Touring with the Sun

Article excerpt

Two American scholars spend A year in Sahagun, discovering The life, art, and nature Of Spain's northern Plateau region.

Appearances are often deceiving. The small (population 3,500), adobe-walled town of Sahagun hardly looks like a tourist destination, but it is. Located in the northern part of Spain's central meseta (high plateau), in the province of Leon, it is a popular stop for tour buses, pilgrims on the Road to Santiago de Compostela, and summer visitors who go there for the clean, dry air and inexpensive accommodations. Although the town may seem like an unlikely base camp, Sahagun and the nearby region are filled with easily accessible sightseeing treasures.

For a variety of reasons--some trivial, others obscure--my husband and I decided to spend a year in Sahagun experiencing the rhythms and routines of life in a small Spanish town. I had lived there once before and been befriended by a local family, so I knew we would be part of the community, not merely tourists.

Once settled in, we developed a routine based on the ebb and flow of the Spanish day. Each morning around ten, we'd stroll down to the arcaded Plaza Mayor, where vendors sold produce just picked from their nearby gardens. When we wanted to buy meat, we'd stop at our favorite meat market, where the butcher would carefully explain exactly what the beef we were purchasing was fed and where the lambs grazed. He knew these important details because he bought the meat "on the hoof' and slaughtered it himself. If we felt like having fish or shellfish, we'd visit one of the half-dozen fish markets scattered around town, all of which received fresh deliveries from the coast several times a week.

The numerous bars that line the streets served a fragrant cafe cortado (espresso with a tiny bit of milk). And if we felt indulgent--or more accurately, overindulgent--we'd treat ourselves to fresh-baked almond-or apple-filled pastries from the confiteria just across the street from our apartment.

On hot days when we didn't have the energy to cook, we'd head down again to the Plaza Mayor for a meal at Restaurante Luis. The place is famous for its succulent roasted young lamb and leeks stuffed with seafood and covered with a whipping cream, garlic, and roasted red pepper sauce. Its sauteed wild mountain mushrooms, huge prawns grilled with garlic and a bit of olive oil, and assorted offerings of wild game are also popular. We didn't eat badly in Sahagun, and the prices were half what they would be in a large Spanish city.

Like the Spaniards, we learned to sleep late and eat later, so lunchtime, the heavy meal of the day, took place between two and three o'clock, followed by a siesta of sorts. The shops are open from ten until one-thirty or two, then reopen at five, so there is not much to do in the afternoon. Older men use this time to play cards or dominoes in the bars, and women spend it cleaning up after the large midday meal.

In the warm summer evenings, we'd sit outside at one of the many neighborhood cafes, perhaps drinking a glass of cheap but good Spanish wine or sherry and nibbling on juicy Spanish olives. Sitting outside is one way to avoid the ubiquitous cigarette smoke, but it has other advantages. We could watch the evening paseo. Entire families, ranging from decrepit grandparents to babies in strollers, would walk back and forth around the plaza or out to the local park with its rows of poplars and jogging trail. Others preferred to go outside town in the other direction, to the twelfth-century Virgen del Puente hermitage, where they'd relax under the trees or sit on a benchlike ledge extending from the west wall of the small brick building.

If we felt energetic on a weekend evening, we'd visit one of the numerous discos and pubs that line the back streets--locales that don't open before ten or eleven at night, just after the evening meal is completed. Although our apartment was on a side street, it was near a pub, so we were often regaled at three or four in the morning with the sound of cheerful voices raised in song as people headed toward home after the bar closed. …