Travel Report: Gijon and London - October 7-16|
Sharon and I were going to the XXXI Salon Internacional del Comic del Principado de Asturias in the city of Gijon in northern Spain. We were there in 2000, and had a wonderful time, so we were looking forward to returning.
We took an early metro and airport bus to LAX for a 9 am American Airlines flight to Chicago. It was a turbulent ride, but I managed to write the story for Usagi Yojimbo 110. A two hour wait, and we were flying Iberia Airlines to Madrid. We deplaned at the new Terminal 4S, took the train to the cavernous Terminal 4, survived the crowds at passport control and security, and settled in for a 4 hour wait. I used that time to finish thumbnailing the story. As we were waiting at our gate, writer and historian Maurice Horn introduced himself. He was also to be a guest at Gijon.
Our flight left Madrid half an hour late. We flew over the desert of central Spain to the lush green of the Asturias region. We touched down at the Oviedo Airport, about 24 hours after we had left our home. Pau, our friend from Mallorca, met us, and drove the half hour to Gijon. Pau, a talented artist, is a Salon regular. We had met at our first visit to Gijon, and since then at festivals in Angouleme and Madrid.
We were again staying at the Hotel Alcomar, just across the street from the Playa de San Lorenzo beach, though we could barely see the sand through the fog. Hotel manager Kety remembered us, and the traditional kiss on each cheek were exchanged. We would be staying in room 406, on the 5th floor. European hotels count the ground floor as the Ground or 0 Floor. Their 1st floor would normally be our 2nd, and so on. Fortunately, this was a modern hotel with an elevator. Also, our room was fairly spacious.
Sharon and I went for a walk to reacquaint ourselves with the city. It was mid-afternoon, and shops were closed for the siesta. We stopped at the supermarket for bread, jamon (Spanish ham), olives, and Bitter Kas. Bitter Kas is my favorite soft drink in the world, though Iím not sure if I actually like the taste. I can only get it in Spain, so that makes it unique. We had a late lunch in our room.
We met the festival organizers in the lobby at 9 PM, and walked the few blocks to La Taberna de Piano for an early (for Spain) dinner. We met the other guests from the US--Mark Texeira, Travis Charest and his wife Rochelle, Michael Golden, and Rene Witterstaetter. A number of tapas were brought to the table--octopus, garlic chicken, jamon duck, blood pudding, and others--all delicious.
Spain is 9 hours time ahead of LA, so I woke up a couple of times during the night. I awoke a third time, thinking it must be about 6 am, and was surprised to find it was already 8. The sun rises much later in Spain. We went down for breakfast, then took a walk along the beach promenade. The street sweepers were out and sidewalks were being hosed down. Gijon is one of the cleanest cities I have ever stayed in. It was a beautiful day, with just a hint of fog. It would get much thicker as the day went on, though. We were surprised to hear that ours was the last flight to land in Oviedo yesterday because of the limited visibility.
We met Marino, our interpreter, then went to my noon press conference at the cafe next to the Jovellanos Theater, the main venue of the Salon. The festival posters featured Usagi and Don Celes, a character created by guest Luis Olmo Alonso, walking the streets of Gijon. At the press conference, there were two television stations, and a number of newspaper and magazine journalists. Besides the usual questions--how did you come up with your characters, where do you get your inspiration--they were also interested in the politics behind Usagi. This is a subject that US journalists have never gone into, though I have been asked these questions many times in countries such as France and Poland.
Sharon and I took a short walk around town, then met the others for lunch at 2:00. I could smell the cider as soon as we stepped into the La Galana restaurant. Cider is a local drink, a apple-based beer, actually. The bottle is raised above oneís head at armís length, then poured into the cup held in the other hand, as low as the arm will go. Part of the ritual is that the pourer has a look of nonchalance about him, never looking at the bottle or cup. The cascade from a great height aerates the cider. It is also a tradition to use the same glass for the entire table. Lunch was potato and bonito soup, steak with cheese salsa, and pear yogurt for dessert. Tex told us European beef is raised on wheat as opposed to corn in the US, so the taste is very different, more subtle.
Lunch lasted past 4:30, so I was a little late for my next interview. A reporter missed the noon press conference, so we set up a last minute meeting.
We all met in the hotel lobby at 6:30, and walked the kilometer to the Jovellanos Theatre for the opening ceremonies. The press was interviewing Faustino Rodriguez, the festival organizer, and his beautiful daughter Sofia. Faustino and political dignitaries opened the salon with a few remarks, then the about two dozen guests were introduced onstage. A big surprise was that I was presented a Haxtur Award for ďMejor Historrieta LargaĒ for Journey to Atsuta Shrine. I had won it in 2003, but was unable to attend the salon that year. The Haxtur is a solid brass statuette, about a foot high, of Victor de la Fuenteís character on a marble base. Itís quite heavy. I had received two in 2000 which stands proudly on a shelf in my studio. After the opening ceremony, Mark Texeira and I each were interviewed onstage. This was followed by an autograph session. I again met Gaspar Meana, a writer/aritist working on a series about the history of the Asturia region. It is much like what I am doing with Usagi, except his is much more historically accurate. Florentino, an art teacher from Mallorca and one of the festival organizers, was also there, though his wife Eva could not make it because they had a newborn boy, Gabriel. Faustino gave me his new book--a huge tome about the art in Asturias.
We all went out for a tapas feast at about 10. We had tortillas, manchego cheese, calamari, croquettes, eggs and mushrooms, pork ribs, and other specialties. Tortillas in Spain is not what we think of in the US. It is a potato and egg dish, not those flour or corn meal flat bread. To drink, we had water (with gas and without), wine, and orujos. For those unfamiliar with my experience with orujos, read my 2005 Granada travel report. It was a wonderful and noisy night.
Wednesday was a free day for Sharon and me. We saw Pau in the hotel restaurant, and he showed us my photo and interview in one of the local papers. He told us it was in all of them. Sharon and I went for a walk past the Roman baths and the cathedral to the Cerro de Santa Catalina, the park on the hill overlooking the town and the ocean. There is a WW2 bunker, as well as a huge modern sculpture affectionately known as ďKing Kongís Toilet.Ē I had brought my watercolor set, but the sky was very overcast, muting colors to a continuous gray. I found a cliffside that was very nice, so we stayed awhile. I painted while Sharon read. We continued our walk down the hill to the port and the business district. I had heard about European whole candied fruit, and was on the lookout for them in Paris in July. I did not find them there, but we discovered a store that specialized in high-end sweets. Federico Verdu was established in 1882, and carried a large selection of candied fruit--whole pears, watermelon slices, limes, and oranges. They also had an ice cream section with flavors I had never seen--even tutti fruitti with large chunks of fruitti. We bought an orange, some marzipan and turrones to bring back as gifts. Everything was wrapped in paper with string.
We stopped at a market and bought the fixings for my favorite Spanish lunch--jamon, a loaf of fresh-baked bread, olives, and Bitter Kas. We found a hobby shop and bought a Matchbox-type car for my lunch-buddy Mike Kazaleh. He collects these, and I always try to buy him one. It started when I went to the post office on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower, and saw they sold metal replicas of French postal trucks. I had to get him one, and itís been a routine to find him something whenever Iím in Europe.
The dinner group--or whoever was up to it--met every night after the last presentation at either the Jovellanos Theater or the Cultural Institute. For the most part, presentations were done in the evenings and ended at 10. That left most of our days free. We ate another tapas dinner at La Bodega de Miguel. I had my traditional coke for the trip. European coke uses a slightly revised formula, so tastes different.
Sharon and I had an early breakfast, then went for a walk. We came across a butcher shop, and bought 150 grams of Iberico jamon, the premium ham made from the black footed pigs raised on acorns. We put it in our room refrigerator for a later lunch. Travis and Rochelle, Rene, Michael, Pau, Alberto, Florentino, Maurice, Sharon and I took a chartered bus to Oviedo, the capitol of the region. We did a roundtable discussion on mainstream versus alternative publishing at the university, followed by a signing.
We lunched at Tierra Astura, a restaurant established in an old winery with bottles dangling from the ceiling. Tables were in huge oak wine barrels, about 10 feet in diameter. The food was excellent, and a bit too plentiful. I started with a cheese board, featuring their pungent bleu cheese, This was followed by a peas and beef stew, then wild boar on flat bread. Chocolate crepe was dessert.
We returned to Gijon at 5:30 to sunny skies and a temperature of 24C--perfect weather.
Happy Hispanidad Day! October 12 is a national holiday, their equivalent of Columbus Day--except their stores are closed, instead of having holiday sales. We walked to the park after breakfast, and met Pau at the bunkers. It was a beautiful day--sunny, with temperatures around 20C. The three of us walked along the beach promenade. The tide was extremely low revealing a good 100 feet of sandy beach. When it was high, the waves would crash against the promenade wall. There were a few games of soccer and volley ball going on in addition to the usual beach goers. Both ends of the beach were reserved for swimmers, and surfers occupied the middle. The promenade was crowded with walkers, footers (as joggers are called), bicycles, parents with strollers, and dogs with owners. We went past the Playa de San Lorenzo to two small beaches and the statue erected to emigrants to the New World. We stopped off at an bazaar at Plaza Mayor. Booths were erected featuring cured meats, baked goods, and hand crafts.
A group of 15 or so walked to one of Faustino's favorite restaurants for lunch. It had a foyer and kitchen on the ground floor, and the dining area downstairs. Our poor waiter went up and down those stairs at least three dozen times. I had eggs with prawns and mushrooms for starter, a thick pork fillet with pineapple and prawn for main dish, and apple and hazelnut pudding for dessert. This was the first time I had a baked potato in Europe. It was topped with a cream-like mayonnaise. This was my favorite meal on this trip so far.
On the way back to the hotel, Sharon and I stopped off at a bakery for a loaf of bread. We still had that Iberico jamon in our room, and would have that for dinner.
(L) An awesome sketch by Stan. (R) Stan receives a Haxtur Award in Gijon, Spain
Sharon and I took our usual morning walk. The street cleaners were out, as well as the city workers washing down the sidewalks. We were amazed at how clean Gijon is. We saw only one instance of grafitti, and that was already being painted over by a city employee.
We went back to yesterday's restaurant for another incredible lunch. I had a green salad with beef and prawns, veal cutlet, and, again, the apple pudding.
Closing ceremonies would commence at 7, so everyone met in the hotel lobby at 6:30, and walked to the Jovenelles Theater. There was a quintet of musicians in traditional dress in front playing bagpipes and drums. The evening began with interviews with Michael and Travis. The mayor and other political dignitaries spoke, then we went on to the awards. Maurice Horn was given the John Buscema Award for lifetime achievement. The award is a solid brass figure of a Conan-like warrior that weighs 5 kilos--about 10.2 pounds. I tied for a Haxtur with mangaka Jiro Taniguchi in the long story category. A large easel was brought onstage, and guests were asked to come up in pairs to draw while the quintet played on the side. I went up with Pau, and drew a gag about Usagi pouring cider. The ceremony closed with an autograph session by all the guests.
We walked to the Hotel Don Manuel for the festival party. There were tapas and a lot of drawing going on. I had traded art with Michael and Travis in my sketchbook. Iíll see Mark at MegaCon in Florida in February and will collect on a drawing there.
Sharon and I walked around Gijon one last time. My photo was in all three Asturias newspapers--of me drawing onstage, with the finished drawing, and of me accepting my fourth Haxtur.
We checked out of the Hotel Alcomar, and took a taxi to the Oviedo Airport (OVD). We flew Easy Jet to Stansted Airport, London. It was an hour and a half flight, and we arrived at 5 PM, having to turn our watches back an hour. Stansted is a smaller airport, and very maneuverable. Passport Control went very quickly. There was one line for UK and EU passengers, and another, almost empty queue, for all others, including US. We caught a National Express bus for the 75 minute ride to Victoria Station in the heart of London. We stowed our bags in the busí luggage compartment, then went to get on the coach, but found the door was on the other side. This was our first realization that we were really in England. The bus drove on the left, and the fast lane was on the right.
It was only a short two block walk from Victoria Station to the Georgian House Hotel, a bed and breakfast established in 1855 and still run by the same family. It was just up the street from a flat that Winston Churchill lived in. We were in room #4 on the second floor (third, by our counting). There were no elevators, so I was thankful that we were not on the fourth floor.
We walked to the Marquis of Westminster Pub for dinner. I had shepherdís pie and Sharon an Irish stew. The television was set for the World Cup rugby match between South Africa and Argentina. The pub-goers were definitely for South Africa. We had never watched rugby, but we were quickly caught up in the game.
We went downstairs for a full English breakfast--tea, fruit, toast, egg, sausage, bacon, a fried tomato, and cereal.
Thomas, his daughter, and ďMayhemĒ met us at the hotel. Mayhem is a local, but Thomas is from Germany. They are both regulars on the Usagi Yojimbo website forum. I had met Mayhem two years ago at the San Diego Con, and Thomas had attended a signing in Paris a couple of years ago.
We walked to Victoria Station and bought all day metro passes (5.50 BP), and rode to Tower Hill, site of the Tower of London. The complex was very interesting. We walked the parapets, went into the armory, and the treasury where the crown jewels are kept. Beefeaters were throughout the area, and stoic palace guards were positioned just outside their boxes. We watched the changing of the guards, then went out for fish and chips.
We metroed to St Paulís Cathedral where Thomas and daughter left us for awhile. There was a guided tour just starting so Mayhem, Sharon and I joined them. Iím glad we did, because the guide gave an excellent tour of the history and politics of St Paulís. Later, we hiked the stairs to the Whispering Gallery. The dome is so acoustically perfect that if you whisper into the wall, someone directly across can hear you. We did not get to experience this however, because they were emptying the cathedral of tourists for services. This is a working church, after all. If we went down we would have to leave, so we went up. The Stone Gallery is the next level up, and circles the outside of the dome giving a panoramic view of the city. I went up to the final public level, the Golden Gallery, 434 steps from the ground floor. The stairs at the top were so narrow that my shoulders could almost touch both walls. The gallery was only a few feet wide, so visitors had to walk around the exterior dome in single file.
(L) Stan and Mayhem. (R) Stan, Sharon, Mara and Thomas Froehling
We caught the metro to Westminster to see Parliament, Big Ben, and the London Eye. Then we walked on to Buckingham Palace. The flag was waving, so someone was home. Sharon and I had seen the Queen about 17 years ago, when she visited a small English retirement home directly across from a friendís house.
We continued through Green Park and up through China Town to Piccadilly Circus, the Times Square of London. By the time we got to Trafalgar Square, it was getting dark. We metroed back to Victoria Station and met Thomas and daughter at Zizziís, an Italian restaurant. I had the pasta carbonara, though it came without the raw egg.
We went down for our English breakfast, then back up to pack. We walked the two blocks to the Victoria Coach Station. Rain had been forecast but, though the streets were wet, the sky was cloudy but dry. Bus tickets to Heathrow was only 4 GBP. The bus was 20 minutes late, but we had allowed a lot of time for our 3:15 American Airlines flight. The coach arrived at the Heathrow bus terminal, and we walked the 10 minutes to Terminal 3.
After leaving security, everyones goes through a massive Duty Free section, like following the Yellow Brick Road with Gucci, Yves St Larant, and tax-free candy and booze on either side. This led to an even more massive shopping area with a Harradís Store, Borders Books, Starbuckís and other chain stores and restaurants.
We had tried to upgrade to Business Class, using our miles, but it would have also cost us an additional $400. We passed. However, even though it was a full flight, they did arrange an empty seat between us, so it was quite comfortable. The direct flight to LAX took a little over 10 hours, not counting the hour we spent on the tarmac at Heathrow. We landed at 7 PM, and were home, safe and sound, a couple of hours later.
The Salon Internacional del Comic del Principado de Asturias is one of my favorite conventions. The big draw is the people, not only the organizers and other guests, but also the people of the city. It is one of the friendliest cities I have been in. Gijon has a spirit of graciousness and hospitality, that just makes you want to return.
Our side trip to London was just a whim. Howard Chaykin had told us it is one of his favorite cities, so we went there on his recommendation. Weíll have to plan a longer stay the next time. I have to give special thanks to Mayhem, Thomas and his daughter. They were great companions and guides.