A Small Corner of Coffee Heaven

Mesón del Café
Location: Carrer de Libretería
Crutch compatibility: 4/5 stars (the liberal sprinkling of sawdust on the ceramic floor provides ample traction for the crutch-enabled coffee enthusiast)
Beans on the Menu:
To quote: “‘Top Secret’ South American Mezcla”
Caffeine delivery method: Cortado, (glass of Catalan Mescaro, no ice), cafe con leche
Hit to the wallet:
€9 (and worth every eurozone bean)
Music playing: Radio Catalunya

Steadfastly resisting the contagion of brash souvenir shops that appear to be advancing from both sides, the Mesón del Café (Coffee Inn) evidently has its roots planted firmly in Catalan soil; and isn’t budging. Walk a few yards from the grandiose Plaça Sant Jaume down Libretería and it’s easy to miss this little gem. Patience and a keen eye do however pay off and you will find, nestled amongst the plethora of cheap ‘I ♥ BCN’ trinkets imported from China, a coffee house of the highest order.

Established in 1909, this unpretentious – almost rustic – establishment has been quietly picking up awards throughout the years. Correction. Decades. And for good reason. Aside from the tasty selection of pastries and churros on display, coffee is the real star attraction here.

It’s a lively little place. The chain smoking owners take turns between feeding their nicotine addiction and serving the brisk turnover of caffeine depleted customers. The clientele is as diverse as the conversations are animated. From starry-eyed lovers to fatigued day trippers; families spanning the generations to old friends confiding with each other in hushed tones; punctuated only by solo ‘sixty-seconders’ in search of instant fortification (because it takes that time to order, polish off a cortado, pay and leave). There are some real characters too. One eccentric regular, whom I presume lives above the Coffee Inn, occasionally pops in to converse with the customers and to introduce his petite two year-old mongrel dog affectionately called ‘Mimi the Terrorist’ to anyone who takes an interest.

Perched at the end of the narrow wooden bar that runs the three-quarter length of this cosy establishment, I decide to divert my body’s innate need to take a mid-afternoon siesta and order a cortado (from the Spanish ‘cortar’ or ‘tallat’ in Catalan). A popular pick-me-up in Spain, Portugal, Cuba and Latin America, a cortado is essentially an espresso ‘cut’ with a ratio of 1:1 steamed milk and a dash of foam to gently round off the edges of its intense, flavourful kick. It judiciously arrives served in a glass accompanied by not one, but two bowls of sugar.

The mid-height wall panels made from old hessian coffee sacks from the Merconta plantation in Brazil are just an understated nod to the provenance of the beans and their long journey to reach this exceptional cafeteria. Above, are faded black and white photographs of fresh-faced baristas of years gone by. A fascinating array of framed artefacts also adorn the wood-panelled walls and speak of the many magical moments that can only begin to describe this coffee house’s prestigious history.

On recommendation from the unflappable, but attentive owner, the next course was a superbly balanced 28 year-old Catalan brandy to soften the arresting volcanic blow of the cortado. Wishing to savour the moment a while longer, I finish up with an unhurried cafe con leche.

Rumour has it that the ‘house’ Picardía (a mix of espresso, condensed milk and whiskey) is also without parallel. But I had had my fill, content in the knowledge that I had found a small corner of coffee heaven right in the heart of Barcelona’s Ciutat Vella.

And if anyone is still in need of convincing of the Mesón del Café’s grounded charm, look no further than the corner window above the entrance. There you will find pictured a coffee jar overflowing with a steaming fresh brew of coffee. Look a little closer, and carefully painted on the vessel is the faint outline of one of Kaldi’s very own legendary Ethiopian ‘dancing goats’. Need I say any more?

Bean on a Crutch rating: 5/5 stars

A Field Guide to Coffee Bars in Barcelona

Nursing a chronically sprained ankle whilst periodically pounding the streets of Barcelona on a pair of standard-issue crutches does have has its own advantages. Although not an exhaustive list, here are just some of the reasons why:
  • The polite (but not forgotten) tradition of having doors opened for you at the threshold of establishments is revived with gusto
  • You get your own personal ‘shopping assistant’ who will offer to carry your basket for you in supermarkets (most of the time)
  • Your faith in the spirit of human solidarity is restored… between other people on crutches
  • Motorists slow down – or even stop – as you cross the street
  • You have a perfect excuse to temporarily slow the tempo of life down, elevate the feet with a strategically-placed bag of frozen peas, and rest up with a good book
All well and good you might think? Here is the downside:
  • Stairs become your enemy. (In a city where the sheer density of living means the only direction is to build up – or down – there are battalions of them. Ninety-three from flat to street level to be exact)
  • Uneven or wet surfaces become a minefield of potentially backside-numbing proportions
  • Repeated obstruction caused to more able-bodied pedestrians merely compounds the urge to hobble around with a large sign that reads ‘El inválido que acerca: Ceda por favor’ (Invalid approaching: Please give way) emblazoned across my chest
  • Refer back to point one
In all seriousness, my respect and admiration for disabled people who face the challenge of negotiating an urban world designed for the able-bodied on a daily basis has shot up beyond recognition over the last few weeks. I dread to think what living in Barcelona confined to a wheelchair is like and have no intention of finding out. Now, balancing up this veritable smorgasbord of pros and cons, I have – with the encouragement of former resident of Barcelona and fellow coffee enthusiast Anita Westmoorland – decided to emerge from this enforced period of convalescence and fight the good fight of the crutch-assisted quadruped. And whilst the torn tendons in my ankle perform their miraculous physiological feat of repairing themselves back to full pedaling capacity, I have resolved to take on some of the the best (and quirkiest) Tapas bars that BCN has to offer; and drink coffee. So for your delectation, here is the first installment of: A Field Guide to Coffee Bars in Barcelona (on crutches) Bar El Paraigua Location: Plaça de San Miguel Crutch compatibility: 2/5 stars (put aesthetics to one side and the immaculately polished chequered marble floor makes the crutch-enabled dash to the baño a sure-footed feat for the brave) Beans on the Menu: Saimaza Colombian High Roast Caffeine delivery method: Cortado Hit to the wallet: €1,65 Music playing: Motown Website: www.elparaigua.com Put the steep ‘tourist tax’ to one side and this charming Cafeteria-Tapas-Cockteleria-Whisqueria bar is, as the description suggests, more than your average coffee house. Standing on the site of one of the oldest convents in El Barrio Gótico, it opened its doors in 1968 to the good people of Barcelona after a hugely ambitious renovation. In every respect, its beautifully carved wooden interior is a truly authentic homage to the spirit of the early twentieth-century Art Nouveau movement. Every light fitting, marble tile, wall fixture, including the splendid antiquated cash register (dating back to 1898) which sits in pride of place on the mahogany bar, was pretty much cannibalised from a turn of the century umbrella and fan shop down the road, relocated and lovingly refitted, with stunning effect. Setting the walls with floor to ceiling smoke-tinted mirrors is a stroke of pure genius, elegantly achieving the desired optical illusion of space and openness to mask the bar’s diminutive size. For me, the evocation of this era would have been almost complete if were not for the newly introduced nationwide smoking ban. Call me nostalgic bit some places just have to be fully appreciated through the atmospheric filter of a soft, Gauloise-infused haze; and this certainly has to be one of them. The pricey Cortado was good too, if a little on the milky side. Yet it comes as no surprise that in an establishment like this, it’s not the coffee that you pay for. Now, please pass the Gauloises… Bean on a Crutch rating: 3/5 stars

Caffeine on the Brain

It is estimated that more than two billion cups of coffee worldwide are drank everyday. Add the delightfully restorative drink ‘tea’ into the equation and no other mood-altering stimulant is consumed on such a potentially global jitter-inducing scale. So, what exactly is caffeine? Firstly, caffeine comes from an organic family of nitrogenous compounds called xanthine alkaloids that, when consumed, give rise to marked physiological – and psychoactive – effects on the human body. Other sources known to contain this powerful compound include the Gurana berry, Cocao bean, Kola nut, Yaupon Holly tree, and South American Yerba mate, amongst many others (so far, up to 60 plants are known to contain the compound caffeine). But for the purposes of this post, I trust that you will forgive me if we stick to coffee.
The 'Father' of Caffeine? Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge
In 1820, caffeine was first isolated from coffee by the German chemist Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge, apparently at the behest of Johan Wolfgang von Goethe. The following year, the French chemist Pierre Joseph Pelletier, coined the word ‘cafeine’ after the French derivation for the word coffee; café. However, it was not until the end of the 19th century that its complete chemical structure was discovered by Hermann Ermil Fischer, who was the first person to achieve its total synthesis. Fishcher was later awarded the Nobel Prize in 1902 for his work in this field of organic chemistry.
Pure Caffeine Powder
Caffeine, or to use its laboratory name – 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine – manifests itself in its purist from as a white crystalline solid. Yet to the human brain, it is one of the most effective ‘cuckoo’ compounds in the chemical world. Here’s why… Throughout the day, the neurotransmitter adenosine is naturally created in the brain and builds up to a level that eventually helps to bring about the onset of that deep, regenerative state we know as sleep. It binds to the receptors resulting in a feeling of drowsiness by slowing down nerve cell activity whilst the blood cells dilate to allow more oxygen to the brain.
Caffeine: The primary antagonist of adenosine receptors in the brain
Now, as far as your average nerve cell is concerned, caffeine, with its chemical structure – C8H10N4O2 – looks suspiciously like adenosine – C10H13N5O4 – thereby allowing this chemical ‘master of disguise’ to bind to the adenosine receptors. But the psychoactive result is the exact opposite. Instead of inducing a feeling of drowsiness, the chemical composition of caffeine encourages the nerve impulses to speed up. This build up of chemical mimicry prevents the real adenosine from binding to its own receptors. Consequently, the brain is kick-started into a state of arousal and becomes more alert. The stimulating effects of caffeine on the central nervous system also dramatically increases the amount of the ‘happy’ neurotransmitter dopamine to be produced. These heightened levels are coupled with feelings of well-being and improved mood. It is in fact the psychoactive effect of dopamine that makes caffeine so addictive. Now things start to get really interesting. As the brain experiences a speeding up of nerve cell activity caused by the neuro-pathways firing on all cylinders, the body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode. It is at this juncture that the pituitary gland steps into the proceedings, and sensing an emergency, sends a signal to the adrenal glands to produce more of the hormone epinephrine, also known as adrenaline. We all know what happens next. With the body now in a state of heightened alert, the all-too-familiar symptoms of increased heart rate; raised blood pressure; sweaty palms; a ‘spike’ in levels of blood sugar produced by the liver to provide extra energy; dilated pupils; suppressed appetite; and a tensing of the muscles; are just some of the side-effects of this biological ‘code red’. Once the perceived ’emergency’ is over, the body’s adrenaline and dopamine levels start to return back to normal, coupled with a slowing of nerve cell activity as the adenosine begins to bind to the receptors once again. It takes approximately ten hours for caffeine to fully leave the system.
Caffeinated Spiderweb
Like anything consumed in excess, too much caffeine can prove fatal. Just 10g is considered a lethal dose. Fortunately, an average espresso contains a mere 100-150mg so seriously herculean quantities of the stuff would have to be consumed in a single sitting to bring on death. This cannot be said of spiders… In the final analysis, we all have to make our own personal judgement about the pros and cons of caffeine consumption, once in full possession of the facts. But before you reach for the decaf (which still contains caffeine – just a reduced amount), stop and spare a moment to consider this mysterious but potent ‘cuckoo’ of the chemical world, and its powerful effects. For good or for bad, it is without equivocation that caffeine on the brain changes the body’s chemistry. In more ways than one.

The Science (and Art) of Roasting Coffee

It is said that coffee roasting is ‘part science, part art, and part magic.’ This indeed is true. In fact, the science involved in the process of roasting coffee beans is nothing short of astonishing. Witnessing the process for the very first time, this is my personal account of what happens. Now, I do have a confession to make. In no way do I claim to be knowledgeable or experienced in this fascinating field (far from it) but the following description is a humble attempt to record my observations and what I have learned so far. So here goes… “It takes 400 man hours for every pound of unroasted beans to reach this point. Now is not the time to get it wrong”, said artisan roaster, Ian, as he excitedly fires up the trusty 14lb (in old money) capacity Uno. With a ‘pop’ and a ‘whoosh’, the blue flame from its DNA-like helical gas burner breathes into life. Allowing time for the post-war roasting machine to warm up, he methodically inspects the six kilo batch of hard, tasteless Ethiopian Yirgacheffe (produced in the lush, deep soils of the high-rolling mountains of the Sidamo region, southern Ethiopia) for any ‘offenders’ that do not make the grade and could potentially spoil the entire process. To the nose, the beans give off a delicate profusion of freshly mown hay or the smell of the earth just when the first raindrops fall on the dry, sun-kissed ground in summer. Only when the roaster is completely satisfied with the overall consistency in quality and size, does the Uno’s vintage belt-driven motor hum into action. The beans are then carefully poured into its horizontal-axis chamber. To a soft percussive rhythm, the lightly green and blue-hued beans become a blur as they brush the insides of the rotating drum. As each second passes, the unhurried alchemy of extracting the delightful flavour from the coffee gradually reveals itself. In a seeming state of perpetual free fall, the – as yet – unroasted beans begin to absorb the heat from the Uno’s centrifugal fire. Five-or-so expectant minutes pass. Nothing much of note happens to the untrained eye during this preliminary ‘drying off’ phase. And then, the first wisp of a feint smoky aroma, like the smell of toast, begins to emanate; a sensory prologue to the action that is to follow. At this point the core temperature inside the coffee bean has broken through the threshold of 150-160 degrees centigrade, and is steadily climbing. At the molecular level, this magical moment is coupled with an explosion of cellular activity as the bean’s very chemical composition starts to dramatically change in a series of volatile runaway reactions. In physical terms, this metamorphosis is the transition from an endothermic (to take in heat energy) state to becoming exothermic (to give out heat energy). It is shortly after this stage when the first ‘crack’ – not dissimilar to the sound of the popping or splitting of popcorn – of the coffee bean occurs and the effects of the increased energy inside the bean becomes visible. By now, they are starting to release their hidden aromatic oils that have been conspicuously concealed so well since their early days of infancy as an unripened green berry on the bush. In the following minutes, the temperature rises further to approximately 220 degrees. The pressure increases too; creating the optimum conditions for the necessary exogenous chemical reactions to take place. Cascading inside the Uno’s spinning drum, the beans take on a yellow-orange colour as they start to give up their locked-in moisture. Water vapour and carbon dioxide is released in extraordinary quantities through the ‘fissure’ which  runs through the centre line of the bean. This leads to a rapid expansion in volume (up to twice the bean’s original size), accompanied by a marked loss in weight and density. In the parlance of the chemistry class, it is known as the Maillard Reaction. From a personal perspective, it is as though the beans are bursting back into life after a suspended period of deep hibernation. The temperature still rising, further complex chemical reactions occur between the amino acids, carbohydrate and sucrose compounds (more than 800 hundred have been identified so far). By now, the beans have turned to a light brown colour signaling the ‘carimalisation’ of the natural oils and sugars that give the coffee bean its distinctive colour and rich flavour. The skill – or ‘art’ to be more exact – of the speciality roaster is the intuitive use of his or her senses. Without a temperature gauge or timer in sight, the roaster falls into a spell of intense concentration as the final critical moments approach. Like a Michelin-starred chef or master wine blender, he is using all his senses to bring out and enhance the best characteristics that the Yirgacheffe has to offer. Meanwhile, the beans take on a dark chestnut colour as the premises of J. Atkinson & Co. fill with their delicious, almost floral, nutty aroma. Asked if he is ever afraid of the beans catching fire, Ian enigmatically responds, “every roaster is christened with his first fire at some stage, I decided to get mine in early”. It only takes a mesmerising 12 minutes from start to finish. With a final flourish of the roaster’s hand to bring the Uno’s rhythmic mechanical overture to a close; the drum comes to a stop, the helix flame is extinguished and the roasted Ethiopian Yirgacheffe beans spill out into the perforated cooling tray below. Lightly coated with their natural coffee-flavoured oils, they glisten in the low mid-afternoon sun, as they are patiently stirred to bring their temperature back down to an ambient level.
Stages of Roast
Depending on the specific roast desired (low, medium, high; full roast, double roast), the bean can go through a further two or three ‘cracks’ until the roaster decides to terminate the process. Done with expert split-second timing, this is to ensure that the balance of flavour, complexity of taste and acidity levels all add up to the holy grail of the experienced Roastmaster: Perfection. Coffee roasting is a centuries-old craft. In today’s age of impressive scientific discovery, we still do not fully understand the massive thermodynamic changes that roasting brings about inside the bean. One thing is for sure however, I now understand why its is affectionately referred to as an ‘art’. And what about the ‘magic’ I hear you ask? Well, all I can say is that you only have to taste the sublime Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffee for yourself to discover the answer.

A Cup Above the Rest

In many respects, this journey did not start in London. It began in Lancaster. And where better than to embark on a coffee-inspired bike ride to Ethiopia other than the historic premises of master tea blenders and coffee roasters, J. Atkinson & Co.? Established in 1837 as the Grasshopper Tea Warehouse, J. Atkinson & Co. has traded from its China Street premises since 1901 and is undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of the city’s illustrious heritage. Walk into the welcoming premises of this family-run business and the first thing that greets you is the warm, enticing aroma of the artisan roasted coffee bean. Pause for a moment, and the delicate fragrance of expertly blended tea complements the sensory experience. Inside, every aspect has been lovingly restored back to its former glory. In one corner stands the ‘Uno’, the stalwart coffee roasting machine which dates back to 1945 and continues to fill the street outside with its delicious aroma – as it has done for generations. The mouth-watering menu of more 80 different varieties of coffee and blends spanning the globe, each with a unique provinence of their own, are all carefully ground to your own requirements; if that is what you prefer. Similarly, bell jars of blended tea from the subtle to the exotic adorn the shelves; just waiting to release their heavenly infusion. It is clear to see that trade is brisk but the pace behind the old vintage counter is measured, almost reverential, in respect of a special kind of alchemy that takes place on these premises daily. Prior to being waved off by artisan roaster, Ian, on a bitingly cold December afternoon with my gift of unroasted Ethiopian Yirgacheffe beans concealed in the bike frame, I was privileged to be given the opportunity to familiarise myself with the time-honoured art of the Roaster and Barista. A debt of gratitude is owed to proprietors Ian and Sue Steel for their generosity of knowledge and who effortlessly accommodated my endless questions on that busy, but special day. A further highlight was the chance to spend some time with Barista-par-excellence, Caspar, who has taken out a Gap Year to run the contemporary Music Room Cafe. Like an expert craftsman or artist who’s smooth and precise movements belie years’ of training, creativity and dedication, he introduced me to the sublime profession of Latte Art. Respect. A truly inspiring, humbling and unforgettable experience. In an age of rampant globalisation, outstanding establishments like J.Atkinson & Co. – who play their play their part in the wider global community by ethically sourcing the very highest quality of tea and coffee – are hard to come by. In a word? Passion.

The Dark Side of Barcelona (parte dos)

I wonder what Don Quixote would have made of Barcelona in 21st century Catalunya. Would he have tilted at wind turbines? Or jousted with Gaudi’s larger-than-life lizards? Maybe, the Man from La Mancha, and his faithful sidekick Sancho Panza, would have shored up the city’s defenses with a two-man bulwark in an effort to repel the chaotic crowds that surge up Las Ramblas, believing them to be the advancing enemy? And, as for a ‘plague’ of thieves and villains, what would have the knight errant resorted to in his chivalrous bid to rid the world of evil-doers and scoundrels? All said and done, only the late – and great – Miguel de Cervantes would know the definitive literary answer to this purely hypothetical question. Now back to the real world. Once the traders have closed their graffiti-art front shutters and the lively bars and nightclubs open up for another night of revelry in El Gótica, there lurks an unsavory element which, as sure as night follows day, soon emerges from the shadows. It was the eve of departure before taking the ferry to Genoa, Italy. Our panniers packed and ready for the off, my friend and I decided to go for a quiet drink to celebrate our last night in Barcelona and toast our impending adventure on two-wheels. We excitedly talked about our anticipation of new horizons; the unadulterated freedom of being self sufficient with only the wind in your hair and the open road ahead. You could say that were were in high spirits. Until we met the ‘shadows’ in a certain jazz bar that dare not speak its name. A whiskey for the road was the last lucid memory that either of us share. The ensuing 24 hours followed like a bad dream that you want to wake up from but can’t because the dream is real – only too real. I won’t go into details here as there isn’t much to report, only a handful of vivid flashbacks that replay like a looped Super-8mm cine film. You guessed it dear reader, we had our drinks spiked. Struggling to piece together the fragmented memories of the previous night, I spent the next day in hospital with a severely swollen and bruised ankle.
X-Ray courtesy of Hospital del Mar
Sporting a foot that looked more like a specimen out of a medical encyclopedia under the chapter ‘Elephantiasis’ is one thing, summing up the financial cost of a mugging just adds insult to injury. Fortunately, no broken bones or fractures were sustained and the reality of an enforced stay in Barcelona nursing a sprained ankle soon began to dawn. That said, this rich tapestry of life has a funny way of throwing cold water in your face just when you drop your guard. A wake up call if you will. So for now, I’m making virtue out of necessity in that it’s life in the slow lane until I can ditch the crutches and get back onto the saddle for the next leg (excuse the pun) of the journey. It is often said that there is ‘honour among thieves.’ I disagree. Even the most professional criminal would sell his/her sidekick without hesitation if the price were right. Disclaimer: There is no suggestion that the events described in this post are in any way exclusive to this great city. It could happen anywhere, in any place, at any time. It’s just that I happened to become another statistic, and it happened to be in BCN. Speaking of statistics, Barcelona does however enjoy the dubious honour of being top of the list of petty crime capitals worldwide. Whilst muggings are sadly on the rise, it has even been said that if pickpocketing was an Olympic sport, Barcelona would take the gold medal. Hands down.

The Sunny Side of Barcelona (parte uno)

Flag of Catalunya
A Catalan new year was heralded in with a noisy fiesta of fireworks, lighting up the clear starlit night sky over Barcelona. Five floors up in the heart of El Gótico, the panoramic views from the bijou ‘atico’ flat of good friend (and Warmshowers host), Richie Thomas, conjure up a world-gone-by-vista punctuated with richly decorated mosaic church spires and rambling apartment terraces stretching as far as the eye can see. In the distance is the table-top hill of Montjuic overlooking the harbor. This unassuming terrace affords one of the best views of the Neo-Classical spires of the Correos (Post Office) in one direction and the venerated 18th century baroque Basilica de Mercè in the other. Inside, its interior houses a Gothic carving dedicated to the patron saint of the city, the Virgin of ‘La Mercè’. Legend has it that ‘Our Lady of Mercy’ freed the city from a plague of locusts in 1637. Well, I can tell you for a fact that I haven’t seen any locusts but the area is unfortunately plagued by a certain nocturnal swarm of ‘species’ of a different kind which I will come to later in part two. Cycling the streets of Barcelona in the fresh sun-kissed early-January air on the unladen Sherpa has been an interesting, if slightly nostalgic experience; not too dissimilar to jostling with the cars and pedestrians on the streets of London. Except at a slower pace and, of course, on the right. There is however, a difference. Thousands of Barcelonians conduct their short-trips across the city on what suspiciously look like Royal Mail bikes; sadly now becoming more of rarity in the UK. These pillar box red, three-speed, ‘Bicing’ machines that zip along the well-marked cycle lanes are Barcelona’s answer to the recent introduction of ‘Boris Bikes’ in London and have been a feature of this bustling metropolis years before the current Mayor had even set his sights on City Hall.
A picturesque street in BCN during the hours of Siesta
Go off the streets however and into the pedestrian maze of narrow alleyways of the city’s Barrios such as El Born or El Gótico and Barcelona reveals its true inner charm. Getting lost is half the fun; only to find that there is a high probability you will arrive at the place where you started hours previously. Stopping off for a  strong Café con Leche or an even more intense Cortado for refreshment along the way, the mind-boggling selection of tapas bars, cafes, craft shops, galleries, museums, ornate Basilica’s, pleasant open squares and colourfull street life make it hard not to fall in love with this intoxicating, yet beguiling city.

Stopover in San Sebastián

Never having straightened a wheel in my life before and reluctant to carry out my first lesson in wheel truing on the roadside, I resign to take the train rather than cycle the 100kms to San Sebastián. This also buys me more time in Bilbao so it’s straight to the Guggenheim… Stunning. The railway follows the exact route that I intend to cycle and it takes me two guilty hours instead of two days. Leaving the bike maintenance for mañana, some serious R&R follows. The next few days are spent refueling on delicious Tapas and pottering around the picturesque narrow alleyways in the Parte Vieja (Old Part). Bliss.
San Sebastián or - Donastia - in the Basque language oozes 'old world' charm
The walk up to the Castillo atop Mount Urgull overlooking the the bay was the perfect setting to stretch my sore legs and catch the evening sunset. But all good things eventually have to come to an end. With the back wheel still out of joint – and I later discover, a broken rear gear shifter – I learn from the officious chap at the ticket counter that I can’t take the Sherpa on the Renfe fast train. This leaves me in a real predicament. Especially, as I was looking forward to celebrating New Year with a good friend in Barcelona the following day. Solution?
  1. Blow a small hole in the budget
  2. Procure an economical, medium-sized family car
  3. Dismantle bike
  4. Load bike and associated accoutrements into the boot
  5. Drive the 600kms across the Spanish Plains in time for siesta
So folks, at the close of 2010 and after only one week on the road, I reluctantly have to conclude that so far it has Bean on a Bike, Boat, Train and erm… a Seat Ibiza. Here’s to a more pedal-powered 2011!

A Boxing Day drop into Bilbao

Under a clear blue sky and with a keen wind behind me, the scene was set for a perfect ride. To one side was the Atlantic Ocean and the other, views of the snow-capped Cantabrian foothills in the distance. For the first time, I could feel the warmth of the winter sun’s rays on my face and felt like I had finally found my rhythm on the bike. The road gently unfolded through quiet villages, pine forests and farmland pastures before hugging the rugged coastline again. Stopping off only for a lunch, the entire day was spent blissfully on the saddle and I was confident of getting to Bilbao in time for Paella; or at least that was the plan. Immersed in the liberating sensation of just moving through the countryside under self-propelled locomotion at a rhythm that feels completely natural, I had neglected to pay much attention to the route. The increasing frequency of – uphill – switchbacks was the first warning sign. My rather impractical large-scale motorist’s Michelin Map of North Spain soon revealed my folly and I had inadvertently taken a road where a snowy ridge of hills presented themselves, standing between between me and my Paella. Having invested energy already into the ascent, I didn’t want to turn back. So committed to the climb, I pushed on. Or up. By the time I had reached the top, the sun had set and I was exhausted, stopping only briefly moment to take in the city lights of Bilbao below. Now, it says in the Thorn brochure that the Schmidt 6v hub-dynamo headlight encourages ‘spirited’ riding at night. They certainly aren’t wrong. In fact, it is so bright that oncoming motorists will dip their headlights, no doubt in some confusion as to the source of the 3 LED high-power single beam. The brilliant Schmidt lighting the way, I felt the adrenalin rush of negotiating the downhill twists and turns into downtown Bilbao, sensing the Sherpa wanting to accelerate. On the way down, I manage to pass a clapped-out old lorry which had been belching out noxious fumes in my face for over a slow mile. In the process of performing this unorthodox overtaking manoeuvre before the next 180 degree switchback, my 26″ Rigida Andra 30 Carbide rims unfortunately took the full force of a well primed wheel-slaying pothole. Net result: Buckled rear wheel. On Day 5. Limping into the outskirts of Bilbao my energy finally runs out. With my paella becoming distinctly less a reality by the second, in possession of an discombobulated rear wheel and the mercury dropping fast, I dive into the nearest budget ‘reasonably priced hotel’. The irony was not lost on me:

A Convento Christmas

It’s December 24th. The atrocious weather continues without let up. Gale-force gusts of wind turn my Ortlieb panniers into sails (and not necessarily in the right direction of travel), making for slow progress. So much so, I only manage to cycle the 40kms of undulating coastline to reach the historic harbour town of Loredo just before nightfall. In the dying light of day, I cycle through the town’s narrow cobbled roads and soon emerge from the north side looking for a good spot to camp; mindful to keep a distance from any more hay bales and curious farmers. The skies open again with yet another downpour. As I reach a fork in the road, I take the lane which passes a small collection of run-down dilapidated farmhouses. A weathered-looking man in his forties followed by an old Labrador emerges from one of the dwellings. Wearing a faded blue poncho and a dustbin liner for extra protection, he shouts something over the pitch of the wind and walks briskly towards me. ‘¿A dónde vas’, he asks in a low, gruff tone. ‘¿Por dónde se va a camping,’ I reply wishfully. He shakes his head in disbelief. The wind picks up again and breaks the momentary standoff. ‘Follow me,’ he responds, making the sign of the cross on his chest. The prospect of weathering out the storm under the canvas for another night did not hold much appeal, and with no better options, I turn the Sherpa around and we walk the five minutes downhill into town. He introduces himself as John, a Basque mariner from Bilbao, and tells me proudly how his Republican grandfather fought the fascists in Spain, and later in Normandy, France. Reaching a large aged-wooden door, he knocks assertively. A brief exchange then ensues between the mariner and the surprised-looking Sister who answers. The word ‘chico’ is mentioned a few times. This obviously does the trick and she invites me into the Church. (I wonder if I would have been granted admittance if I was introduced as ‘hombre?)’ John wishes me a ¡Feliz Navidad! and disappears back into the driving downpour. Relieved not to be spending another night under the canvas and humbled by a serendipitous encounter with a kind stranger who finds me shelter in my hour of need, I hang out the contents of my panniers to dry and fall into a deep sleep. And there you have it. A non-believer, taking refuge in a Nun’s Convent; on Christmas Eve.
Convento de San Fancisco