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7/10/2014

Pamplona: Memories of Alicia Hall in Sanfermines (An Excerpt from Homage to Iberia: More Spanish Travels & Reflections by Gerry Dawes) With New Insights by Pamplona author Ray Mouton & 50-year San Fermín veteran Rolf von Essen


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(All writing and photographs copyright 2010 by Gerry Dawes.)

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

We spent many wonderful sanfermines with Alicia Hall. 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. My late ex-wife Diana Valenti Dawes and I would drive Alicia up there and we would 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 and 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).  I was driving down a back country road somewhere in northern Castile, when 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 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 (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.

We helped Alicia 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, while I iced down our Navarra clarete 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. A Swede once had us rolling on the ground in fits by telling a particularly dirty joke in Swedish, which only the three Swedes 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.

This particular year, a mist of metaphysical caliber had drifted into the upper tier of our little valley, things were getting spooky, 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 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 ageing 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 ageing 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. She sang to Alicia 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 40 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 them to two bottles of López de Heredia, since it had become a favorite of hers after our visit years before. We had a wonderful time recounting many of the stories I have related here. Alice especially loved to hear me tell my version of the more scandalous ones.

In February of 1993, when both my mother and Alice lay dying in the same week, Diana and I brought our daughters down to Atlanta to say goodbye to her for 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 a book 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

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About Gerry Dawes

Writing, Photography, & Specialized Tours of Spain & 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 gerrydawes@aol.com.  

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.

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“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

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"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.


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"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

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Gerry 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. 

In December, 2009, Dawes was awarded the Food Arts Silver Spoon Award in a profile written by José Andrés. ". . .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. 
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