Spain has a wonderful and ancient tradition of roadside eating places, dating back at least to the early 17th century because I remember them being mentioned often in Don Quijote, which are called “ventas”. The fact that the only possible translations of this meaning of “venta” (it also means “sale” in a different context) into English are “roadside café” or even “motorway café” is a travesty, and the fact that so many non-Spanish people have NO idea of the wonders contained within a traditional venta is quite simply a shocking lack of cultural awareness.
When the end of the summer break draws near, one of the few things that makes tearing ourselves away from the hills behind Marbella each year bearable is the knowledge that we will stop at about 2pm (Spanish lunchtime) at one of these places, and this year we stopped at one of our favourites, a sparkling example of its kind, the Hotel Bar La Teja, at a place called “Venta de Cardenas” on the road north from Malaga to Madrid.
A venta’s purpose is to serve refreshment to travellers, and it does so in a very traditional way. There’s no self-service here, no overwhelming odour of frying, no garishly coloured plastic furniture, and depressed university graduates in matching baseball caps. In a venta we have traditional wooden furniture, restaurant service and professional, albeit informal, waiters in black trousers and white shirts. And above all we have NOISE because this is a SPANISH institution; Spanish people when out often sound as if they’re shouting (that’s because they usually are….), so put 40 of them in a room and already the decibels increase. Then add the inevitable television, or five, all playing at high volume, often all on different channels. Then add the waiters shouting orders to the person behind the bar who then shouts them back to the kitchen….
The Bar Hotel de la Teja fulfils all these expectations and more; the atmosphere fizzes, waiters rush about with plates of Spanish ham and dishes of patatas bravas, and the espresso machine – aaaah, gorgeous Spanish coffee – is constantly spitting and hissing, interspersed with the inevitable banging of each scoop of used coffee as it’s emptied. Actually, an avant-garde musician could come and find a symphony here to wow a Barbican audience.
What this particular place also has, which I’ve never yet seen elsewhere, is a poem written about it, proudly framed and displayed at the end of the bar.
This venta is strategically placed at a meal-time’s distance from Málaga, on the edge of Despeñaperros, a national park which in the Spanish psyche is rather like Watford Gap for the English psyche – south of it is “the south”. I have to pause here for a moment to try and fit the idea of Watford Gap and La Teja into my head at the same time – I give up, my brain is exploding.
I’m not familiar with Watford Gap service station (if there is one), but if it has a shop I’m guessing that it doesn’t sell stuffed hares dressed as hunters, amongst mountains of local food specialities?
And I’m quite certain that it doesn’t have a pretty staircase leading to an upstairs selling pottery.
And has anyone written a 9 stanza poem (OK, written by a Spanish descendant of William McGonagal, but even so…) in its praise?
If you’re ever travelling through Spain, you have to stop at one of these ventas – they won’t all be as buzzy as this one, but they are all traditional, selling very simple food and they are a proud continuation of ancient post houses and hostelries, not in a “let’s put in some beams and hang a plough share on the wall to give our chain restaurant a country feel” sort of way, but in a real way that exactly serves its function in today’s world without trying to be something it isn’t. It’s like that old Spanish tourist office claim – it’s “real Spain”!