Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Bodega Land: Bilbo Doesn't Live Here Anymore

There's little to notice about Moratinos, but one thing that makes all the pilgrims stop and stare and snap photos is the bodegas. They're hard to miss, as the landscape is rather severe otherwise.

Right on the edge of town where the Camino comes in is a funny sort of hill. Dug into its face are 16 little doors. A path leads all the way 'round the base of the hill, and all along it are porches, entryways, lintels, and doors, each one numbered. Each is different from the next. They are cozy and old-fashioned and rural and cute.

Some pilgrims know Moratinos simply as "Hobbiton." We are constantly asked to be introduced to Bilbo Baggins. When Patrick designed our "sello," the stamp we use to mark pilgrims' passports to prove they moved through town, he used the image of the bodega hill.

Bodegas are underground storage lockers, rooms dug deep into hillsides. The constant temperature underground is great for curing hams and sausages and cheeses and making and storing wine. It's also a little way from the houses in town, so traditionally it was where the guys got together to taste last year's vintage, cut down a sausage, and chew the fat for a while.

Our bodegas were dug, according to the dates carved in the walls, in the 1920s and '30s. Each family that owned land in town also owned a bodega. Almost everyone left since then, so most of the caves are abandoned -- some have collapsed. Others are sagging badly, their doorways sealed all summer by thistles and undergrowth. One section resembles an Old West ghost town, with rusting sheet-iron and busted barrels visible deep inside its yawning black mouth.

But others are very fine bodegas indeed, still very much in use right up to this day. Modesto's is one of them, the first one seen by the passing pilgrim. Two years ago he did up the doorway with scallop shells; his family monogram picked out in little stones. Inside is neat and clean and cool, with barrels and bottles brimming with his own tempranillo. Pilgrims sometimes ask Modesto (who may possess a passing resemblance to some Hobbits) why he doesn't live in there. "Why don't you live in a hole in the ground?" he asks them back.

Celestino and Esteban, brothers-in-law, have linked their two bodegas deep under the hill. Lucky pilgrims get a tour of their operation, the biggest in town. Their bodega has a fireplace, a collection of antique and derelict farm equipment, and barrels and barrels of something liquid. Celestino says it was probably his dad or grandad who put wine in those barrels, but he's not gonna be the one to pull the bung. More often than not, it's long ago gone to vinegar. The smell will knock you down, he says.

Their bodega even has electric light... a string of hanging lightbulbs runs on a pair of jumper cables hooked by hand into the wiring for the neighbors' outdoor lights.

The most wonderful bodega by far, however, is one up from Modesto's. That one has it all: a woodstove and chimney, a television aerial and wide-screen setup, tile floors, running water, a bar and seating for 16. That was bought four years ago by "the cave men," a gang of good-time handymen from Sahagun who made it their weekend project for a year or so. Now and then, when there's a big football game on and everyone's schedule meshes, the guys come into town and roast a lamb in there and party all night. It happens less and less these days, though, as the guys get married or leave town for better jobs. I have lived here for almost a year, and have only seen it open once. A good time was had by all!

So when we bought our finca last year, we got a bodega in the deal. It's a fine one; the roof is intact, it has an elegant Gothic pointed-arch vault inside with several alcoves. The winepress is useable, probably. Like our house, it is best described as "full of charm and potential."

There's no light in there. It is always cool and inky dark. It seems like it ought to be damp, but it's not.
The former owners left lots of things behind: a plank table and benches, cups and corkscrews, sheep-shearing scissors, a form for making adobe bricks, three magnificent "trillo" threshing sledges, and several dozen bottles of wine. A few of them are actually drinkable. We found one bottle in there from 1986, and it was truly tasty. Others could clean the crud off a carburetor.

I am reminded of what a "bodega" is in urban parts of the USA: a corner store that specializes in cheap liquor and cold beer, and is subject to frequent hold-ups. The owner usually keeps a ball-bat handy. Cameras watch your every move from front door to cooler to counter.

Faraway and nowadays in Castilla-Leon, a bodega (the classic cave kind) is a curiosity, even for Spaniards. I would like to make some use of ours, someday -- it's very near the camino path, it's always cool in there, it's cozy and dark and very Spanish. A few little stools and a light source of some kind...A chapel for the pilgrims perhaps, with a nice statue set up on the winepress? A cool resting place on hot days? The downsides are apparent already, the majority related to sanitation. Once they've explored, pilgrims routinely use the bodega doorways as latrines. We could make it something free and nice for the pilgrims. But anything nice left unattended is often wrecked, looted, stolen, or otherwise spoiled -- even in the sweetness-and-light atmosphere of the Camino de Santiago.

So I await inspiration. Meantime, the bodega gives me something to do while the house is worked-on. We've lately begun re-facing the outside, where the weather and cheap building materials have conspired to give Bodega 10 a rather bombed-out look. I've painted the door "Luminous Blue," and we're experimenting with concrete and lime plaster to fill in the missing brickwork. It looks like a pizza just now, but things are improving! Film at 11.

If you have ideas, please post them here: If you don't comment, the terrorists win!


Elizabeth said...

Don't manipulate people into leaving comments...that's just not right. Btw, we made that video last fall, so I'm not so fat as the movie would make it seem. I hope I do have a place to sleep when I get to your house, or I'm gonna hang out in the bodega. It sounds down-right livable there compared to your house. Love you.

Ryan said...

I'd much rather sleep on the mattress in the kitchen than in the bodega! There aren't albino spiders in the kitchen... And Modesto does seem a bit hobbit-like. He wrote a book and all, so who knows. It's nice to know that I was witness to the one opening of the really cool bodega - what a rockin' good time they must have there. <3

Robert Ward said...

Please show your hobbit-hole sello. If it's good, I'll come back and do the Camino again just to add it to my collection.

Timecheck said...

Thank you for the bodega hill image. We've been showing that image for years, but never could remember the name of the town where we took the photo. Also find your blog good reading, though a little stressful. Last saw it in May, then Google popped it up recently and I've been spending the morning catching up.

backpack45 said...

We have a photo of the bodegas in our Camino slideshow and people are always interested in them. It's great to get some more information to share about who inhabits "Hobbiton!"

We learned about your venture in Moratinos last winter when we went to the pilgrim gathering in Virginia. I'm sure your project of rebuilding, restoring, and revitalizing your compound in Spain does get lonely and frustrating at times, but doing things the easy way is a lot less exciting!

This year found us doing the Camino route from Porto, Portugal to Santiago de Compostela. Who knows what path we'll take next year, but it would be great to see the project you've undertaken.

Buen Camino, Bon Caminho, ...
Susan Alcorn,
author of "Camino Chronicle: Walking to Santiago"