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36. Gerry Dawes's Spain: An Insider's Guide to Spanish Food, Wine, Culture and Travel

"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; Chef-partner of Mercado Little Spain at Hudson Yards, New York 2019


Pamplona: Memories of Alicia Hall in Sanfermines (An Excerpt from Homage to Iberia: More Spanish Travels & Reflections by Gerry Dawes), Hostal Burguete, Roncesvalles and the Enchanted Glade With Insights by Pamplona author Ray Mouton & 50-year+ San Fermín veteran Rolf von Essen

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 (All photographs copyright 2017 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

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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  

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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Trailer-pilot for a reality television series 
on wine, gastronomy, culture and travel in Spain.


  1. Rex Freriks6:01 PM

    Thank you for sharing this story and the story about Matt. They were great and brought back many memories, especially during this time when I am unable to attend San Fermin. I hope you are able to share more in the future.
    Viva San Fermin

  2. Many thanks for your kind comments, Rex. I have already put up some pieces on Navarra. My Best Regards, Gerry

  3. Allen Josephs6:06 PM

    Another good one. I too missed the 90th b'day, but I did take her to her last corrida in Madrid, fall of 92.

    Allen Josephs
    University Research Professor
    University of West Florida/EH-FL
    Pensacola, FL

  4. Gerry,

    I had a very emotional response to the piece about Miss Hall. I felt a deep sadness, a kind of melancholia that is foreign to my repertoire of feelings.

    Maybe I am just an old man now and like all old men I believe it was better in our time, but the people, the characters of our time, the Futlons and others, and the way the places were in that time, were better. I know this.

    It's midday Sunday in our little village of St. Jean Pied De Port. I will take a shower and lightly touch a framed drawing that hangs in the next little room - - something an artist did in Burgos one year that Miss Hall signed to me at my insistence. We were alone in Burgos that year and shared meals and corridas and left notes in each other's box at the hotel desk that read like the writings of lovers.

    Today I will think of you and be happy you have recorded these things for all time.

    With respect, admiration, and gratitude,
    Ray Mouton
    Sept. 12, 2010 from St. Jean Pie-de-Port, France

  5. Miles de gracias, Ray, for your beautiful response to my piece on our dear Alicia.
    Un abrazo fuerte, Gerry

  6. Rolf Rodolfo von Essen9:18 AM

    You've got a deal, Gerry, even if you misspelled my last name above ... :-)

  7. What sweet and fantastic memories your article brings back, not only about Doña Alicia, but also about those fantastic Sanfermines, Sanfermines from the epoch when La Fiesta de San Fermín still was rather authentic and unspoiled by strange political manifestations of later years ... Was that diplomatic enough?

    Also, during the sixties, seventies - and in some respect also the eighties - bullfights during San Fermin were worthy of their name, bullfights. During quite a few years, one or two - or three - of the corridas of San Fermín could be in one's dreams at the end of the year, as some of the BEST during that particular temporada.

    Ah, the pic-nics, Gerry! The stories told when we were lying there on the slope, the tales, the food and drink, the mighty silence between jokes of the giant trees in Roland's forest - all impossible to live one more time ...

    You mention Alice's special liking for Don Diego Valor, Diego Puerta!

    My first San Fermin ever, in 1959, I had not yet met Doña Alicia but I DO remember Día 11 of my first year, Miuras for Ramón Solano "Solanito", Curro Gírón and DD (Don Deigo Puerta). DD was fantastic all thru. There was a competition of quites during the entire corrida. DD was ENORMOUS with his second Miura, EVEN la solanera was paying attention (!), I think he might even have cut an ear but it doesn't matter - Don Diego Valor! (Pic's from Pamplona, el patio, in 1959)

    When Alice realized she would not make it for one more temporada, she used to call me on the phone from the EEUU. During those precious conversations, she always wanted to talk about common experiences, bull wise and other, 25-30 years earlier. I simply ADORED her inimitable southern accent.

    There will never be another Doña Alicia.

  8. Rolf, you response was very much appreciated by me and I know it was appreciated by Alicia. If we should end up again in sanfermines together, we must have a luncheon in Alicia's honor and set a place for her, complete with vino tinto, agua de grifo y un cigarillo negro!!

  9. You can say that again!

  10. Rolf von Essen's name is spelled with a small 'v' he tells me, so I stand corrected.


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