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The Endless Siesta
A summertime Spanish road trip story about what changes and what doesn't.
It was a strange siesta. After a late lunch of black olives, jamón Iberico, manchego cheese and a half bottle of the local red in the hot July sun, I’d nodded off on the balcony of the apartment I was renting, which overlooked the town square of Haro, in the heart of northern Spain’s La Rioja region. Thumping electronic music and someone shouting into a microphone startled me awake. In my fog of slumber, the pulsing music sounded like a siren, the urgent voice calling people to action. It alarmed me. What could be happening? Certainly, the coronavirus’s delta variant had been ravaging Spain at that moment, but I was unaware of any civil unrest.
As I gained my senses, I peered over the balcony. It was just a few dozen people in workout clothes, pedaling stationary bikes in front of the town hall, while Peloton instructors loudly encouraged them to pedal faster. All around them in the square, other residents of Haro, with face masks under their chins, calmly nibbled their tapas and sipped their wine at crowded bars and cafes. Others, properly masked, strolled the square as masked kids ran around and kicked soccer balls. It was 7 p.m., and the sun was still bright and warm.
I felt silly, but this was my fifth day of isolation after testing positive for the coronavirus, and my brain was running wild with crazy scenarios. After nearly two glorious Spanish weeks, I’d had to get a coronavirus test in the days before my flight home. The idea of becoming infected after vaccination was new and unclear, and so I was floored when the nurse at the clinic where I tested showed me that I was positive. Since my trip had to be extended, I rented an Airbnb and was now having an isolated siesta by myself for days on end.
I’d had only very mild symptoms. Then, on Day 2, I bit into the jamón and couldn’t taste it. I swirled and sniffed my wine and realized I couldn’t smell it. All my senses returned perfectly fine by Day 3, but during those 24 hours I had composed an entire book in my mind about the food and wine writer who’d lost his ability to taste or smell.
This summer trip was my first since the pandemic had begun. When the European Union opened its doors to fully vaccinated Americans in late June 2021, I caught the first flight I could, on the 4th of July. When I had originally planned this trip two years before, my idea was to write about the state of the Spanish siesta. Like many outsiders, I’ve always been fascinated by the daily schedule in Spain: work from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., complete shutdown of work for at least two hours, work again from 4 p.m. to about 8, dinner no earlier than 10, bed after midnight, repeat.
Pundits had been declaring the death of the siesta for more than 20 years. At the start of 2006, the New York Times, reporting that Spain’s central government ended the two- to three-hour midday break for its workers (“For many in Spain, siesta ends”), declared: “they will be forced to abandon a tradition that has typified Spanish life for decades.” A decade later, the siesta persisted as a sacred afternoon ritual. In 2015, it was big news when the mayor of a village near Valencia issued an official edict that all shops, offices and bars must be closed, and residents must not make any noise, from 2 to 5 p.m., to “guarantee everybody’s rest and thus better deal with the rigors of the summer.”
Still, speculation over the siesta’s fate continued. In 2016, when Spain’s prime minister tried to stop the workday at 6 p.m., the BBC asked, “The end of the Spanish siesta?” The news outlet doubled down a year later, declaring, “It’s time to put the tired Spanish siesta stereotype to bed.” A year before the pandemic, the Guardian dissected the issue (“Siesta no more? Why Spanish sleeping habits are under strain”). The newspaper spoke to a man who was president of a group called the National Commission for the Rationalization of Spanish Schedules, which campaigned to end the split working day and revert to Greenwich Mean Time. Apparently, in a quirk of history, Spain remains in the “wrong” time zone, dating to when the fascist dictator Gen. Francisco Franco moved the nation’s clocks forward an hour in solidarity with Nazi Germany during World War II. Which is why the Spanish sun doesn’t set until nearly 10 p.m. in midsummer.
Yet in 2021, if the siesta was supposedly dying, I saw little evidence. Shops and businesses shut down at 2 p.m. and reopened at 4, just like always. Some Spanish friends told me that, if anything, the pandemic—with its lockdowns and working from home and narrowing of the world—had led to a rekindling of their relationship with the siesta.
After the initial shock and scramble of travel logistics, I gave in to the rhythm of the isolated days. I loved watching the daily routines of the town from a distance. How the cycle of temperatures governed the day in the cafes below, people sipping coffee in the cool early morning, bustling through the first part of the workday, and then a stillness in the stifling hot midafternoon, only to come back to raucous life at twilight. Then, around midnight, as the bars closed and the square quieted down, a cool wind always seemed to blow into town.
My suddenly quiet nights were quite a different experience from my other dozen or so trips to Spain. On those trips, at that hour, I might only be finishing dinner, sipping a gin and tonic in a giant balloon wine glass, and getting ready to head out into the night. More than a few times over the years, I’d found myself behind a bar at 3 a.m., mixing cocktails for a crowd of new friends. Like many American men visiting Spain, I was perhaps channeling a boozy, aging Ernest Hemingway, who wrote in Death in the Afternoon, “Nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night.”
Coincidentally, the only book on the apartment’s shelves was something called Hemingway Traveler, a flimsy tourism paperback published in Spanish, Basque and English, full of the author’s crusty, dusty, machismo quotes and photos of his travels in northern Spain. I flipped through it quickly and tossed it aside, profoundly uninterested. Probably for too many years of my life, as a traveler and a writer, I followed what Hemingway wrote a little too closely. Now, in the middle of a pandemic, and 50 years old, it seemed ridiculous or irrelevant, or worse. I didn’t want to kill the night, or anything else. I just wanted to eat tapas and nap. An endless siesta seemed perfect.
Before my isolation in Haro, I’d spent the previous 10 days with my friend François, a writer who lives in Madrid. François is Belgian, but his wife, Rosa, is Spanish, and he’s lived in Spain for many years. When I arrived in Madrid, I realized that Rosa, a teacher, was off on a summer holiday with their daughter at her family’s village near the southern coast. “I’m a bachelor this week,” François said. “Estoy de Rodríguez.”
In Spain, when a man says, “Estoy de Rodríguez,” it means that he is home alone while his wife and children are elsewhere on vacation. It’s a corny, dated, idiomatic expression that roughly means “When the cat’s away, the mice will play.” Some say it dates to a mostly forgotten 1965 comedy, The Hot Summer of Mr. Rodríguez, in which a husband dreams of an extramarital affair while his wife is on vacation. That film is sappy and chaste (made during Franco-era censorship), but a racier follow-up came along in 1975, Tres Suecas Para Tres Rodríguez (“Three Swedes for Three Rodríguezes”), in which three dudes whose wives go on vacation … hang out with three Swedish women. Not exactly a classic.
The idea of François being “de Rodríguez” came up as a joke one evening while we ate the most amazing jamón and sardines at a crowded corner bar. Our other friend Abraham was leading us on a tapas crawl. “This is sacred,” Abraham said. “When a man calls his friend and says he is ‘de Rodríguez,’ that friend needs to clear his schedule and go out with you.”
The only agenda for these Three Rodríguezes, however, was a deep dive into tapas and a galaxy of drinks and food you get only at Spanish bars. At Casa Camacho, we had yayos (a cocktail with vermouth, a little gin and a fizzy soda) along with patatas bravas. At Casa Julio, we had amazing croquetas and vermouth from the tap. At Asturian spots like Perlora and Casa Parrondo, we had young Cabrales cheese and mussels to go with the cider. At a sherry bar called La Venencia, we had amontillado sherry and olives. All along the way, there were countless tiny cañas of beer to wash down more sardines, more manchego, more jamón.
“Bars are the best thing about living in Spain,” said François. “Yes, the climate is nice, it’s affordable, safe, and life is easy. But still, it’s the bars that are the best part.”
In July, Covid-19 did not appear to be dampening the buzz at Madrid’s tapas bars, which had been shut down during the worst of the pandemic. People dutifully wore their masks on the street, but once inside the bar they felt free to take them off. The only nod to the pandemic seemed to be that the government had prohibited people from crowding around the bar itself. But most places just moved tables in front of the bar, and so people crowded around those instead. Plates of toothpicked snacks continued to be handed over the bar and consumed while standing up. Those toothpicks and napkins soon ended up tossed on the floor, just like always in Spain, which never ceases to be mildly surprising at first.
I was still adjusting to the midday heat in Madrid. The evening tapas crawl had followed a shorter one earlier that day, during the hot siesta hours. François and I met an older friend of his, Alberto, for a short pre-lunch crawl of three bars. Alberto was a linguist in his late 60s, an expert in Arabic, sporting a big bushy white mustache and a blazer even though the heat was stifling. I was dressed in shorts and still sweated through my shirt.
Alberto talked about his time as a bartender at a popular spot during La Movida, the wild, hedonistic countercultural movement in Madrid during the post-Franco 1970s and 1980s. He also regaled us with tales of Tangier, Morocco, where he spends part of the year and owns a home. Alberto seemed like the kind of worldly gentleman I could see modeling my own golden years after.
Then, the vibe suddenly changed when he seemed to realize I was wearing shorts. “If I owned a bar, I would not allow anyone in who was wearing short trousers,” he said to François, who laughed at me. François happened to also be wearing a blazer and long pants. No offense, Alberto said, “but it’s not about the heat. It’s about dressing the part.” For Alberto there was a certain date every year, in late summer, when he allows himself to stop wearing socks for a brief period. Other than that, he believed a man should be fully dressed, including a jacket.
“But it’s so hot,” I said.
“Well, that’s what the siesta is for,” François said.
François and I plotted a road trip that would take us to Spain’s northeast, to La Rioja and Basque Country. The original plan had been to go to Pamplona for the famous Festival of San Fermín and its annual running of the bulls. Even though I knew Pamplona would be a ridiculous touristy mess of Hemingway-induced testosterone and role-playing, I figured I should see the spectacle once in my life. But months before my trip, San Fermín and the bullfights had been canceled for the second year in a row (the last time the festival had been canceled for consecutive years was during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s). No bulls for us.
Before I left Madrid, I visited the Prado Museum, alone, while François did some work. The Prado is one of the world’s greatest art museums, full of grand masterpieces by Goya, Velázquez, El Greco, Rubens, Titian, Bosch and countless others.
There I came across Juan Sánchez Cotán’s “Still Life With Game, Vegetables and Fruit,” a strange painting from 1602 depicting a cupboard with small birds attached to a cane, three lemons, seven apples, a goldfinch, a sparrow, two partridges and a white thistle-like vegetable called a cardoon — all set against a deep black background. Cotán is considered the inventor of the Spanish bodegón painting, simple, austere still lifes of pantry items. Only six of his paintings still exist. The objects in the painting, according to the audio tour on my headphones, “are precise and sober, and at the same time, poetic and strange. They highlight everyday simplicity.”
I spent a long time looking at the piece. Something about Cotán’s life story connected with me. In his 40s, one year after he painted that still life, the artist had some sort of midlife crisis. We don’t know why — though, apparently, a bunch of people owed him money for paintings. Whatever the reason, in 1603, he closed his workshop, renounced the world and entered a Carthusian monastery, where he lived a life of solitude, silence and contemplation.
After a few hours at the Prado, it was nearing 2 p.m. While the museum is an institution that remains open during the siesta, I had to meet François for lunch. So, I walked over to a nearby restaurant called Angelita, where he was waiting for me.
François insisted we order tomatoes as our first course. “These are the best tomatoes you will ever eat in your life,” he insisted. There are not many times in life where someone says something so hyperbolic and it turns out to be true. That two-hour lunch was among the most memorable meals I have eaten in the past several years. And those tomatoes! They were a variety called Corazón de Buey that were grown in Zamora at the family farm of Angelita’s owners. They were so red, so meaty, so juicy, that one bite brought tears to my eyes.
Is it ridiculous to say that the most exciting, inspiring thing I did in Spain was eat a tomato? Hemingway certainly would not have been impressed. But in that moment, I reflected on what the audio tour in the Prado had said about the 17th-century still lifes, that “one could see the creative hand of God in even the most trivial of objects.”
François and I hit the road the next morning. We eventually drove along the Basque coast, eating a breakfast of bonito washed down with txakoli wine, then a lunch of txuleta steaks with Rioja, then cruised up into the hills above San Sebastián to the village of Astigarraga, and sampled crisp Basque ciders straight out of the tanks at a cidery called Zapiain.
We traveled into the Basque green foothills for lunch at Asador Etxebarri, set in a rustic stone house and run by chef Victor Arguinzoniz, who grills everything on the menu — and who, as the story goes, fell in love with the magic of fire as a child because his family house had no electricity or gas and they cooked on an open hearth. There is nothing secret about Asador Etxebarri — it was recently voted the third-best restaurant in the world by a panel of more than 1,000 experts, and has been talked about in most of the world’s food media.
Still, this was a culinary pilgrimage for François and me. For over three hours we were served more than a dozen courses, including the platonic ideal of chorizo, sardines, prawns, razor clams, goose barnacles and a whole red bream. The steak that came as the last course seemed, as François said, “like our reward for making it through the meal.” Despite the grandeur of the lunch, the thing that jumped out to me was a mind-bending dish of grilled eggplant. Eggplant! How could something so simple and humble be so masterfully presented? Cotán would have been impressed.
During that gluttonous blur of days, there was so much movement and eating that we barely took the time for a siesta. We headed south into Rioja, Spain’s most famous wine region, and visited a winemaker named Sandra Bravo in Villabuena, a village of just 300 residents but around 40 wineries. Sandra, whose winery Sierra de Toloño is among an exciting new generation in Rioja, is committed to organic farming, low-intervention winemaking and growing grapes at high altitudes, over 2,000 feet in elevation. The reason for this was obvious during the hot summer days in Rioja. “Now with climate change, everyone is climbing the mountains,” she said. Sandra took us to one of her favorite vineyards, planted more than 100 years ago. The terrace above the vineyard was ringed by huge ancient stone slabs, which she called the “Agnostic Cemetery.” She told us that, as she worked alone there, she felt a certain spirituality she couldn’t quite explain. I also felt something there among those vines, something similar to what I felt in the Prado and while eating those tomatoes and eggplants.
In the evening, we made a tapas crawl through Rioja’s capital city, Logroño. Here, crowds flock to more than 100 tiny bars in a two-block area of downtown for the small plates known as pintxos, and wine. Our guide was Pedro Barrio, a local dentist who also happens to be president of the Rioja Academy of Gastronomy. He led us to Calle del Laurel, the epicenter. There’s certainly a lot of tapas in Spain, but even here, Calle del Laurel stands out.
Our first stop was a place called Bar Soriano, serving only grilled wild mushrooms in a garlicky butter sauce and topped with a skewered shrimp. From there, Pedro intended for us get more adventurous pintxos. Our next stop was Bar El Perchas, which sold two pintxos: pig’s ear in a spicy sauce and a fried pig’s ear sandwich. I couldn’t help but laugh: Where else besides Spain could a bar exist with a menu of two pig’s ear dishes?
At Bar Donosti, we ordered a dish of quail egg, chorizo and spicy pepper called cojonudos (the name means “ballsy,” a compliment) followed by baby lamb intestine. On Calle del Laurel the crowd continued to grow until it was packed wall-to-wall. Sure, everyone wore masks, but still. I said to the bartender at Bar Donosti, “It’s like there’s not even a pandemic.” He shrugged and said, “It’s Spain. Spain is different.”
At the end of the evening, Pedro took us to a private club owned by his wife’s family, housed in a building right in the center of the tapas epicenter. He opened a bottle of Rioja while we looked at the wall, every inch covered with bullfight memorabilia: old posters and black-and-white photos of famous bullfighters, their colorful costumes, swords and bandilleras. For someone who’d read so much Hemingway as a younger person, it was all so oddly familiar. As we drank wine in this room, it struck me just how strange it is that Americans like me know so much about bullfighting and a certain take on Spain through our literature — and so little about so many other things in the world.
In the morning, I once again felt like we needed to do something besides eating and drinking, something at least mildly active. There was an option to go horseback riding, but that was out of the question — I am deathly and irrationally afraid of horses. A bicycle tour seemed a nice alternative, and one winery, called Bodegas Lecea in the village of San Asensio, offered electric bike tours. Even easier, I thought. Since François was a little hung over, I didn’t mention anything to him about the electric bike tour.
It was only when we arrived and our guide, Estela, handed us helmets that François looked at me in horror and informed me that he didn’t know how to ride a bike. Estela couldn’t understand François’ reticence and hopped on her bike and took off down the hill. “Are you going to be okay?” I asked François, then also began pedaling. Behind me, about 30 seconds later, I heard François shout and turned around to see him falling and crashing the electric bike. I explained to Estela that François would be sitting this one out. When I returned an hour later from the tour, François said, “Next time, we ride horses. Like real men.”
It was a few days later, after François had returned to his life and responsibilities in Madrid — no longer de Rodríguez— that I tested positive. During my siesta isolation in Haro, I left the apartment only twice. Once, triple-masked, to stock up on food and wine at the store. The other, on Day 7, in a fit of cabin fever, I walked directly to my rental car and drove to the outskirts of town. Alone, under the midday sun, I hiked the Hondón Trail, a path along a meandering section of the Ebro River. No electric bikes, no horses. Just my own two feet.
My destination was first a medieval necropolis, and then the remains of a Celtic temple. The Celts made wine here long before the Romans arrived. And before them, the Phoenicians, who arrived around 1200 B.C., tended their grape vines. But there was civilization here long before that. All along the Basque side of the Ebro valley, there is a series of dolmen, huge stone tombs built 3,000 to 6,000 years ago, as well as the remains of an entire Neolithic village. Outside the village of Elvillar sits La chabola de la Hechicera—the Witch’s Hut—a 3,000-year-old mini-Stonehenge of huge stone slabs where, legend has it, a witch can be heard singing on the morning of midsummer’s day.
I stopped for a long time at the ancient hilltop Celtic temple, overlooking the vast spread of vineyards under the sweltering sun, with human-made indentations in the rock that archaeologists believe were sacrificial pools. It felt deeply spiritual. The time spent in isolation, in a foreign country, on this pandemic-era trip, was changing me. Once upon a time, looking across the Ebro Valley or observing a quiet Spanish square, I would have remembered a pithy quote from Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” or “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” or “The Sun Also Rises,” but not now. Instead, I thought about something a septuagenarian winemaker had told François and me the week before. “At best, you have only 30 or 40 harvests in your life,” the winemaker said. “What keeps me alive is that I’m always looking for the best harvest of my life. But, of course, the best harvest never comes.”
The next morning, I drove to a clinic in Bilbao to be tested again. This time: negative. I could now return home whenever I wanted. I was so relieved that I could physically feel the stress leave my body, my muscles loosen. I returned to Haro and stopped at a winery, López de Heredia, ordered a half bottle of red wine and a plate of jamón and olives, and sat in the sunshine, enjoying my freedom from the virus.
I was happy. I felt extremely fortunate to be alive and healthy, with all my senses intact. I felt very lucky to be a vaccinated American traveling in Spain, eating Spanish food, drinking Spanish wine, being on a crazy Spanish schedule, estoy de Rodríguez. Though I wasn’t the same young, adventure-seeking traveler that I may have been in years past, I felt a sense of peace about that as well. That afternoon, I took a long, deep, satisfying siesta.