Having driven all over the states this year, I figured it might be time to try driving in a foreign country. So far, every country I’ve been in where a rental car was involved, the driving’s all been on the “wrong” side of the road and I didn’t do any of it. Thank God. I have enough to worry about when I drive without also turning everything I know backwards and upside down.
Given that, I determined that Spain drove on the “right” side of the road by looking out the airplane window at the traffic as we landed in Madrid and heaving a sigh of relief. Note to self, might want to check that out slightly further in advance next time. Other things I might want to consider in the future include the purchase of a Tom-Tom or GPS device to which I can download maps. God bless Corey for leaving his Tom-Tom with me or I’d still be in Barcelona going around and around the roundabouts.
Even with a Tom-Tom, it’s tricky to get places. The Spaniards like to repeat names of towns, streets and plazas and half this country was built 1000 years ago so a generously sized one lane roads looks like this:
And my little Audi (Anika) is a compact car so… you can only imagine how petite the roads are when they allow parking on both sides and someone’s driving a full sized anything. We’ve definitely parked Anika in some spaces where we couldn’t open both doors to get out and exited a few tight corners by way of 25 point turns. When there were two of us to read signs and look for stuff it was a bit easier. Now when I go down the wrong road or there’s a dead end, I have a strong temptation to just park the car and get out because the idea of reversing for a quarter mile or executing another 25 point turn seems a bit daunting. However, I’m getting really good at estimating my car size to within half an inch and so far, so good. Everyone please knock on anything wooden in your vicinity.
However, when I rented this car I forgot the cardinal rule of rental cars on vacation which is that they make you think you can do more and go further than you really should, which results in half the vacation time spent in a car.
This trip is no exception.
Also, PS: Spain is huge. It’s big for Europe but it’s also just big. The fastest legal speed is 120km, which isn’t that fast although it feels like it when it’s a two lane mountain road with constant switchbacks. Plus the fast direct toll roads carved straight through the mountains are frighteningly expensive (approximately 8 Euros per 100km). This all means that the best way to put the vacation back into the rental car experience is to ditch the toll roads, take the two lane roads, accept that everything will take forever (food service, travel times etc.) and save my mental energy for figuring out the road signs because there are a bunch I still don’t understand.
Here are the ones I recognize:
One of my favorites. I think it’s a cautionary tale about going too slow and/or going too fast or possibly about the dangers of driving a car that has eyes and a propeller.
Yield to stick figures on seated lawn mowers.
Speaking of seeing the unexpected, I drove past a guy on a Vespa today who was chugging down the shoulder doing about 20km. He had a chest of drawers strapped to the seat behind him and he was smoking a cigarette and wearing shorts and sandals. I definitely yielded to him and I think he should get his own sign.
My friend Missy pointed out that I haven’t explained anything about the wheres and whys and whos of this trip and that’s unlike me. She’s right. I am remiss.
I’m in Spain for 2 weeks, one of those weeks with my friend Corey, who I toured with on The Producers
Apparently it’s my summer for hanging out with Producers’ kids (see also Ryan McAlpine).
Corey had time off and wanted to go somewhere. I always want to go somewhere and lack only someone who wants to go with me. He said Spain or France? I said Spain. Ergo and voila, here we are.
I picked Spain because some of my favorite artists came from here or worked here (Hemingway, Goya, Picasso, Dali) and I hope to absorb some of their inspiration. I’m also here to extend my “Year of the Road Trip” by driving around Spain, which is an adventure that deserves a post of its own so I’ll write about that tomorrow.
Today you’ll get the last bits of our madhouse dash through Barcelona where the sights swung the entire length of the spectrum from pedestrian to mind blowing.
The Chocolate Museum (the Museu de la Xocolata) falls into the pedestrian category even though the museum tickets are chocolate bars. This must be a new thing because they also have a ticket machine like the kind you see in the subway and I definitely saw a girl ahead of me try to stick her candy bar “ticket” into the machine before the guard stopped her and let her in the door. I wonder how much melted chocolate is in that machine…
The museum is light on information and has terrible audio visual displays involving slide carousels like a vacation from 1975, but it does display some intricate chocolate sculptures:
And they have a cafe where we ordered hot chocolate so dense it was less a drink than a melted candy bar.
We followed this ho-hum experience with La Sagrada Familia, which is easily the most awe inspiring cathedral I’ve seen in any country.
Designed and begun by Antoni Gaudi, who built a 1:10 scale model UPSIDE DOWN using wire and bags of lead shot to show the proper curve of the parabolas and archways.
The scale makes it almost impossible to photograph, though the interior is easier than the exterior.
I love that woman in front :)
The light is tremendous
And everyone bumps into everyone else because we’re all looking up. Stunning.
They put a couple elevators in, like the Basilica in Zaragoza, so you can travel to the top of the cathedral and then walk down a tight twisty staircase
Looking out the windows at rooftop views of Barcelona
That it’s unfinished makes this cathedral even more awe inspiring. Gaudi worked on it for 50-ish years and left detailed models and blueprints that were subsequently destroyed by looters during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Engineers and designers spent years reconstructing his models from the wreckage and going ahead with the cathedral construction and they estimate they’ll complete it by the middle of this century. Meanwhile, cranes and tarps interfere in every picture:
There are a lot of things that would bring me back to Spain but getting to see the completed Sagrada Familia is at the top of the list.
It was Corey’s last night so we found a great restaurant and had paella. Ours was delicious but less photogenic than this one that I took in the Mercat
And then Corey left at the literal crack of dawn to fly to Madrid and catch his flight back to the states. It’s been such a fun trip with him and I’d do it again in a second.
Tomorrow: on my own in Spain.
An amazing farmer’s market with delicious things:
Scary things. Sheep’s heads?
Curious things. I think this is tripe.
A little of everything, no?
We didn’t intend to stay in Zaragoza but it’s about halfway between Pamplona and Barcelona and we found hotel rooms with no trouble; so, Zaragoza it is!
Notable things in town include the ruins of a Roman theatre built between 11-32AD and used as a performance space for the next 300 years.
And the Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar built around a sighting of Mary in 48AD.
They’ve remodeled the northern tower and added an elevator and several flights of stairs leading right into the tip top cupola, from which you can see 360 degrees around the city.
We ended the night with tapas (naturalmente)
And Sangria out of a tapped cask
The Basilica looked beautiful at night
My favorite Spanish breakfast
Tortilla Espagnole is eggs and potatoes and this one they layered with ham and cheese. They serve it room temperature and I still love it.
Hemingway spent quite a bit of time in Pamplona over the years and we ate breakfast at Cafe Iruna, his hang out place to write and drink. They’ve put a statue of him at his favorite spot at the bar.
We spent most of the day wandering around Pamplona. They have the oldest and most intact citadel in Europe, originally built in 48AD, which they turned into a modern art museum.
This is the famous street curve in the Running of the Bulls route:
I think the bulls rarely have trouble getting around the bend but the humans have a hard time getting out of their way…
Fancy Town Hall, all dressed up
And we hit the road. Tonight, Zaragoza.
Corey and Kaitlyn, out.
The Seminario hotel
Sort of small and easily overlooked, don’t you think?
And speaking of small, Spanish coffees are little.
I always order a bunch of them…
Driving through Basque country means the two languages you see in signs are Spanish and Euskara. English… not so much.
We spent a relaxed day in San Sebastian on the northern Atlantic coast of Spain.
A grey cloudy day and the water was COLD.
Such a pretty little place. I wish we’d had more time there.
Tomorrow, Papa Hemingway and Pamplona
When you travel to Spain in August, it’s probably best to remember that all of Europe goes on vacation in August. When you hear that Spaniards like to vacation on the beach and you are also planning to spend some time on the beach, it’s probably best to make housing arrangements significantly in advance instead of thinking you’ll “wing it” and “figure it out when you get there.” The phrase “let’s just drive up and surely there will be something available” shouldn’t cross your mind, let alone make it into reality.
In addition to these practical matters, you should also keep track of the Pope who apparently thinks August is the perfect month to visit sunny Spain and rolls in accompanied by 12 million screaming fans, miles of blocked off roads and snarled traffic extending into France.
But let’s say you ignore all this sage advice because you like to be spontaneous and because you aren’t Catholic and because you don’t want to plan your vacation so much as just experience it. So, you wake up on a Saturday, get in your car in Madrid and muscle your way through Pope-tastic traffic to get out of town (whereupon you realize you might have forgotten your GPS charger at the hotel so you muscle you way back into town, park on the sidewalk, toss your former hotel room and search through all the wadded up sheets only to discover your GPS charger in your backpack. In the car. Where you put it this morning.)
Then you drive north into Basque country and it’s beautiful. Van Gogh worthy fields of sunflowers
Charming villages with red tile roofs tucked into the mountains
Toros standing sentinel on the hills
And a 5 hour journey takes 8 hours because you stop every 10 minutes to take pictures and say “It’s so lovely/charming/amazing out here! I love Spain!”
You’re enthusiastic. I’ll give you that.
At 7:30pm you arrive in Guernica (Pop: 2,223. Hotels: 1) and the hotel is full. Sorry! Try Bilbao.
At 8:30pm you arrive in Bilbao (Pop: 33,455. Hotels: 2 bazillion. Number of Tourists: 4 bazillion. Parking availability: LOL!). You try three hotels and they’re all full (esta al completo!). They try to tell you that the entire town is full but you’re American and you know that a tourist town that size must have hotels ranging from the Ritz to little old ladies renting out their bedrooms and there’s probably something available. However, your Spanish has deserted you after 10 hours in the car and Spain Spanish is even harder to understand and when you throw in a Basque accent it’s nigh on impossible. They say try Mungia and you gnash your teeth and walk the mile back to your car.
This might be a good time for you to calm down because the night is far from over.
You arrive in Mungia at 9:30pm (Pop: 1300. Hotels: 1? Number of hotel signs pointing up uninhabited roads where you start to hear the music from Deliverance: 3). Hotel is full. Sorry! Advice about another place? Oooh, I don’t know. Saturdays are terrible (muy malo) and it’s August, don’t you know. Maybe try Barrakaldo?
At 10pm on the way to Barrakaldo, you see a sign for the airport and Corey says “Don’t they have hotels near the airport?” He’s smart, which is why you brought him along. You drive towards the airport and see a 12 story Holiday Inn Express, which looks like a big glittery American made heaven. Except, it’s also full. Sorry!
The desk clerk says there’s only one other hotel in the area. He gives you the phone number and the woman speaks English! However, she says her hotel is also full. She suggests the Holiday Inn, and you tell her you speaking to her from a car parked on the sidewalk of the Holiday Inn because it’s so full there are no parking spaces.
You look at the car and wonder what it would be like to sleep in it.
Then she says, how about the Seminario? Turns out maybe there isn’t just one hotel in the area, which you suspected all along. She gives you the number and you call it and even though the clerk doesn’t speak English he says he has a room! Then he gives you directions to his hotel that you don’t understand so you have to call the English speaking hotel lady back so she can give you directions to someone else’s hotel, which she does (the Spanish are so lovely/charming/helpful!).
You arrive at the Seminario at 11pm, check-in takes 45 minutes because that’s just how they do it here in Spain but the bar is still open and the sweet little senorita bartender will sneak into the kitchen and make you a sandwich if you ask nicely.
It’s been a 13 hour day. Have a drink. Have a sandwich. Then say to yourself “Where am I staying tomorrow night?”
Breakfast: Cafe con leche and Churros
Madrid architecture runs to buildings with huge brick facades decorated with gorgeous iron balconies and lamp posts surrounding central squares. Hard to photograph.
Each square anchors a neighborhood. Cafes put out tables, street artists perform and the place teems with people at night.
Snack? Straight from the USA?
I would love to meet the guy that stacked these cherries.
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, two of Spain’s favorite sons.
Lunch: wine and tapas
Fried potatoes with aioli and trout roe. SO. GOOD.
The Reina Sofia museum houses Picasso’s Guernica, a piece robbed of its impact in reproductions. It’s haunting, disturbing and so powerful. We’re going to try to drive through Guernica on our way north tomorrow so I’ll talk more about it then.
Additionally, Reina Sofia has one of Europe’s largest collections of Modern Art (much more my style than the Prado). I loved this piece, which is a working metronome called Object of Destruction by Man Ray, and the kid who kept trying to figure out how it worked.
And now it’s 7pm. Time to go home, take a nap and a shower and then come back out at 10pm for dinner. At least, that’s what we’re gonna do!
Corey and Kaitlyn, out.
It’s been a long travel day. Enough said. But you made it to Spain! It’s noon, let’s start with the good stuff, like olive oil in a jug.
Perhaps you’ll enjoy eggs scrambled with cuttlefish ink – turning them an appetizing grey… – and then topped with fried cuttlefish??
I’m hearing a no. (which was also my reaction when it arrived. It was better than it looked, which wouldn’t be difficult).
Perhaps I can tempt you with an Iberico ham bocadillo, thin silky pieces of deliciousness trapped in fresh baked bread?
And Sangria! You’re in Spain so you gotta
The waitstaff is in no rush so you shouldn’t be either. Go ahead and make it a 3 hour lunch.
Now you need a walk or else that jet lag and lack of sleep is going to put you out. It’s hot (90 ish degrees) but there are dozens of pedestrian walkways covered with sun shades
Enjoy the manicured gardens
And a little flamenco reheasal
Stop in at the Prado. Corey says the proper order is Information, Espresso and then Art. Who are you to argue?
That’s a lot of Renaissance paintings of Christ, right? But the room of Black Paintings by Goya gave me chills.
Shake it off with some street art.
Madridlenos enjoy historical “monuments” to social causes. Actors paint themselves to look like statuary and then freeze in a position. Fortunately, they put out a little plaque describing their tableau or the situation might just be confusing.
The causes range from political, like this monument to women who’ve been silenced:
To entertaining, like this monument to Ham:
Leave them a tip and they’ll break their immobility to smile, nod or wink at you.
It’s 9pm but the city’s just waking up. See how much longer you can last before you have to fall face first in bed so you can get up and do it all again tomorrow. We lasted 3 more hours…
More tomorrow? Por supuesto.
Corey and Kaitlyn, out.