Monday, August 29, 2016

Lost in Spain: episode 5

EPISODE 5: The ticket

The blindfolded horse leans into the bull, unsteady but protected from the horns by the heavily padded armour that extends to its knees. As he strains to try to lift the horse, black muscles tensed, the bull is gored in the shoulder with a lance by the mounted picador.

El Toro disengages. The cape-waving cuadrilla draws him away as three banderilleros on foot enter the ring. Each is holding a pair of short, barbed spears tightly adorned with coloured ribbons. The first stands tall on his toes with arms outstretched in a T, posing like a mantis with spears pointing down to receive the bull. El Toro sights him, backs up, paws the ground and charges. With an arched leap the banderillero dodges his swinging horns and thrusts the spears into his withers.

• • • 

I wander.

Through the town, dodging the thronging people. Past the great white curving rampart of the plaza de toros and the tiny arrow slit of a ticket window—closed. Past the contiguous walls of white painted homes boot-topped with bands of saffron or salmon. Past windows caged behind delicate skeletons of the same wrought black iron that encases parapet-like balconies above.

And past a little restaurant with a man sitting sidelong inside a street-facing reception window, with a tiny handbill stuck on the glass that halts me. It's an advertisement for tickets to the three weekend corridas—including the Goyesca.

I point to it. “Esta la Corrida de la Goyesca disponible? Is the bullfight available?”

“Sí. €100 por sol alto.”

I'm stunned. A ticket! Right in front of me!

Sol alto are the cheapest seats. They're in the upper tier, furthest from the ring. Sol—in the hot sun. No shade. And while they're not €2,000, even in this second year of the Spanish recession they're still no bargain. I hesitate, thumbing my euros, gauging all that I have spent to get here. Should I just commit to finishing it? Finding a ticket at all is unbelievable luck. And after everything, haven't I earned this privilege? Isn't this my prize?

“Pues?” asks the man. Do I want it or not?

So here I am, despite all expectations, squinting through the dust-speckled light of the hot afternoon sun. There's a spicy smell of cigarillos in the air. I'm sitting on a bench in the highest seats, on a little square cushion rented for two euros, with a spirited crowd. I have prevailed. It's 38 degrees and the Goyesca, on its sixth bull, is into its third hour.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Lost in Spain: episode 4

EPISODE 4: Veni, vidi, vici...

El Toro charges through the wooden gate and into the ring, locking his front legs and skidding five-hundred kilograms of black brawn to a halt in the yellow sand. He snorts, tossing his head side to side, and careers at a pink and gold cape waving on the far side of the ring. The torero ducks behind a barrier. A second cape waves from across the arena. Careening away, the bull speeds from one fluttering capote to another as each appears, distracts and vanishes. Until he sees the horse. He stops, turns and slams his horns into the horse's side.

• • •

Even the vivid vicissitudes of getting here can't thwart me. I have arrived.

The town bakes under the dry heat and bright light of a late Andalusian summer. Visitors in straw summer hats and short-sleeved shirts have crowded festive streets strung with a canopy of paper balls coloured yellow, red, blue and green. Local young ladies are wearing colourful, ruffled dresses and baubled silk mantillas draped from tall peinetas in their hair. They flit fans at fine-looking riders with round-rimmed hats on horseback. Everywhere there is celebration, vitality, a real fiesta, with strains of laughter and flamenco in the streets.

After a few incredulous phone calls by the hotel receptionist, I have been directed down the packed Calle Molino to a hotel in La Ciudad that has had, to my great fortune, a cancellation. I triumphantly pocket the keys from the rental car and clap my hand on a horse's flank in jubilance.

Ronda's old town of La Ciudad is connected to the newer cliff-top quarter of El Mercadillo by the spectacular arched Puente Nuevo. Towering above the Guadalevín River over a hundred metres below, this “New Bridge” was completed in 1793, superseding the old one further down the Tajo gorge.

In the Spanish Civil War, an inegressible chamber embedded inside the bridge's central arch was used to hold political prisoners. It is still there. Antonio Ordóñez's good friend Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Ronda part-time, wrote in For Whom The Bell Tolls of Nationalist sympathisers being thrown by Republicans from the cliffs of an Andalusian village. It is supposedly a factual account.

Ronda has a bloody history. It was forged in war, founded by the Roman general Scipio Africanus as an outpost to fight Rome's arch-foe, Hannibal of Carthage. Ever since, it has swung between life and death. Conquered by the Suebi in the fifth century and reconquered by the Byzantine Empire in the sixth, it was sacked by Visigoths and traded between warring tribes of Islamic Moors for the next five hundred years. In 1485 it was subjugated by the reconquista of the Catholic monarchs Fernando and Isabel. In 1808 Napoleon cut the population down to a third when, with guerilla tactics, the Rondeños resisted his invasion.

This weekend's population would have dwarfed Napoleon's entire army. Ronda has swelled a hundred-fold. The streets are closed to traffic just to fit them all. I check into my hotel, toss my backpack on the bed and go searching—without a clue how—for a scarce ticket to the bullfight.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Lost in Spain: episode 3

EPISODE 3: Todo completo

Finally a petrol station emerged at a remote highway junction. I pulled in and jumped out. The glass door, obscured of transparency by a crooked gallery of smudged and faded signs (abierto, tirar, Castrol) slid stiffly open. Far from the sanitised, bright white service station in Córdoba, it smelled like a real, proper garage: black, like rubber and grease.

I bypassed the windshield wipers and aisles of motor oil and headed to the back wall of the shop, where a pegboard hidden in the gloom held a small cache of pamphlets. Poking out of a little shelf like a cheeky tongue was an orange booklet I immediately recognised.

Michelin's excellent fold-out map of Andalucía. I was found.

The drive from Córdoba to Ronda takes two-and-a-half hours, but I was rapt to pull it off in five—and grateful for air conditioning. It must have been 40 degrees Celsius. Bloody hell, I thought. I don't want to lug my pack far in this. Without a navigator to read the map I entered Ronda blind and hunted for a parking lot I hoped was close to the festivities.

Parking a car in the old town's choked and narrow streets is an absurd idea. The Feria de Pedro Romero is Ronda's biggest festival of the year, and it attracts an influx of tourists that would turn Christ himself misanthropic. But a miracle upon me, I chose a parking lot little more than a hundred metres from the centre of the old town. Sheer providence. I could not have found somewhere closer if I knew what I was doing.

The man in the wooden booth of the dusty dirt lot charged me the fiesta price of €24-for-24-hours, and I hauled my pack to a nearby hotel to enquire about a room.

Señor, it's the feria,” said the lady at reception. “Todo completo. All the hotels are full!”

Monday, August 08, 2016

Lost in Spain: episode 2

EPISODE 2: Where the hell is Ronda?

Dramatic, cliff-top Ronda is on the edge of the Córdoba-Sevilla-Málaga triangle, a broad and rolling plain of vast skies, sweeping grainfields and long olive groves ringed by minor mountain ranges and linked by secondary roads that slink out of antique provincial hill towns. Without GPS you need a decent road map.

Michelin makes an excellent, 1:400,000 scale detailed concertina-fold map of Andalucía. I have it. In Sydney. I'd planned to catch the train to Ronda; why the hell would I pack the map? Instead, the rental agency gave me an A3-size branded place mat demarcating the entire 87,000 square-kilometre region. I squinted at it, and could make out that I was north and Ronda was south. Perfect, I thought. If I don't make it by nightfall I can just navigate by the stars.

Five minutes into my road trip I was hopelessly tangled in city interchanges. I aborted my endless figure eights and death spirals and pulled into a service station in search of a proper map. Quite sensibly they had nothing of the sort, which might tie up shelf space for chocolate bars and ¡Hola! celebrity gossip rags, so I spent the next half hour poring over tiny charts in guidebooks and brochures and muttering through clenched teeth in the front seat of the car before the obvious hit me: I have Google Maps on my mobile phone! I'd been avoiding using it so I wouldn't be slugged with roaming charges, but with financial concerns already out the window I fired it up and Googled directions. Fifteen minutes later I shot out of the city.

Adiós Córdoba!” I bid. “Ronda, I am on my way!”

The regional roads of the southern province snake between whitewashed Andalusian towns—Écija, with its elaborate church towers jutting above the settlement like upturned table legs, Osuna surrounded by fields of sunflowers in ochre soil, and hilltop Olvera with its imposing church and Moorish castle. The great azure vault above, blindingly bright in the height of the day, spans a patchwork of land. Fields of brown dirt and straw grass alternate with hopscotch plots of low olive trees studded in precise green rows that shift in parallax as you pass them.

The sun was warm through the windshield. I drifted into a sinuous leisure as the shimmering grey ribbon of road flowed through the rural terrain, past the occasional walled farmhouse and hacienda ruin. Multi-storeyed stacks of golden hay bales in great edifices mimicked office blocks on the rural landscape.

A sudden fork in the road roused me from my languor. I pulled over and consulted Google. But there was no map. On my journey from navigational despair to digital salvation I failed to account that a hundred kilometres into the Spanish plains there is a rather complete absence of reception. My mobile phone was only useful now for beating against my head in rebuke: being lost in urban Córdoba was preferable to being lost in expanses of nowhere.

It was fifty-fifty and I wasn't getting any closer to Ronda sitting there. I picked a branch and drove on.

Friday, August 05, 2016

First Friday Fotos

The fería de Pedro Romero in Ronda, Spain

Horses and drivers in fería garb
Carriage driver

Local girls at the fería
Poster of the fair

First Friday Fotos

The fería de Pedro Romero in Ronda, Spain

The parade of carriages
Passenger and driver

Cayetano Ordoñez, patriarch of the bullfighting family
Ronda's Puente Nuevo

Monday, August 01, 2016

Lost in Spain: episode 1

EPISODE 1: Todo completo

I hauled my pack up to the window of the Córdoba train station and asked for a ticket to Ronda. At last, my goal was in sight: the Feria de Pedro Romero.

“Todo completo,” said the rail clerk. “All the trains are full.”

My heart sank. “When is the next available train?”


Tomorrow?! How had I forgotten to book ahead? The festival peaks tomorrow! I already learned this lesson before, though never with consequences worse than an extra night in Paris. Now, after months of meticulous planning, weeks of scheduling each step of my journey, and daily discipline to hit every milestone so I could get to the festival on time, it was all at risk. I kicked myself. You stupid, stupid fool.

The Feria de Pedro Romero, founded in 1954 by the famous matador Antonio Ordóñez, is held in Ronda in the first week of September. Named in honour of Ronda's great eighteenth-century toreador and father of modern bullfighting, the fair climaxes on the anniversary of Romero's 200th birthday with the Corrida de la Goyesca: a bullfight performed in the traditional 18th-century costume of Goya's paintings, held in Spain's oldest and most revered bullring. Since staring up, as a five-year-old, at the graceful sweeps of a painted matador stroking the bull with red caresses on a 1960s bullfight bill on the wall of my dad's garage, I have wanted to see a bullfight. If you were to see only one, it would be the Goyesca.

Like flamenco, bullfighting is embedded in the fiery culture of Andalucía. It is a bloody, controversial tradition. Many Spaniards regard it as little more than a cruel remnant of machismo with little place in a civilised modern society, and public support has haemorrhaged in recent years. In 2010 it was put to a parliamentary vote in Catalonia and outlawed when its cultural apologists lost.

Yet it remains popular here in its conservative homeland. By the time of the feria's 50th anniversary in 2004—a celebration at which some celebrities arrived by helicopter—the Goyesca was so fashionable that tickets had become all but impossible to get. Each year they are sold only at the plaza de toros on a few set days prior to the fight before remaining tickets are apportioned to local resellers, who are free to then charge whatever they want. In those pre-financial crisis years, tickets commanded prices up to €2,000.

I had to arrive today for even a chance at a ticket. I lugged my backpack into the estación de autocares across the road and scanned the sales windows of the numerous bus companies: Alsina Graells went to Granada, Bacoma ran to Baeza, Empresa Carrera headed to Cabra and Secorbus served Madrid. There was no route to Ronda.

Rubbing the tightened cords of my brow in disbelief, I wracked my brain for options. Ronda is just a small town. There is no airport. Hitch-hike? Unreliable. It could take days. It dawned on me that the only way out of my predicament was through the nose: when planning this leg of the trip I'd abandoned the idea of a rental car as beyond my budget. Now it was my only option.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

But first, tea.

As soon as I arrive in Istanbul I am already infuriated with it. It is dirty and crumbling and foreign, and I can not figure out where I am.

I think I am starting to burn out. There always comes a point in time, after about two months of travel, that the alien foods, the language difficulties, the social miscues, the constant movement and the long, sweaty stretches between cities and showers begin to tax the appeal of being on the road. I start longing for my own bed in the safe and familiar surroundings of my cosy flat in Sydney. Last week I hit the two-month mark.

I'm looking for a specific patisserie that was recommended to me. It is in Galata, near the famous tower. I figured such an obvious monumental landmark would make navigation easy, and I am not incapable with maps. I have a printed map, Google and GPS on my phone. I even fancy that I'm a decent orienteer. But this 1,600-year-old hilltop quarter answers to no map. I am flummoxed after repeated assaults on it. The surging maze of lanes drapes and twists over the tower's hillside, tossing and tangling me in the ramble of streets.

A sixty-something-looking leather-skinned shoe-shine tries to swindle me in the conniving way of the Turkish tout. After I pick up a dropped shoe brush for him in instinctive common decency, he shakes my hand, asks me where I'm from, and makes to give me a shoe shine in appreciation. I suddenly remember this ruse of intentionally dropping the brush and preying on the decency of innocent tourists. But I am not innocent. I am jaded, lost and shitty.

I protest as he insists my shoe onto his footstool, "No. No! It's not good for my shoes." It's ridiculous; they aren't leather. They are high-tech synthetic outdoor hiking runners designed to allow water to flow through the porous upper, and after hundreds of kilometres of hardcore use, from the wilds of British Columbia to the muddy jungles of Uganda, they are far beyond any hope of scrubbing up a bit.

He counter-protests, "no, it's okay! I am shoe doctor!" and further, as I pull away from his stupid ineffectual brushing and sponging, "no, sorry, I am not finished!"

I'm not buying any of this. I step to walk away and he calls out, "eight lira!" (about A$4). I sigh, irritated with this game, and drop half a lira into his palm, the equivalent of twenty-five cents.

"What is this?" he objects.

"Meh," I shrug and walk away annoyed. An insult, I suppose.

Distracted now. Trying to read the map of Galata's bundles of lanes is like navigating from the scalp of a shag carpet. I finally throw my hands in the air. "The map is not the terrain," I remind myself, and simply meander in circles instead, in which manner I find the patisserie. It was less than a hundred metres away.

It's closed.


Weary, exasperated and harbouring a growing irritation with the volume of people in the streets, I cut down a side alley in these maniacal laneways and give in to my feet blathering across the roiling cobbles, which ripple like a carpet, until I stumble upon a cozy room called Cha'ya Galata that catches the eye with a seductive sign: "But first, tea."


It comes on a round wooden platter. First flush Assam. The pot is kept warm over a tea light and the leaves have been removed so it doesn't over-steep. A slice of orange is served over the teacup on a bamboo skewer. Warmed milk has its own pot. I have biscuits. I have honey.

Painted on the window is another sign: "You can't buy happiness but you can buy tea, and that's kind of the same thing."

I love Istanbul.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Top 5 most beautiful places in Europe

Dubrovnik. Renaissance city of Ragusa and major rival of the venerable Republic of Venice. Tremendously pretty, it is justifiably Croatia's most visited destination. The sun glints off the broad limestone paving stones of the Plaça, polished smooth by generations of footsteps. Narrow hillside alleys of vines and laundry lead up steep steps between Venetian balconies and shuttered windows to the famous medieval walls.

I am only passing through Dubrovnik, on my way to Sarajevo. I've been here twice now, and I think it's one of the most beautiful places in the world. Having travelled to many places I don't say that lightly. Silver-coloured cliffs surrounding Dubrovnik drop into opaline water. Tall spears of mediterranean cypress tower like shepherds above flocks of bony olive trees on the karst rock.

And somehow Croatia produces stunning women—blonde jaw-droppers who would take the catwalks of Milan by storm, and probably do.

So this inevitably leads me to the following entirely subjective list:

The Solonaut's

(in no particular order)

Dubrovnik, Croatia
One of the best preserved walled cities in Europe. Maybe the best. Tourism has grown considerably in the last five years, but even amid the summer throngs it is easy to find a quiet bar in a lane, such as Caffe Soul, to drink local fruit brandy to the serenade of a live guitarist or watch an evening performance of a chamber orchestra in the chapel of Saint Saviour.

Oia, Santorini, Greece
Those famous photos of Santorini—white domed chapels with blue crosses and low, square houses barnacled above an azure sea—are taken from Oia. The island bakes in a delicious heat in summer. It is the only place I have ever been tempted to kick back with a beer and a book on a deck chair by the pool to overlook the caldera. I deliberately missed my departure ferry to stay. Pronounced ee-ah, Oia is probably my personal favourite in this list, above Dubrovnik.

Venice, Italy
Go back a thousand years in time. Tall fourteenth-century Gothic buildings usher you between piazze and you walk and walk and walk, down tall lanes, between palaces and churches, over bridges and under arched overhangs, and there isn't a hint of the modern world anywhere. You get a sense of how powerfully wealthy this state once was from the vast and sumptuous collection of paintings in the Doge's Palace—one after another gilt-framed Tintoretto, Titian, Veronese. It's like feasting on too much chocolate.

The Vézère and Dordogne valleys, France
Go in October, in wool coat and scarf weather. Leaves from woods of oak turn brilliant orange, yellow and brown in autumn and flock like starlings in the wind. Chateaux stud the hills and charming villages grace the valleys, such as the riverside La Roque-Gageac, the dramatic cliff-hugging town of Rocamadour, and the magnificent medieval Sarlat-la-Canéda, where I lodged for a week in a 16th-century tower.

Lucerne, Switzerland
In late spring, Lucerne is storybook. Yellow flowers whiffling in green meadows. Shaggy highland cattle clanking cowbells. Bright sun and blue sky. Tall evergreen trees. Snowy mountains. White swans on crystal waters. It's ridiculous.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Proust questionnaire

Marcel Proust once wrote a questionnaire which has since been put to interesting people in literary magazines. Maria Popova makes a nice introduction to it here. I do not profess to be interesting nor that my blog is literary but, since I have my audience captive, as an intermission to my travel notes and purely for indulgence I thought I'd answer it myself.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I have a good mate who recently invited me to his house for a night of whiskey and jazz appreciation. He was sitting on the couch early on in proceedings when his four-year-old daughter climbed adoringly over his shoulder and kissed him on the cheek.

He also said to me, "This period doesn't last."

What is your greatest fear?

Going down in a plane. It might seem odd, as I travel a great deal, that I am never entirely comfortable flying; I hyper-analyse every sound and bump during take-off and landing. I need to force myself consciously to relax.

I'm not a big fan of cancer, either.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?

Disloyalty. More specifically, failing friendship.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Avoiding paid work.

What is your favourite journey?

When I was 26 and living in Vancouver, I got a sudden phone call from a friend and bandmate.

"Do you want to go to California?"

"What, now?" I said.



"All right."

His mother had left that morning for a week-long cruise to Alaska and fatefully told him he could use the car, a convertible Mazda MX-5, but "not for anything crazy like driving to California."

We had to be back before she was. We hit San Francisco that night and clubbed after hours to a female DJ and impromptu drum circle at The End Up. We spent the next day in Sacramento at a bar discussing jazz with a pianist actually named Omar Sharif who, in the sixties, was associated with the Black Panthers (I still have his signed CD). We entered the relic-strewn Mojave Desert through Reno after the sun set, raced its rise into Vegas, and tried without success to sleep in the oxygen-saturated air of the Luxor casino toilets. In LA we hunted for Tom Waits haunts and venerated Charles Bukowski's grave. Then we sped non-stop along the Oregon coast to get back for a gig we were booked to play in Vancouver.

It was my first real road trip. In six days we covered 6,000 kilometres, driving in shifts, and slept a total 18 hours. I was hallucinating at the wheel from lack of sleep, and now that I think about it, I'm not sure that he had a licence.

What do you dislike most about your appearance?

Male pattern baldness. I have only one recurring dream: that I never actually cut the elbow-length hair of my youth.

What or who is the greatest love of your life?

This is close to the bone, so I will answer "what": writing.

And with that answer, I fail my audience completely.

When and where were you happiest?

In the arms of she previously not answered.

Second place is maybe picnicking on green grass under a blue sky on a warm yellow day in springtime Lucerne, evoking memories of childhood. Or that's third, I suppose; the childhood memories themselves must be second.

What talent would you most like to have?

Stubborn perseverance.

What is your current state of mind?

Tipsy, aiming for drunk.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

All my life I have made steady efforts to isolate and destroy my dissatisfactions with myself. To change things. In my twenties it was emotional dependence on others. In my thirties, to re-orient my life to a track from which I felt I'd become derailed. Currently it's my lifelong struggle with procrastination. I don't know that I ever truly succeeded at any of it, but I think, paradoxically, that such an outlook is both a healthy way to grow in one's life—in the vein of Socrates' aphorism, "Be as you wish to seem"—and an anxiety-inducing recipe for unhappiness.

There really is only one correct answer to this question: accept yourself. I defer all further comment to the Dalai Lama.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

The question is cruelly presumptuous.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Poverty, schizophrenia and genocide are beyond my personal experience, so I'll go with love, rejection and depression.

What is your favorite occupation?

Travelling alone and self-sufficient to unseen places with everything I own in a backpack, and writing about it. And having readers read it. Thank you.

What is your most marked characteristic?

Compassion. No, hubris.

What do you most value in your friends?

When I am down, broken, broke and desperate, homeless, hungry and lost, I have friends who would take me in, and have. This is the greatest measure of friendship.

Who are your favourite writers?

Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Bill Bryson.

Who is your favourite hero of fiction?

Augusto Perez, from Miguel de Unamuno's Niebla

Who are your heroes in real life?

Vasili Arkhipov, Daniel Ellsberg, Gillian Triggs.

What is it that you most dislike?

Noise. I'm really sensitive to loud distant voices, megaphones and leaf blowers.

And computers that don't do what I tell them to. I broke my hand punching a computer once.

How would you like to die?


What is your motto?

"To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom." — Bertrand Russell