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Bull tail and beers in Caceres

My arranged host Marina was stood waiting for me on the platform, next to a short bloke with designer stubble and sunglasses. Yes, I did say it was 11pm. Marina looked to be in her mid thirties, had olive skin, brown eyes and hair and a pretty face. I kissed her on both cheeks before turning to shake the hand of the man. My hand was ignored, though, as he grabbed me and planted a wet one on each cheek. I’m not big on that sort of thing, but this was a continental man and I was on the continent. When in Rome. Or Caceres. I followed the two of them out of the station and into a parked car, as they told me that we were going to go for something to eat and a few beers. Listening to the sunglasses-wearing man speaking, I was surprised to hear his accent wasn’t as Spanish as Marina’s. Instead, it was exactly as Spanish as Robbie Keane’s. Yes, the man who preferred to kiss me in greeting rather than shake my hand was 100 per cent Irish. Derek had been living in Spain for the past 15 years, working as a painter. Not the Michelangelo kind, but the Handy Andy kind. He decorated people’s houses. We parked the car in the centre and walked the cobblestones of the medieval town to a small family-run restaurant. The place was empty but for a couple sitting quietly in the corner and, as we entered, a fat man in a suit rose from a chair at the back and came to greet us, kissing Marina, shaking Derek’s hand and then welcoming me in English to his establishment. I wondered why this man got a handshake from Derek while I got a couple of kisses. After making ourselves comfortable at a table, three beers were ordered along with a plate of cheese. Two minutes later my glass was empty. Thirty seconds later I had another full one in front of me. We quickly demolished the cheese and then Derek told me that for dinner we would be having a local speciality, although I wasn’t told what it was. The couple in the corner left and we were now alone in the place, ordering dinner just past midnight. The waiter brought over the plate and I couldn’t help but salivate when I set my eyes on the food in front of me; some kind of juicy looking meat in a thick gravy, surrounded by roast potatoes and crusty bread. I was also given a third beer, replacing my empty glass. I asked Marina what the meat was but was told to try it first and then she would tell me after I had decided if I liked it or not. Without waiting for a second invitation I grabbed a chunk of it and put it onto my plate. It was mostly bone.

“Just bite off the flesh where you see it,” Marina instructed me.

The flavour was strong and not one I recognised. It was definitely something that I would eat again though.

“It’s bull’s tail. Good, isn’t it?”

Marina looked proud of her local offering. She had every reason to be. The three of us then feasted on the meat, mopping up every last drop of gravy with the bread. The waiter came and took away the empty plate, before standing impatiently with his colleagues at the bar watching us, wanting us to leave and let them close up for the night. Their wish was our command.

Caceres is beautiful; picture postcard perfect. People have been living in the town since about 25,000 BC and every generation has left its mark. The first city walls, built by the Romans in the 3rd or 4th century, are still visible around the old town, including a gateway, the Arco del Cristo. My two hosts filled the silence of the walk with random bits of information about the town.

“There are four main areas of the city: The historic quarter, the Jewish quarter, the modern centre and the outskirts,” explained Derek.

“Caceres was occupied by the Romans, the Arabs, and the Visigoths. We also had an important Jewish community but Queen Isabella and Ferdinand of Aragon expelled it in 1492. We have a fascinating history here,” continued Marina, proudly.

I tried to digest the information I was being fed whilst taking in the sights around me that included a castle, a palace, churches and fortifications. It was a perfect evening for a stroll, with temperatures up around 12 degrees Celsius and not a breeze in the air. We came to a tiny pub with loud Spanish music blasting out through the door. Sat around the bar were a collection of middle aged, drunken Spanish men with moustaches and mullets. Sat in the middle of them was a beautiful girl in her early twenties, popping out of a tight black dress, enjoying the attention being lavished upon her by a midget with a medallion around his neck. To tell the truth, every man in there was a midget.

“Men from the south of Spain are always short,” Marina said, reading the look on my face perfectly.

I stared at the girl as Derek put another beer in my hand, trying to work out what was going on. She was too pretty to be a hooker, but what other reason could she have for sitting and listening to this old chain-smoking alcoholic? It was a mystery I was keen to get to the bottom of. Marina disappeared into the corner where a group of her friends were sitting while Derek built up conversation with his mate, the barman, leaving me to enjoy my pint and take in my surroundings a bit more. Still, I couldn’t take my eyes off of the girl in the tight black dress, and it seemed the curiosity was mutual. She continued to feign interest in the mumbled slurs of the man sitting opposite her but was now staring into my eyes. I wanted to look away, I wanted to appear hard to get, I wanted to deny her the satisfaction. But we don’t always get what we want, so instead I just gazed back at her, undressing her slowly with my eyes. There was something dangerous about this woman. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew I should fear it. The words ‘Femme Fatale’ belted out in my mind. My fear heightened a minute or so later when she stood up and moved to sit on the chair just behind me, still at the bar and still holding conversation with the old man. My first assumption was that she had moved so as not to be in my line of sight any more, creeped out by my excessive eye contact. I was slightly embarrassed but just as slightly relieved at her manoeuvre as it took away the intensity of the moment. I carried on with my pint in peace when I felt something unexpected. I looked down quickly to my leg just in time to catch sight of a smooth calf pulling away. It must have been an accident. I forgot about it immediately and carried on drinking, only to feel some more movement down below. The girl in the tight black dress was rubbing her foot up and down my leg in a seductive manner. I choked on my beer. I allowed her to rub for a couple more minutes – I didn’t want to be rude, did I? – and then moved away from the bar. She still scared me. Marina finished talking to her friends, Derek downed the remains of his pint and we moved on to the next place, a large disco pub around the corner. We found a large cushioned settee and made ourselves comfy with a few more beers and got chatting. Both of them, I found out, were 39 years old. Neither of them looked it. Marina, with her strong Spanish accent and feminine tone of voice, coupled with her fit, slim body reminded me of Penelope Cruz. She was a turn-on. The conversation between Derek and me centred on how neither of us missed one bit the drunken fight culture of Friday and Saturday nights in England and Ireland. As Derek spoke, I noticed he had a couple of annoying traits. He repeated himself, retelling stories over and over again, leaving a space of about three minutes between each telling. The story of his mate Superfly, an American from Detroit who comes over every summer for the WOMAD festival and always pulls the hottest women; the story of his brother Brian, an Arsenal fan from Dublin; the story of another American friend who came to Caceres a few years before for a party, met and fell in love with a local girl and then married her in Vegas. All stories that were vaguely enjoyable the first time round, bearable the second time, and cringe worthy the seventh. Still, being the polite guest that I am, I reacted to each retelling as if I were hearing it for the first time. Derek’s second little annoying habit was to say, “this, that, and the other,” at the end of the every sentence.

“So, my brother Brian’s an Arsenal fan. He lives in Dublin. This, that and the other. Superfly will be coming over again in a couple of months for a bit of this, that and the other. Can you believe that guy got married in Vegas? Now they’re settled down, you know, this, that and the other.”

Despite all of this, I would be doing him a disservice if I didn’t make clear that he was a loveable character.

We got back to the flat at about 3:15 in the morning, as Marina reckoned she hadn’t drunk that much and was more than capable of driving us safely. The flat was that of a well-off resident; two floors, comfortable yet not over-the-top, leather settees, a large screen telly, huge speakers mounted on the walls, and a big space in the middle of the room. I lounged back into one of the seats as Marina stood up to make her way to the kitchen.

“One last beer each?” she asked.

“No, not for me, thanks. I’ll just have a water please,” replied Derek.

“What? Seriously?” asked Marina, surprised.

“Yea, I’ve had enough for tonight. Thanks anyway.”

“Oh, okay.”

And she made her way to the kitchen to get me a beer and Derek a glass of water.

“Marina, how fucking long have you known me? When have I ever taken a water instead of a beer?”

Derek was cracking up with laughter. It was infectious. Tears began streaming down cheeks as we roared. It was all the funnier because of how convincing an act it had been. It made me seriously question if the repeating of stories was also just Derek entertaining himself, seeing how long I could go before I cracked. Marina went up to bed, leaving me to listen to some more of Derek’s stories. The story of his mate Superfly, an American from Detroit who comes over every summer for the WOMAD festival and always pulls the hottest women; the story of his brother Brian, an Arsenal fan from Dublin; the story of another American friend who came to Caceres a few years before for a party, met and fell in love with a local girl and then married her in Vegas. This, that and the other.

Just before calling it a night, I decided to probe a bit and find out what the situation was with my two hosts. Were they more than just friends? Derek explained that they were an ex-couple who had managed to keep a close relationship. He didn’t live there in the flat but had his own place just down the road. Still, after showing me to my room, he disappeared into her bedroom for the night. Lucky so and so. This, that and the other.

I woke the next day at midday to find an empty flat. I showered and then found a note on the kitchen table telling me that the two of them had gone to paint the walls in Marina’s office. The balcony doors were open and the brightest of suns was shining in. In case you didn’t know, there are many suns. But this was definitely the brightest of them. Standing out on the balcony I noticed the block had its own swimming pool. In the next balcony along, a shirtless old man tended to his plants and vegetables. In February! I grabbed a pair of sunglasses from deep within my rucksack and headed out to explore my surroundings. In a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. In February! The main street outside the building was lined with palm trees. Just down the road was the town’s bull fighting arena. Behind that was a path so long that I couldn’t see the end, leading away from the road and civilization and into a mystery. Curiosity compelled me to follow it, and after ten minutes of walking I found myself in a beautifully peaceful countryside setting. In the middle of the nothingness sat a delicate, little old church; the kind you would see in an early 20th century watercolour postcard. Carrying on the walk beyond the church I came to open fields home to grazing sheep and relaxing horses, where an old peasant dozed against a pile of hay, flat cap down over his eyes. As I lay on the grass, enjoying the sun, I got a text from Marina.

‘There’s a train to Lisbon leaving tonight at 3am. Shall we book it for you?’ it read.

I didn’t know what to make of it. I didn’t like the idea of leaving at such an hour. Surely there were morning trains running the following day. But clearly my hosts didn’t want to put me up for another night. Had I done something to offend them? I was confused. I contemplated replying, letting them know that I would rather wait until the next day, but then changed my mind at the last moment. If they wanted me to leave, that was fair enough, especially if they were going to be kind enough to buy me a ticket out of there. I didn’t want to take liberties.

‘If it’s really okay with you, yes please. I appreciate it,’ I sent back.

Vendors in CacaresShe replied, letting me know they would be home for lunch between 2:30 and 3 and would like to eat with me. I retraced my steps back along the seemingly infinite path and then headed down towards the centre of the town. Beautiful women sitting out on bar terraces, enjoying drinks in the sunshine with short men, lined the narrow streets. Old ladies walked around in pairs, smiling and talking. A little boy played football with his dad in a small square. Street market stall vendors weighed bags of mushrooms and oranges before handing them to their customers with a smile. Despite the heat, the majority of the locals wore coats. If this was cold for them, I didn’t want to be stuck here midsummer.

I got back to the flat at 3pm and was told to help myself to a cold beer from the fridge before joining the two of them up on the balcony. Derek told me that the information they had given me about the 3am train had turned out to be false. There were railway works being done and no Portugal-bound trains were passing through Caceres. This, that and the other. There was, however, a bus leaving the border town of Badajoz bound for Lisbon at 2am.

“It’s about an hour away, but we will drive you there and buy your ticket for you. This, that and the other,” Derek told me.

Marina then explained that her sister was paying her a previously unplanned visit from Madrid later that evening, hence there not being a bedroom available for me. They felt bad about leaving me in the predicament, so wanted to do everything they could to help me get to Lisbon. All talk of travel then ceased as we tucked into a gorgeously roasted chicken, rosemary coated potatoes, and more cold beer. What a beautiful summer’s afternoon. In February!

There is such a thing as a free lunch

There is such a thing as a free lunch

Looking down at the empty plates in front of us, I realised that I hadn’t arranged anywhere to stay in Portugal’s capital. It was already 4:30 in the afternoon and Marina wanted to leave at 6:30 to be back in Caceres by 9 for the arrival of her sister. I sent quick emails to Diana the Romanian and also Catarina, a Couchsurfer in the city, informing them both of my very early arrival in their city the next morning and asking either of them to send me a text if they were able to put me up at such short notice. I packed up my belongings before leaving, but decided it would be wise to leave my winter coat behind as spring was clearly now upon us. I hadn’t worn it since Slovenia, and carrying it around was only adding to the strain on my back. We climbed into the car, ready to leave, when Derek jumped out again and ran back into the house saying he had forgotten something important. He returned a couple of minutes later with two bottles of beer, proclaiming, “I get travel sick if I’m not drinking beer. This, that and the other.”

It was dead on 7 in the evening when we pulled out of the driveway and off towards the border town of Badajoz. The drive was stunning, as the most beautiful sunset I had ever witnessed materialised up ahead, turning the horizon the same shade of pink as a flamingo. As I let the majesty of the scenery around me sink in, I listened to Derek’s stories about his mate Superfly who could get any woman; his mate from America who came to Caceres and married a local woman; his brother in Dublin the Arsenal fan; and this, that and the other. He also took the time to explain how he never drank water, only beer, and how he couldn’t eat fruit because it made him feel sick, even though he loved it.

“I can eat it cooked,” he explained, “just not raw. And if I do eat some, I need a beer to settle my stomach.”

I was seriously starting to believe that Derek was on a permanant wind-up now. He was hilarious. We got to Badajoz bus station at 8:30. Derek and Marina bought my ticket before rushing back to Caceres, leaving me with five and a half hours to kill before my bus departed. I still hadn’t heard from either Diana or Caterina, so I sent them both text messages telling them what time I would be arriving – 4.30am. My credit was running low, so I hoped that any reply wouldn’t require further communication. Catarina was first to get back to me, telling me that she was going out for the night and wouldn’t be able to wake up early to meet me and she wouldn’t be out as late as 4:30 either. She would write back if she thought of a solution. I then got a call from Diana saying that her boyfriend would come to pick me up from the bus station to take me back to theirs. I relaxed.

Badajoz bus station is a lonely place at night; a large hall with a few benches in the middle, surrounded by various ticket offices and shops all with their shutters down. About 10 or 15 migrant workers from South America sat around eating fruit, awaiting the 12:30am to Madrid. After it departed I was left with a scary looking Peruvian man who could have been in his 20’s or his 50’s – his short muscled body and withered face giving no indication – pacing up and down for hours on end, dropping to the floor every ten minutes or so to do 50 push-ups. I made a conscious effort not to stare too much at that guy. The bus station wasn’t just lonely at night, it was also cold. I began to wonder if leaving my coat behind had been such a wise decision. Just before 1am two lesbians in their twenties walked into the hall holding hands; both feminine and attractive. Dressed in short skirts, ripped black stockings and open bomber jackets revealing black low-cut tops, they took the bench in front of me; a welcome distraction from the book Derek had given me about the Protestants of Ireland. Then, as if performing on cue for my fantasies, they began sucking tongues and groping each other. I pulled my book up closer to my face and peered over the top. It was only to last a few minutes. They got on an empty bus, making sure to take the back seat. For a few seconds I thought about exchanging my ticket for one back to Barcelona, joining them in the back row for a few hours of darkened erotica. I then watched as the bus disappeared into the distance, glancing at the Peruvian to see if he had seen the show and wanted to share a knowing wink with me. He didn’t. With a murderous look in the eye he dropped to the floor to give me 50. The final hour and a half of waiting was spent alone but for a security guard strolling around the hall whistling and farting loudly; each fart triggering childish sniggers from within me. 2am finally came and I handed my ticket to the driver: The all-whistling, all-farting security guard. I hoped the bus had air conditioning.

I was one of about four or five people on the darkened coach. I plugged my earphones into the socket in the chair in front and let the local radio send me to sleep. I woke at 3:30 as we pulled into a large bus station and everyone around me got off. I still had an hour until we reached Lisbon, so I closed my eyes and tried to dose back off. After a couple of minutes of not moving I opened my eyes to see if there was a problem. The driver was out of his seat and was walking up the aisle putting rubbish into a bag and farting loudly. I sniggered. He looked at me, growled something, farted and pointed to the door for me to get off.

“Lisboa?” I asked, puzzled.

“Si,” he said before farting.

I sniggered again.

I wasn’t convinced he was telling the truth, but had no choice other than to disembark. I found myself in a huge forecourt inhabited by gangs of youths stalking the area menacingly. Now I was sure I wasn’t in Lisbon. Sleepily, I dragged my knuckles out of the station to the street, where a large clock on top of a building told me it was 2:30.

‘How can it only be 2:30? I left Badajoz at 2, and that was definitely an hour and a half ago. And I’m not supposed to get to Lisbon until 4:30. What the hell is going on?’ were the thoughts running through my mind.

Then I remembered something that I had learnt during the football European Championships held in Portugal in 2004. Portugal was in the same time zone as England; an hour behind the rest of continental Europe. The ticket saleswoman in Badajoz had, when telling Marina the arrival time, got her time difference calculations wrong. I was definitely in Lisbon; the large Casino Lisboa in front of the bus station gave that away. But I was two hours earlier than I had told my hosts to expect me. I ticked another capital off of my list and sat down on a cold wall.

Kris Mole’s book has been taken on by Valley Press and will be available as a paperback before too long: this is your last chance to buy the much cheaper eBook copy (till mid-September 2011) by visiting:

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