La Bouza is a village in Spain, just 5km from the Portuguese boarder. This charming place, nestled in the hills, consists of a church, a bar and houses for its forty permanent residents. There are no shops, so vans come daily from neighbouring villages honking their horns. There’s the cheese van, the bread van and the fruit van. During holidays the population swells to about 80 persons as relatives flee from the cities to spend time with loved ones. None of this explains why I, a person with no Spanish relatives, was there. Well, our kind friend Arkaitz invited me and two others to spend time in ‘his village’ for Semana Santa (Holy Week). Most Spanish families live in an apartment but also have a house in their village – the place where their parents are from.
We were warmly greeted in the family home by Arkaitz’s parents, Aunts and uncles. The men were small, sturdy and quiet. The women; kind, quick and chatty. Arkaitz’s mother is not unlike the Irish Mammy – attentive and insistent that you eat, eat, eat. It seems she will have failed in her duties as a host if you have not gained 5lbs during your stay.
On our first day in our adopted rural abode we woke early for a breakfast of coffee and biscuits. Afterwards, we went hiking in the nearby hills, accompanied by Arkaitz’s uncle. He kept his distance always walking ten or so metres ahead.
‘Look! I swear those bastards are following us,’ said Paul, pointing skywards at the circling vultures. We first spotted the scavengers a day before on the road from Bilbao to Salamanca.
It was a beautiful morning. We strayed off-road. We tramped downhill, poked about huts, drank fresh water from our cupped hands, lay on rocks listening to the sound of the river and spotted a turtle family inching along the river bed.
The tranquillity was broken by a roar. We looked at each other, confused.
‘It is my uncle. He is calling us,’ Arkaitz explained. Nobody had noticed him slip away as we dozed on the rocks.
We hiked back to the road and got into his uncle’s car. He steered the vehicle around quiet country roads. We weren’t sure where we were going. When we passed the Welcome to Portugal sign we exchanged excited glances in the back. It’s nice to be able to slip into another country without planes, passports and travel stress.
‘What did you do this afternoon?’
‘Oh, nothing much; just popped over to Portugal.’
We came to the sleepy village of Almofala at around 3 o’clock in the afternoon. The sun was shining and the streets were empty. The car pulled up next to a water pump. Arkaitz and his uncle got out, so we did too. Arkaitz started playing with the water pump. Is this why we were here; to look at this water-pump?
Suddenly two men appeared- one in his forties, the other in his sixties. They wore tattered oil stained clothes and smiles. They ambled towards us and shook our hands. Arkaitz’s uncle introduced us as Scottish (although we were two Irish and an Englishman).
‘I love Scotland!! William Wallace!’ one of the men said. We smiled and nodded. They beckoned us to follow them down a garden path to a garage door. The door was pulled up and sunlight filled the room. There was a tractor in the centre of the garage. Horse saddles, stirrups, satchels, rifles and traps from a bygone era hung from the walls. The place had a certain rough-hewn charm but again that question raised its head; what were we doing there? In the corner there was a metal vat.
Our younger host crouched to the tap at the bottom of the vat and began filling up cups. They were passed around. They wanted us to taste their homemade wine. We sipped and nodded approvingly. A vigilant eye was kept on our cups. As soon as they were emptied they were taken from us and refilled.
After a pleasant time at the makeshift winery we said goodbye to our hosts and walked through the cobbled streets of the village. We went to a couple of bars and drank Port and Superbock beers. €1 each. Arkaitz’s uncle got chatting to a couple of local men. There was an animated exchange in Spanish/Portuguese, after which we were told to drain our beers, head back to the car and follow the car in front.
It was all beginning to feel like a mystery film with a twist; Protagonists in a strange land where they had no idea what was going on. Instead of elusive villains we had kind hosts. And the tension charged atmosphere was replaced by a warm, relaxed wine buzz.
We were led to a garage in a nearby village where once again, el vino did flow.
A couple of hours later we returned to La Bouza with relaxed smiles and slow saunters. In Arkaitz’s house I found a sunbed on the terrace and decided to lay down for a few minutes. The air held the soothing sounds of the village; a distant dog barking, an engine idling and snatches of conversations where words carried neither hurry nor spite. I drifted off into a late evening Siesta.