Travel: That Summer - Spain 1972 - Flames of passion in the days of Franco

Liz Nash hitched round Spain with a friend fending off unwanted amorous advances
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The Independent Culture
MY POLITICALLY right-on friends warned me off Spain while Franco remained in power. Endorsing Fascism, they said. I was stung, but took no notice. Sue and I landed in Barcelona at dawn, or dusk, I forget, and gasped at the flushed Mediterranean sky. I'd never flown before.

"Everyone is smiling and friendly... My ambition realised," I crowed in my first postcard home. How invincible I felt, with my two T-shirts, cotton skirt sewn from a Laura Ashley offcut, white sandals and contraceptive pills. We toted Army surplus backpacks and sleeping bags, but slept rough only once in five weeks, in a municipal wash-house, shooed away at daybreak by women thrashing their laundry against the granite ridges. I'd saved pounds 60 from a job as a barmaid. Sue, who had a proper job, had pounds 100, which meant she could afford souvenirs.

We had no guidebook, just a map and a pocket dictionary. We knew about Gaud, though, and sought out his extraordinary buildings, covered in grime. We headed to the dim barrio chino (red-light district) for a cheap meal that launched a lifelong love-affair with Spanish cuisine. Pasta soup, lamb chops, tomato salad, blackish wine from the jug, sweet fizzy water, egg flan. It became our staple diet, served wordlessly in inns where the choice was minimal.

We hitched to Huesca and experienced our first fiesta - buckets of wine and peaches, dancing in the street and the fierce sexual directness of boys thirsty for anything from beyond the Pyrenees, who quizzed us about Jean-Paul Sartre and Led Zeppelin. I fell for an easygoing lad with a Vespa who drove me to his old home, a dank ruin in the heart of town, and his new home, a cramped flat on the outskirts, where his mother laid a crisp embroidered cloth in my honour. I spilt red wine on it, but she cleared it away still smiling.

I refused to accompany him to the bullfight, which I thought cruel and barbaric, but amazingly managed to find him later in the tipsy torrent that poured from the bullring, and we roared into the pine-clad hills. This was boring for Sue, so we moved on, stopping short of our destination if a likely hill-top village came into view around lunch time. We avoided travelling in the afternoons, when drivers became drowsy or amorous.

We were both objects of curiosity with our fair skin, vast hair and sloppy gear, so we learnt to deflect unwelcome approaches by being brisk. Spaniards, we concluded, were too dignified to foist themselves upon curt English women. Predators melted away or became allies after a crisp word and a chummy smile.

Lorries ruled the interminable single-lane highways, and hours rolled by while I tried to converse with drivers, sometimes - bravely, I thought - asking what they thought of Franco. One, in the intimacy of his cab, ventured a joke at the Caudillo's expense, about a toad, which escaped me, but I felt honoured by the confidence.

Two brothers took us in a smart car to their home in Madrid, whirled us round the capital by night, then installed us chastely in their absent parents' brocaded matrimonial bed.

Next morning Sue and I found a hostel in a steep lane whose name, Cervantes, sounded promising, so we stayed a few days, bought greengages, honey, olives, sardines, lemons and brandy from shops nearby and trotted down the hill to the Prado to gaze at a single Velazquez, or a Goya.

We dined on pickled anchovies, spicy potatoes, fried squid, and shrimps whose husks we cast to the floor, then rolled home through the gloom and clapped our hands. The sound rang in the shuttered silence, summoning the night-watchman who carried keys to every house in the street. With deep suspicion, he let us in.

Two philosophy students took us to Salamanca, where we sat in Spain's most beautiful square while the dark one composed, then recited, a poem, and the fair one bent his attention to Sue. But we hadn't come here to be entertained by intellectuals.

Heading south, we smoked and drank with a couple of crop-haired conscripts until a pre-dawn hour, when they hurried for a train to their barracks. Lodgings became rougher.Once I turned on a tap and received an electric shock.

Two gypsies promised to take us to Granada, then explained that they were heading for Montilla to play guitar at a wine-tasting flamenco festival. They said they'd fix us up, say we were cousins. For the first time I felt uneasy, and on arrival asked the man in charge to help. "I mean, it's obvious we're not their cousins, isn't it?" He gave us a room and a ticket for the event, worth a staggering pounds 5 each, a bottle of montilla and a scarlet carnation. Beneath the Andalusian moon we sat up all night to a savagely thrilling flamenco.