Tapas, toros & tomatina
14.08.2009 - 20.08.2009 39 °C
After an enjoyable evening at Fiesta San Lorenzo in Huesca. We rose early and hit the road. We were heading to San Sebastian via Pamplona. First stop though was about 40 km NW in the town of Loarre, where another ancient castle stands, reputed to be Spain's best preserved Roman fortress. Castillo de Loarre was built in the 11th century by King Sancho III of Navarra and later expanded by Sancho Ramirez of Aragon. It's position allowed control over the expansive plains of Hoya de Huesca and was used to launch advances into the Muslim lands. It also featured in Ridley Scott's film 'Kingdom of Heaven'.
Morning at Castle Loarre
Castle Walls Views from The Castle
As we approached the entrance to the site, an englishmans voice came from behind a tree. My Australian flag shorts were met with the expected distain, given that we were mid-way through the ashes series at the time. Further inspection revealed a man of about 50 seated under a tree and behind a telescope. It was a friendly Englishman called Gary. A self confessed 'twitcher' (Noun - Brit informal a bird-watcher), Gary was able to tell us about the various birds which inhabit the area and identify the large birds of prey, circling the castle and surrounds, as 'Griffin Vultures' with a wing span of around 15 feet in larger specimens.
Griffin Vulture - These things are huge
Gary has set himself an amazing challenge for 2010. He is spending the year cycling all over the UK in an attempt to see an estimated 250 bird species. He aims to draw attention to the issue of climate change and to increase awareness of the Eco Schools Programme, whilst raising money for some excellent charities.
You can follow his progress here http://www.bikingbirder.co.uk/index.html
Gary joined us for a coffee after we had explored the ruins. Jen was almost comatose as she sat listening to two music nerds discussing every band, album and gig they had ever seen or heard. After what seemed like several hours, Gary and I had a 50 pence bet on the outcome of the cricket before Jen and I departed in search of the coast. Jen pointed out a rash which had developed on her neck and shoulders. She claimed it was due to exposure to dangerously high levels of boredom. I still believe it was a result of eating several kilos of cheese during the previous days.
In retrospect, we think we did the most beautiful part of our trip in the first week. The mountainous high lands provided castles, rivers, spectacular views and the changing colours of the landscape. As we drove over the highest peak of our route we saw a 10 minute period where the clear blue sky clouded over, grey and gloomy, and it rained. The temperature fell from 38 degrees down to 22 and then back to 39.
As we made our way toward Pamplona the road wound alongside lakes, through mountain tunnels, over long dry river beds, and areas of lush green trees. Pamplona is most famous for the 'Running of the bulls' however we made only a brief stop as we were eager to reach the Northern coast and the beaches of San Sebastian. Upon arrival, however, San Seb was choked with holiday makers and the streets were filled with people celebrating the fiesta. Almost every town we visited, in our first week, was celebrating a Fiesta in the name of their town's Saint. This presented us with some difficulty though, our Dos Tom would plot a route through the town but we would invariably find the city centre blocked to traffic. We did several laps around the centre of San Sebastian before deciding to push on along the coast in search of a quieter spot. The motorway runs several kilometers inland, but we decided to hug the coastline. After all, time was not an issue and the scenic route delivered some beautiful views. We drove to several camping grounds in the towns we passed through but they were all completo (full).
In **** we stumbled upon a sea of tents perched high on a heavily sloping hill overlooking the sea. We took the drive uphill to find a handfull of eastern European guys running check-in from a small portable office on the side of the road. The price was good but they insisted we could not pay cash up front and that they would need to hold our passports. We decided WE needed to hold our passports and kept driving. The sunset over the water was simply stunning and the cool of the evening had arrived, courtesy of a light breeze from across the water. We were resigned to a night spent sleeping in the car or on the beach, when we noticed the presence of small brown signs, featuring a tent icon, that indicated a campground a few kilometres up the road. Just inside the boundary of the town of Mutriku, and set on a hill just off the coast road, we found 'Camping Aitzeta' and set up for the night. We had a pitch set high on the top of the site which provided a lovely view of the water. We ate our standard fare, fresh bread with chorizo and cheese, before sitting outside at the restaurant for a coffee as the sun slowly disappeared.
The following morning, just before dawn, we walked to the water's edge and then along the coast into town. We have become fans of photos taken in the soft, even light of sunrise. The water was calm and the town silent as we ambled through the streets and back to camp. We packed our gear and hit the road. We had read about a place called Mundaka, which boasts the best waves in Europe.
Mutriku Harbour at Dawn
Dos Tom indicated a campgound on top of a hill just inland a few kilometers. It was dark when we arrived and we were doubtful they would have a pitch for us. We were wrong. We set up camp and headed for the cafe for Cervesa and dinner. The cook, a heavy-set man of around 60, limped over to the bar to take our order. We looked at the menu and ordered the paella...no paella. We ordered the Quesadilla... no quesadilla. He suggested an alternative but niether of us understood a word he said. Once again we simply nodded and said "Si. Gracias". The beer arrived courtesy of the skinny waiter... with a limp. The beer tasted especially good after a long drive. Our food arrived. It was egg and chips. We laughed quietly and joked that it was probably standard procedure to serve English speakers traditional English food. Mind you, part of the reason we travel is to escape the bland, stodgy, english fare. We ate what we could and then hit the sack.
Next morning we left the coast and headed inland. We decided to plot a route through the Picos de Europa, a lush green mountain range that extends from *** to ***. As was the case in Aragon, the altitude of the Picos delivered respite from the heat, and some breathtaking scenery. IN about *** minutes we reached Onions and the *** year old Roman bridge which sits above the river ***.
Puente de Romano
Puente de Romano
From de Onis we slowly climbed along the winding road, stopping often to take in the views. We broke for lunch at *** and enjoyed possibly the largest lunch Stephen has ever eaten. We confidently ordered the set menu lunch and some water. Now into our second week, we were getting into our groove when it came to ordering food or drinks in Spanish. We were suprised, however, when the food arrived. Jen's pasta was delicious but I found myself a little bewildered when my pork came in the form of a large silver soup turrine filled with tiny green peas swimming in a watery, spiced stock with little cubes of ham. Oh well... I do like peas, I thought. I ate as much as I could so as not to appear dissatisfied with the dish. I simultaneously pondered what the likely result of eating a copious amount of peas might have later in the day. The waitress arrived and removed the dishes. I indicated that the peas were delicious and that I simply couldn't squeeze any more in. Shortly after that she returned with my Pork fillet and what looked like a smallish round steak for Jen. In my effort not to appear ungrateful, I think I had probably simply ensured that I appeared to be at the very least a lover of green peas, or at worst, a relative of Mr Creosote from Monty Python's 'Meaning of Life'. We again ate what we could and smiled graciously as the plates were cleared. The waitress returned with ice-cream for desert and we managed to oblige. We paid the bill and waddled out to the car.
We left Salamanca early in the morning and headed for Madrid. We travelled on the secondary roads in preference to the motorway and as a result we discovered a number of smaller towns, rich in character and often possessing beautiful churches and plazas. We stopped for coffee at a bar in a tiny town. It was just after 9.00am when we entered the smoke filled bar. There were about 35 men sitting at tables, at poker machines, or at the bar. Jen was well received... as you might imagine. I wondered if these guys were relatives of the guys in Fraga. We passed on breakfast and drank our coffees and water without much conversation. We returned to the drive and soon found ourselves on a lengthy detour which took us off our route by a considerable distance. I did the smart thing and followed the cars in front, turning where and when they turned. Eventually we got back onto the bitumen and Dos Tom plotted a course. We travelled through some really beautiful little towns. The people would stop and stare as we passed through, sometimes they would smile and wave. We stopped and took some photos in *** after returning to the car an old man approached and tapped on the window. We rolled it down and he began to tell us, in Spanish, that his town was the best in all of Spain. We agreed and he continued on his way laughing and saying "Adios". We had heard that Segovia, about *km north of Madrid, was particularly lovely, so we made our way there for a late breakfast. Segovia is yet another beautiful town with a lengthy stretch of arched, Roman aquaduct as the town centre's main feature. The main Plaza was bathed in the mid-morning sunlight as we enjoyed a cafe con leche and watched the locals going about their business.
We had advised a friend, in Madrid, that we would arrive shortly after lunch and were on schedule as we reached Las Rozas. We had not planned, however, on the 90 minute search for our hotel. Neither the map, dos Tom or the locals were able to help us locate it. After circling the area, with eyes peeled, and a great deal of frustration, we pulled in at a petrol station where Jen asked the attendant for her help. She indicated that the hotel was a few kilometers further down the motor-way. We finally checked in at about 3:30pm and called Mike. He arrived about 45 minutes later to treat us to a quick tour of Madrid. Whilst i had spent a great many hours talking to Mike as a language partner, we had not met before. It was strange sitting beside him in the car because his voice was so familiar. We agreed the only thing missing was a headset and Skype. Considering we had never met, Mike went out of his way to help us experience Madrid. We started with a guided tour of some of the landmarks by car, followed by a walking tour, which included the central bull ring, elaborate council chambers, central park and the main train station. The station houses an amazing palm tree garden and a large pond filled with tortoises. We stopped regularly for water or an ice cream. At about 11pm we had dinner at VIPS (pronounced Bips), a great cafe/restaurant with a book store, wine store and grocery attached. We talked about our trip thus far and the road ahead before heading to a Terrace for drinks. It was so enjoyable to be sitting in the heart of Spain, with a new friend, watching the night life with a cocktail. Mike delivered us back to the hotel at around 4am. I think i fell asleep in the car - we were so exhausted. We all shook hands and said "see you on skype!".
Next morning we checked out, bleary eyed, and headed East via Tarancon to the town of Cuenca. We found a camping park set on huge, well treed, grounds which had a large swimming pool with an expansive shaded lawn area surrounding it. We set up, which took about 5 minutes now we'd had some practice, showered and hit the pool. We spent the rest of the afternoon reading and sleeping on the lawn. We turned in early in an attempt to catch up on the last night's lost sleep. I woke at dawn to the sound of a deep cowbell, and when I peered out from the tent I met the gaze of a very large black bull. I had a moment of panic, as would any matador with all but his head zipped inside a pegged tent, before it registered that we had pitched just inside the perimeter fence. When I started to climb out of the tent El toro was was panicked and did a sort of stiff jump on the spot, much like a dog does in a thunder storm, before heading away through the sunflowers. As we walked through the park, later that morning, I expected to hear the sound of trumpets and have the other campers throw flowers to note my bravery. It didn't happen. Whilst reading on the lawn we had discoved we were near the Don Quixote trail. Inspired by the story we decided to go in search of the windmills.
We rose early on the last Wednesday of August, the day of the annual La Tomatina festival.
Click here to read the La Tomatina blog
The balance of our time in Valencia was spent eating and doing a little sightseeing. At 04.00am on Friday morning we embarked on the final leg of our roadtrip, along the motorway to Barcelona. The roads were great, if expensive, and we were able to watch the sun rise as we drove. We had the car back at the airport by 10.30, as agreed, and we jumped on a train to our hotel on Las Ramblas. We spent our last evening in Spain wandering along the maze of alleys, looking in shops, watching buskers and con artist scams. We ate paella and enjoyed one last turron icecream.
Our travels in Spain were wonderful. Having a vehicle allowed us to make and change plans on a whim, and our trusty Quecha 2 second tent was perfect for setting up camp, even in the dark. We saw the contrasting colours and landscape of Spain, and learned more about it's history, language, festivals and people. From the endless open expanses of the mountainous North to the arid stretches of Spain's center, we enjoyed every moment of this trip. We can't wait to return... soon!