Pickles, Nuns, and Bullfights: España

By Rick Steves
Tapas Pickles in Salamanca, Spain
In Spain, spice up your life by eating a banderilla, if you dare. (photo: Rick Steves)

Markets with a passion for pickles and ham, bars with bullfights blaring on the TV, cloistered nuns selling cupcakes, Spanish towns — whether famous among tourists or unknown — come with plenty of ways to connect with the local culture.

I'm in Arcos de la Frontera (just south of Sevilla) but I could be just about anywhere in Spain. Its entertaining market is my first stop. The pickle woman encourages me to try a banderilla, named for the bangled spear that a matador sticks into the bull. As I gingerly slide an onion off the tiny skewer of pickled olives, onions, and carrots, she tells me to eat it all at once — the pickle equivalent of throwing down a shot of vodka. The lady in the adjacent meat stall bursts into laughter at my shock. Explosivo!

Like pickles, the meat stall — or salchicheria — is an important part of any Spanish market. In Spain, ever since Roman times, December has been the month to slaughter pigs. After the slaughter they salt and dry every possible bit of meat into various sausages, hams, and pork products. By late spring, that now-salty meat is cured, able to withstand the heat, and hanging in tempting market displays. Ham appreciation is big here. While in Spain, I am an aficionado.

Still enjoying my ham sample, I step across the street and into a cool dark bar filled with very short, old guys. In Spain, any man over a certain age spent his growth-spurt years trying to survive the brutal Civil War (1936–39). Those who did, generally did so just barely. That generation is a head shorter than the people of the next.

In the bar, the gang — side-lit like a Rembrandt portrait — is fixed on the TV, watching the finale of a long series of bullfights. El Cordobés is fighting. His father, also El Cordobés, was the Babe Ruth of bullfighting. El Cordobés uses his dad’s name even though his dad sued in an effort to stop him. 

Marveling at the bar’s fun and cheap list of wines and hard drinks, I order a Cuba Libre for about $1.50. The drink comes tall and stiff, with a dish of peanuts. Suddenly the room gasps. I can’t believe the vivid scene on the screen. El Cordobés has been hooked and does a cartwheel over the angry bull’s head. The gang roars as El Cordobés buries his head in his arms and the bull tramples and tries to gore him. The TV repeats the scene many times.

El Cordobés survives and — no surprise — eventually kills the bull. As he makes a victory lap, picking up bouquets tossed by adoring fans, the camera zooms in on the rip exposing his hip and a 10-inch-long bloody wound. The short men around me will remember and talk about this moment for years.

At the convent, located piously on the next corner, no one notices. Its windows are striped with heavy bars and spikes as if to protect the cloistered nuns from the bull bar. Popping into the dimly lit foyer, I push the buzzer and the creaky lazy Susan spins, revealing a bag of freshly-baked macaroons and cupcakes. I buy cupcakes to support the mission work of the convent. Feeling like a religious peeping Tom, I can actually see — through the not-quite one-way mirror — the not-meant-to-be-seen sister in her flowing robe and habit momentarily appear and disappear.

Saving my appetite for dinner, I dole my cupcakes out to children as I wander on. My town walk culminates at another convent — which is now the best restaurant in town, Restaurante El Convento. María Moreno Moreno, the proud owner, explains the menu. (Spanish children take the name of both parents — who in María’s case must have been distant cousins.) As church bells clang, she pours me a glass of vino tinto mucho cuerpo (red wine, full-bodied) from the Rioja region.

Asking for top-quality ham, I get a plate of jamón ibérico. Maria explains that, while quite expensive, it’s first class, from acorn-fed pigs with black feet. It actually does taste better, with a bouquet of its own and a sweet aftertaste. It goes just right with my mucho cuerpo vino.

I tell Maria the man at the next table looks like El Cordobés. One glance and she says, "El Cordobés is much more handsome." When I mention his recent drama, she says, "It’s been a difficult year for matadors."