They might not be doing too well in the Olympics but Spain is still top of the charts in terms of tourism. Head south of the mainland however and closer to the coast of Africa and you’ll find that the tourist hordes get even bigger and brighter. That’s right, Gran Canaria, home to travel writing stalwart Matthew Hirtes, is the real gold medallist this summer. But has it (and the greater country it belongs to) taken performance enhancing drugs to get there or did its organic beauty win over? Let’s see what Matthew has to say about Spain, and more interestingly, his life spent travelling around it.
1. Hi Matthew! Could you briefly introduce yourself, your site and your experience travelling in Spain?
I’m Matthew Hirtes from MatthewHirtes.com (see what I did there?). Way back last millennium (OK, 1997), I married my girlfriend Cristina in her native Gran Canaria. We then returned to my native London to start a family, but not before honeymooning in Galicia. I used to travel around the bigger Spanish cities, the likes of Barcelona, Madrid, and Valencia, covering CL football for PlayStation.com. We then made the decision to relocate to Gran Canaria eight years ago.
2. Why did you choose this country? What was it about it that called to you?
I suppose I chose the country following a chance mid-90s encounter in a nightclub. For it was at, in-their-eyes-only, “London’s premiere discoteque”, Wardour Street’s Vogue that a call of “What are you doing?” left me to literally drop the drunk friend I was helping to prop up. I replied, “I’m talking with you” to a leggy, glamorous Canarian girl. In a whirlwind response, a year later Cristina and I were man and wife. We married in the Parroquia de la Inmaculada Concepción, Tafira Alta’s parish church to the accompaniment of a beautiful rendition of the traditional Ave María.
Cristina’s from a sterotypically-large Spanish family (originally comprising six brothers and four sisters) and her home island was one she always planned to return to. I meanwhile had become the deputy editor of the Official Chelsea magazine. A commute from Las Palmas to the CFC training ground was a commute too far.
Then along came Saturday February 22nd 2004 to change everything. That was the day we were being informed by Leytonstone’s Whipps Cross Hospital that our then youngest son Alex had contracted leukaemia. After a six-month residency in GOSH, my wife felt she needed the extra support her family offered her.
3. How much money can someone travel around Spain for? What are the greatest expenses? What things are relatively cheap?
The Canaries, where I’m based, you can travel around relatively reasonably. There are discounted inter-island flights with the likes of Binter Canarias. Also, the bonos (passes) available to both residents and tourists facilitate ridiculously-cheap bus journeys. As a vegetarian, the greatest expenses are buying organic food which is ordinarily imported from elsewhere. Conversely, local food and drink such as cheese and wine is dearer than that brought over from the Iberian Peninsula because the folks involved in the former are small-scale producers. In restaurants, a menu del diá, a set three-course lunch with a half of cerveza or glass of vino thrown into the mix, will not normally cost above 10 Euros.
4. What is the local cuisine like? Do you like to try new things or do you find yourself pining for the familiars of home?
It’s clearly no Basque Country or even Catalonia, but it’s a reasonably healhy combination of seasonal ingredients. They’re big on gofio, a sort of cornmeal which can be crushed barley, maize, or wheat, and watercress (berros). One of my fave places to dine out, Restaurante El Puertillo, even unite the two ingredients in their croquetas de berros y gofio. Also, given its Atlantic setting, fish and seafood pop up on more cartas than not. I would love to try new things but I’ve run out of vegetarian options. With the exception of pojate de jaramago (rocket stew) which is a speciality of the Tejeda region.
5. What cultural activities and events would you suggest everyone seeing or taking part in while travelling in Spain and why?
They know how to get the party started on Spain. Fiestas appear to be at the least a weekly event. Ordinarily they’re commemorating a municipality’s saint. Yet with the amount of drinking that accompanies the event, they’re easily as profane as sacred. On the Canaries, check out Tenerife’s Carnaval (sorry, Las Palmas) the biggest carnival after Rio.
6. What is your favourite thing about travelling this country? What is your least favourite thing?
The regional diversity. In a meeting/history lesson with an Anglophile father of one of my then girlfriend’s friends in their holiday home in West Sussex, Señor Lopez pointed to a map. “This is Catalonia, like your Scotland,” he began before moving on in indicate the Basque Country (“Wales”) and “Ireland” as in Galicia. The racism. Where else than Spain (other than perhaps the Deepest South of the USA) would you have sports fans (in this case F1 aficionados) blacking up with a placard informing the world they were “Hamilton’s family”.
7. What things do you focus on most when you blog about this country? Why do you choose these things?
The beach, the countryside, and the urban (Las Palmas is Spain’s seventh-largest city). Gran Canaria is a holiday destination, but there are over 80 playas to explore. I’m trying to encourage Joe Bloggs tourist from extending their beach-hopping to above visiting Playa del Inglés one day and Maspalomas next. The rural areas are surprisingly verdant. Not least the ironically-named Valleseco (Dry Valley) which is anything but. And although it’s by no means my favourite place on the island, I can see where the tourist board is coming from in trying to repackage Las Palmas as “the short-haul Havana”.
8. What’s one thing you can’t travel around Spain without?
A camera to record the amazing landscapes. Also I like to pick up regional papers, a cut above the more tabloidy equivalents in Britain.
9. What kind of response have you had to your blog posts about Spain? What post had the most interest?
Very positive, especially the photos. Which has surprised me as I’ve always seen myself as more of a wordsmith than snapper. The picture of the statue of Neptune standing in all his (nude) glory has garnered the most hits and RTs.
10. If you could think of one thing you wished someone told you before you started travelling around Spain what would it be?
To have taken studying Spanish more seriously. My wife used to be the Spanish teacher at David Beckham’s old secondary school in Chingford, but she didn’t want her day job becoming her night job. So I learned with CDs, with the result I remain less than fluent.
Massive thanks to Matthew for sharing his life and passion for Spain!
If you would like to be interviewed, contact us.