It’s summer 2005, and our first visit to Extremadura. Traversing Cáceres province in our trusty hired Kia Picanto, we stop for a coffee with acquaintances of ours, a young Dutch couple who have recently bought a small hotel. They intend to let modest rooms to hikers on the Via de la Plata.
The business isn’t open to the public yet, and family have arrived from Holland to help with the necessary work. Dad is up a ladder fitting kitchen lights, while dogs run around playing in the empty bar area. Some hikers turn up out of the blue, seeking a meal; none can be offered, but it strikes us all as a good sign for the future of the enterprise. We celebrate with instant coffee and digestives.
Meanwhile, a walnut-skinned, bearded and eye-patched Spaniard of indeterminate age supervises as an unkempt campesino staggers in, hunched under stacked boxes of potatoes. This piratical pal, we hear, is a neighbour who’s helping the new owners to bridge the international divide, using his local knowledge while practicing his few words of English. Scratching his beard, he earwigs attentively to our English-language conversation. (Our Dutch friend speaks excellent English and Spanish, having clearly been blessed with the linguistic gift of all those whose mother tongues are used only by their mothers.)
“We need to find someone to take an empty lorry to Holland and get our stuff.”
“Can’t you find a local firm to do it?” I ask.
“From Seville, I suppose. Cost a fortune though. Not sure there’ll be anyone out here in the sticks.”
Blackbeard thinks for a moment, perhaps translating in his head, then becomes suddenly animated. He thumbs over his shoulder to the kitchen, where a muted crash and a stream of Spanish profanity indicate that the spuds have found a new home.
“Diego have lorry!” he proclaims triumphantly, as said individual re-emerges, now without the boxes but (curiously) still with the hunch. Too many potato deliveries, I suppose. The two Spaniards have a rapid-fire guttural exchange in their own language.
Diego removes his greasy cap and twists it between his hands, eyes downcast. “I can go to Holland …” he eventually offers, in an only slightly slower and clearer castellano, ” … but not today. Not until I sell all my potatoes.”
My Dutch host and I exchange a glance. “You do know where Holland is, don’t you?” he checks.
Diego looks briefly bewildered, but recovers with a half-smile. “The other side of Salamanca, isn’t it?”
* * *
Of course, it wasn’t Diego’s fault in not being well travelled. Potatoes, like the majority of produce in Extremadura, have been grown and traded locally for many generations. For me it’s the right way to do things, and long may it continue.
I can’t help feeling sorry, though, for the younger-generation extremeños, who are being asked to promote this rugged, rustic territory into an international tourist destination. The bright-eyed and recently-qualified, excitedly clutching their tourism degrees or certificates in English or German language, hurry to prepare Extremadura for the tidal wave of international interest they’ve all been encouraged to expect by a hopeful but broke regional government.
Unfortunately, developing Extremadura as a must-see holiday destination is, for them, a little like learning to swim on the internet. How do you even begin to satisfy the needs of a buying public whose own culture you’ve never experienced, but whose lands you can’t afford to visit?
Should they market raciones, pitarra, and the hora de siesta as indigenous delights, or change them to suit the world-weary traveller used to the no-brainer convenience of platos combinados and all-day opening? Are los toros potentially part of the solution, or part of the problem?
Perhaps it would be easier if this region were coastal, then they could clone the bucket-and-spade high-jinx that many of those areas have perfected over decades. Here, though, they aim to sell history, hiking, cycling, gastronomy, birdwatching, horse riding and other country pursuits to a market whose demographics they don’t appear to understand, and which (for the most part) isn’t even yet aware of Extremadura’s existence.
It’s a brave undertaking and I wish them all well. Extremadura is a beautiful, unspoilt region with much to offer, and deserves to succeed. But for this to work, I fear more of its people are first going to have to grit their teeth, gird their loins and find the means to venture beyond the other side of Salamanca.