I was excited to attend a wedding in rural Spain, a classmate who shifted there when we were in middle school and… I found myself on a bus out of Madrid traveling North to Santiago de Compostela. Swallowing a bus-sickness pill was a mistake because I saw the green countryside in a haze of meds. And the roads are not what we get back home. The ride was smooth and the bus, contrary to popular opinion wasn’t the kind who allowed goats and chickens on board.
“Rural Spain has much to offer,” said one of the nuns (a party of ten) as she handed me a cheese sandwich in exchange of an apple. I stop myself from making a ‘forbidden fruit’ reference (the nun has a knife and she made me a sandwich) and bite into the cheese. It’s local - called Tetilla and is shaped like an erm… Breast - creamy and delicious. But the fresh mountain air at the bus stop made that simple sandwich mind-blowing. The cheese has a church on the label, which the nun explains is where they are going. Spain has many pilgrimages and you will come across the most unusual crosses carved out of stone in this part of the world.
This is Galicia. And if you can leave politics aside, you are as far away from cities like Madrid or Barcelona as you can imagine. We are close to Portugal and the coast is spectacular. What Norway calls Fiords Spain calls Rias Bajas. The weather was perfect, and the nuns gasped at the bus driving like it were a burro… Needless to say, meeting my childhood friend at the end of that bus journey had every kind of masala that Karan Johar’s movies can dish up.
Santiago de Compostela has a cathedral which dominates the city. It is one of the holiest of sites and quite awe inspiring with those Roman arches and sculptures. I was moved by the Pilgrim mass that happens at noon every day and was happy to step out and wait. Pilgrims walk all the way to the church and it felt unfair that I should take one of the seats. It was going through extensive renovations (lots of water seepage and the stone carvings were worn) but am sure, it will be restored to its ancient glory.
The Spanish mass is rather sonorous and uplifting, even if I did not understand a word of it. But stepping inside again, I found the statue of Queen Esther, whose generous breasts had been filed down by order of the bishop of that time. I grinned when the guide (my friend’s to be son-in-law’s sister’s husband’s brother… Yes, the Spanish have as complicated relatives as we can muster up), told me that the city had its revenge by naming the cheese after Esther’s breasts: Tetilla. With such information now firmly in my head, we celebrated with, what else? Wine and cheese.
If you are this far North, you cannot but miss the gigantic Tower Of Hercules. I told my guide to tell us the story of how it came to be erected on top of the mountain after we climbed those 232/4 steps. I huffed and puffed but made my way up. And yes, the Hercules sized gusts of wind blew my hat off the mountain. My guide offered to run after the hat, but my friend assured me someone will deposit it at the lost and found at the bottom if the hill. I didn’t care for the story why a Roman lighthouse was connected to Hercules, but stared at the stone mazes like walls (were villages once) dotting the hillside.
Climbing down was easier. But then it was almost fate that two grown women were going to do the most ridiculous dance when we discovered the plaza at the bottom was called Maria Pita. Of course there was Remo on my ipod singing ‘Maria Pitache’. We were herded away by her daughter and the other sundry relatives who decided that this friend from India was terrible influence and we needed more wine to forget such madness. The wedding feast was magnificent. And they drank cava from a strange glass decanter with a spout. The decanter is held high over your head and tipped. The wine goes straight into your mouth. I knew I would probably end up taking a wine shower instead of glugging it down like those champion party goers, so I just watched fascinated. Thank goodness the South Indian meter coffee guys were not serving coffee like that.
The celebrations were never ending. My friend was weepy. Her daughter was married. Her daughter’s mother in law was weepy too. She had lost her son to a younger woman. I found myself with these two driving to a great aunt, who was supposed to be a local witch. What?!
There was more wine to be had there. The great aunt did not wear a pointy hat. But she set the wine on fire. As the blue flame of Orujo brandy cast out all evil spirits, I felt a shiver go through my body. There was caramelised sugar, a hint of lemon and coffee… They say that the first sip of Queimada banishes evil from your life, the second dispels hate and the third fills your soul with passion.
I’ve been back for a while, and my friend is now a granny. And am happy to report that Queimada works.
Manisha Lakhe is a poet, film critic, traveller, founder of Caferati — an online writer’s forum, hosts Mumbai’s oldest open mic, and teaches advertising, films and communication.