Day Trips from Madrid: Chinchón

Day Trips from Madrid: Chinchón

(This post is a continuation of my series on Day Trips: Click here for my post on Alcalá de Henares.)

“Just once, I’d like to begin a blog post without our travel troubles!” I said to GF as we walked around, confused and lost, looking for the bus to Chinchón. We’d just walked fifteen minutes in the wrong direction, and were heading back to the metro station now.

“Shut up,” she said. “I have it here on my phone.”

Indeed she did; and we were soon standing by the appropriate bus station near Conde de Casal, waiting to go to Chinchón.

Chinchón is a small town—its population is about 5,000—just south of Madrid. It isn’t the home of any big castles or cathedrals; it isn’t the place to take the best photos or hear the best music. Rather, Chinchón is a place to sit and eat, and that’s what we planned to do.

After an hour on the bus, we arrived. Immediately we headed for the plaza mayor, the most famous place in the town, a five minute walk from the bus stop.

This was the first week of January. We had this week off for Tres Reyes, the Spanish holiday celebrating the three wise men who visited infant Jesus. Instead of giving presents on Christmas, this is the day when most gifts are exchanged. And lucky for us, the combination of Christmas, New Year’s, and Tres Reyes makes for a long, long holiday.

We’d just gotten back from our Christmas trip to Andalusia, and were thirsting to see more of Spain. Unfortunately, Madrid and its environs are a good deal colder than the south of Spain. We were freezing. Added to this, the weather was awful that day, overcast, windy, with a bit of rain. It was the kind of dull, dreary weather than can make the Taj Mahal look dreadful.

But the plaza mayor of Chinchón didn’t look dreadful at all. It looked positively cute. Identical white buildings with green balconies and tiled roofs surrounded a circular area in the center. This center was filled with sand. A few guys were selling donkey rides to kids, leading a long train of donkeys with excited children bouncing on top of them around the square, while their parents walked cautiously beside. A plastic Christmas tree decoration sat in the exact center. Every building had a restaurant or two, which was good because we were already quite hungry.


Being a man of this modern age, I looked on my phone for the restaurant with the highest rating: it was called La Villa. Of course it was expensive (for a Spanish restaurant). But it was the new year, and we felt like living high.

I’m glad to report that I absolutely stuffed myself, and then ate some more. The house red wine was also just fantastic, dangerously so, for I drank too much of it. After I ate and drank my fill, we ordered dessert—also great—and then asked for the check. This came with two complementary shots of Chinchón, which is the local liquor, apparently. Since my girlfriend can’t drink, I had to have both shots. It was strong, I tell you, and had a subtle liquorish flavor, a bit like Jägermeister. As we walked out, we noticed a bunch of black-and-white pictures hanging on the walls. Closer inspection revealed that they were of bull fights in the plaza mayor of Chinchón. Apparently, it was originally a bullring, which explains its symmetrical layout.

After this, there’s not much to tell. Stomachs painfully full, we waddled around town a bit. We found a castle, ruined and empty, which we couldn’t enter. There were several churches, closed to visitors. And then there was a view of the countryside beyond, rendered a bit dour by the weather. An hour later we were waiting at the bus stop with a bunch of chatting old ladies, and an hour after that we were sitting at home, drowsy, relaxed, ready for our next trip.

The Castle of Chinchón

AddendumFor any visitors of Madrid looking for a day trip to see a beautiful Spanish pueblo, Chinchón is perhaps the best choice. Small, intimate, easily accessible, and one of the most charming pueblos in the country, Chinchón is also famous for its gastronomy.

The liquor I mentioned above is Anís, which is simply referred to as “Chinchón” in Spanish, since this little town has long been the leading manufacturer of the drink. Chinchón is also famous for its pastries; its signature pastry has been appropriately compared to a breast, complete with a nipple on top.

The castle I mentioned above was built in the sixteenth century. Standing nearby, the visitor gets an excellent view of the surrounding countryside. Chinchón’s Plaza Mayor has not only been the site of bull fights, but also executions, comedy performances, royal proclamations, and many movie scenes. If you walk from this plaza up to the Torre Reloj, you will be rewarded with a marvelous view of the town.


Review: People of the Sierra

Review: People of the Sierra

The People of the SierraThe People of the Sierra by Julian Alfred Pitt-Rivers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Writing is an activity which links a person with the world of formality.

Julian A. Pitt-Rivers was, in the words of his mentor E.E. Evans-Pritchard, “in every sense a son of Oxford and an Oxford anthropologist.” Julian was the descendant of an aristocratic family. His grandfather, Augustus, the pioneering archaeologist, was along with Sir Edward Taylor a founder of the anthropology department at Oxford. (The famous anthropology museum in Oxford is named after him.*) Julian’s father, whose absurdly long name I will not write—alright, fine, it is George Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers—was enormously wealthy. A vigorous anti-Semite and Eugenics proponent, George was jailed during the Second World War. Julian himself, among his other accomplishments, was tutor to the King of Iraq.

With a pedigree like that, it’s easy to see how his book became a classic in the field.

My interest in The People of the Sierra was sparked, naturally, by it being about a village in Spain. But for those with an interest in anthropology, such as myself, the book is significant independent of your specialty. This is because this book was one of the first ethnographies published about a community in Europe. True, it was a small, poor, agricultural community, and it was in a region of Europe commonly regarded as exotic, but it is Europe nonetheless. As such, the book is a landmark in the field.

The book’s classic status is due not only to its groundbreaking subject matter, however, but also to its high quality. Julian Pitt-Rivers was a true disciple of his advisor, E.E. Evans-Pritchard. Everything from the writing style to the analysis bears the traces of EP’s influence. And this is a good thing, for EP was one of the great masters of ethnography.

The central theme of Pitt-Rivers’s analysis is the contrast between the local and the national forces that shape the pueblo. In nearly every sector of life, there are two social structures at play. The first is that of the pueblo; it is self-contained. Moral rules are enforced by the community; there are certain—unwritten but universally known—appropriate ways of acting, and infractions are punished by loss of respect. The second structure is that of the state. Its authority is derived from somewhere far outside of the pueblo. Its laws are explicit, and infractions are punished with fines or jail time.

This theme is explored from a variety of different angles. One chapter, for example, explains the practice of giving members of the town nicknames. These nicknames are never used to a person’s face, and yet everybody in the village knows them. Indeed, you might know a person’s nickname without knowing their surname. Surnames are important, most of all, in dealings with the state. Thus you can see the contrast between local and national, informal and official, even in people’s names.

Tension exists in this state of affairs, because these two systems are often out of alignment. Many things are regarded as immoral which are not illegal, and vice versa. An important concept, for example, is vergüenza, shame, which is the regard that one pays to the social norms of the pueblo. To call someone a sinvergüenza is a serious insult; to be without shame is to be almost inhuman, since it puts you beyond the realm of society; it is to be a pariah. By contrast, it’s obviously not illegal to be without shame, and many of these pariahs are employed by the state as informers.

This is the book’s theme in a nutshell. For me, however, the book’s lasting value has far more to do with its style than its substance. Pitt-Rivers’s writing is remarkable more for what it excludes than for what it includes. There is not a word of jargon in these pages; a polysyllabic word is never used when a shorter one will do; sentences are crisp and short; there is no pretentious name-dropping, no unnecessary citations.

The book itself is brief, and yet Pitt-Rivers’s writing is so economical that he manages to give a full-blooded picture of the community. The first two sentences give an adequate taste of what follows: “This book is about a Spanish town. More precisely, it examines the social structure of a rural community in the mountains of southern Spain.”

Why social scientists no longer write like this, I cannot say. So read this, if only to remember a time when clear, strong English was used in anthropology.

*Thanks to Wastrel for bringing this to my attention.

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