unruly hair framing a wide, genuine face. The children skipped around her as she served drinks and she kissed their heads fondly.
She explained the origins of the wine she served us and nodded her head to several of the old men in the bar. ‘His grapes go into this Tempranillo blend, and so do his.’ We looked at the old men with a heightened sense of respect; these men owned the vineyards and had worked with the grapes for their whole lives.
But here they were watching a cowboy movie in the afternoon. It was low season, we supposed, and what do we know about wine making anyway?
Ladies Who (Do Not) Lunch
We asked a question that had been plaguing us all day. We already knew the answer, but we needed to assuage our confused thirst – oops, there I go again – for a cellar door.
‘How come we haven’t found any bodegas? We’ve walked all over the village and the outskirts and found nothing.’
Dismissing this obvious absurdity by diverting her attention to one of the children pressing a colouring book into her hands she looked back at us over her shoulder. ‘They are not open. It is not the season.’
Hmm. Should have guessed.
But the guidebook’s tantalising description was too much for us to ignore.
But in November? Really, what were you thinking?
Hmm, not much more than how good a glass of wine would taste.
Then we asked another question, which for us, had been a baffling quandary all day. ‘Where are all the women? We’ve seen plenty of older men around but where are their wives?’
The bartender twisted her lips in an amused grin. ‘They do not come in here.’
‘What, they don’t come to the bar?’
She shook her head again, studying us with mirth flashing in her soft, hazel eyes. ‘They may join their husbands at lunchtime for a meal, but never this,’ she gestured with her eyes towards our glasses of red wine, ‘in the daytime’.
We sipped our wine as we processed this information.
To my friend and I, it would be perfectly normal to see groups of women of all ages in pubs and cafés back home in England.
‘Oh right, so it’s not common to see two young women wandering around in the middle of the day looking for bodegas? In November’.
Another old man entered the bar. She poured his usual drink and placed it on the bar before he had even reached her. ‘No’, she conceded, ‘it is not usual’. She wiped a spot on the bar clean with a damp cloth and left the rest unspoken with an air of nonchalant futility.
She knew as we as we did that regardless of what she said we would still have tried our damnedest to find that ultimate glass of wine. Blindly following the small print of the guidebook meant we failed to read between the lines. But by stumbling into a bar filled with flat caps and cowboy movies, it also meant that we learned more about drinking wine in Spain than a guidebook could ever tell us.
Oh well, cheers to getting it culturally wrong in La Rioja.
I’ll have another glass, please.
Have you ever been somewhere as a tourist and got it completely wrong? Am I the only one to search for a cellar door in winter? I would love to hear your stories!