From the moment we boarded the coach in Madrid, I sensed that there might be no escape. We were free to sit, for the next four hours, next to any stranger we chose – as long as they were Spanish. When we arrived at the hotel near La Alberca we were allocated nice, ski resort-style chalets which were comfortable and attractively situated. During the course of the week the hotel staff proved to be smiling and attentive at all times. The food was good and plentiful and there was always wine at the tables. We were even taken on outings – twice - to the village. There was a party night and other entertainments. On one of the days the sun even shone – weakly - and diffused, for a while, a kind of holiday mood (I have a photo). From somewhere deep in my subconscious, however, there began to emerge a remembrance of the 1960s TV series The Prisoner.
One day, during a break in the rain, the Programme Director looked up from his schedule sheets and announced that we were going to walk along the road to historic La Alberca. Those of us who subsequently survived the traffic were treated to a well-informed guided tour of its buildings, important historical features and more shops selling jamon than exist in the whole of the United Kingdom. We stroked the flanks of the granite pig statue, took photos and finally got to warm our hands around a cup of coffee in a cosy cafe. Next, we all squeezed into a dusty bodega where we had an opportunity to splash our faces with wine by drinking from the traditional skin flask and to sample the local jamon as an appetiser before lunch. The man in charge of the bodega looked familiar: had I had seen him somewhere before? Perhaps lurking back in a corner of the hotel.
Lunch promised to be fun. Those who had tried to break the world record for pouring red wine into their faces from an impossible distance were especially jolly. The restaurant was grand and the company lively at the prospect of sitting down somewhere warm for a while. The menu was unashamedly centred on pork and I came to appreciate that the ubiquitous red rioja is the perfect accompaniment for it. Lulled thus into a sense of bonhomie and well-being, it was some time before I noticed that the waiting staff from our hotel were there, in the restaurant, serving us. Things began to feel increasingly sinister.
Perhaps the Programme Director had sensed my unease, for he announced that we were free to make our own way back from the village afterwards. Some of us, the more adventurous, decided to try to find the legendary track through the woods and, at the edge of the village, soon ran into a huge sign, with red lettering and an arrow on a white background, suggesting the route. We kept a careful watch for guard dogs, but all we passed along the way was a lone, black pig waiting, in an enclosure, for its turn to be served up.
When we assembled back at the hotel to check the afternoon/evening schedule I could feel the collective apprehension and tension: Who - or what - would be your assignment for the next few hours was the only topic for discussion. At this point in the day, it was usual for several randomly-chosen members of our company to be led away up the stairs to a little side-room which I had never entered. Here they were sequestered until they had devised and rehearsed some entertainment for the group later that evening. Meanwhile, the rest of us were to continue plugging our way through one-to-one conversation sessions with varying degrees of pleasure, pain, triumph or frustration. There was just enough time to get a drink from the bar before we started, but the inscrutable young barman gave no hint of recognition that he had earlier served us in the village. Did he think we wouldn’t notice?
I scanned peoples’ name badges, looking for my next-assigned Spanish partner, and began to imagine that the rioja was laced with some subtle, mind-altering drug.