The Thirty Days of Christmas 27

Thomas Mann left for the mountain at the turn of the 20th Century and almost never left. The fever and the mountain nearly kept him there forever. Long enough to write one of the finest pieces of literature ever to reach our hands and eyes. At least mine. Every time I recall his novel, I give a brief pause in life. Speechless.

     Every time I head for the mountains I feel like staying there forever too. That’s what makes them so special. For our final day in the Valley de Lozoya, we decided to climb to the top of the highest peak in the Montes Carpetanos, the range that divides Madrid from Segovia, known as the Nevero. It translates as the “ice box”. If “Carpetanos” has a familiar ring to it, it’s because they sound pretty close to the Carpathians, which happen to stretch across central and eastern Europe. It’s a majestic name for such a minor chain, which actually is part of a larger system called the Guadarrama mountains, which are a section of the Sistema Central, the major range in the center of the country, a bumpy geological scar streaking southwest to northeast, dividing the land in two.

     As I was saying, the Carpetanos weren’t the highest, but compared to what I was familiar with in New England, they more than held their own. El Nevero rises a respectable 7,247 ft. Mount Washington in New Hampshire, the loftiest peak in the United States east of the Mississippi River, falls short by a 1,000ft, and even so it is known for its ferocious winds and extreme weather. So, needless to say, we are talking about an altitude worthy of mention. The mountain can be engaged from the bottom, near the town of Lozoya, but that is an all-day event, and as we were leaving Rascafría around 12:30, that could not be considered a serious option. What you can do is take a car up to a small parking lot just about two hundred yards from the top of the mountain pass road, and finish off the ascent from there on foot. You are at about 1,700m up, but there’s still another 500 to go, which is 1,640ft, or twice the elevation of the highest point in my home state of Connecticut.

     There is a gentle way of reaching the top, a path that softly zigzags around ridges and tongues, and takes to up an open spur towards the summit. It also takes a while and the hiker unfamiliar with the area can easily take the wrong route. Since time was an issue, we opted to clamber up a small firewall which by all standards could be classified as steep as hell. On top of that it was snow-covered, even icy in parts, so while it gives us a sense of adventure, there are plenty who would have considered it foolhardy. Or just plain dumb. But it did get us to our objective in an hour and a half. From below the Nevero appears to be a jagged ridge where every step seems more perilous than the previous one. But once atop you realize that the whole thing actually opens up into a big plain, and with a crunchy and powdery layer of snow blanketing the land around the summit, the effect was that of the Russian taiga. I guess. To the southeast was the Lozoya Valley slipping downwards and then back up like a skatepark.

     We returned to the car and considered returning to Madrid, but, in one of those intimate moments of rebellion against what something in our minds told us what we should be doing, in one of those road movie split-second decisions, we chose to go in the opposite direction. We didn’t veer off the Frost might slowly and patiently do on a horse. We turned left, instead of right, and never looked back. Down on the other side of the mountain, the descent takes you into an entirely different Comunidad (or region), Castilla y León, and an entirely different province, Segovia: land of the slaughtered lambs. In this case, we had our sights set on a small, stone-packed medieval town called Pedraza. It gets its name from “piedra” (stone) which should give you an idea of just how much rock there is. This is what I call one of those holiday and weekend towns, communities which thrive on short bursts of tourism, especially in the summer or on Saturdays when the hungry swarm onto the town and the taverns and restaurants swell with starving carnivores.

    The walled town is charming, that is undeniable. Almost too much snug, as if a committee of Disney theme park designers had passed through. But gratefully, this is pure Castilian architecture, and beneath the fading evening sunlight, the crisp air and sharp clear sky, the allure is that much greater. On that Tuesday afternoon, the kind of day when I like to be in a town like that, life shut down at sundown. Closing car doors clapped incessantly, and engines purred away as the vehicles filed out through the gate, the only true access to the town. The streets for the pedestrians were adorned with a few Christmas lights unevenly distributed throughout the town, which is what gave it much of its charm. Most of the voices heard were speaking foreign languages like German and French. We stopped in a restaurant and had chocolate, the drink, but without churros. That’s more of Madrid thing.

     It didn’t take long to get back to the capital. In fact, we were home and fairly organized, except for that there was basically no food in the fridge, and notion made me tremble. I was really in no mood for getting the kitchen rolling, so we opted for a new hamburger joint on Alcalá Street called Bentley’s. I had never heard of the place until recently, but it had the look and feel and sound of some chain that I had missed out on since coming over to Spain years before. That’s happened a lot. It’s like living firsthand one continuous Lost in Space episode.

     Madrid is a city of food fads. Subs were in for a while, the Turkish kebabs, then Irish pubs, Gastro bars, Cocktail lounges, cafés with “Friends” style furniture, sushi bars, and your old-fashioned burger place. When I first got to Spain there was hardly a place a good Yank go resort to when in need of a juicy paddy. There were only a couple of places where you could get a halfway decent burger. One was Alfonso’s Barbecue, a small joint which served a variety of American dishes, but earned fame for its burgers. Then there was Hollywoods, soon to be a major chain. Now it offers a large array of food, much of which is subpar in my book, but the burgers have always been more than acceptable for an American’s taste. And that has to do with one major factor: they make them with 100% beef. You see, until recently, hamburguesas, as they are called in Spanish, were made of a mixture of ground beef and ground pork. Part of this had to do with making them more economical, but many Spaniards will swear that it’s because they are “juicier”. They may have had a point there, but mainly because of the fact the whole beef burgers were fried so thoroughly the cooks steamed every last bit of water out of them. The mixed version made them hammier than a real hamburger, but it also gave them a flavor that didn’t quite work with me, or anyone who had grown up fed on the real thing. And they had a solid processed texture to them that gave you the quivering sensation that no animal ever went into their making. So unfamiliar were they to the American taste buds that a trip to Burger King was like a return to Mom’s cooking. That should give you a feeling of what we are talking about.

     Over the past ten years, a string of chains featuring a 1950s–diner motif has descended upon city. The waitresses don uniforms characteristic of the time, with that odd mix of plain and sexy, and old-time rock-n-roll fills the air. Then came the gastro burgers and an item known suspiciously as the natural burger, and the restaurants that make the only, truly, real, genuine and authentic burgers in the world. And so on.

     Bentley’s is a recent creation but it is already claiming to be “probably” the best burger in town. I dispute that. It’s very good, that is true, but to say that it stands heads and tails above the rest is questionable. And here is another thing: the interior decorating was clearly the brainchild of either four people with four completely different ideas, or one person with four completely different ideas; but the bottom line is that they tried to fuse them into one. Instead they melded them into a mess. And then turned up the lighting to make this flaw all the more evident. A little more subdued ambience would certainly help.

     One thing is for sure, I was treated to the classic American grill bloated departure after stuffing yourself with beer and beef. You know, the moment you are constantly burping up all that gas before you actually asphyxiate.   Gagging for air.   That was the truest sign of authenticity.   No doubt.   Thomas Mann would have known what I meant.

The Thirty Days of Christmas 24

A surefire way to trim down in times of gluttony is to set out on a lengthy winter’s country walk, and the mountains just north of the capital are just the place to satisfy that urge. Time to gallop up those hills, through those dales, over those streams, across those fields and inside those oak forests. Those beautiful, haunting oak forests. The most famous oak tree in Spain is without a doubt the Holmes oak, known as the encina in Spanish, and its elongated acorns serve as the perfect feed for many an Iberian pig, which some feel is the not-so-secret ingredient to perfect jamón ibérico. But those aren’t that common in the Lozoya Valley, but rather a different kind, many of which are tiny compared to the ones I know back home. They are short and gnarly, twisted and ancient, ideal for a backdrop to some ghost story. Sinisterly seductive.

     It was along these routes that Carla and I took our packs and hiked for several miles. We parked in Lozoya in headed out from there, around the reservoir, by the dam, down towards a tiny canyon crossable by an old stone bridge whose origins go back at least at least as far as the Middle Ages, if not Roman times, but there just isn’t any available documentation on it. Once on the other side, the path, which starts in Rascafría and traverses the valley until a village called El Cuadrón, carries on gently until a side path takes on another trail up towards a town called Canencia. That was our destination.

     The name Canencia is probably more famous for the mountain pass that takes you over a set of hills to a large pretty town called Miraflores, some 40 miles from Madrid. But there is also a town by the same name, a typical sierra village, snug and tucked into the mountain side, but otherwise somewhat unremarkable. For the hungry and thirsty, what makes it stand out above your average ordinary cafetería is a craft beer bar known as El Pajar. It’s a cozy place right next to the river. The owner lives for the brew. His face beams when he talks about hops. I feel for his family.

     The other spot is a classic in town. It’s called Colorines, after a famous race horse, to the extent at which race horses are famous in this country, and people flock to it from far and wide basically because of one dish it serves: suckling billy goat. Roasted goat, prepared in a wood-fired oven.

     There is an amusing travel work by an American expat titled I’m not an alcoholic, I’m just European where the writer Jamie Wakefield gives special attention to the Spanish’s verve for eating babies. Baby animals, that is. And careful observation certainly confirms that assertion. When the weather cools down and the Madrileños are filled with that aching need to get out and stuff their bellies with something hot and greasy, what sends them out into a massive exodus are the scores of options made available to them to choose from as they search for gastronomic asylum. North of the capital, especially in the province of Segovia, widespread infanticide takes place. The city of Segovia itself prides itself in its suckling pig and the rest of the region features suckling lamb. The cuter, the deader. Babe would have never saved the day, and little Bo Beep would have done right by racing to the nearest asador the minute she noticed them missing.

     In Canencia, the slaughtered species of choice was the baby goat. A kid. Slow roasted in an oven that resembles an old pottery kiln. It’s not easy to get any sympathy when I tell foreigners what I order, let alone express how much I like it. That is, until they have tried it themselves; then they see things differently. They feel more rustic and robust. Even a little savage. The Stone Age carnivore lurking within each of us.

     There something thrilling to hike ten kilometers around the countryside, backpack and walking stick included, in order to reach a town and sit down to a large platter of roasted goat which had been ordered days before. It was outstanding. The best thing to accompany such a rich dish? A simple bowl of crisp green lettuce, iceberg does great, seasoned with oil and vinegar and salt. That’s all you need to counteract the greasiness. Then a bottle of red and dessert and coffee.

     Even more thrilling is sliding the backpack on again, putting on your gloves, slipping one hand through the stick strap and hiking back another 10k over the chilly December afternoon. We were alone; and it was peaceful. We made it back to the car just after dark.