Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Whatever the arguments for and against the continuing European tradition of trading-free Sundays, they have one shining advantage in my view: they free you from the obligation to do anything useful with your Sunday. The shops are closed, so there's no point in making that traditional, hellish Sunday-afternoon trip to the supermarket, and when you add the great Spanish love of downtime, you are usually relieved of any taxing social obligations as well. So, if you're still getting to know an area, Sundays are perfect for making day trips, or "going for a drive" as we, in our car-centric culture, like to call it.

This Sunday we visisted Olivenza, a picturesque little town on the Portuguese border. Although it is only 20km from Badajoz, Olivenza manages to avoid altogether the impression that it is a mere "dormitorio" for the city. In fact, it looks nothing like Badajoz, which tends towards the modern and industrial. Rather, it's a classic southern pueblo, all white walls and cobblestones. It's a fairly well-heeled town; however deeply in economic crisis Spain might be, there are still plenty of people around with plenty of nice, untouched country money under their beds, or wherever it is that they keep it. In Australia we call these people the squatocracy, as a semi-joke, but here, where only relatively gentle land reforms were implemented, many of them really do come from the old landed classes. 

If you mention Olivenza in Badajoz, people will all tell you the same three things: 1. that it's a lovely town; 2. that the Portuguese still claim that it is part of Portugal, and 3. that you have to try the local specialty, tecula mecula. The first claim is undeniably true - Olivenza is about as clean and well-maintained as pueblos come, and it has several lovely public spaces, perfect for that great pueblo pastime, sitting (not pictured).

The second claim is also true, sort of: Olivenza was long the subject of territorial battles between the Spanish and the Portuguese, back in the days when crossing the border meant something more than VAT evasion. There have been a series of treaties since, with claims and counter-claims about the legal standing of each.  The current situation, as I understand it, is that Spain administers the territory but Portugal still marks the town as Portuguese on their maps; a fair compromise, I guess, since Portugal pretty much has its hands full, from an operational point of view. I can report that the signs in the pueblo are all written in Portuguese as well as Spanish, and that the bakery there serves a mean custard tart. These are not, perhaps, grounds for a separatist movement, but they certainly make for an interesting day out.

And the tecula mecula? Well, that's between you and your cardiologist. All Spanish pueblos have a specialty that you absolutely have to try; at least in the South, nearly all of these involve some combination of egg yolks, almonds, and lots of sugar. To these never-fail ingredients, tecula mecula adds pork lard - Spain is no place to be a vegetarian, animal ingredients show up in all sorts of unexpected places - and is consequently even richer than the usual pueblo treat. I don't know how anyone ever gets through a whole cake of the stuff, but thankfully the local bakeries also serve it in pieces so small they feel nearly virtuous. I said nearly

Mind you, I defy you to hear the phrase "famous bakery" and not go rushing immediately to the hallowed site in question. As it turns out, the bakery in Olivenza is rather famous, and doing a pretty good business to boot. (Crisis? What crisis?) It seemed half of Badajoz was there, buying treats by the dozen to take back to their kids, grandkids, workmates, and, oh well, just a sneaky one or two for themselves while they're here; what else are Sundays for?

It's nearly Carnval here, and the pueblerinos themselves were in holiday mode. Kids and adults alike were dressed up in costume to conduct the usual pueblo Sunday business, i.e., hanging out in the town plaza.  Many people were dressed up as gypsies, which is perhaps a more racially loaded choice here, where the Romani are an actual, living minority and not something people think of as fictional. At any rate, only one of the fake-gypsies went down the stereotyped path of fake-pregnant. I think we can call that a win.

So as the sun went down, we left the good people of Olivenza to their own devices, drinking their rum-and-cokes and dancing in the plaza to the tackiest 90's remixes imaginable. (Anyone for a Smurfs remix of the Macarena? Me neither.) The bakeries were closing, and now we were out of place: we had forgotten to bring our gypsy outfits. Maybe next year.

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