You know when someone says ‘the hotel is in a converted ducal palace’? Of course you laugh. This very funny. Hahaha.
Well don’t you feel stupid when it turns out they weren’t lying?
Earlier this year, I got on a plane from Heathrow to the city of Aviles in Northern Spain. Like most small airports I’ve ever flown into, there was one guy on the customs desk as the clock ticked down towards midnight, inspecting 300 passports. I was there to attend Celsius 232, an annual science fiction festival, and once customs was cleared, I think it’s fair to say that I was treated like royalty.
Met at the airport by three of the festival’s incredible organisers, it was an easy drive through curling hills down to the sea. Aviles sits on an inland spur of water, with, on one side, an historical town centre complete with palaces, gardens, frescos, wooden houses built on stilts for a cultural reason I didn’t fully fathom, churches and art. And on the other side, industrial sprawl, with a somewhat strange arts complex in the middle which plays, I think, looped recordings of the sound of seagulls having sex at you. I mean, I might have misinterpreted the soundscape’s intentions, but I can but honestly report what I heard….
And yes, the hotel was in a ducal palace. Sometimes you gotta laugh for all those reasons too.
Chronology is less interesting than impressions, so here are some generic thoughts:
- Films in the town square. There was a fantastic line-up of movies being shown after sunset, for free, to anyone who felt like rocking up to enjoy the experience. On my first night I watched Inside Out. It was in Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish. I still cried. A few nights later, I found myself watching The Matrix with a new friend and an old, and in any language ‘I know kung fu’ got a cheer from the assembled masses. Unfortunately it also started raining at 1 a.m., just as the movie went into its final fight sequence, and the projector shorted out, leading to this rant…
- Food. I don’t think I’ve ever had such good breakfasts; nor have I ever eaten so much meat. So much meat. Even the salad comes with meat. However the highlight had to be the giant feast of Asturian stew that was served up to all who fancied it as part of the convention. Tables were laid out for the multitude, and the world’s largest stewing pan was filled with three times my body weight of pork, beans, spices and gloop, and it was most awesome, and I could eat it all again.
- Generic SF geeky joy. It’s always fun to see Imperial Storm Troopers and Elvish Princesses loping around. It reminds me how happy I am to be part of a genre that celebrates its awesome and has no fear of rejoicing in a thing that it loves. I also came very close to buying a copy of Munchkin in Spanish, figuring that my inability to speak the language could surely only be improved by learning the Spanish for ‘pointy shoes of monster hunting’ and other useful phrases for the wandering traveller. Alas, I decided to preserve my Euros instead for more food. MORE FOOD. Because it was worth it.
- People. Mostly this trip is about people. Don’t get me wrong – beautiful city, awesome adventures etc. – but basically it was the people what made it. The organisers were passionate, funny, generous, totally on it and a general joy to be around or even just watch work. The guests were incredibly fun and diverse, and it was one of the first festivals I’ve been to where I was excited to come down to breakfast and find out which new awesome person whose works I hugely admired was looking for a plate of scrambled eggs. The guestlist just kept on filling up with the talented, the inspiring, the imaginative and yes, by the end, the hungover. The copious quantities of beer available may have influenced that one. (But also, thankfully, there was at least one writer who shall for now go nameless, but who did indeed open all conversations with “Hi, I’m X and I’m a bestselling novellist!” thus ensuring that the cliches of writers as twatknobs continued. For which we may all be relieved – the universe is as it should be.) And feckin’ hell but the translator was something else. I had been warned in advance ‘you won’t have ever met a translator as good as Diego’ and naturally I took this as a challenge to try and break other people’s souls, and I failed, and it was true.
Fundamentally, I think going to Aviles may have been a mistake. Now whenever I travel, it is possible that I shall expect luxury, pampering, great food and wonderful company. Damnit, it’s just not the way the universe works….
So if you wake up next year and think ‘I want a holiday’ then see if Celsius 232 is happening. Pop on a plane – or more exciting, pop on a ferry – and go to the Northern coast of Spain. Geek out for a bit with the loveliest geeks of the West, eat more ham, drink the beer, go for a wander down to the beach, lounge in palatial gardens or listen to artificial seagull sex by the river, maybe finish up with a wander down the Santiago trail, since it happens to pass on by, and generally speaking, have an absolutely awesome time. ‘Cos you will.