The Weasel

I couldn't make head nor tail of the herd of bison which our guide insisted was nearby
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Boarding the good ship Val de Loire at Santander for the 24-hour voyage from Spain to Plymouth, the Weasel family's pallor stood out in marked contrast to the lightly toasted complexions boasted by most of our fellow passengers. How could this be, after a week spent in the land of sun and sangria? In fact, the patch of northern Spain where we took an early break is better known for showers and cider. The average rainfall of the Costa Verde, where the formidable crags of the Asturian sierras nudge the Atlantic, is approximately double that of London. Enjoying our customary luck, we passed a particularly precipitous week. In compensation, we encountered only one other GB plate for the duration of our stay.

True, there was a tentative smudge of sun when we arrived at our cottage, hidden at the end of a rural track, but the squelchy ground suggested that this was a rare event. A mile or so away stood a trio of snow-topped peaks, almost cliches of the form, white as dentures, with their lower slopes cloaked in pines. We soon came to regard these local salients as familiar pals ("our mountains"). After a night enlivened by paparazzi flashes of lightning, I thrust my head gargoyle-style out of our bedroom window and found myself plunged into the deepest green you could imagine - pure essence of dank chlorophyll. But minutes later, this dazzling verdancy was masked by grey slashes of rain, as if shaded by a 2H pencil. "It's always fatal to pack your shorts," observed Mrs Weasel as she dodged a flurry of hail.

I surprised her by my unexpected prowess at lighting the fire, changing gas cylinders and, most impressive of all, singeing rounds of bread on a gas ring in order to produce some fashionable ethnic toast. As always seems to happen when you hire an isolated abode, our stay was not without incident. The electric lights provided an entertaining frisson by packing up on our second night, though they grudgingly flickered back into life after a quarter of an hour. During a particularly ferocious downpour, we appeared to have locked ourselves outside until I coaxed our eccentric mortice lock into submission.

Lulled by the tonk of cow bells and fuelled by wild boar stew, I felt myself increasingly lured by this refreshing, if soggy idyll. Watching pillars of mist float ghost-like over the pines, I conjectured if it might not be possible to throw over our dreary South London suburbanity for a leaner, cleaner life in the mountains? It took all of three seconds for the realisation to dawn that it was not actually I who had chopped the monumental stack of firewood which we were steadily depleting.

Another slight drawback to pursuing the picturesquely unmechanised peasant life - it seems largely to consist of scything grass - was our distinctly unrural habit of rising at the crack of 10. 15am.

Still, it would be worth risking a nasty case of scytheman's wrist in order to enjoy the local cuisine on a daily basis. The word "hearty" does not begin to do it justice. I have never been anywhere where ordinary bars served better food - or, at any rate, food which is more to my taste. For the first three days, I wreaked havoc on cephalopods. In contrast to the stingy, exorbitantly priced portions in London tapas bars, we chomped our way through great bowls of lightly fried calamari and wooden platters piled high with tender slices of octopus tentacles.

When Mrs W protested that she was beginning to grow webs between her fingers, I succumbed to her pleading for a more balanced diet. We stopped for a light lunch at a roadside inn in the mountains. The set meal consisted of a large bowl of rich, almost chewy egg soup, followed by cabbage stew augmented with chunks of creamy black pudding, paprika sausage and cured belly pork. Creaking at the seams, we were then presented with a great tray of squid cooked in wine sauce, topped by a generous sprinkling of chips. Finally, we were encouraged to spoon away at a wobbly hillock of creme caramel. The price, which included a quite reasonable bottle of red wine, was 1,000 pesetas or pounds 4 per head. Could this be equalled anywhere else in western Europe?

Twenty minutes away from our mountain redoubt, the seaside resort of Ribadesella encouraged a Flintstone-esque view of prehistory. At one end of the beach, more agile visitors can clamber for a glance at dinosaur footprints on a vertical rock face. A couple of hundred yards away, you can see examples of the cave paintings, which are a recurring feature on Spain's northern coast. Our visit to this prehistoric gallery started with a lengthy ticking off in Spanish by the guide. It quickly became apparent that he had demanded complete quiet, for our party of 30 or so maintained a Trappist silence as we mooched through a waxy forest of stalagmites and stalactites. (It is hard to imagine a similar group in Britain achieving an equal taciturnity.) Eventually, our host stopped, and his torch beam undulated over the cavern wall until it picked out a horse's head. I couldn't make head or tail of the herd of bison which he insisted was nearby. Though the literature on the cavern excitingly promised "representaciones de los organos sexuales femeninos" at some deeper point, our stern guide concluded the tour after this sketchy menagerie, and we wordlessly trooped out.

"It's really unusual," apologised our charming young landlady. "The weather's never been like this before at this time of year." Despite the sogginess, Mrs W insisted that our lonely retreat had been "a little bit of heaven". The 24-hour voyage home should have been the cherry on the cake. We have been addicted to Brittany Ferries, largely because of its incomparable cuisine, for over a decade, but a small cloud, in the form of a Tannoy announcement appeared at the very moment I was inserting a forkful of terrine des poissons in my maw. "Ze conditions for ze crossing to Plymouth will be bad. Winds of Force 10 to 11 are forecast," a female voice trilled, before adding, somewhat optimistically, "We 'ope you 'ave a pleasant voyage."

The Bay of Biscay performed its riotous party piece for 16 hours, while we hunkered down in our cabin. Occasionally, I risked a glimpse through the porthole. It hurt to look. The sea had been transformed into a wildly flapping grey sheet covered in white rips. All 11 floors of the Val de Loire pitched, yawed and occasionally hung trembling after being thumped by a rogue wave. I passed a feverish night, braced in my bunk, trying hard not to think of fish terrine. By morning, however, the Atlantic was restored to a fresh- laundered blue. The woman in the onboard photographic shop was clearing up the wreckage. "I've been working here for three years and it's the first time that the developing machine has spilled its chemicals." Pure coincidence, I'm sure, but it's also the first time that the Weasel family has sailed this route

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