The Last Outpost

by Chris Ellis

Lost In Spain

I wish to apologise to the Pietermaritzburg municipality. As a general practitioner who still does a few house calls I do a fair amount of complaining about the lack of sign posts and street names. No longer. I have been to Spain.

Spain is a wonderful country. It has, just like South Africa, glorious beaches and beautiful mountains. But no street names. Actually that is not quite true. There are some but they have been put up as a joke by the Spaniards to lull one into a sense of security. Some have even been put up pointing you in the opposite direction to the intended destination rather like the British swapped around the street sign posts in world war two in order to confuse the enemy in the event that they invaded the United Kingdom.

Last year one of my sons and I decided to go drive about in Spain. He is fairly fluent in Spanish and I can just get by and know the country a little so we thought we were reasonably prepared. Not exactly so either. Things began to go wrong on day one when we lost a bag flying from London to Madrid. We put two bags on together at Heathrow but mysteriously only one came out at Barajas airport. This caused us to immediately test our Spanish with a fair amount of jolly conversation at the irrejularidad de equipaje, which loosely translates itself as the irregularities of equipment. The bag would, we were informed, come on the next flight and they would deliver it to the hostel, where we had booked, which was called Hostal Riesco in the Calle de Correo. We were given a receipt, whose title was Mad Control Tracing.

We therefore set out on the Madrid Metro underground railway. Now the trouble with foreign countries is all those foreign names. We had to take line number 8 (called Neuvos Ministerios) and change at station Columbia for line 9 (called Herrera Oria-Arganda del Rey) and then change again for line 2 (called Ventas-Cuatro Caminos) at Principe de Vergara (but of course) and then get off at Plaza de Sol. We started all right but the confusion begins at the changes because we could not work out which way the trains were going. Destinations of trains were veiled in secrecy and there were no signs to help. We did a lot of asking and twice just missed going in the opposite direction. You would not want to land up at Eugenia de Montijo when you were actually heading for Sierra de Guadalupe, now would you?

Eventually we emerged in the Plaza de Sol complete with bags and backpacks and looking like the epitome of a pair of lost tourists. We stood against a building wall to avoid being swept away by the pedestrians and studied our map of Madrid, which had every street on it except the Calle de Correo. We asked a passing Spaniard who pointed above our heads. We were standing under the sign.

Matching Spanish maps up to the actual routes we travelled became, throughout our journeys, a game we played with inventiveness and second guessing. Our most challenging game play was near Malaga, in the south. I was the navigator and the map did not correspond to any of the sign posts. The freeway was called the N340 or CN 340 or Carretera de Cadiz or Carretera Malaga-Cadiz or whatever you like, it seemed. It was a hair raisingly busy road and it was impossible to spot our turnoff before we were past it. This confusion was compounded by the fact that in some places, because of the building and tourism boom in the south of Spain, there are now often three unmarked roads running parallel to each other...

It reminded me of La Société por Confusion d’ Estranger (The Society for the Confusion of Foreigners), first discovered by the author Michael Green, and which many British travellers believe still exists in France today. This society works in secret and sends radio messages ahead to one of their black Citroen cars to pull out in front of the unwary foreigner driver. They have a fleet of these distributed all over France and they are driven by elderly couples who pull out, with immaculate timing, in front of the oncoming tourist. They then hold their speed at slow whilst the road is curvy or there is a single white line and then drive like hell on the straight bits and sway outwards into the road with unpredictable light touches on the brakes.

The village branch of the society has raised signage to a high art form. As you enter the small French village all the signs point you inevitably into the village square and on circling the square you realise that all the exits have no entry signs on them and there is a no parking double line around the entire square. You join a queue of other tourists circling the square until your petrol runs out where upon a traffic policeman appears from the shadows and hands you a ticket.

And so we careered around the Southern coast of Spain in bewilderment and admiration of both the magnificent scenery and the cavalier disregard of any directions as to how to get to the scenery. The Lonely Planet guide book gives a warning about the province of Andalucia, which is the southern most province, saying “beware of other motorists and watch out for dogs, cats and inebriated pedestrians trying to cross the road”. We felt like we were back home in KwaZulu/Natal.

In the end we found the answer to finding one’s way in Spain. It is called Orujo. We had dinner in an old Spanish restaurant in Madrid, called La Toja, on the Calle Mayor, which leads into the main square (Plaza Mayor). At the end of the meal the head waiter of the restaurant brought, with the compliments of the house, this deep yellow liqueur called Orujo, which is made from distilled grape remains with added herbs ( licor de hierbas). He brought it to the table in a small bottle that had no label on it and murmured something about a cousin in Galacia, who made it on the farm. Now as a general rule for tourists if a bottle comes to the table without a label on it then it is usually in the mampoer category and when the waiter says “no maneja el coche este noche?”, which roughly translates as “now are you sure you are not driving tonight?” then it should be approached with a certain amount of caution. We only had one glass and then had to renegotiate our way home through a complex network of narrow ancient streets between the Plaza Major and the Plaza de Sol where our tiny hostel was secreted.

We never lost our way once.

Copyright © 2005 - 2018 Chris Ellis.