Saturday, 9 September 2017

The long way round

These past couple of days we’ve travelled across a significant chunk of northern Spain, from our house in Galicia to Barcelona, by car - my partner's little Mini soft-top. Splitting the journey into two parts, it meant I saw parts of Spain that I’ve never been anywhere near. Most of those places we saw from the car, of course, but breaking up the journey as we did, we were also able to stop off and see some spots closer up - a proper road trip if you like, albeit only a Mini one. (See what I did there?)

Heading across from north-east to north west, though it’s only a very slightly diagonal route across the country, it’s still something like a nine-hour drive if you do it in one go. 

How the route looks on Google maps.
So we had a bit of a look to see where might be interesting to stop. Sometimes you get what you expected, and sometimes you really don’t. First stop was a place called Sahagún, a little pueblo in Castilla y Leon, the flat centre of Spain. A pretty place, it features Roman architecture but is dominated by a 13th-century monastery, and being on one of the routes of the Camino de Santiago, it’s full of walkers stopping off to take a break and get something to eat.

Coming into the town, the first thing we saw was a bonfire inside the walls of the cemetery. An odd sight, frankly, and it did lead to some fairly morbid thoughts about cremation corner cutting, though perhaps that reflects more on me than anything else. We stopped at a café right by the monastery, which seemed to have its own cat sanctuary attached. Beautiful, no doubt hugely valuable leopard-print cats lazed inside a caged-off, outdoor section cleverly sited right next to the establishment’s terrace. The cats worked their magic and we sat down for a drink. We’d have stayed longer than we did but two things put us off a bit - one was that the bar owner clearly regarded his place’s status as a designated Camino stop as an opportunity to charge Madrid-type tourist prices for his drinks. The other was that he’d apparently borrowed his cloth from the bar at the foot of hell’s stairway - right by the gift shop - because he wiped the tables with it and the stench it left behind, worsening as the sun baked it into the tables’ very essence, was genuinely unbearable. Get some bleach, man. Bleach! Off we went.

Once down from Galicia’s mountains and getting into the Spanish plain, birds of prey can be seen circling at least every kilometre or so, and often more frequently than that. They also sit imperiously on the top of roadside fence posts, beautiful and statuesque as you zip past them. They’re often the most eye-catching thing in sight; you’d be forgiven, in parts of the long schlep across the flat plain of Spain, for thinking you were in a desert crossing the US. Long, arrow-straight roads bisect often quite arid landscapes. Settlements are few and they’re separated by long distances. I even saw a couple of these things during this part of the journey:

But there isn’t too much to report on this section of the drive, to be honest.

Moving into La Rioja, almost immediately the hand of humanity begins to dominate the landscape and two crops prevail; sunflowers and the famous grape named for the region. For me the sunflowers were more interesting. Past their bloom, they've been left to wilt in the sun for their oil, and turning a monkish grey-black as their heads sink as if in supplication, they make for an almost devotional sight. These are not the 8ft giants you might think; rather they’re mainly around two or three feet tall. Odd, randomly spaced, taller individuals stand out, though, making the scene look like adults dotted among their more numerous and younger charges, as if in protection of them. 

We stopped at Logroño for lunch. Now the only thing I knew about Logroño beforehand was that their football team spent the nineties in the top flight in Spain and then went bust. But, assured by a friend who visits there frequently that it was a good place to eat, and being essentially on our route anyway, that’s where we headed. Initial impressions were fairly unimpressive but once parked up and into the old town, the recommendation held true. We filled ourselves with excellent tapas and could have chosen from any one of dozens of ‘proper’ tapas places, with people having a bit of lunch standing up outside the bars, a quarter of a pint or a little Rioja to wash it down. The real, Spanish way of doing tapas. Heading back to the car, a sign of the country’s still significant political divide. A stone in the wall of a church inscribed with a paean to the glory of the Caudillo, the self-aggrandising General Franco who so named himself, splashed with black paint evidently thrown at it from below. Evidence of the fury which he still evokes on the opposite side of Spain’s political spectrum, and of the ongoing respect in which he’s still held by some quarters of the country’s right wing - in Germany, for example, any inscription of that type would most certainly have been removed long ago.

After La Rioja comes Zaragoza, less interesting apart from the mountains which seem to track your progress from a distance. Never seeming any nearer or further away, I kept thinking their presence felt like those pantomime villains who, disguised as some part of the landscape, stop moving just before the hero turns round to try to catch them out. Moorish architecture, or buildings at least inspired by it, dot the landscape here. The region’s capital, Zaragoza, was another stopping point for us - a chance to stretch our legs and see what this city, well-known by name if not by acquaintance for us at least, had to offer. That Moorish influence was most clearly evident in the Palacio de la Alaferia, a sort of less famous and plainer cousin to the Alhambra. Though splendid and interesting, we fairly skipped round it because the adjacent barrio in which we’d parked the car did not do justice to its imposing neighbour. It was a bit sketchy, frankly, so we moved on again. 

The Patio de Santa Isabel at the palace. Pic in public domain.
Next was Huesca - scrubby and bland, to be honest. Even those predatory birds which so frequently marked our progress earlier are absent here. Only fields of maize or stunted bushes for company as far as the eye could see either side of the road, we crossed the Greenwich Meridian, marked quite clearly with a large arch over the road in the middle of bloody nowhere, not long after the Sat Nav had told us rather blandly to ’stay on the E-30 for next 239km’. OK, we’ll do just that and… wait, what? 239km? Madre mia! This reminded me of the sign saying ‘Barcelona - 502km’ we’d seen the day before. I realise that there are far, far larger countries you can drive across, but I just never saw these kinds of numbers in Britain. And we were still a decent drive from Barcelona even at this point.

Bull silhouette and ruined castle on the road through Huesca.
Finally, into Catalunya. An impending referendum on independence may yet mean that, some day in the future, we’d be entering another country making this same trip. Certainly the road signs’ language changes immediately anyway. Traffic thickens as we near Barcelona itself, and after hundreds of kilometres of pretty straightforward instructions from the Sat Nav (don’t get me started on ‘her’ pronunciations of all the place and road names, which had my missus laughing openly more than once), we really did need her direction to find our way around the famous city.

With an hour to kill before we needed to put the car on the ferry, we had time to have a quick walk around the Barrio Gótico and Las Ramblas and buy some snacks for the final leg of the journey; the ferry crossing to Mahón. The Ramblas were just as I remember - crowded, with people from all over the place speaking numerous languages, over-priced craft stalls etc. The recent attacks seem to have failed to keep people away, just as they did in Paris, London, Berlin and pretty much anywhere else I can think of. There was, though, as we got back to the car to await our call to board, an extensive police presence at the port itself, holding people up who’d come in from Algeria as each and every car was checked thoroughly. I don’t know if this was the case before the attacks, or if it represents a sort of Islamophobia that is just what the terrorists are looking for, but it certainly looked to my eyes to be a marked contrast to the ‘business as usual’ look of the Ramblas.

I’m typing this on board, though I’ll have to wait to upload it. The Med is, as it always seems to be, calm and blue. The crossing will take seven hours, and we’ll be in Menorca, where we’ll spend the next couple of weeks hopefully catching the last of this year’s sun. Then we’ll have to work out where to stop while doing the same journey back across Spain, this time east to west.

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