After a whirlwind three-day romp through the splendid sites of Barcelona, I was looking forward to spending a few days in the Spanish countryside with EZ’s uncles. JH and FB own a remarkable old house in a tiny rural village, and our group was excited to explore it. We planned to drive up to the countryside in the evening, since GS and NR had tickets to an FC Barcelona soccer game in the afternoon.
Following lunch within walking distance from the apartment, our group packed up our belongings and took the metro to the car rental company. Once EZ and GS (the drivers) had filled out all the requisite paperwork, GS and NR headed out to the stadium to catch their game, while EZ and I took the car back to the apartment.
Oh…did I mention the car was manual? No automatics were available! EZ hadn’t used a stick shift in years, but he managed to safely drive us to a parking structure near the apartment, with only a handful of instances in which I feared for my life.
Just as EZ and I began to consider which museum or site we could check out while GS and NR were at the soccer game, we received a Facebook message from GS: “Hey, we had a little hiccup. We’re ready to roll soon. Are you at the museum?”
EZ and I looked at each other, then immediately called GS through the messenger app.
“Guys, I want to cryyyy!” GS wailed.
“What happened?” I asked.
What happened was…the game had been rescheduled to yesterday. The game had already happened. GS and NR had missed the game – by a day. And they had even bought and worn jerseys for the occasion! Poor things.
With this unexpected turn of events, our group was able to leave for the countryside earlier than expected.
EZ drove for hours on the highway, past industrial warehouses, past small towns, past rippling hills, past roaming cattle. He interpreted the Spanish road signs as best as he could while I toggled between handwritten directions from JH and the Google Maps directions on the iPhone.
Finally, around nightfall, we turned onto a narrow country road that snaked through the meadows until the village came into view. The village was comprised of a small cluster of houses, at the center of which stood an old, stone church. To my alarm, EZ drove through a shockingly narrow alleyway between the church and its neighbor – I closed my eyes as the walls seemed to press in toward the car. But, mercifully, EZ managed to squeeze through unscathed, arriving at the unpaved town square situated just in front of his uncles’ house.
The house is 500 years old. The original building remains intact, but also, over the years, had been expanded via the annexation of neighboring houses and several vertical additions (the building stood at least five stories high, although you couldn’t tell from the front façade).
In the darkness, we couldn’t see much. But we would soon discover every historical detail, every secret passage and clandestine crevice, of this extraordinary edifice. JH and FB came out to greet us and shepherd us into the house. Since there was no way to complete a full tour of the house that evening, the tour was split between that night and the next morning. But it began as soon as we entered the building…
We walked through the massive wooden door with dual doorknobs (which required a big, old-fashioned brass key to unlock), and found ourselves in an incredible entry room from the 16th century, with packed-dirt and stone floors, wooden beams, and plaster walls. The room was crammed with assorted odds and ends, and contained the following notable features:
1. An old-fashioned butcher’s block, as well as the related butchering tools. In the olden days, the house served as the village’s butcher and wine provider. The entry room also used to store live animals at night (sheep, oxen, cattle, etc.).
2. A smoking barrel. JH may not use the antique butchering block, but he does use a barrel to smoke the meats he obtains from a standing order with the village’s herdsmen. JH purchases any game the herdsmen kill while herding their sheep (e.g. large hares, wild boar, etc.) and will then skin and butcher the meat himself before smoking it in a barrel and preparing it for consumption. That’s some local, grass-fed, free-range meat!
3. JH’s book-binding tools. Back in the day, before he was a working artist (and before books were read on Kindles and iPads), JH had been a bookbinder.
4. A stack of logs that had been chopped from the collection of wine barrels found in an underground compartment of the house that had once been a wine cellar. On top of this pile rested a hatched bird’s egg.
5. A set of stone-and-dirt stairs that led down into the underground room that had historically been the wine cellar, but which JH and FB had converted into a movie theater. JH and FB regularly held movie nights in this subterranean, cavernous space, curating a selection of films for members of their movie club. (Alas, I forgot to take a picture of this amazing space!)
6. Another set of stairs leading down to a wine cellar (one that remains a wine cellar in function), concealed behind a red curtain, which houses JH and FB’s collection of fine vintages.
7. A trap door (hidden beneath a rug in an attached storeroom), that opens to a ladder leading down a dark, cylindrical hole, which JH described as a “genie in the bottle” space. Historically, this pit had served as a wine cistern for when the villagers came by to purchase wine. Now, the space is empty, and JH is considering adding pillows and chic lighting to create a unique, secluded hangout area at the bottom of the tank.
8. A piece of art depicting the room using the same materials utilized to construct the room (for example: wood is used to create the wood beams, stone is used to create the stone floors, and plaster is used to create the plaster walls in the picture).
Beyond the entry room, a flight of stairs led us up through the main body of the house. In the corner of the first stairwell was a glowing glass pane over a cylindrical hole. The hole used to be an olive oil cistern (apparently, in the olden days, the villagers who had lived in this house were also olive oil merchants, in addition to sellers of wine and meat). JH and FB had covered the (now empty) olive oil cistern with glass and added a backlight to illuminate the hole for those who wished to stare into its depths. A pretty cool feature for the corner of a stairwell…
The first floor we reached was occupied by a pale blue chamber with black-and-white checkered flooring and authentic,16th century designs molded into the ceilings between wooden beams (as with most aspects of the house, JH and FB sought to preserve historic elements rather than modernize over them).
This living room may as well have been a museum, for it displayed an eclectic array of art, artifacts, collectibles, and other exotic curiosities amassed from JH and FB’s travels around the world, as well as their treasure-hunting expeditions at antique shops, thrift stores, flea markets, and estate sales. JH told the story of how he had spotted a flamboyant tapestry amid cheap junk at a yard sale, and immediately identified it as a valuable piece from a famous artist…he bought it for a steal.
JH also regaled us with tales of his travel adventures, including the time he had made friends with an interesting stranger in South America who invited him to her “river house.” Somehow, this lady convinced JH to get in a boat with her…and hours later, they ended up in her hut on a river in the Amazon, surrounded by curious-looking tribesmen! JH was still bewildered to think how he’d let himself get into such a predicament, although he remained friends with this strange lady all these years later.
In addition to purchased items and gifts, the room also contained a few of JH’s own creations, including a large cone-headed jester sculpture with an egg-shaped body that bobbed back and forth on the floor like a precarious bowling pin.
The connecting sitting room also housed a framed piece of his art, surrounded by smaller pieces purchased from a coastal African villager that had also sold his work to the Queen of England. (If you’re interested in JH’s artwork, check out his website at http://www.jonathanhammerstudio.com/work.php).
The next floor up contained the dining room and kitchen, which could also be seen through a window from the stairwell.
This slightly more modern space also featured prominent wooden beams, but the walls had been painted vivid yellow, purple and green. JH’s pieces of art (paintings, drawings, and hybrids with photo-overlays) were framed and mounted on the walls, along with a piece his father (EZ’s grandfather) had painted: A lady in black with a voluminous cloud of dark hair. In the corner was the furnace, adorned with a customized design of seashells.
The corner of the next stairwell led to a modern, artsy bathroom. Down a nearby hallway, we found a collection of antique metal talismans pinned to a wooden panel. FB explained that these were used by French Catholics in prayer to protect against the specific ailments depicted on the talismans.
An adjacent wooden counter held similar types of talismans, except they were life-sized replicas of the ailing body parts, rather than small metal plates. These were used by Spanish Catholics. Behind the great, white body parts were…action figures? I think… You’ll never know what you might find in a house like this!
Up another flight of stairs, the landing contained the master bedroom/bathroom, a guest room, and – be still, my beating heart! – a LIBRARY. The library was organized by genre and author, and also included a workspace and small guest bedrooms. I could have spent hours – nay, days – in this library…but, alas, with such limited time in the countryside and so much to see, this would not be possible.
The following set of stairs led to the balcony and another bedroom. The balcony, where we dined for lunch the next day, boasted a gorgeous view of the countryside. It was also home to a lovely custom-designed fountain created with tiles and seashells…an echo of the sea-inspired furnace a few floors below.
The nearby bedroom was mostly being used as storage space, but the bed was very interesting indeed. Not only was it a loft bed, requiring a ladder to access it – the bed also featured a skylight above it. At night, as you lay in bed, you could gaze up at the stars of the country sky.
At the very top of the house, beneath the beams and rafters, was JH’s artist studio. This space was cluttered with an assortment of intriguing works-in-progress. Everywhere you looked, there were tables, lamps, papers, and containers of tools and various materials…this was clearly where the magic happened.
After our partial tour in the evening, JH and FB served us a rustic dinner of salad, cheese, bread, and wine. All of the ingredients were the epitome of farm-fresh. The salad was crisp and flavorful. The cheese was produced from local cows and goats in or near the village. JH baked the bread himself. Everything tasted delicious – the freshest food I’d ever had. This was followed up by a divine, fluffy orange cake whipped up by FB. So this was how country folks ate!
After dinner, JH and FB led our group into the living room, where we all talked late into the night over cava and more potent liquors. JH entertained us all with his ebullient witticisms, worldly knowledge, and amusing anecdotes, while FB offered thoughtful explanations and ideas that expanded on each topic of conversation in kind, measured tones. They complemented each other perfectly, JH and FB, a balance of vivacious and calm energies…but both brilliant, fascinating people.
This balance also emerged through their food. JH was the main chef, imparting bold and tasty flavors into each meal through his use of high-quality ingredients, deep culinary understanding, and creative flair. FB was the expert pastry chef, crafting beautiful, traditional French desserts with meticulous care to achieve nuanced flavors and precise textures – whether silky, spongey, flaky, or crispy – while leaving you craving for more.
The next morning, we had a simple but satisfying breakfast of bread, cheese, and coffee before completing our tour of the house. Then came lunch on the balcony, a delightful open-air spread of fresh chicken salad with tangy homemade dressing, cheese, bread, and wine. I was particularly excited to try the four selections of local cheeses. JH and FB explained that the proper way to approach a cheese course was to begin with the mildest cheese and work your way toward the sharpest.
FB’s dessert wizardry made another appearance in the form of a gorgeous tart…so flaky, so tasty, so satisfying!
And finally, dinner in the evening was comprised of JH’s own brand of witchcraft…he concocted a rural feast of stuffed artichokes, buttery mashed potatoes, and savory beef stew.
While our country meals seemed simple, the flavors were heightened by their fresh and organic nature, as well as the love and skill with which JH and FB prepared our food. We were truly lucky for such a talented pair of chefs to host us in their home. And we learned that country-eating is definitely a culinary experience not to be missed!
In addition to the tour of the house and the delicious meals, our group enjoyed a walk through the village. We traipsed down alleyways and circled the church as JH shared juicy tidbits of gossip about the neighbors.
JH and FB also led us down a dirt path through a copse of trees to an overgrown pond. If you looked real close, you could discern a little frog amongst the mildew, staring unblinkingly. Nearby, insects hummed idly, a dreamlike murmur. I could see how time might slow down in a place like this, thickening like molasses as your dusty skin yielded to the kisses of the sun.
JH and FB also showed our group their latest investment: just down the road a little ways from their house was a spacious building they had recently purchased. The building looked like a big brick warehouse with rusted green doors. The former owner had used it to house sheep. Inside, a collection of sheep collars still stood in a row against the wall.
The interior held promise, with its spacious layout and lovely brick design, but it was currently in a state of disrepair. Although the walls and foundations remained structurally sound, the decrepit roofing resulted in a pool of water collecting on the floor from leaks. Layers of dirt and cobwebs festooned every surface. Large holes gaped through the second floor. The stench of sheep still hung in the air.
“You have to use your imagination,” JH said. It was clear he possessed a vision; JH didn’t see what we saw.
JH and FB planned to renovate the space. When they were through with it, the building would be as good as new, without sacrificing the beauty and integrity of the original design. And the piles of sheep dung that now lay before the building would be replaced by a beautiful garden.
Part of the warehouse would be used as a storage area for JH’s pieces of art. But there would still be so much leftover space! JH and FB spouted off the options for it: A guest house? A bar and lounge? An art school? A rentable venue for events? An airBnB lodging? The possibilities were endless. The uncles hinted that EZ and I would just have to visit again in a few years to see the end result.
While in the countryside, GS, NR, EZ, and I also enjoyed some time at the river near the house. We walked down a country road and through a verdant meadow until we reached the river.
Along the riverbanks, we spotted a number of rock towers…the tiered stones looked almost supernatural. Inspired, EZ and I built a rock tower of our own (it was more difficult than it sounds…we had to scout the area for rocks that were suitably shaped to balance atop the rock beneath it, but heavy enough to support the rock above it). EZ and I later learned, to our delight, that FB had been the one to create the village of rock towers.
EZ and GS were the first to actually make their way into the river and frolic in its waters. NR and I followed suit later, a bit more tepidly, trying to feel out an entry point that was neither too slippery nor too rocky.
When JH arrived at the river to fetch us for dinner, he noted that the silky-smooth river mud was actually a pure mud that could be used as a skin softener or face mask. NR immediately began massaging the mud onto her face, while I tested it out on the top of my hand. Lo and behold, when I washed it off 15 minutes later, my skin felt sleek and supple. Hmm…maybe I should try to bottle and sell this mud in the U.S.! Though that might be frowned upon at customs…
After a second night in the countryside, it was almost time for EZ, GS, NR, and me to continue our tour of northern Spain and head to San Sebastian. But there were a few nearby stops we made first, led by our trusty guide, JH (FB was at work, teaching French literature…which also sounded pretty sweet).
Not too far from the village was a funky bridge. According to the infinite knowledge of JH, this bridge was built in medieval times, before the local architects knew the proper way to construct a single arch while still supporting the rest of the bridge. So, instead of a single large arch, this bridge was comprised of multiple smaller arches, with the top of the bridge jutting out at strange angles to help distribute the weight appropriately. Perhaps not the most efficient design, but a delightfully quirky one!
Next, we visited Graus, a small town nestled in the Pyrenees. Graus is globally renown for its tasty sausages, and is also notable for its historical battles and cultural events. Among these events is a celebration of meat known as “La Fiesta de la Longaniza” during which the world’s largest sausage is prepared. Longaniza is a popular Spanish sausage, famous for its exceptionally high quality and produced as long, thin salchichon.
We walked through Graus, down the little alleyways lined with shops, and to the town square, where the buildings were painted with beautiful designs and the eaves were embellished with works of art and other trimmings.
JH then steered us to Melsa, a purveyor of gourmet longaniza and other Grausian delicacies. Here, we loaded up on cured, sliced, vacuum-packed sausages and other meats that we could take home as souvenirs. The lady behind the counter offered us free samples…and let me tell you, those deftly sliced cuts of meat tasted so fresh and flavorful, I could have devoured a whole plate then and there.
Once we had stocked up on meaty mementos, our stomachs were grumbling for a proper meal. We hit the road again as JH directed us to a restaurant along a country road, isolated amid acres of farmland: Casa Roque.
“This is where all the farmers go for a good meal,” JH told us. And indeed, there wasn’t a tourist to be found inside (except for our group).
As the waitress/chef described the menu items with an exquisite, elegant Spanish accent, JH translated each one into English for us. Most of us ordered lamb dishes and soup or salad, but I believe NR boldly decided upon the hare. Once again, we enjoyed fresh, delicious country fare. The highlight, however, was the Tirimasu dessert…hands down, the yummiest Tirimasu I’ve ever had! The waitress/chef proudly told us that she had won awards for it, and she certainly deserved every one of them.
On the Road Again
After saying our thank yous and goodbyes to JH at the restaurant, EZ, GS, NR, and I hopped into the car and prepared for our long drive to San Sebastian. The route was scenic, with lush mountains, flaxen meadows, and sparkling turquoise rivers passing by our windows.
Start at the beginning and learn more about my travels in Barcelona: