In 1967 I was awarded an Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) scholarship to visit Spain for three months during the summer. I believe the amount involved was less than 200 pounds, which gives you some idea of the cost of living back then. The school was expected to fit me up with families that I could stay with. I spent the first five weeks or so with my friend Juan Jose Badiola. Though I had met him in Córdoba, one side of his family originally hailed from the mountains of León, in the north. He spent his summers there. That was where I went first, to a tiny village called Tolibia de Abajo (there is also a Tolibia de Arriba nearby).
I traveled out to Spain in the bowels of a car ferry with my friend Alan, who was off to other parts of Spain. The 36-hour trip (one day, two nights) was uneventful except for rough seas in the Bay of Biscay. The route was Southampton – Bilbao and I think the cost was eight pounds each way. It was the first time I had been away from my family for any length of time. Forty years ago, it seemed quite an adventure.
Once I reached León by train, we drove up into the mountains in an old Land Rover. It was a very narrow, windy, unpaved road. As far as I was concerned, I could have been crossing the Alps. Unfortunately, I had no camera, so I have no photos of my trip at all. I found a website for León that has quite a lot of photos of the area now. I include a few of the photos below. The website also contains a lot of historical and cultural information about the villages (in Spanish).
Eventually we reached a plateau, a sort of plain among the mountain tops. It was breathtaking and I felt as if I had arrived in Shangri-la. It was summer, of course, so the fields were lush with crops.
According to the website, the population of the village is still only 63. The accommodation was simple, Spartan by today’s standards. One of Juan José’s uncles was there for a holiday. He went fishing every day and in the evenings there was more trout than we could eat. I have never forgotten how Juan José would catch fish by hand, in the eddys along the sides of the streams and rivers.
I had never seen so many stars in the sky as I saw in Tolibia. We were nearly 1200 meters above sea level and far away from the city.
These are photos of Tolibia de Arriba.
Alan came to stay as well. As usual, his powers of recall are much greater than mine.
“I remember travelling up by train from Madrid to León, and then taking the narrow guage train up into the mountains. The final stage was by Land Rover along an unmade road up, up, up with the wheels inches from the sheer drop to the river below.
I had a room in the house of an old widow, but took my meals with another family. We ate in the kitchen, with hams and chorizos hanging from the beams. That was my introduction to fabada – lip-smacking stuff eaten with hunks of home made bread, washed down with rough wine. I certainly got my money’s worth.
There are some rich folk in the village for the summer. We go one day to one of the houses with a swimming pool; the water is icy cold. The girls are teases, I guess in those times in Spain it wasn’t possible for them to be otherwise.
One day we attempt to climb Bodón, in just our ordinary shoes. A crazy stunt, but we did get a fair way up.
The night before I’m due to set off for Gijón, up to Arriba, where two lads are celebrating their last day at home before going off to do their mili [National Service]. Sit in The night before I’m due to set off for Gijón, up to Arriba, where two lads are celebrating their last day at home before going off to do their mili [National Service]. Sit in the shack of a bar and drink red biddy. We stagger back down the hill. Somebody freewheeling down with no lights, no brake, no bell – who do you think gets sent sprawling? Cut my hand badly, and the old lady sprinkles it liberally with stuff that stains magenta, and takes weeks to fade away. As soon as I lay down the room starts spinning and I just make it to the window before losing the wine. The following day I get a lift with the rich neighbours, my journey to Gijón endured with a vile hangover.”