We celebrated the end of our time in Salinas with a dinner out. We’d tried hard to stay on budget during our week there, making picnics for the beach, eating fish from the market, revelling in having our own kitchen. Now it was time to live a little. Salinas hadn’t shown much promise in terms of restaurants but we weren’t fussy.

Menna chose us a place that had been recommended by nervous Maite, our AirBnB host. El Real Balneario de Salinas, at the end of the boardwalk, beautifully situated right on the sea front.

As soon as we walk in I realise we have misjudged this. Dim lighting, lush carpets, a expensive bronze statue of a lobster uplit on a mahogany coffee table. A small crowd of waiters coalesces around us and we are greeted in warm but hushed tones, Arthur’s skateboard is whisked away, we are ushered to our seats, two glasses of champagne materialise. I didn’t think that Salinas had this kind of restaurant.

Luckily we’re ‘dressed up’ which means that Arthur isn’t bare chested and I have a crumpled shirt on. We are in flip-flops though and our feet are sandy from the beach. Matilda wears her new skirt from the market which is several sizes too big and is gathered in with a belt, her hair is wild and her eyes flash danger. I myself haven’t had a haircut since lockdown started and I’ve given up trimming my beard too. More than this, I have been cultivating some spectacular ear hair which has already been attracting a lot of admiration around Salinas. I see the waiter clock it, his eyebrows raise a quarter inch before he can compose himself.

We are like a family of mariachi gypsies who have left their wooden caravan to sign a reality tv contract with Simon Cowell. Only he hasn’t shown up.

We haven’t been in a restaurant together since the day before lockdown was announced in the UK – some five months ago – and it appears that that all sense of dining etiquette has left our kids. They run between tables of murmuring businessmen and Spanish aristocracy, shouting random observations back at us. They find a tank of lobsters and crabs at the back of the room and immediately start trying to touch them, then fish them out. I go over to tell them off but somehow get sucked into the game.

Our waiter weaves a passionate story about the specials. We nod encouragingly and smile, understanding little of the shellfish terminology. He’s very keen to make his point though, so he repeats it in English.
“The chef recommends the percebes, they are very fine this year. Very special indeed.” Seeing our confusion, “I think in English, you call them barnacles.”
Barnacles? Surely not. Clams maybe. Whelks even. We check Google and they are indeed barnacles. I still have a delicate stomach and this doesn’t appeal.
“I think we’ll share some of the jamón and perhaps a plate of the croquetas to start thanks my man.”
“But the barnacles are truly very special and it is a typical plate of the region. Perhaps I might suggest just a half portion to share.”
We get a half portion of barnacles to share.

By the time the starters arrive the kids have wolfed down two baskets of fine bread rolls and aren’t really hungry any more. This is a shame, as we have now been served a large platter of very expensive acorn-fed smoked pig and a silver plate where 12 golden croquettes nestle invitingly upon a delicate floral arrangement.

Then the barnacles arrive.

I was expecting some little innocuous round shells, of the type that cling to rocks or boat keels, but that is not what we got. The Gooseneck Barnacle (Pollicipes pollicipes) is a dark, crusted tentacle topped with a white shell claw, and it looks much like a gnarled old witches’ finger. I pick one up and play with it for a while, totally at a loss what to do. A waiter appears at my elbow, smiling indulgently, and gives us a short lesson on how to cut, twist, break and suck out the interior worm of mollusc that is hidden within each hairy warted tube. We find out too late that they squirt out a salty emission when you breach them. I get a jet in my face, Menna’s dress is soon covered with a fine spray of barnacle juice, the table cloth is a mess. We make such a hash of it in fact, that a new waiter appears ten minutes later to give us another tutorial. I think they were all watching us from behind a two way mirror. The barnacles are nice in a salty kind of way, but we give up on them before the plate is finished.

The meal was long and varied, the service attentive, the cuisine fantastic. We had way over-ordered and as I suffer from a compulsion which means I cannot bear to leave food on the table (except eggs and barnacles), I eat an extraordinary amount that night. Monkfish parcels, hake meunière, melting tenderloin steaks, strange amuse-bouches, strawberry millefueille with almond ice cream fondant.

The bill when it came was roughly equivalent to our entire living budget for two weeks. I was pleased to note that the half portion of barnacles was the highlight, coming in at a sweet €100. I speculated to the waiter that the grease spots on Menna’s dress were probably worth a euro each.

We strolled home along the beach under a beautiful sunset. Menna and I argued all the way.

The postscript to this story is that gooseneck barnacles suddenly began to permeate our lives. A barnacle necklace would catch our eye in a boutique window as we strolled past, we would see graffiti on an ally wall, stumble across an Instagram hashtag, even, most gallingly, find whole clusters of them flourishing wild (and free!) on the rocks by the sea. I was tempted to gather a bunch and go sell them back to the restaurant.

Billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles!

Captain Haddock

Fever Questions

The fever came on and off for a couple of days, mainly spiking in the evening. It wasn’t particularly bad – some hot and cold periods, never more than 39˚, some sweats, stomach cramps, a bit of a headache.

Menna was worried though she wouldn’t say so.  She is the family doctor and all responsibility for anything medical is immediately outsourced to her.  I sit passively like a pudding (tiramisu!) while she sticks thermometers in my armpit, changes my dressings, prods my appendix, tells me to shower and opportunistically cuts my toenails.

While she discounts options, calculates probabilities and works on her diagnosis, I meander through a lazy series of scenarios and questions. What if it was coronavirus? Would I have to go to hospital? Here? Salinas? Would we be deported from Spain altogether? How would we even get back home? You can’t fly or take the ferry when you’re infectious. Drive then? I have a nice daydream about the insurance company springing for a private jet to repatriate us, realising we have no house to go back to and being forced to put us up in a nice hotel to recuperate. Then I remember about the pandemic exclusion clause that I found in the small print which pretty much renders our expensive travel policy totally invalid.

Is the whole family about to fall ill with this?  Will the incubation period mean that our infections are staggered, each one of us falling sick two weeks apart, drawing the whole thing out for a couple of months? What if Menna herself gets ill? Then we would be really screwed. She is the one who really keeps this leaky vessel fuelled and floating.

We would have to do contact tracing too, that would be fun. I think about trying to identify and reach out to everyone who was in Dreamsea, everyone in the ferry too. All those hundreds of intersections and interactions over the last weeks, like a game of tag where each touch leaves a radioactive afterglow. I visualise a wispy cobweb stretching across Europe, stretching and pulsating, the lines lengthening, splitting, unravelling, reforming; viral particles flowing through the strands as a sinister green illumination; nodes glowing; breakaway elements floating off to spawn new clusters that then grow and bond and strengthen and then radiate further, carrying the viral load out into the world. And imagine this new green network of ours transposed over thousands of other existing viral webs, in all the colours of the spectrum, together forming a deep-rooted, multi-layered tangle that grips and chokes the whole globe. Surely mankind is doomed.

I wake.  What if we needed to go into quarantine and isolate, then where would we go?  Can we stay here in this tiny apartment? Could I bear a wall of Brad Pitt staring at me for two weeks? (Sure I could! He’s an extraordinarily good-looking guy). But it’s probably already booked out to someone else next week and it’s going to be very difficult to find any new accommodation as a confirmed covid case. I would be a social pariah!  I suppose I could manage a couple of weeks sweating the fever out in a little tent alone up in the dunes. The family could leave me messages and packages of food outside. I would talk with the gulls, monitor the environmental impact of the Avilés factory emissions, carve strange evocative sculptures from driftwood.  Is the booking deposit on our next camp refundable?

Menna discounted coronavirus.  The fever pattern wasn’t right.  The abdominal pains weren’t consistent with Covid.  There was no cough or secondary symptoms. 

Was it a recurrence of endocarditis then? I had gone through some weeks of fevers a few years ago before finally getting diagnosed with bacterial infection – right in my frickin heart. On that occasion I spent seven weeks on a drip in the Royal Brompton hospital. That would be way worse than coronavirus! I imagined seven weeks in a Salinas hospital. I’d definitely improve my Spanish and the kids would be very accomplished surfers by the time I got out. Menna may well have run off with a salsa instructor or something by then though. The suspicion of another complicated illness sends her a little wild-eyed and manic. She was the one who really took the brunt of my last illness with all the daily hospital visits, looking after both kids solo, managing her work shifts and giving constant updates to a wide community of panicked friends and family. No way she’s sticking around for another one.

Menna eventually reaches a diagnosis:  “You have some non-specific virus that isn’t endocarditis and isn’t coronavirus. It doesn’t seem particularly bad.”  I am crushed.

I have forgotten that the world is still full of the same old nondescript illnesses that were always there. They still come and go with the same frequency, they have the same impact, they’ve just been pushed out of the limelight.  They aren’t interesting.

I feel totally fine by Wednesday. The fever is gone but the questions remain. I realise that life out on the road leaves us in more of a precarious position than I had believed. It is disconcerting. This is a time where there are no clear answers, the old protocols have eroded and with them the security of delegated responsibility. The rule book is being redrafted and in the meantime we will just need to figure things out as we go along.

We all go to a remote beach and explore some spectacular caves. From a responsible distance, we talk to an old fisherman gathering limpets out on the rocks. “Everything has changed now” He tells us, “the seas were full of life before, but now you see nothing. It is very hard. In twenty years it has all gone” He waves expansively at a black smudge that runs across the cliff face. “That is oil pollution there.”

Once humankind has been decimated by coronavirus perhaps the limpets will all come back, I think. And if we need to isolate in the meantime, those caves will do nicely.

The Desolation of Salinas

As we drove through the grim port streets of Avilés we were starting to feel really uneasy. This wasn’t how it was supposed to look. A rusted maze of industrial pipelines, graffitied warehouses, yellow smoke seeping from stained factory chimneys. The occasional pedestrian looked at our laden British car “Extranjeros?” they muttered to themselves menacingly, “Foreigners?”.

Menna is tense. She’s booked this one.

“I’m sure we’ll turn a corner and suddenly find ourselves in beautiful countryside.” I say comfortingly, but she’s hunched over Google Maps which tells a more precise story.
“We’re two minutes from our destination” she says.

And so it is. Salinas is linked to the industrial entrails of Avilés by a narrow sandy road that cuts through some scrublands. There is a screen of pine trees that blocks the worst of it, but it can’t hide the gantries and chimneystacks that loom high in our rear view mirror.

We haven’t researched this next leg very well. We have been nurturing an image of Salinas as a charming little surf town, telling others how quaint it is, but at some point in our journey today we have realised that this pipe-dream has absolutely no foundations. We got our first reality check when we scanned the surf report in Magic Seaweed and found a rather sniffy description:

Always crowded. Some localism. Ugly, urban setting with tower blocks and concrete walkways. Residential and stormwater pollution together with industrial pollution from the nearby factories of Avilés. Good beach facilities including a surfing school. Plenty of shops and bars nearby.

“Well, at least there are some shops and bars right honey?”

The seafront is indeed dominated by a row of imposing concrete towers and it turns out that our apartment is on the fifth floor in the last one of them. We’re met at the roadside by nervous masked Maite, who, with handbag under her arm, guides our car in an uncomfortable half-jog down into the subterranean carpark system. She tells us at length about a complex system of keys and the risk of getting imprisoned behind self-closing doors in a series of underground concrete corridors and steel storage vaults. We nod and smile exaggeratedly behind our masks, throughout her longwinded instructions, covering our internal dismay. In the meantime Arthur has exploded out of the car like a ferret out of a cage and wildly skateboards around the carpark, covering himself in soot and diesel. We shout at him.

The apartment is small and carefully decorated with black and white magazine pictures of film stars that have been cut out and glued directly to the wall. It faces not towards the sea, but back towards Avilés. There is a whole wall of homage to Brad Pitt, mainly taken from a single photo shoot which we date as of the mid-nineties, some point between Thelma and Louise and Twelve Monkeys. The place is immaculately clean and there is some heart there. The kids room is dark purple with a life-size mural of Spider-Man painted in a wild but enthusiastic hand, and they are immediately happy to be in there. The door closes and they start to rearrange the furniture.

Later we get a burger on the boardwalk and watch the waves, which are absolutely huge. The same swell that we saw in our last days at Dreamsea is still battering the coast. There are some great surfers out there and we get to watch a masterclass in big wave surfing.

The next morning we are up late and determined to find the best of Salinas. Architecture be damned, there is a hidden heart that beats in this city, we say, and we will seek it out.

Breakfast doesn’t start well. We can only find one nearby bar and all they will do for us is tostadas. ‘What is this?’ We ask stupidly. ‘It is toast’. Dry, white toast in fact that crumbles to powder. Four pieces piled up for us on a single plate with some hard butter that makes it disintegrate and apricot jam which we use to stick it back together again. The service is surly. The coffee is very good though we tell each other, aren’t we lucky. We must come back.

Arthur and I have brought out our skateboards, for there is a long smooth pedestrian promenade that runs along the sea front and it might well be the best thing about Salinas. We cruise along, feeling cool, weaving our way in and out of walkers (losers!). The girls meander behind. The sun is out, the waves look good and the day is yet ours.

Once we’ve checked out the boardwalk we peel off the seafront and head up into town to find a supermarket. On a bumpy towpath I do an exaggerated swerve round a couple of old ladies. As I smile gallantly at them, I hit a weird patch of tarry black grit that had no business at all being on the path, my board instantly sticks and I go properly flying. I hit the tarmac pretty hard and it hurts like hell. The old ladies come darting to help me and then they remember about Coronavirus and pull up, circling around me, clucking and twittering in Spanish, very agitated. Menna and Matilda run up and after a second or two I leap to my feet and tell everyone very loudly how fine I am. “Estoy bien, ningun problema! Un poco sangue, hahaha, nada màs!” I have a deep cuts on my elbow, both hands and my hip.

We limp off through a park, inspecting my injuries, and then we cut across the canal. In a surreal twist, I look down from the bridge and one of the old ladies is squatting right in the middle of a glade below us. She is peeing, her buttocks exposed like wrinkled white balloons. I look away shocked. “Don’t look down!” I mutter to Menna, all puritanical, but the kids overhear and immediately rush over giggling. We savagely whisper threats at them until they are back under control.

“What is wrong with this town?”  I ask no-one in particular.

I am still pretty shaken. Menna sits me on a bench and makes me eat dry croissants. We find our supermarket and load up on provisions for the week: fresh tuna steaks, salads, chorizo, olives, crisps, jamón, a really nice Rioja. We can still turn this situation around. Adventurers like us thrive on adversity.

I am gingerly skating home when I hear a primeval howl of frustration behind me. The zip has given way on our rucksack and Menna stands frozen in a pool of destruction. Our shopping is all over the pavement around her, ham glistens, tomatoes roll, olive oil seeps, shards of broken glass are glinting green in the sun. There are dark rivulets of Rioja running down into the gutter like blood. Matilda bursts out crying with the emotion of it all. A passerby tuts and shakes his head before hurrying on.

That evening I come down with a fever.