The perfect traveller moment

"It's hypnotic, stunning" ... flamenco players entertain in Granada.
"It's hypnotic, stunning" ... flamenco players entertain in Granada. Photo: Getty Images

It's unlikely, on your trip to Spain, that you'll meet Javier Bardem. It's even more unlikely that he'll attempt to seduce you and your best friend and paint you pictures and then take you back to live in his mansion with Penelope Cruz.

But still, that's not the most unlikely part of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody Allen's ode to one of the country's best cities.

In the film, Bardem's character is trying to woo one of the female characters and, in doing so, suggests they go out to listen to some live flamenco guitar music. The pair end up sitting under the portico of an old building, listening to a soulful guitarist pluck away at the strings, playing delicate, beautiful music while a few people sit around and quietly enjoy.

Anyone who's actually been to Spain knows that doesn't happen. But this is movie land, where Barcelona is filled with romantic cliches instead of dodgy guys down alleyways trying to sell you drugs and tacky T-shirt stores hogging every street corner.

Most flamenco guitar music that tourists get to hear in Spain isn't played by soulful strummers in deserted old mansions. It's played by people who perform for tourists every night of the week, in venues packed with punters filming the whole thing on their iPhones. They're nice enough, these shows, but you always get the feeling you're being given the tourist version.

It's hard to find anything else. The Javier Bardem moments don't happen ... except, they do.

It's cold in Granada tonight, people are wrapped up against a biting wind. My brother and I are doing what people do on an evening in the southern Spanish city: bar-hopping, going from place to place drinking beer and eating tapas.

"Ir de copas" it's called in Spanish - a tour of cups. Or, in Australian terms, a pub crawl.

Granada does this properly. The tapas plates are free as long as you're drinking. You walk into a bar, order a beer and a dish of ... well, something will arrive in front of you a few minutes later. Sometimes it's slices of manchego cheese, or jamon iberico, or paella, or an Andalusian stew. It's the barman's call.

My brother and I have worked our way through five or six bars, these tiny little places filled to the brim with character and characters.

We're about to call it a night. Maybe one more bar and we're done. We wander through a square, spot a place we went to the night before, so we decide to call in.

It's small, of course, just a bar with the typical half-sliced leg of jamon on top of it, a couple of wooden stools, a few pictures of local identities on the walls. Last night it had been relatively quiet, but tonight it's packed — there's barely room to squeeze through the crowd of mostly older drinkers to get to the bar.

Suddenly we realise why it's so busy. The crowd hushes, there's dead quiet, before the sound of softly plucked strings floats over us.

One of the drinkers, a guy sitting on a bar stool a few metres away, has picked up his guitar and started playing. He plucks the strings with long fingernails, occasionally taps the guitar's wooden body to provide a beat, varying his tempo, the fingers of his left hand dancing over the fretboard. It's hypnotic, stunning. There isn't a sound over the guy's playing — and then there is.

Another one of the drinkers, a guy who must be in his 60s, dressed in the Andalusian old-man uniform of corduroy trousers, brown coat and flat cap, starts singing.

It begins softly, synced with the guitar, but then he hits his straps, bellowing out, occasionally stamping his foot, hands clenched into fists, raw emotion pouring out.

My brother and I glance at each other and grin.

This is it, this is the moment. Our Javier Bardem moment. And it's beautiful.

It's so rare you find this sort of thing. You can spend forever on the tourist trail and always feel like you're being fed experiences, that someone else has decided what tourists want and what you get.

You almost never find those perfect moments that are spontaneous and free, that are expressions of local culture devoid of any commercial element.

But that's what we have here, two musicians playing for the love of playing, watched by people who get to see this almost every day, but are still spellbound.

The pair go on to play a couple more songs, before the guitarist puts his instrument away and the two of them pick up their wine glasses and go back to chatting with their friends.

My brother and I stumble out onto the pavement shaking our heads. Woody Allen couldn't have scripted it any better.

bengroundwater@gmail.com;

Have you ever experienced a perfect moment while travelling that felt spontaneous and free? Post a comment below.

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