By William Thomas
I have no idea how this happened! Having once lived in Spain, I wanted to reconnect with this proud and exotic country that had treated me so well in my twenties. So I pulled out the map, put my finger on a town close to the border with Portugal and booked “a quiet room with a view of the plaza.”
Built by the Romans in the second century B.C. and conquered by the Moors around 1000 A.D., the town of Zafra was spectacularly antiquated. The hotel with balconies was appropriately named Los Balcones de Zafra. Our third floor room overlooked what might be the world’s first shopping mall — a four thousand year old Roman forum, conveniently built with the town’s shops surrounding a central square.
Zafra’s Plaza Grande is huge—a timeless monolith of cobblestones and high brick structures, a rectangular homage to open space and clear sky. As we pulled up in the rental car, we were greeted by a huge bonfire in front of the hotel being fed chunks of wood by excited children being yelled at by agitated adults. As the sun set, about 30 people milled around the fire, probably an afternoon festival winding down. So sorry we missed, it I thought, hauling the bags into the hotel.
Francisco Simoes Fernandez de Tejada (“Frankie” in English) could not wait to give us the tour of what was once a Roman villa and then his family home for hundreds of years. Now, in a valiant attempt to hold onto it, he has turned it into a hotel. Every painting and piece of furniture is a lesson in ancient history. Dukes dined before the fireplace; Spain’s chess maters played in the parlour.
So we get settled in the room — a prehistoric bedroom with a spiffy new walk-in shower — and I fling open the shutters of the narrow French balcony to admire the Roman galleria by gaslight and the distant hillside castle and …
“Monica! There’s a mob gathering below our balcony!”
But they were a friendly mob with a half dozen musicians among them. When I spotted a banner for Estrella Galicia, my favourite beer, we joined them. The cold cerveza came with a tapas of stewed yellow beans and bread. As the fire rose higher in the dark sky and the guitarists strummed their hearts out, people sang with glasses raised and steel heels clicked sharply atop the cobblestones.
La Zambomba. We had accidentally crashed La Zambomba, the annual celebration of Zafra’s claim to fame – “Seville La Chica,” – the daughter of the great Andalucía city of Seville.
Men and women danced flamenco-style in twos and threes and then in conga lines. As the guitarists and violinists moved through the crowds, the townsfolk sang the sad ballads and romantic tales of Zafra’s history. It was street theater the Appian Way, a modern day tribe descended from Romans honoring the poetry of the past with handed-down carols and passed-around alcohol.
For two tourists, this was an unexpected bonus, an accidental thrill of travel. Exhausted, we packed it in at midnight as the church bells from the tower across the square tolled a dozen times in half a minute.
Still wide awake at one o’clock, I heard a crash and the smashing of glass below our balcony. I opened the shutters to see an embarrassed woman picking up broken wine bottles and glasses that hit the pavement after she had danced backwards into the bar table. The musicians and dancers and pyrotechnic children hardly noticed. La Zambomba had hit its peak – a crescendo of strings, a cacophony of songs and a frenzy of clacking flamingo.
Eyes wide awake at two o’clock, I had to get up to take a leak. Curiously, I opened the shutters and the party raged raggedly on. Many were drunk, a few danced by themselves. The musicians had separated and appeared to be competing with each other for followers. Now 19 hours without sleep and carrying a full bladder. a quick solution to the chaos came to mind but then I thought no, Bill, that would be wrong. Use the spiffy new toilet as planned.
Staggering a bit, but still awake at three o’clock, the scene on the square looked like New Year’s Eve in Purgatory. The dancers were now howling at the moon and the stringed instruments sounded like bagpipes. The good news? The partiers still had their clothes on.
Some time around four o’clock, I went to the balcony to end it all by doing a belly flop into the fire, but as I opened the shutters, they were — gone! All except for the fire. At four o’clock, the noise had stopped; at five, so did the ringing in my ears.
Don’t get me wrong, Señor Francisco Simoes Fernandez de Tejada is as gracious as his name is long. And the Hotel Los Balcones is a great place to stay in the magical, ancient town of Zafra. Just make sure you ask for a room without a view. I still believe I could live in Spain, but I could never sleep there.
For comments, ideas and copies of The True Story of Wainfleet, go to www.williamthomas.ca.