Literary Inspiration for A Traveller in Wines

"Here," cried Don Quixote, "here, brother Sancho Panza, we shall be able to dip our hands up to the elbows, in what is called adventure. . ." – Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes

"People talk of the glorious dreams of opium-smokers, the frenzied exhilaration that hashish can give, but I, who have studied both, assure you that neither can for a moment compare with the delirious joy of fifty or sixty Spaniards applauding a dancer in the upper room of a café in Seville!" – From Paris to Cádiz, Alexandre Dumas pere

"Of one thing the reader may be assured, – that dear will be to him, as is now to us, the remembrance of those wild and weary rides through tawny Spain. . ." – Gatherings From Spain, Richard Ford.

"The traveller in wines, finding these topics a little beyond his comprehension, remarked loudly that Sénécal was forgetting a lot of scandals." – Sentimental Education, Gustave Flaubert, whose work was greatly influenced by Cervantes's Don Quixote.

Gerry Dawes at Marisquería Rafa in Madrid.
Photo by John Sconzo, Docsconz: Musings on Food & Life

Share This Post

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Pamplona: Memories of Alicia Hall in Sanfermines, Legendary Picnics in Ronscesvalles & Other Vignettes from Alicia's Aura

* * * * *
 (All photographs copyright 2018 by Gerry Dawes.)

Alicia Hall, Sanfermines, early 1970s.
Photo by Gerry Dawes.

My late ex-wife Diana Valenti Dawes and I  spent many wonderful sanfermines with Alicia Hall from 1970 through 1975 and in 1977 and 1978. Some years we began in Burguete before fiesta, staying at Hostal Burguete, which was Ernest Hemingway's inspiration for Jake Barnes' hotel during his trout fishing expeditions in The Sun Also Rises.  We would drive Alicia up there and spend a quiet relaxing time - - reading, walking out on the road to Roncesvalles to pick tiny wild strawberries to put on our ice cream after dinner at the Hostal Burguete and having long discussions about Spain over dinner with plenty of vino tinto

Trout fishing in the Pyrenees.  
Photo by Gerry Dawes.

One time we were on our way with Alicia to Pamplona (via Rioja and Burguete).  To avoid the maniacs driving southbound Hellbent for the North African-bound ferries in far off Algeciras on NR1, which was then just a two-lane highway, which with homeward bound cars passing in the face of oncoming traffic, causing us to often head for the highway shoulder (or a ditch).  After a few of these close calls, I opted for a back country road in the direction of Burgo de Osma in Soria in northern Castile.  After a few kilometers, Alicia spotted a bar at the entrance to a village. "Stop the car!" she said, "Let's go in there and have some fun." We went in, ordered some vino tinto and had some fun.

It was in the pass of Roncesvalles where we had a series of now legendary picnics that delighted Alicia. There is a splendid Brigadoon-like glade with an icy little stream up there that only the initiated can find (American Matador-artist John Fulton, who had been there with James Michener, had introduced me to it).  About halfway through the fiestas, for several memorable years in the early 70s, Diana and I gathered up Alicia, Hemingway's "double" Kenneth Vanderford, sculptor Lindsay Daen, and a crazy assortment of believers and made the pilgrimage to this historic little valley that is haunted by the ghost of brave Roland and by generations of pilgrims who passed this way over the centuries on the Camino de Santiago.

Kenneth Vanderford. 

We helped Alicia, the septuagenarian doyenne of bullfight aficionadas, down the steep slope to the green, grassy, mossy banks of the stream, where Diana, who had recruited a group of women to collect the food at the mercado in Pamplona that morning, laid out our splendid repast--chorizos, jamón Ibérico, local Roncal cheese, tomatoes, tinned seafood, white asparagus from Navarra, melons, cherries, etc.--while I iced down our Navarra clarete - rosado and melons in the stream. 

The picnic had a formula that didn't vary until the year we stopped going - - drink some wine, eat wonderful Navarrese food, drink some more wine, get mellow, lay down on the mossy slopes and tell off-color jokes to a well-primed audience until the mystical fog drifts in and signaled that it was time for us to drift back to Pamplona in time for the corrida. A Swede once had us rolling on the ground in fits by telling a particularly dirty joke in Swedish, which only the three Swedes, including the great Rolf von Essen, understood, but the most incredible thing that ever happened at this event was the near conversion of Kenneth Vanderford, a died-in-the-wool atheist.

Lindsay Daen blowing his bugle in the pass of Roncesvalles during one of our picnics circa 1973.

This particular year, a spooky mist of metaphysical caliber had drifted into the upper tier of our little valley.   And Lindsay Daen, the New Zealand-born sculptor, had still not arrived. Vanderford was telling us about the legend of Roland blowing his horn to summon his uncle Charlemagne's army as he fought for his life in this pass. He ended his tale of the famous Chanson de Roland and remarked that, like lots of other religion-laced legends, it was mostly nonsense.  At that precise moment, a bugle sounded from high in the woods.  Vanderford looked heavenward and seemed momentarily shaken by what he must have thought was a call to reckoning.  It was Lindsay blowing his bugle as he tried to locate us. Alicia always got a lot of mileage out of that story over the years.

Alicia used to have a Pobre de Mí party at Maitena overlooking the Plaza del Castillo on the last night of San Fermín. From there, after dinner, we could watch the fiesta began to wind down with the soulful lament of "Pobre de mí" followed by the joyous, self-renewing "Siete de julio, San Fermín!" One memorable year, over a dozen of us gathered around Alicia for dinner and, as I usually did, I sat next to her.  

But, to set the stage, two things must be kept in mind: 1) When I first met Alicia she did not use blue language, so I claim to have taught her how to cuss and 2) Ever since the Pablo Romero tienta during one memorable Feria de Sevilla, I had been encouraging Alicia to marry some aging bull breeder and do him in with sexual excess, so she could inherit the ranch and invite us to secret tientas. These two items were a running joke between us.

After dinner and plenty of tinto and clarete, Alicia asked me to fetch her some tobaco negro (a black tobacco cigarette), so I bummed a Ducado from Mike Kelly and gave it to her. Alicia was trying to act like a seasoned smoker, so she tried to tamp the cigarette on the table and she broke it.  I had to get her another cigarette, show her how to tamp it, and light it for her. 

"Damn, Alicia," I said, "first I had to teach you how to cuss, now I'm having to teach you how to smoke, and I guess if you marry that bull breeder, I'm going to have to teach you how to do that too."

Holding her cigarette elegantly between her fingers, this retired teacher (from a fashionable young women's school in Atlanta), looked at me with a gleam in her eye and, with total aplomb she said, "Fuck you!"

That same night, we watched from the balcony as the mad chef of Maitena went down to the Plaza and began directing traffic with a meat cleaver in one hand and an enormous raw chuletón steak in the other.

Later, we all drifted down to the Bar Txoko and I encouraged a Navarrese girl with a beautiful voice to sing a jota.  
Looking at Alicia, the young woman sang a wonderful moving jota that had the line, “Madre mia, madre de Navarra."   I looked at Tía Alicia and we both had tears running down our cheeks. It was one of the most magical moments I have ever known in 50 years of running the roads and fiestas of mystical Spain.  But when Alicia was around, magic was never that far away.

In 1985, Alicia took her namesake, my daughter, Erica Catherine Alicia, to her first and only bullfight.
Photo by Gerry Dawes.

In mid-September of 1992, I had lunch with Tía Alicia and Michael Wigram in Madrid.  Alice had been upset that I had not been able to come to her 90th birthday celebration in Salamanca on September 13 and I sensed that it might be our last lunch together in Spain, so I treated Alicia and Michael to two bottles of López de Heredia, since it had become a favorite of hers after our visit to the bodega years before. We had a wonderful time over dinner recounting many of the stories I have related here.  

Alice especially loved to hear me tell my version of the more scandalous ones, like the one I told about the time Diego Puerta agreed to come to a party at the Hotel Eslava, where Alicia always stayed in Pamplona during sanfermines.   We all gathered in a room in the basement and began the party, awaiting the arrival of Diego.  After awhile, Alicia, who was wearing a slip, decided to remove.  Later, I would claim that she took off her slip because she was getting hot and bothered over the imminent arrival of her hero, a notion that was reinforced when Diego did show up, some music was playing and Alicia, by then at least 60 years old, got up and danced on a table.

In February of 1993, when both my mother and Alicia (my birth mother and my spiritual mother) lay dying in the same week, Diana and I brought our daughters down to Southern Illinois to say goodbye to my mom, then drove on to Atlanta to say goodbye to Alicia for what we knew was the last time.  I brought her two bottles of López de Heredia’s Viña Tondonia, one of which Diana and I drank at her bedside as we had our last tertulia.

There is much more to the legend of Tía Alicia, more than a few lines in this article can recount. When I originally wrote these lines, Alice Hall was being buried (she would love it that I was writing about her as she was being laid to rest) in her hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia, the same hometown of another very original lady, Flannery O’Conner.

I vowed after she died that wherever I go in Spain, wherever there is a fiesta and a restaurant where it would have been appropriate for Alicia to have been, there will always be an empty chair and a place setting at my table with a glass of agua del grifo, the tap water, which she always drank for the 40 years she spent in Spain; a vino tinto de la casa (when it was her call, she always asked for the red wine of the house); and a cigarillo de tobaco negro. That is the least I can do in her memory.

There was no one like Alicia. To paraphrase the ditty about brave bullfighters that was written on the banner she always carried when her torero Diego Puerta was fighting, "Alicia, Alicia, . . . Como Alicia no hay ninguna."

The End

* * * * *
Writing, Photography, Public Speaker
& Specialized Tours of Spain & Professional Tour Advice

For custom-designed tours of Spain, organized and lead by Gerry Dawes, and custom-planned Spanish wine, food, cultural and photographic itineraries, send inquiries to  

I have planned and led tours for such culinary stars as Chefs Thomas Keller, Mark Miller, Mark Kiffin, Michael Lomonaco and Michael Chiarello and such personalities as baseball great Keith Hernandez and led on shorter excursions and have given detailed travel advice to many other well-known chefs and personalities such as Drew Nieporent, Norman Van Aken, Karen Page and Andrew Dornenberg, Christopher Gross, Rick Moonen, James Campbell Caruso and many others.

 * * * * *
“The American writer and town crier for all good Spanish things Gerry Dawes . . . the American connoisseur of all things Spanish . . .” Michael Paterniti, The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge and The World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese

* * * * *

"Gerry Dawes, I can't thank you enough for opening up Spain to me." -- Michael Chiarello on Twitter. 

"Chiarello embarked on a crash course by traveling to Spain for 10 days in 2011 with Food Arts
contributing authority Gerry Dawes, a noted expert on Spanish food and wine.  Coqueta's (Chiarello's new restaurant at Pier Five, San Francisco) chef de cuisine, Ryan McIlwraith, later joined Dawes for his own two week excursion, as well. Sampling both old and new, they visited wineries and marketplaces, as well as some of Spain's most revered dining establishments, including the Michelin three-star Arzak, Etxebarri, the temple to live fire-grilling; Tickets, the playful Barcelona tapas bar run by Ferran Adrià and his brother, Albert; and ABaC, where Catalan cooking goes avant-garde." - - Carolyn Jung, Food Arts, May 2013.

* * * * *

"In his nearly thirty years of wandering the back roads of Spain," Gerry Dawes has built up a much stronger bank of experiences than I had to rely on when I started writing Iberia...His adventures far exceeded mine in both width and depth..." -- James A. Michener, author of Iberia: Spanish Travels and Reflections

* * * * *
  Shall deeds of Caesar or Napoleon ring
More true than Don Quixote's vapouring?
Hath winged Pegasus more nobly trod
Than Rocinante stumbling up to God?
Poem by Archer M. Huntington inscribed under the Don Quixote on his horse Rocinante bas-relief sculpture by his wife, Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington,
in the courtyard of the Hispanic Society of America’s incredible museum at 613 W. 155th Street, New York City.
 Gastronomy Blogs

About Gerry Dawes

My good friend Gerry Dawes, the unbridled Spanish food and wine enthusiast cum expert whose writing, photography, and countless crisscrossings of the peninsula have done the most to introduce Americans—and especially American food professionals—to my country's culinary life." -- Chef-restaurateur-humanitarian José Andrés, Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and Oscar Presenter 2019

Gerry Dawes is the Producer and Program Host of Gerry Dawes & Friends, a weekly radio progam on Pawling Public Radio in Pawling, New York (streaming live and archived at and at

Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine, won The Cava Institute's First Prize for Journalism for his article on cava in 2004, was awarded the CineGourLand “Cinéfilos y Gourmets” (Cinephiles & Gourmets) prize in 2009 in Getxo (Vizcaya) and received the 2009 Association of Food Journalists Second Prize for Best Food Feature in a Magazine for his Food Arts article, a retrospective piece about Catalan star chef, Ferran Adrià. 

". . .That we were the first to introduce American readers to Ferran Adrià in 1997 and have ever since continued to bring you a blow-by-blow narrative of Spain's riveting ferment is chiefly due to our Spanish correspondent, Gerry "Mr. Spain" Dawes, the messianic wine and food journalist raised in Southern Illinois and possessor of a self-accumulated doctorate in the Spanish table. Gerry once again brings us up to the very minute. . ." - - Michael & Ariane Batterberry, Editor-in-Chief/Publisher and Founding Editor/Publisher, Food Arts, October 2009. 
Pilot for a reality television series on wine, gastronomy, culture and travel in Spain.

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails