Across Iberia by Slow Train

All photos by Matthew Asprey

While prowling the globe for artist-friendly cities, your correspondent finds himself the only vegan at a Madrid bullfight, hunting for Stolchlickoff vodka in the streets of Barcelona, and getting fleeced in Paris.

The Daily Pain

This is probably a good point in my travel narrative to mention the occasional challenges of my diet. In Madrid an American college student at my hostel was thrilled to discover I was a vegetarian.

"Me, too!" she said. "And I'm having such a hard time here. I've eaten nothing but codfish."

"Right. Well, I'm not that kind of vegetarian," I said. "I'm a vegan."

"Oh, wow. Why?"

The old question. Sometimes telling people you're a vegan is as weird as announcing you're a Scientologist.

"Well, it's not necessary for me to eat meat and dairy and eggs. So I don't."

"How long have you done that?"

"Ten years."

She looked at me skeptically. "Seriously, what do you eat?"

Well, I had been all around the world and had always managed to eat vegan. This time in Madrid, for instance, where it's hard to find any traditional dish that does not contain ham, I ate at some of the numerous mediocre Indian restaurants south of our hostel near the Tirso de Molina. I ate good felafels and udon noodle soup and excellent Thai green curry off the Paseo del Prado. There are sometimes moments of frustration while travelling as a vegan, but I've rarely been deprived of nutrition or enjoyment of my food.

Clare and I were rolling through Spain and France, surveying big cities whose bohemian glory days were far in the mythical past. It was not the first time I'd been to Madrid, Barcelona, or Paris. I loved each of them for their energy and cosmopolitan conflux. They were by no means cheap cities -- living in any of the three was probably comparable to living in Sydney -- but it was nice to pass through, catch up with old friends and places, and be able to find a veggie burger when the mood struck.

That week the streets of Madrid were awash with early spring rain. Our fellow backpackers -- never cohering into anything like a crew worthy of a name -- were American college kids on a weekend break from their less-than-demanding studies in the Netherlands. Sitting on the floor of the hostel dorm with cheap bottles of supermarket wine, they told us of their weekly city hopping around Europe. Their itineraries were entirely determined by the cheap deals offered by budget airlines. One weekend it was Prague, the next Istanbul, the next Madrid. It was a whirlwind.

"What do you think we should do in this city?" a creative writing student asked.

"Go to the Prado," I said.

"What's the Prado?"

"The best art museum in Madrid," I said. "Maybe in all of Europe."

"Oh, right. Actually we really want to find good paella."

Me? As usual, I was on the prowl for good jazz. At midnight one Saturday I walked to the Calle de las Huertas. Café Populart, like seemingly every bar and restaurant in Madrid's centre, was packed with people. I had to wait five minutes to get inside. A queue to get into a jazz club? That was surely a good sign.

Once inside I discovered that the latin band's groove was going nowhere and the beer was five euros a glass. I walked further down Huertas to another run of jook joints near the fine Comida Vegetariana buffet. The DJ at the Cotton Club was spinning dance music to an empty room. There was no music at the Trocha Bar. But at La Fidula, beyond the bar with its tikis and 100 dusty bottles of grappa and scotch and vermouth, there was a dark room hosting a trio called Vandara. The band consisted of a long-bearded and turbaned drummer-percussionist-singer, a fiddle player, and an acoustic guitarist. The music synthesized Indian and Moroccan music with jazz: tabla and Arabic scales and 'When The Saints Go Marching In'. It thumped along. The audience demanded two encores.

Our hostel lacked secure lockers and clean sheets, so Clare and I moved to a hotel north of Callao Square. Apart from the aggressive street prostitutes ("spss! spss!") the nearby strip of the Gran Vía is not quite the grungy wild area I remember. I'm convinced the final triumph of gentrification in any neighbourhood is the arrival of a Le Pain Quotidien, a franchise whose name I like to mistranslate as 'The Daily Pain'. For some reason inner-city Dolce & Gabbana-clad yuppies like to eat in a simulacrum of a rustic French kitchen. Let's pretend we're on a farm! Rusty bread making equipment is nailed to the wall. You get small portions of expensive food served on breadboards. Still, it's one of the few places in Madrid that offers soy milk lattes, albeit in a soup bowl.

Unsurprisingly, there's a Le Pain Quotidien near our former and now completely unaffordable digs in the expensive Inner West of Sydney. Back home, according to a 28 March article in The Sydney Morning Herald, Fringe Prices Out of Reach, by Simon Johanson, "even the last bastion of cheap housing -- new suburbs on city fringes -- [is] moving beyond the reach of most first home buyers."

Hence our global prowl.

The Vegan at the Bullfight

Back in 2008 I'd been accosted by a bearded guy in the Plaça de Sant Jaume in Barcelona. I was handed a petition to ban bullfighting.

"Will you sign?"

"Of course, I agree with you," I said. "I'm a vegan. But I'm also a tourist. Isn't this something for the Spanish to decide for themselves?"

He straightened up. "Fuck the Spanish, hombre, I'm Catalan!"

I signed the petition. Loaded with 180,000 signatures, it went to the Parliament of Catalonia and in 2010 bullfighting was banned throughout the autonomous region.

So why, three years later, was I lining up outside the Las Ventas bullring in Madrid? You may be surprised a committed vegan would attend a bullfight rather than protest outside the plaza des toros in the nude. Of course I was against the sport. Indeed, practically everybody I spoke to -- meat-eaters included -- was horrified by bullfighting and opposed to it on moral grounds. My defence is that I prefer to deepen my understanding of animal rights through observation and experience, even if this meant paying €14.80 for a ticket.

The bullfight at Las Ventas was a novillada, which means it was fought by apprentice matadors (novelliros). The bulls are not necessarily as old or large as the ones fought by full matadors. But in structure and every other factor it was identical to a normal corrida de toros. Three cuadrillas fought two bulls each in alternation. A cuadrilla consists of a torero (or matador), two picadors, and three banderilleros plus a mozo de espadas (in charge of the swords). The novilleros that day were Sergio Blanco, Gómez Del Pilar, and Adrián de Torres.

It was a sunny but cold spring afternoon. I went inside the plaza de toros and hired a cushion from a stall. Inside the ring attendants were smoothing down the sand and making concentric white circles with paint (the sections from inside out are called medios, tercios, and tablas). My seat was under the sun just three or four rows back from the ringside. A seat is really just a small marked section of a curving narrow concrete wall. The cushion was a good idea. The distance between the rows is small; a tallish American woman behind me was doing her best not to poke me in the back with her knees. She was from Philadelphia. I asked her why she had decided to come to the bullfight.

"Oh, I read The Sun Also Rises a few years ago..."

To be fair, tourists seemed to make up a small part of the crowd. Most of the spectators were Spaniards. The male-female ratio was roughly even. Many young women had turned up, and also children. The attendance at this early season novillada was low. Maybe a fifth of the seats were occupied.

By the time the bullfight started the sun was dropping just below the edge of the roof. My feet grew cold in my boots. There was a paseo of all the participants to commence the proceedings, a salute to whoever was presiding in the presidente's box. The bullfight is a strange phenomenon because in nearly every respect the sport -- or whatever it should be called -- does not seem to have changed much in hundreds of years.

The one non-traditional element is that the picadors' horses are now dressed in a protective mat (a peto) that prevents their disembowelment when the bulls charge. It's been that way since about 1928. The matador's gold sequinned traje de luces is a traditional 18th century costume. I was wondering whether there would be deafening pop music on the sound system as at an Australian rugby league match. Instead there were two traditional brass bands in the stands. I recognised the traditional fanfare. Hugo Friedhofer had used it in his main title music to One Eyed Jacks (1961).

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