Leaving San Sebastian I follow the coastal highway west into Cantabria. The destination is Somo, a small vacation town located just east of Santander on the Bay of Biscay. Sidra and cuisine exploration in the Basque Country took it’s tool. I’m one week into a three week journey across northern Spain and desperately need some down time. Beaches. Surfing. A taste of slow life.
On the way into Somo I pass through the town of Escalante and see signs advertising a sidra festival taking place the next day, and make quick plans to come back and partake. Arriving in Somo, I unload my backpack and walk the few blocks into the city center to find a market. I grab a pair of board shorts, a can of San Miguel and a lemon pastry before heading down the beach. The swells are small so I forgo surfing today and wade out into the breaks for a swim instead. Paddling backwards to meet the incoming waves and quickly touching my feet to the sand I launch myself upwards; I’m flying. Over and over. This doesn’t sit well with the locals on the beach (the Spanish tend to be a very modest, quiet and well-behaving people, in public daylight at least). Somebody says something and a moment later I see a lifeguard sprinting down the beach, whistle wailing a high pitched scream and arms waving me in. I walk in to meet him and try to explain that where I’m playing is just a few feet of water; I’m crouching and jumping because it’s a blast; there’s no danger here. He understands my bad Spanish well enough, but the explanation I give doesn’t process. Why would that be fun? It takes a reassurance that I’ll not continue to make him go away.
A couple of hours later and I’m feasting family-style with the other guests at the surf hostel. Paella with prawns, squid, mussels and fish, followed by glasses of sangria and a post-meal stroll into town.
The next morning is spent washing clothes, writing, processing trip photos and relaxing in the courtyard. My only obligation is a surf lesson later that afternoon. Around mid-day I take the rental car south into the Cantabrian countryside towards the town of Liérganes in search of Cerveza DouGall’s, one of the only craft breweries in the region, and I’m told one of the best in all of Spain. Their distribution is limited, so rather than hunt for bottles at pubs and stores I head for the source. Always a good decision. Except when the brewery is closed. In this case the brewery isn’t even operating. The sign on the outside clearly marks the location, but the facilities are still under construction as the brewer is moving production from his home to a larger building, with plans to open a tap room. I ask a few locals about the brewer, Andrew DouGall, but find no answer. From research I know that some of his beers are available at bars back in Liérganes, but arriving in town a short drive later I come up empty there as well. Instead my time is spent walking through a small street festival of food and music and snacking on chorizo and a draft pour of San Miguel 1516 before heading back to Somo for my surf lesson.
The surf lesson is not a lesson at all; I’m the only English speaking student in attendance, so I get the Spanish instructor who lived in Australia for year, spending 15 minutes demonstrating for me in his own poor English before leaving me to the water and my fate. As kind as he is, his help is no help at all, as I’m utterly helpless on a surfboard. The best I can do is a few seconds on small waves before falling on my ass, over and over.
Back to the hostel for a quick shower then off to Escalante, the plan was to hit the sidra festival for an hour or two before heading back for dinner, but the atmosphere, the town and the townspeople are magnetic. I chat up a girl named Celia, she’s from Leon, a couple of hours to the south, but she’s in Escalante volunteering at the festival with her friends. Celia’s English is remarkable, and she mentions that she spent a year in the States. “Where?”, I ask. “Detroit.” I give her my sympathies.
XII Dia de la Sidra is the name of the festival. 30+ bottled sidras being poured in the town square, nearly all from Asturias and Cantabria, ranging from around 4.5% (common in Asturias and Cantabria) to 5.5-6% (more common in Basque Country). For a one-time purchase of 3 euro you’re given a glass and unlimited pours for hours. There’s no better setting to experience Spanish sidra than a festival of this sort; dozens of different sidras poured properly by the folks responsible for production. It’s complete dumb luck that I happen to find this festival; one different highway turn and I wouldn’t have even know it existed.
The Spanish are known for their relaxed and casual social calendar, and as the sun finally sets near ten o’clock, the town square comes alive with music, dancing and friendship.
I’m riding a sidra buzz and making fast friends; people are perplexed that an American would come all this way for a sidra festival (I get that a lot). I use a line I’ve practiced on this trip,
“Yo soy un fotógrafo y escritor, viajando por la cerveza, sidra y comida.”
“New York Times?”
No, not exactly. Given how modest and private the Spanish seem in broad daylight (try to strike up a conversation at a busstop and be prepared for side-long glances and furrowed brows), at night they are far more engaging. What a difference sharing a drink can make.
It’s getting late and I decide to head back to Somo, so I walk back to the car, put the keys in the ignition, and at the last second, figure I should try to find Celia and her friends again and see what they have planned. The Spanish don’t go to bed this early, why should I? Instincts or reason, I sensed that the night wasn’t over yet. Walking through the town square as the tents are being brought down, I’m called for through the crowd. Celia extends an invite for late dinner just outside of town. We jump in the car and escape Escalante on narrow farm roads, driving a few miles west before arriving at a small farmhouse owned by a sidra-producing family. Camping tents are propped up in the front yard and a long family-style table outside the house is crowded with family and friends pouring sidra and tinto de verano. Pork loin, pork ribs and chicken are on the grill, and dinner extends into the early morning hours with tales of travel and life.
Hospitality as warm as this is a rare treat. A traveler chooses to visit your town, introduction leads to conversation, you click with them, and you want to play host, to show off your town and your people and leave them dumbstruck by friendliness and love by the time they leave. Around three in the morning I say goodbye with a round of hugs for my new friends and a wonder about what just transpired, about how different my experience would be had I given in earlier and headed home alone to rest.
The next morning I continue west towards Gijón, with plans to camp on the coast and settle into the town for a four-day stretch. Only two days I spent in Cantabria but it feels like a chapter in my life.