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50 shades of white

The white towns of Spain and Portugal offer a lifetime of memories that’ll be etched in vivid hues

brunch Updated: Jan 27, 2018 23:19 IST
Saubhadra Chatterji
A typical Andalusian farmhouse in the middle of rolling hills
A typical Andalusian farmhouse in the middle of rolling hills(Saubhadra Chatterji)

One shouldn’t blame me for giving a hoot to traffic rules when (a) there are no other cars on the road and (b) there aren’t any cops around.

On the highway number A 2300 of Spain, there’s another alibi to take the wrong side and rash turns. A turquoise blue lake lies below shimmering in afternoon breeze. Hills of different shapes and sizes surround the vast waters and paint the horizon in shades of brown, grey and green.

Across the lake, halfway up the hills, there are lines of white houses – like strings of pearls – amidst this dramatic Andalusian landscape. The canvas, as if straight from Claude Monet’s studio, is so astonishing that I almost forget that my rented car is not at an authorised parking lot! (No, I didn’t pay any fine.)

Ten minutes later, we start climbing up the cobbled road that goes through this ‘white village’ with a fancy name – Zahara de la Sierra.

Driving halfway up the hills, there are lines of white houses — like strings of pearls — amidst this dramatic Andalusian landscape. The canvas is straight from Claude Monet’s studio

And when we reach the steepest part of the road, my wife cum navigator abruptly makes me stop, emphasising that we missed a parking space.

My driving skills have been acquired in Noida. I tackle cars rushing from all directions, jumping red lights and bovines blocking 70 per cent of the roads. It’s a cop-out that the Maruti school never taught me how to restart cars on a slope!

Every time I press the accelerator, my fat Citroën Cactus rolls down further. Finally, when it halts dangerously close to the brand-new BMW behind us, I get down. Request a bewildered beauty to drive it to safety.

Hit the white

Look out for Thomas Edward Lawrence’s lesson on dreams in Lagos (Saubhadra Chatterji)

This place in the craggy backdrop is widely considered as one of the most beautiful white towns or pueblos blancos in Spanish. The colour keeps the houses cool in the extreme summer heat. It must have also helped, centuries ago, to locate these villages from miles away.

Only the church is painted cornsilk (to stand out from the rest, I presume). There’s a small parking (in difficult roads, I am a law-abiding Bengali bhadralok) and a few restaurants. Most of them offer a set meal: a drink, starter, main course and a dessert.

The cemetery in Zahara de la Sierra, Spain (Saubhadra Chatterji)

We walk in to Mesón Los Estribos. Not because it serves a better meal than others in this village but we get a table overlooking the stunning landscape.

It becomes our longest lunch. We simply can’t take our eyes off the gorgeous lake (a reservoir, I learn later), the white houses on its banks and the imposing hills. And blame it on the heady cocktail of the nature’s opulence and full-bodied red wine, my wife, for the first time, praises me (only for planning the trip)!

Grazalema, one of most picturesque white villages of southern Spain (Saubhadra Chatterji)

Half an hour and a narrow, steeper road later we are in Grazalema – another gem of a pueblo blanco. Hotels are available here but two-three hours are sufficient to get the feel of the place.

I start negotiating for a belt at a leather workshop, then enquire for some cheese, a calendar, wooden toys, Jamón and finally buy the local favourite orange-flavoured chocolate.

A busy Tapas bar in Ronda, Spain (Saubhadra Chatterji)

The Andalusian sun has tilted towards the western mountains and we have a long way to go back to Seville. The highway through the rolling plains, is a delight to drive even for a novice like me.

The white villages/towns can be found all over Andalucia. Each is an unparalleled romance. Ronda hangs perilously on sheer cliffs. It’s old and (relatively) new towns is connected by three old bridges.

While the entire country is obsessed about Jamón (Spanish ham), Ronda’s town squares surprisingly have tapas bars that sell mouth-watering duck breasts.

The busy marketplace of Lagos teems with tourists throughout the year (Saubhadra Chatterji)

It’s evening. Don’t expect a Spaniard to stay at home. The entire town seems to have gathered at the plazas (squares). The cafés and tapas bars are teeming with customers who prefer the patio over the bar counter.

At Plaza del Socorro, we get a table at La Taberna – recommended by the receptionist of San Cayetano hotel – and wait for a slow braised pork cheek and Galician-style octopus.

Although the place is crowded, there’s no hurry to prepare or serve the food. It’s a small town and people are not bores like us. They take their life seriously – and thereby – slowly.

Portuguese invasion

Wall graffiti in Lagos, Portugal (Saubhadra Chatterji)

f you happen to hit the Portugal’s Algarve region, you may feel like home. It’s the Goa of Europe. Small towns/villages, excellent beaches and awesome seafood with a great variety of wine.

Although the place is crowded, there’s no hurry to prepare or serve the food. People here take their life seriously—and thereby — slowly!

The thing that’s missing here is the coveted old ‘Portugese homes’ that is a quintessential part of Goa’s heritage. Instead, the sleepy towns have rows of white houses often decorated with glazed tiles.

Tavira, near the Portugal-Spain border, is a cut above the rest. Unlike the bigger cities of Portugal, it’s almost a virgin territory for tourists as the bigger and boisterous crowd goes to the resort town of Lagos, an hour’s drive to west. Tavira celebrates its days with happy locals and British pensioners.

Lagos, the white resort town in Portugal (Saubhadra Chatterji)

River Gilão bifurcates the beautiful town, which dozes off early. But at the corner where the river takes a silent turn, two restaurants, housed in non-white buildings, are my favourite destinations.I sit by the riverside to be baptized to Super Bock beer. Many customers are glued to the TVs hanging on the outer walls to watch what is probably the Portugese version of Kyunki... Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi....

Somewhere, someone strums his guitar. The moonlight flows on the gentle waters. The sea gulls have returned home. The empty cobbled streets bid adieu to the last few faceless pedestrians. The air smells of serenity.

If one cares to listen to these moments of daily life, they will whisper: never be a tourist. Be a traveller.

And if you travel to the white towns, your memories will be etched in vivid colours. Guaranteed.

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From HT Brunch, January 28, 2018

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