Archive for the ‘Spain’ Category

Pyrenneean Progress

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

In my mind Ive always dismissed the Pyrennese, that mountainous seam that welds Spain onto France, as kind of pissy. Not a proper mountain range like the Alps, the Andes or the You Yangs. But after slowly chugging up, over, and down seven passes around the 2000m mark in 2 days, I have a new found respect for them. Steep, lofty, and extensive, I seldom got out of second gear in the van.

The road hairpins its way past ski resorts, high alpine meadows with herds of goats and cows with their bells dinging, waterfalls and rocky crags and bluffs. The French side is a bit greener, with resort and spa towns nestled in the valleys. We took a couple of hitchers up to a mountain lake, Lac Estaing, and cooked lunch next to a busload of Paisley parish penshioners crooning ‘Flower of Scotland’ and other party pieces.

I guess the other thing to note is that we were following the route of the Tour de France, two weeks before they were due to come through. The first give away is the amount of graffiti on the road tarmac, done in large letters with the hope of being picked up by the TV helicopters. A lot was about the Contador team that I couldnt always translate but I think was suggesting that they were a pack of cheating druggie scum. The other stuff varied from the personal “LOIC 2008″ to the imaginative “CUNT CUNT CUNT CUNT”. The road was also full of riders, generally middle aged guys in full cycling gear, no doubt reviving boyhood fantasies of winning La Tour as they labour up 1 in 8 degree slopes. We saw quite a few that were gasping and looked close to tears or total mental breakdown, still with a fair bit of the hill to go. It brought to mind the film Belleville Rendevous (Les Triplets de Belleville) and the scenes of the gasping riders. If you havent seen this one I thoroughly recommend illegally downloading it.

Eventually, we crossed the border backover into Spain again, where the grass is yellower and fuel is a lot cheaper. Having been through Luxembourg I thought it would be unfair if having come so close we avoided Andorra. It’s feeling might be hurt.

Bully for you

Friday, July 4th, 2008

The road east to Pamplona cuts its way up over and through steep forested mountains with almost no signs of human habitation. The city itself is famous for its annual ‘Running of the Bulls’ festival where the bovines are let loose down the streets and locals and kiwi backpackers are photographed with looks of sheer terror on their face as they scramble over one another trying to get out of the way of them, and later make macho claims of patting the bulls head. The festival kicks off in a couple of weeks. Karina doesn’t think much of the whole thing, as the bulls are killed at the end in the arena. I pointed out that they don’t have a fun time at the abattoir either, and at least they get a fair chance of horning some pesky humans before they become sirloin. But I find arguments based on moral equivalence hold little water with most people.

We parked up and had a stroll down Pamplona’s narrow streets that the bulls will run down in a couple of weeks time. I was surprised to find that they contained fairly upmarket shops, like letting the bulls loose down Bond St. There were a lot of stores selling the white with red sash bull-running pajamas, bull souvenirs, bull labeled wine etc, i.e. classic bull shit. We walked past the colosseum-like stadium the bulls eventually run into that was all locked up at the time, had some lunch then hit the road once more.

East of Pamplona, the road followed a wide dry valley between two mountain ranges, along a river and past drystone hilltop villages and monasteries, most of which appeared abandoned. We eventually came to an inviting long reservoir, its green waters lapping rocky pine-clad shores. We stopped the van and had a dip, which in the heat of day was just the ticket. The water was fresh and cool we stayed for a couple of hours just splashing about. There was a monastery village on the next point, with numerous boats anchored in front of it. Though the only signs of life we saw was a topless Spanish woman driving a powerboat standing up with one hand. She powered across to each part of the lake in turn as if it say, “check out my knockers” to the region. In the late afternoon Karina had a snooze in the back while the clouds that were stacking themselves over the high Pyrenees to the north suddenly let loose with quite chunky hail stones. I thought it best to call it a night, and so parked next to a man-made stone river channel just before the high mountain pass into France we would take the next day. In the distance we could see patches of snow clinging to the rocky peaks.

San Seb Sun

Friday, July 4th, 2008

After sun, sand, surf and saucisson in Anglet, we headed south across the border into Spain, though inter-EU borders now seem to consist of a small blue sign on the side of the road with the country name on it surrounded by gold stars, and not a lot else. I say Spain, but we were heading deeper into Basque country, or Euskatel as the locals have it, and many of them would rather it not be part of Spain. They express this wish with lots of Basque graffiti, flags that looks like a union jack negative, and the occasional car bomb. This aside, San Sebastion looks stunning with it’s natural harbour protected by two mountainous headlands, and an elegant historic centre by the rivermouth.

We drove around aimlessly looking for a parking spot but the city seemed full of couples and families out walking on a balmy Saturday, and none materialized. After so long in Anglet, Karina had valiantly gone without a proper shower long enough, our solar water bag shower being more of stop-gap measure, and plumped for the only caravan park the city had. This turned out to be 6km to the west and up a windy mountain road. After a proper scrub, (though the blokes showers only worked in 2 second bursts of scalding hot water) we decided to get the bus down into the old city rather than navigate our way back pissed. We strolled along the promenade that ran behind the golden horseshoe of the city beach, and had a glass or two in one of the well patronised tapas bars in the maze of alleys of the old city. The last bus left at 11pm, so we headed out just as most people seemed gearing up for a big night out.

The next day we scored it for a good parking spot right next to the rivermouth. Spain were in the Eurofinals, though the atmosphere was fairly muted for their first big final after years of disappointment. I put it down to the Basque thing, like being in Glasgow if England were in the final (that might be overstating things, the locals weren’t actively supporting the opposition). We decided to spend another night here and watched the final, which Spain mostly dominated and deservedly won. It was a pretty international crowd in the bar, with some australians, some dutch surfers, a subdued german couple, a middle-aged English foursome who stood in front of everyone after halftime and belligerently blocked the view of the telly, and some Brazilian bar staff who Karina got chatty with. There were a few car horns in the street both that night and the next day, but I remember when Brasil won the 2002 world cup while I was in London and packed out Trafalgar square samba-ing by comparison. I read El Mundo the next day and it seemed other cities like Madrid were far more festive. We slept that night in the van and I awoke just after dawn and wandered the waking city streets and beach looking for a toilet that was open. By the time I got back Karina was up, so we had ourselves a coffee and tortilla (potato omelette) in a café bar before battening down the hatches and hitting the road eastward. After actively going away from it for 3 weeks we were now vaguely heading in the direction of Australia.