Leaving Irún on a quiet Sunday morning, I trundle my way along the Atlantic coast, avoiding the big, direct roads. I’m only going about 100 miles and it doesn’t take long to reach Gipuzkoa, a stereotypical beach town seen everywhere that wants to attract Western tourists – high rise vacation apartments shoulder to shoulder above the shoreline. The north coast of Spain is very rocky and there aren’t that many sandy beaches, so each one attracts a lot of construction. The town is set in a curved cove and has a nice surf.
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Many twisty roads, high above the ocean, lead me to Bakio, another typical beach town but this one is where my next hosts live. Cian (his parents named him for the color cyan) invited me earlier but when I told him just yesterday that I could arrive today, he informed me that he currently had Airbnb guests in his apartment but that his friend and neighbor Manu (for Manuel) would host me.
On arrival, I see that they live in an older, high rise building set high above the beach with a magnificent view of the ocean, Bakio, and the surrounding topography.
Cian doesn’t answer my knock and when I text him, he informs me he and Manu are (is there any other option in Spain?) socializing in a beachfront bar. He invites me to join them, so I walk back down the mountain and we soon connect over a beer. Traveling in Europe, I probably drink 10 times as much alcohol as I do at home. For me that’s still not very much, though. I deflect many more invitations than I accept.
After some introductory chat, the three of us walk over to the adjacent beach. At the far end, Manu and Cian intend to go swimming in the surf. I don’t have shorts on me, so I decide to go in my underwear – a severe risk of coming out naked. Cian, perhaps wanting to avoid that unpleasant sight, gives me his shorts. The surf is strong – Bakio is popular with surfers – so I’m somewhat cautious, not going out more than neck deep. The water is warm by my standards so I romp in the rough waves for quite a while.
Later, we walk back across the wide beach and up the steep hill to the apartment building. I settle in to Manu’s guest room and we spend some hours talking, eating, and drinking. Cian was born in Catalunya but has lived in Basque country for years. Manu is pure Basque but for many years has lived in Belgium with his Belgian wife. He teaches philosophy there in a Catholic school. On the beach earlier, he explained that he loves to teach his students about astrology. I’m floored, not just because he puts such faith in it but that he can get away with including it in a philosophy class. He spends his summers and his 50% time off during the school year (Europe, gotta love it) in his hometown. He bought the condo a year ago so he now has a permanent base. Although there is a 15-year age difference between Manu and Cian, they are close friends and live just doors apart on the same floor.
While gathering my things to leave the beach earlier, my phone fell out of my pocket onto the sand. It seemed as though it was a harmless drop, but now I discover I can’t successfully plug in the charging cable. Careful examination with my magnifying glass reveals several grains of sand have gotten in the USB port, blocking the cable plug from seating properly. The grains are sticky and no amount of gentle banging will dislodge them with gravity. I try puffing air repeatedly into the port, to no avail. In desperation I try to squirt some water in there (the phone is waterproof) but the opening is to small to inject it in with any force. Finally, I spend about 30 minutes with a toothpick and safety pin painstakingly pulling out each grain from the minuscule opening while carefully avoiding damaging the delicate gold contacts. I finally get it but the cable grip in the port is no longer very secure and too much vibration now causes it to fall out.
As I’m showing off the features of my new camera, Cian spots a heron perched in a tree far below. Using my 3000 mm zoom setting and steadying the camera against the wall, I get very good photos of the distant bird. This camera is going to be a worthwhile accoutrement despite my having to lug around its 4 pounds on my shoulder. On my prior Europe trip earlier in the year, I had only my phone camera. Despite being technically very capable, the 2x zoom limitation meant many photos had to be post-cropped to enlarge and emphasize the area of interest. There’s much less of that with 125x zoom.
The view from the balcony is expansive and the light is ever changing as the sun gets lower.
At this time of year, it isn’t oppressive because it never gets very high in the sky. Bakio, with it’s mild winter climate, is at about the same latitude as Lake Ontario. It’s the off season and the town is very quiet, having shrunk to its permanent population of about 2,000. During the summer it swells to many times that. It’s always been oriented toward the beach — tourism now, traditional Basque fishing in the old days. It has no town center as is customary in Europe. Because he’s only there intermittently, Manu has no home internet so I have to rely on cell service throughout the evening. More and more people I meet these days have internet solely on their phones. This sometimes makes it difficult for me as I rely on my laptop for a lot of things, including remote work. Outside the US my plan doesn’t let me tether the computer to my phone to get fast data.
As the afternoon shades into darkness, we continue to sit on the balcony talking about a variety of topics.
By morning, it’s raining steadily so hanging around outdoors isn’t very appealing. Manu goes surfing in the morning – he loves it and tries not to miss a day . — and is then off on some errand. Cian’s French guests are out for the day, so he invites me to use his internet. He takes a long midday nap while I work on my computer. As evening comes on, it’s still raining and Manu returns. The three of us go out searching for a restaurant or bar that is open. Cian is wearing bicycle shoes that have some sort of metal on the soles. On the steep, wet pavement down to the town, he keeps losing traction. Eventually Manu and I have to comically hold on to him until the surface levels out.
We make a long pedestrian circuit through Bakio. Between the rain, the off season, and it being Monday, everything is closed except for two adjacent bars. We go to the Bar Kai and socialize. Throughout my visit, Cian is constantly stepping away from us to respond to a call or text. I tell him I’ve seen drug dealers who spend less time on the phone. In fact, his mother is fighting cancer and he’s trying to make a living from his Airbnb proceeds. His dream is to get a rural place and live self sufficiently and by barter. An ambitious goal for sure.
I try a Gilda, named after the 1946 movie, a skewered, repeating sequence of green olive, anchovy, and green pepper. This is a famous example of Basque pintxos (their word for toothpicks), house-made canapes served in every bar. I don’t normally like green olives, but the Gilda combination is delicious – just the right combination of flavors. And, I manage not to eat the toothpick or poke my cheek with it.
As we’re talking, another man comes up to our table and then sits down with us. Turns out he’s an acquaintance of Manu but they haven’t seen each other for 15 years. His name is Aitor Maguregi and he’s pure Basque all the way back. His last name means, strangely to me, “strawberry field”. He, Manu, and Cian talk for an hour or two. I can’t follow much of it due to the rapid fire Spanish and high ambient noise level except when Aitor turns to me and explains or emphasizes some point with his very limited English. Every so often, I chime in with something in Spanish that I desperately hope is relevant to the conversation at that point. What amazes me is Aitor’s face. He is just what I imagine the rugged, Basque fishermen of the 1500s must have looked like. I never find out what he does for a living but I know it’s not fishing. I feel like I’ve seen a bit of history, but it could all be imagination. Judge for yourself.
After Aitor ambles off into the rain, it’s not long before the bar closes for the night. As we’re leaving, as a simple courtesy I say “buenas noches” to an older lady sitting near the door. She responds and then tellss me, in Spanish, “In Euskera we say ‘Gabon’.” For the rest of the evening, I say Gabon to everyone and they obviously appreciate the small effort.
With the bar shuttered, I think we’re going home but, no, we go next door to the other open bar, Birjilanda, where Cian speaks to an acquaintance, an African from Senegal. He and I speak English for a while and a drunker companion of his keeps telling me that Kemi is in Spain illegally. Cian conferences with the the owner and, although the grill is closed, orders a delicious hamburger which we split 3 ways over another round of red wine. I switched to lemon soda hours ago. Burger devoured, this bar is also closing, so we finally walk up the hill to home. I’ve never shut down one bar before, never mind two.
In the morning, Manu heads off to surf, Cian is still fast asleep in his apartment, and I head out before 11 AM for the short drive to Bilbao, Basque country’s largest city but not its capital.
Friday, it’s so hard to forsake Casa de la Presa that I don’t hit the road until after 11 AM. The first stretch of highway is the same one I drove, in the other direction, in the darkness last night. Of course, it’s much easier in daylight. This morning, I can enjoy the blind turns and insufficient width of the road which shares the canyon bottom with a rushing river, invisible in yesterday’s inkiness.
Just before my backtrack of yesterday’s return home ends, I make a quick stop in El Pont de Suert for croissants to round out my edibles for the day. Two are devoured within the first mile. Now, I’m in new territory, heading further west. The high mountains are rapidly giving way to flatter terrain. Before they do, the highway goes through very deep and narrow Obarra Gorge.
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I stop in a parking area at the other end to take a picture. There are many other cars here but their occupants are mostly out of sight. As I walk back a few meters to snap my photo, I see a sign indicating there’s an old monastery 5 minutes away on foot. That must be where everyone has headed. Religious edifices, regardless of age or architecture, hold little interest for me so I continue onward. Another sign, though, describes the Ferrata de Obarra.
A ferrata is an iron trail, one that can’t simply be hiked but can be traveled without full technical climbing gear and skills. The route involves steel ladder rungs for vertical travel, dual cables or railings for traversing vertical rock faces, and a variety of chains, pegs, and steps – all anchored firmly into rock. It lets non-climbers get some of the thrills in a relatively safe manner. I’ve done a few of these over the years. In fact, around 1993, I took my two young children up the Precipice Trail in Acadia National Park. The three of us, worked our way up an exposed cliff, carefully using safe techniques. It was a fun climb but as we reached the summit of Cadillac Mountain, a number of tourists (who had driven up in their cars) looked as if they were ready to call Child Protective Services on me. Luckily, this was before everyone had a cell phone. That evening, as I told of our excursion to a park ranger he commented “It’s a very nice trail, if you like the feeling that every step might be your last.” Alas, as much as via ferratas intrigue me, I reluctantly accept that I’ve aged out of that risk profile, so all I’m willing to do is read the sign. It might still be safe with a guide and safety gear.
At Jánovas, there’s a view of an unusual massive, ridged rock face across the canyon.
The road is getting flatter and less interesting, although curiously constructed. With plenty of room on both sides of the roadway, it is now two clearly marked, well striped, opposing lanes. For reasons I don’t understand, though, the lanes are only six feet wide instead of the usual eight. This makes them just wide enough to fit a standard car but with the mirrors protruding above the white lines on both sides. Oncoming vehicles still have to hug the right shoulder to be certain of a safe pass. I don’t get it.
I stop for a break, buy a cup of coffee and drink it with my last croissant. A new motorway is being built along my route so I’m traveling on open sections of expressway in between being detoured around segments still under construction. Around 3 PM, with a couple of hours still ahead of me, the diffuse light is making my eyes want to close so I pull off onto an abandoned section of road and take a 20 minute nap. In the distance is the abandoned village of Escó.
Spain’s reservoirs have drowned many villages, but this one is different. Rather than submerging the village, the Yesa Reservoir took its fertile lands along the river in 1959, leading most residents to take government payments and move elsewhere. One family remains and is still fighting to revive the community.
Shortly after I resume driving, the road passes a number of hills that look like unconsolidated gravel but that seems improbable. I’m running a little behind schedule to reach my next host, so I don’t get out to investigate up close.
The highway is heading toward Pamplona, famous for the running of the bulls and as Ernest Hemingway’s hangout. Susan and I explored it last March, so this time I’m bypassing it on the motorway in the interests of arriving at my host in the time frame I promised. He lives in Irún, a small city on the French border, which at that point is the Bidasoa River. On arrival, he comes down to help me get the Berlingo parked and we go up to his 4th floor apartment.
Carlos worked as a teacher in France, where he was born to and raised by Spanish parents – still another example of coerced dislocation during Franco’s long, dictatorial reign. He moved to Spain on retirement because he likes the lifestyle there better. Unusually, he cooks nothing at home. All his meals are eaten out. The only other people I know who opt for that are some Manhattanites, whose refrigerators contain nothing but beer, wine, ketchup packets, and takeout food containers with leftovers. He chooses to live alone, eschewing a live-in companion so as to have his environment to his taste – no compromises.
Later at night, we go out walking in Irún. After showing me around the center, we end up at a bar. Bars in Spain aren’t typically the hard liquor meccas that we think of in the US, but the primary social gathering spots. They serve mostly beer, wine, and tapas (small, almost bite size, portions of food). Midday, the main dining time for Spaniards, many serve full meals. In many urban neighborhoods there may be a dozen bars in a couple of blocks, all with outdoor seating and all well-patronized from about 8 PM onward. They hum with conversation and background music. It’s very congenial.
We get red wine and a croquet tapa and sit down at a table with a female acquaintance of Carlos’s, another teacher. The conversation turns to politics and society and I struggle to contribute and follow it all, with both of them helping me by rephrasing things whenever I get lost. A couple of hours later we continue our walk through the quiet town back to the apartment.
Saturday morning we have cold cereal and fruit for breakfast. Last night, as we were talking and getting acquainted, I made my typical offer of sourdough pancakes for the morning but Carlos demurred.
Irún is in Basque country. The Basques are a very old ethnic group with a language and culture different from the rest of Spain and France. Cognates for “Basque” in other languages are “vasco” (explorer Vasco da Gama) and “Biscay” (the Bay of Biscay). The Basques are at heart traders, seafarers, and cattle farmers. Their origin and that of their language is a fascinating and mysterious topic. One long held theory is that they are direct descendants of the paleolithic (stone age) Cro-Magnons, the earliest homo sapien residents of Europe (although homo neanderthalensis preceded them by hundreds of thousands of years). This theory is encouraged by the Basque language being unrelated to any other. It’s the only non-IndoEuropean language on the continent. Multilingual people can’t draw on anything they know to deal with euskera, its Basque name.
Recent genetic studies have cast doubt on the “caveman” origin but it’s undisputed that the Basques have been a distinct and isolated culture around the Bay of Biscay for at least 3,000 – 4,500 years. It’s only in modern times that they’ve genetically mixed with Spaniards and other Europeans.
Traveling in Newfoundland in 2016, Susan and I learned Basque fishermen crossed the Atlantic every summer for large scale cod fishing and whale hunting. These activities date back to at least 1517, only 25 years after Columbus brought the Western Hemisphere to Europe’s attention.
The Basque language has been making a strong comeback since the 1975 end of the Franco dictatorship. He banned and punished speaking and teaching all non-Castilian languages in Spain throughout his 35-year reign, which is why many Basques today are not fluent in euskera, although almost all signage and printed matter in Basque country uses it.
Basques fought for many years for independence from Spain. The ETA group used terrorist tactics including many assassinations and bombings. The issues were settled amicably in 2018 and the ETA disbanded. Nonetheless, some independence graffiti persists.
Carlos has planned a full day of sightseeing. We start out at 11 AM by touring the nearby Saturday open air market. He points out the best stalls for certain items but he isn’t shopping today. Then a leisurely coffee break at an outdoor table of an adjacent bar. Further along, a seated statue of an Irunian artist, Luis Mariano, catches my eye and we both pose with it.
After another long walking tour of a different part of town we end up at Restaurante Larun, his regular lunch spot.
Both the bar and restaurant are very crowded and boisterous but Carlos is a regular, so we don’t wait long for a table. Lunch is the main meal in Spain and it’s a leisurely event, often lasting 2 hours or more including the preliminary beer and socializing with people you encounter. The menu del día (lunch specials) look good. They consist of two substantial plates and desert. At this restaurant, water, wine, and bread seem to be included. I have paella, followed by a really tender, large lamb chop with french fries. Dessert is, of course, flan. Excellent food and very reasonable, $14.
Lunch over, we walk to the car and drive to the old waterfront town of Pasai Donibane. The earliest records mention the settlement in 1203 – and it has a lot of interesting architecture. Leaving aside the churches that catered to seafarers, there are many old buildings with well-preserved facades
Apparently, in the old days, the taxes on a building were based on its frontage width, not area. As a result some of the buildings are extraordinarily narrow, as little as 10 feet. Victor Hugo lived here for a while and his home was a museum but now tourists have to content themselves with viewing the building from outside.
Lafayette also sailed from here – he was eluding both the English and French – to become a general in George Washington’s army. He played a major role in the Revolutionary War or as Carlos put it, “He saved America.”
After exploring the town, Carlos led me along a trail, actually more of a rock scramble alongside the Ria de Pasaia. Pasaia, on the other shore from Pasai Donibane is a major Basque port, exporting, in particular, Spanish automobiles.
The harbor is connected to the Atlantic Ocean by a narrow natural channel. I’ve seen the word “ria” in countless crossword puzzles. It’s defined as a long, narrow inlet from the sea formed by the partial submergence of a river valley. Here, I’ve encountered a named ria in real life for the first time. Silly as it is, I’m nerdishly thrilled.
The trail runs out to the ocean entrance, where we watch various exiting ships make the transition from the quiet ria to the heavy seas.
As well, at the very end is a vertical face and several people are practicing rock climbing. While we’re there, every time someone touches the endpoint, we all applaud.
The rock faces along this side of the ria exhibit large pockmarks caused by wind erosion, a fairly unusual form.
On the long walk back to the car, we pass one of many posters I’ve seen in support of the Palestinian cause. These are quite common, perhaps stemming from the long-standing but frustrated separatist desires of many regions of Spain.
From the people I’ve talked to, there is very little sympathy for Israel in Spain. Many people seem to think the recent Hamas massacre of over 1400 people is a direct result of Israel’s decades long oppression and occupation. I consider Hamas’ attack on civilians as unforgivable, regardless of any incitement, but I also have to say Israel’s moral justification for its policies is very weak. To Spaniards, the solution seems clear – give Palestine back to the descendants of the original residents. One person I spoke with put it in harsh, extreme terms: the US should cede an equivalent area of American desert and all Israelis should relocate there. I still think it’s an intractable problem with no good solutions.
We drive to another waterfront town, Hondarribia. Just across the water is Hendaye, France with a very large small boat harbor near the ocean entrance. The Basque side is picturesque and we take another long walk around, interrupted by the obligatory beer break outdoors in a busy square.Most of the clientele seems to be French. Carlos says they like it here because it’s close and Spain is cheaper than France.
By the time we get back to the car, it’s been dark for quite a while but Carlos’ apartment is only 10 minutes distant. We call it a night.
Monday evening, shortly before dark, I arrive at my hosts, who live in the intriguingly named “Casa de la Presa” (The Dam House). As instructed, I walk across a suspension foot bridge and find myself in a set of channels, gates, and small dams. Wending my way along and across the works, past “Authorized Persons Only” signs, I come to a charming two-story house adjacent to the waterways and nestled under a towering limestone cliff.
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As I enter, I’m welcomed by my hosts, Maite and Jordi, who warn me their home is full of bones – and indeed it is. Skulls on shelves, skeletons on tables, disarticulated animals in file drawers, bones everywhere!
After settling into my room, I naturally ask about the story of the house. I’ve resolved to speak Spanish here to improve my comprehension and vocabulary but it quickly becomes obvious we have way too much to say to each other so, without comment, we lapse into English most of the time. It’s quickly apparent that Maite’s favorite English expression is “Super cool!” and everything we talk about for the next few days is so designated at some point.
Briefly, the works used to have a damkeeper but they were automated long ago and the house fell into disrepair during over 15 years of abandonment. This is not a dam that holds back a reservoir, but one that regulates stream flow entering a covered ditch which channels the water into a penstock miles downstream that powers three hydroelectric turbines. Maite and Jordi approached the power company 20 years ago and asked to be allowed to renovate the house and live there rent-free. This would benefit the company by creating a presence on the property and having unexpected problems reported promptly.
The arrangement formalized, they began renovating, at great effort and significant expense. The house has absolutely no vehicle access. All material must be carried or wheeled by hand cart from the highway and is limited to the narrow width of the walkway. They said getting the refrigerator in was particularly challenging. The power company supplies their electricity and water without charge and the lack of rent makes it a unique and cheap home. Privacy is assured because in addition to the pedestrian limitation, anyone entering the area without an invitation is trespassing.
Maite is an accredited archaeologist and Jordi plays a major role in digging, finding artifacts, and preparing them. They primarily study Neanderthals and have expanded the accepted age and cultural level of that extinct species. Much of that work is done through examination of animal bones, e.g. by searching for evidence of tool use on them and the relationship of bones to firepit charcoal, which can be dated by various methods.
The archaeology digs alone don’t explain the plethora of bones in the house. Bears have been re-introduced back into the Pyrenees. Since the initial Slovenia transplants were released, the species has thrived. To keep the peace, farmers and ranchers are compensated for any livestock killed by bears. The lucrative payments naturally give the farmers a perverse incentive to claim any dead animal is a bear victim. To reduce cheating, the government contracts with Maite and Jordi to investigate the deaths and determine which are legitimate bear kills, rather than other causes such as dogs, natural or accidental demise, etc.
They examine the carcasses, then boil them to clean off the meat, and study the bare bones for damage characteristic to bears vs other predators. If they can show bears were not involved, the claimant receives no compensation. Jordi has a small shop under the cliff and away from the main house where he boils carcasses for 20 hours at a time. I didn’t make it into the shop but I’m sure this is not neat and odorless work.
He has also wired together many skeletons into high quality re-creations, which reside in the house and outdoors. The two of them literally live in a museum.
After some hours of conversation, I hit the hay and sleep to the sound of falling water outside the window.
Tuesday morning dawns cloudy with the threat of rain. There’s a small village high up on the far side of the valley that Maite says can be reached by trail.
Normally, she would accompany me on such excursions but, tragically, she has a herniated spinal disk and has been in severe pain for many months. Since I suffered two long periods of identical issues 13 and 28 years ago, I’m one of the few people that fully understand her agony of chronic back spasms and sciatica. Thanks to our shared experience, Maite and I quickly develop a common bond of misery empathy. Her doctor has finally opted for surgery and Maite carries her phone with her every minute, waiting for the call that it’s been scheduled. All the while I’m there, she doesn’t get that call, but I reassure her repeatedly that my two operations were both long lasting, overnight, miracle fixes.
I think about hiking to the village but it’s raining intermittently and, as I’ve warned countless people, including my son who does it frequently, hiking alone can turn what, with a companion, would be a minor mishap into a fatal accident. The threatening weather is enough excuse to just hang around and enjoy the dam property.
Reinforcing my caution, Maite tells me a horrible story. Some time ago she was hiking alone on one of the local trails. During a descent, her foot slipped out from under her and she slammed supine to the ground, one knee shattered with multiple breaks but, fortunately, not a compound fracture (i.e. no exposed bone piercing the skin). Completely immobilized and in excruciating pain she managed to extract her phone. She knew that many portions of the steep terrain have no cell service and she was desperately hoping she was not in one of them. In the cool weather, she was inadequately dressed for spending hours on the cold, damp ground and knew she was likely to die of hypothermia without prompt aid. Fortunately, her phone was in range of a tower and, additionally, her brother is part of a mountain rescue squad. She reached him and he brought assistance in the shortest time possible.
Although this undoubtedly saved her life, she needed very extensive surgery to put her knee back together with metal screws, straps, and bone transplanted from elsewhere in her body. About a year ago, with the knee healed but chronically painful, she had all the metal removed, I imagine against medical advice. She is now told to abstain from a number of athletic activities forever. Five seconds is all it takes to permanently change your life.
I spend some hours prowling the grounds, noting the engineering of the gates, dams, and sluiceways. At one point, I hear a motor come to life and an automated rake on a timer scrapes floating leaves off one of the trash racks keeping debris from going downstream to the turbines.
Maite and Jordi are quite self sufficient, eating a lot of local products, their own garden-grown vegetables, and eggs from their three chickens. Every meal I eat here is tasty and unusual. You could easily call their unique living situation paradise, although one requiring a lot of hard work.
My contribution is duck paté. I found some at a Girona supermarket for what turned out to be a mismarked price. It was such a bargain, I bought six packages and I’ve been carrying it in my cold bag and eating paté sandwiches every day since. I arrived here with one package left and Jordi really enjoys it, so I leave it all to him.
This evening, I get a surprise. Maite is also a rock and roll singer/guitarist and she has invited a younger friend, Natalya, to come over. The two of them are going to do a concert just for me! Keep in mind that all the hospitality Maite offers me is done by someone who can’t sit or stand for more than a an hour or two before the pain reaches a level where she’s forced to lie down. That’s the kind of crazy shit that I might attempt, too, but normal people would just say, “I’m in severe pain, so you can’t visit.”
They do more than 10 songs, among them Pink Floyd, Dylan, John Denver – a broad range of styles. No one has ever done that for me, certainly no one I just met the day before. It’s a great evening, full of laughter as usual. I try to introduce them to some of my favorites – You May Be Right, Bad Case of Loving You, The Marvelous Toy – but they aren’t as enthused as I am.
Eventually, the delicious food is mostly gone, Natalya goes home, Maite is forced to get horizontal, and the evening ends. What a great time – super cool!
Wednesday morning, it’s raining continuously and the sky is very dark. Once again, I decide to postpone hiking and stick close to home. It’s a good day to write, send out hosting requests, and take occasional forays into the yard during the short rain free intervals. When Jordi comes home from his day job – trucking waste water between various local treatment plants – we have sourdough pancakes, which is one of the go to meals I prepare as a token of appreciation for hosts. I had started the batter two nights ago and now it’s very frothy. We eat some pancakes with a savory vegetable mixture and others with sweet toppings, American style. They must have enjoyed them because they’re all scarfed down pretty quickly.
I walk out along the path to get a little outdoor break and see the water flow is now so heavy that the three foot high waterfall that separates the holding pond from the sluiceway has disappeared because they’re both at the same height. A lot of rain today.
The three of us spend more hours talking archaeology, bones, politics, evolution, and attitudes for life. I tell Maite that I characterize myself as a cheerful pessimist, in the sense that, yes, human society is circling the drain but I’m not going to let it ruin my day. Her retort is that she’s a cheerful optimist in that she is confident humans are about to relinquish their dominant, powerful role on the planet and make much needed room for the evolution of other species, which will be, of course, super cool. We both agree that technological progress has far outstripped the excruciatingly slow process of evolution. We’re wielding planetary scale tools with what is, essentially, still a paleolithic brain. Also, that the mortality rate is 100%, medical statistics notwithstanding. Everything dies.
With that, the evening ends. About 1 AM, an outside noise wakes me up. Looking out the window, I see two utility employees under floodlights on the catwalks, adjusting various water gates and removing debris, doubtless to forestall flooding problems.
Thursday morning, it’s still raining but this is my last day before moving on so I’m determined to go sightseeing and hiking. Not far to the north is Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park, The first part translates in Catalan as “winding streams” and the second as Lake Saint Maurice. As these are the only two road accessible areas and are an opposite sides of the large park, I’m going to circumnavigate the whole thing to visit them both. Leaving the dam, I head east on yet another of those narrow, winding, paved roads, past tranquil Lake Montcortés.
I do manage to get photo of a kite flying above me during a stop. At high magnification and without a tripod it’s mediocre at best but it does show the kite’s characteristic forked tail.
I then pass dramatic rock ridges into the deep valley of the Noguera Pallarasa River.
The road follows the river upstream through a very deep and narrow canyon through that rock
and then many miles further up a slightly wider valley. The river is quite tame yet I pass puzzling signs advertising white water rafting.
Apparently, during tourist season, an upstream dam releases voluminous water during the day for rafting and then almost shuts the river off at night. I make an arbitrary turn up a steep, dead end road. The village at the top is disappointing as it’s vacation condos built to look old, but I do find a very interesting stone barn on the way up.
The scenery along the valley is quite nice except for Spain’s habit of placing electric transmission lines, often multiples, on prominent slopes, disturbing the view for long stretches.
I reach the turn off for the national park and drive up a small road to a much higher parking area. It’s been raining off and on the whole way but I decide to walk up a 2.5 mile trail to the park’s namesake lake.
For a short while the trail is a wheelchair accessible wooden walkway and then becomes a well-engineered stone path steadily ascending up the valley.
Unfortunately, on a wet day like this, the beautiful construction of wood and flat stones becomes very slippery and I have to take care not to lose my footing, even though I’m wearing hiking boots. I have Maite’s accident firmly in mind.
The forest is principally fir and pine, with a few very large specimens. Deciduous trees have a hard time on this slope.
A paved road parallels the trail, which always annoys me. It’s much less fun hiking somewhere you can drive. That’s why I’ve never ascended Mt Washington in New Hampshire on foot. It’s depressing to slog thousands of vertical feet up a brutal trail only to find a big parking lot and underdressed tourists eating in the restaurant.
In this case, though, the road is for authorized vehicles only and is above the trail, so the only disturbance is the noise of an occasional passing car. The latter part of the walk is a steep dirt road and I arrive at the lake with some additional uphill effort. Except for three school groups going down as I ascend, the area is pretty deserted due to the weather and time of year. Tall mountains surround the lake and there’s a roofed shelter to offer some respite from the light rain.
My stamina for level hiking hasn’t changed much over the past 20 or 30 years. I can still go a long way under modest backpack load. Ascent, though, is noticeably different these days. My uphill pace has slowed and I make a lot more 5 second rest stops than I remember, to let my leg muscles remedy their oxygen deficit. It’s not nearly as bad as 15 years ago in Peru where, on the steep, high altitude trail it was step, step, step, breathe, breathe, breathe — why the hell isn’t there more oxygen up here! That wasn’t due to age.
After soaking up, literally, the views, I head back down. The rain gets heavier and constant so the walk down is soggy. Son, Eric, has loaned me a pullover raincoat and today I really appreciate it. My formerly trusty, zippered LL Bean rain jacket has over the last 2 years failed distressingly – all the seam sealing tape has come unglued making it quite leaky. I forgot to replace it before I left the US and I would have been soaked to the skin today without Eric’s substitute.
The trail is an out-and-back, so to make it into a loop, if only a trivial one, I choose to walk the longer paved road once I encounter it. I don’t meet any humans or animals on the way down and the steady rain makes for a very pleasant descent despite the pavement. Since I didn’t wear my rain pants, the runoff from the rain jacket has soaked my blue jeans but for the distance and weather, there’s no danger of hypothermia, so I don’t care.
Back at the car, it feels good to have taken even a short hike. Again navigating the narrow, paved road back to the highway — this time in heavy rain, I continue my counterclockwise drive around the park while a 30 minute blast of the car heater dries my pants in short order.
The road goes up over a pass and past a summer-closed ski area. At the top there’s a monument to the first snowblower used there – kind of quirky.
Descending back into a valley of ski resort towns, I pick up two Spanish young people hitchhiking at a bus stop. As we’re talking in the car, the woman asks why I picked them up because no one ever does. I explained that I’ve traveled many thousands of kilometers “a dedo” (on my finger, i.e. thumb) so I always return the favor. She asks why I say “thumb” and I have to explain that in the US you stick out a thumb to solicit a ride. When I later relate this to Maite, she’s puzzled at the question because she says the same technique is used in Spain. The couple work in the ski industry in the winter and semi-starve the rest of the year. They ask me to drop them off in the town of Vielha. I ask them if that means “old”, since in various Romance languages the word is “velha”, “vell”, “viejo”, “vieille”, etc. They, Castilian Spanish speakers, say “no”. When I get home, Maite looks it up and finds it does mean “old” — in Aranese, yet another obscure Romance language that’s spoken in that area of Spain. I’ve never even heard of it and it’s so obscure that Google Translate doesn’t handle it.
Coming around to the west side of the park, I encounter more tunnels, as has been common in Spain. In fact, it appears the Spanish like tunnels as much as Swiss, whom I’ve described in the past as building tunnels the way other people change underwear. None of the Spanish tunnels match the absurd lengths of Switzerland’s longest ones, but some are miles long. In the US, tunnels are a last resort. Highway engineers and contractors much prefer to remove enormous portions of a mountain to build a straight, level road rather than drill through it.
Still in heavy rain, I turn off up a valley to the Aigüestortes area. Visibility is very limited by the low cloud ceiling but the excursion is still worthwhile. I can’t get to the “winding stream” portion, which is beyond the end of the public road. In fact, the gate is closed, not just to cars, but to all entry. I suspect this is due to dangers related to the severe weather but there’s not a soul around to ask. The heavy rain has made the steep stream that drains the valley into a torrent with lots of water flowing over the rocks – very pretty and impressive.
The other interesting feature is boulders, massive ones at the base of the steep canyon walls. Some of these are much larger than a house, bigger than any I’ve ever seen. The lack of detectable scars on the forested slopes above make me think they are enormous erratics, pushed and then deposited by long ago glaciers.
The ride back home is uneventful. At a gas station, I overhear two very soggy motorcyclists speaking in German, so I ask where they’re from. One of them is indeed German, but the other is German-raised but returned to Catalunya – another example of a family forced out of Spain by Franco-era repression.
We have several minutes of pleasant conversation before I continue on. Only 200 feet further,my phone rings and I pull into a truck parking area to answer it. It’s Susan – our oil furnace, which has been acting up recently is now completely unwilling to run. In the past this has been due to a failed flame sensor, which tells the control unit that the furnace has indeed ignited and does not need to be shut off to prevent accumulation of unburnt fuel. I ordered a sensor last week and it has arrived. Our friend, Vernon, is there to paint our outside deck and he installs the sensor while on the phone with me. The furnace still fails to stay ignited and after each shutdown smoke is being emitted from who knows where. We agree that professional help is needed and I spend a long time on the phone with the fuel company arranging an emergency service call. They agree to come in the next few hours, so the problem is now out of my hands, except for the probably absurd expense.
By now, darkness has set in for the last 17 miles of my drive home. It turns out that much of the road, despite being a national highway, winds severely and narrowly along a sinuous river canyon, not to mention two one-way sections controlled by alternating traffic lights. The nighttime, rainy drive is pretty challenging but far less than it could have been because the road is very well marked by reflectors, giving me good visual clues as to the approach of the next blind curve. I don’t see another car the whole way. Apparently, Spaniards all shelter in place during storms. After parking the car, a last rainy walk across the suspension bridge brings me safely home to Casa de la Presa. The waterways are still very full but the power company adjustments are now dumping more water into the stream bed so the sluiceway is a bit below its maximum capacity.
Maite is co-author on a journal article regarding taphonomy. Yes, it’s a new word to me, too, referring to the study of how organisms decay and become fossilized or preserved in the paleontological record. This article is discusses experiments with using artificial intelligence to classify the origin of various bone markings. Another author has written the draft in English, Maite has already edited it for errors and English usage, and she would like me to go over her version and put it into grammatic and natural American English. I’m happy to take on this challenge and agree to do it in the morning before I leave. With that, I say my heartfelt goodbyes to Jordi since he’ll be at work when I leave tomorrow and head up to bed.
Friday morning, I cook up the last of the pancake batter for breakfast (waste not, want not) and attack the journal article. I come up with a dozen or two minor edits regarding British spelling, Latin/English consistency, noun/adjective and singular/plural agreement, acronym definition, comma/apostrophe usage, and some confusing phrasing. Maite’s written English is very good but she greatly appreciates and adopts my edits. That finished, she and I say very reluctant goodbyes. I again wish her a quick and total cure of her back problem and my hope she overcomes her admittedly irrational fear of flying so they can visit us in New York. I lug my stuff across the walkways and bridge to the car and I’m off westward.
It’s well before daylight this Monday morning when I load everything into the car. As I hoped, it all fits into the covered rear cargo area and I can keep the back seat empty – a major reduction in risk of theft. I’ve worked out the most complicated route possible – all small roads, most of them serpentine, passing a variety of “natural park” areas. Eric looked over my original idea and dismissed certain parts as “flat wine country” or “stinks of pig shit” so I revised portions based on his extensive bicycle touring experience. I think it will be a phenomenal drive.
I’m heading to a BeWelcome host in western Catalonia. The most direct route would take 3-4 hours. Google estimates my contorted version at over 9. After fueling up, it’s about 45 minutes before sunrise as I head northwest in the direction of the Pyrenees, the high range separating Spain and France. It’s quite cloudy, so full daylight doesn’t appear until about 9 AM.
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Shortly after that, I reach the village of Santa Pau in one of Catalonia’s volcanic regions. The topography is filled with scattered, often overlapping craters, cones, and caldera but the vulcanism is so far in the past that everything is forested and thus not obvious unless you know what you’re looking for. Santa Pau is an old town and I park the car to search on foot for a bakery.
With 3 croissants in my belly, I return and drive a little further to the trailhead for Santa Margarita volcano. During the summer, there’s a hefty parking charge, but now it’s unstaffed and mostly empty — one of the many benefits of off season travel. Of course, avoiding the extreme heat is the main reason I no longer go to Europe in the summer. Santa Margarita is a small cone containing a crater with walking paths. I hoof it up the slope and, along the road, I encounter an incongruous sight — a pasture full of totem poles and other wooden figures. There’s no one around so I can’t ask about their story.
On reaching the rim, I see that the view of the crater is obscured by the forested slope.
Rather than walk down into the crater and back up in the light rain, I retrace my steps to the car and head north.
On reaching the village of Oix, the road again becomes picturesque, ie severely serpentine, as it ascends to my next goal, the Pyrenees village of Beget. The route is what I now understand to be typical secondary highway philosophy here: nicely paved, with a white line on both sides, but only one and a half cars wide with NO shoulder in most places. In the US, this simply does not meet any conceivable minimum standard for two way traffic. The pavement extends from the steep, uphill slope on one side right to the edge of the dropoff on the other.
In many places, there are guardrails set below the road on the deep downhill slope but not even that nominal barrier between you and death in many others. Driving these roads requires full attention. A moment’s lapse could send the car plunging downhill, yet on every sharp blind turn the car must be as far to the right (against either the upslope face or the dropoff) as possible because you may meet oncoming traffic. In many spots, the other vehicle doesn’t come into view until you’re about 20 feet from it. Opposing cars must squeeze as far to the extremes as possible and try to carefully get past each other. In many spots, that’s physically impossible and one vehicle might have to back up to a slightly wider spot. Fortunately, in all my driving on these roads, traffic has been very light and my dance with oncoming cars (or trucks) has allowed skin-of-the-teeth passing every time.
Beget is a hamlet set, like so any others, in magnificent mountain scenery and perched steeply below one of the many switchbacks.
I stop briefly for a photo before continuing on another 16 miles to Vilallonga de Ter and my next turnoff. On the latter part of this route, I’m surprised that I’m paralleling the River Ter, which is the same one that runs past Eric’s house over 30 miles behind me. My next goal is a road that, on the map, looks insignificant and goes up into the Pyrenees high country. As usual, I have no idea if it’s actually driveable or goes through to the other side as depicted. Named the Camí de Fontlletera, the map also shows a route number but I’ve learned through ample experience that even some dead end, cow pasture, 4-wheel drive tracks are numbered.
As I turn off the highway, the road looks good. It’s another 1+ lane paved road as it switchbacks up out of the valley. This totally unnecessary 22 mile excursion looks like it might be a piece of cake. The weather is kind of sunny but many clouds hang in various parts of the valley. As I ascend, they obscure many of the mountain slopes.
After about 5 miles of winding ascent, things change. The pavement ends, the houses peter out, and the road gets wide and very rocky. As my altitude increases, the trees get sparser until I’ve left them all behind and am surrounded by alpine (well, I guess Pyrennine) meadows. The shifting clouds change the views of other peaks and ridges by the moment but I have to stop the car to appreciate them since navigating the uphill road strewn with large rocks requires my full attention, frequently weaving the car from extreme right to extreme left. Loathe as I am to speak in sports metaphors, it’s like broken field running in American football.
I have the road to myself except for occasional clumps of horned cows blocking my way or grazing the shoulders. Some of them are reluctant to move and I have to drive within 3 feet to finally get them to amble to the side.
The road tops out at a respectable 6,700 feet near Refugio Claus, a deserted stone building that seems to be available for use by travelers and cattle workers alike.
I haven’t passed another moving vehicle since I started uphill, but now I see one tired looking bicyclist having lunch on a roadside boulder. As the road drops back down it gets easier. The surface is smoother gravel, and the route less serpentine as it goes steadily down. On one of my view-appreciating stops, the bicyclist passes me, moving at what seems like breakneck speed. I never catch up to him again. About 10 miles after I left trees behind, I’m back in the forest. The valley floor far below gets nearer as the road narrows again and I navigate more switchbacks. Abruptly, the one lane pavement returns after 15 miles of rock and gravel and the last couple of miles takes me past various homes until I return to a more traveled highway. I really enjoyed getting into the high country but its also nice to be back on a less intense road for a little while.
Continuing generally westward toward my day’s destination, I traverse a long, steep stretch up a mountain and then along the rim of a deep canyon. There are intermittent habitations including a tiny village nestled around one of the switchbacks. At one point I see, far across the valley, what appears to be a very large but abandoned mineworks, so there used to be more activity here.
The mountains are huge expanses of bare rock with views toward distant lowlands. I believe the region is called La Cerdanya.
Soon enough, I’m back in less interesting valleys with faster roads and more traffic. Even here where the mountains are petering out and the road is straight, the two lanes are only a skimpy, 6 feet wide. That’s just enough for a standard car, but with the side mirrors hanging over the white lines. I pull over to take a 15 minute nap before proceeding. I have another long, obscure road ahead but there’s still a long stretch of conventional highway so later I stop at a bar for coffee to boost my energy a bit. The two servers are sharing a plate of lunch food I absolutely don’t recognize but when I ask what it’s called I get an unintelligible name.
I have one more unnecessary diversion in mind, a small road through an area called Les Valls d’Aguilar. The name says “valleys” but the map indicates the 36 mile route does a lot of climbing and dropping between them.
I have no further idea what I’ll encounter, which is, after all, where the fun is. It’s well into afternoon and Google estimates only 105 minutes for the ride but over that distance they calculate an average speed of only 30 miles per hour. Translation: rough, friggin’ road.
Once again, I’m on a 1+ lane, paved, rural route but there’s no traffic as I drive up the initial valley so there are no passing crises. The road climbs steadily past occasional houses and tiny communities and at about 7 miles ascends a series of severe switchbacks to reach the next valley which is really more of a high plateau. At one point the road reaches its high point, La Guàrdia dÁres, a modest 5,200 feet, at a nice, shady spot with a view.
The road continues to meander hither and thither until I reach the small farming village of Taús. Here the paved road heads into town but the through route turns into a narrow dirt road with an ominous “Warning: Pavement Ends” sign. Now things may get interesting/challenging.
The road quality deteriorates dramatically and this portion is obviously much less traveled. This is often the case with long rural routes. Access is from either end and the middle sees much more limited usage due to the paucity of through traffic. About a mile further on I come to Els Castells, apparently an old fortification perched on a small hill surrounded by some farmhouses. Following what looks like the more heavily used dirt track, I quickly come to a cattle gate. Unlike in the American West where one often encounters pasture gates that must be opened, driven through, and closed behind you, in Europe a gate of any sort generally means “Private, No Entry”, so that’s what I assume here. I must have inadvertently gotten off the road. I turn around and go back to the last fork and take the road into the community. Google Maps shows a second route that avoids the gate and rejoins the first so that’s what I’m looking for. After a few hundred feet the road I’m on gets very narrow and passes between two buildings. I ease the Berlingo into the gap and it clears the walls by, literally less than an inch on each side. Right after that, I encounter another gate and the road ends in cow pasture – the alternate road clearly doesn’t exist in any useful form.
I can’t possibly back up through that narrow squeeze and the track I’m on is only 6 feet wide, way to narrow for the required U-turn. As usual, there’s a steep hill on one side and a substantial drop off on the other. I manage to reverse ram the car a few feet up the hill which gives me just enough room to turn it around in 3 progressive iterations without going over the edge. Since the only alternative is the first cattle gate, I drive back there for a closer look. Getting out of the car and inspecting the gate. I see that it’s not a conventional design. Instead, it consists of two spring loaded rubber arms that meet in the middle. Vehicles pass by simply pushing the arms slowly aside as they move through. I’ll find out later this is a common arrangement in the Pyrenees.
This solves the problem. It is a gate meant for public use, so I’m again on my way, moving quite slowly due to the primitive surface.
Past the gate the rough road descends a narrow ravine and is just wide enough for my Berlingo.
After about 6 miles of this, the pavement resumes, although very low, “it-might-as-well-be-dirt” quality at first. Soon it’s back to the standard, super narrow format and I make a long, tortuous descent to the highway. I only meet two cars coming up and we manage to pass without problems.
On the main road, it’s late in the day and it takes me only 20 minutes to reach my hosts, who live in a place called “The Dam House”. I’ve been instructed to walk across the suspension bridge and I’ll see their house in the distance. More on that next time.
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I’m more or less caught up on my sleep after my 21 hour journey and this Wednesday morning, I have an appointment for the mandatory, biennial vehicle inspection, the ITV. It’s not due until February but I may be away from Spain through then. I’ve been unable to determine whether I can have it done on my return without penalty so I’m playing it safe. The inspection is not particularly intense, similar to New York State but with more tests done with instruments rather than visually. The Berlingo passes easily and I’m good for another two years.
Leaving the test facility in the town of Celrà, I spot a small directional sign that says, in Catalan, “former airfield”. The signs peter out and Google Maps, puzzlingly, leads me to an agricultural field but some online research eventually clarifies the matter.
You may not know that Spain endured a civil war not that long ago, 1936-39. Right wing militarists and Catholics tried to overthrow the recently ascendant, secular, left wing Republic. The rebel Nationalists eventually prevailed which led to Generalissimo Franco’s 35-year rule rule as the fascist, authoritarian dictator of Spain. The nation returned to democracy – although many Spaniards feel the nationalists quietly retain control — only with Franco’s death in 1975.
The three year war was very intense and the historical sign I saw on the way home referred to a wartime Republican airfield adjacent to town. Except for a few bunkers, there is very little left at the site, which is now the farm field to which Google Maps pointed me, but Celrà’s defunct tannery, a massive building now devoted to various public uses, has a hard to find exhibit hall commemorating the airfield and its loyalists.
They fought the rebels bravely but to no avail. The field was bombed 10 times by the Nationalists. The Spanish Civil War has faded into oblivion for most of us, but this hall brought it to life for me.
Heading home, I stop at my favorite supermarket, Aldi. to pick up some groceries. Eric has been working intensely and with Gemma gone he’s not particularly well stocked. He’s also a vegetarian so if I want any meat, it’s on me. I get some stuff to make my eating a little bit more flexible and that satisfies my diet for the moment.
We speak for a long time in the evening over politics, economics, and other topics. It’s nice to get along well. Eric and I both have plenty of strong opinions (“smartest guy in the room” [grin]). Now, we can talk politics and society and homo sapiens and even though we disagree on various aspects, there are fundamental things on which we’re in concert.
My plan to drive solo through Spain, Portugal, and Morocco is starting to firm up. Old friend, Linda Magley, is toying with the idea of joining me for a while, but flying here from her rural area is expensive — and she has a dog. It will take quite a bit of good luck for that to work out. It would be nice to spend some time with her, though, since we’ve rarely seen each other since she moved to the (yecch!) Carolinas decades ago.
With a travel route coalescing, I’m going to have to spend some intense time finding hosts and working out details. That will occupy a lot of tomorrow, which is Eric’s last day of work. He’ll have a week off after that. And we’ll probably do some things together before I leave here. At least I did my 2023 taxes – just before I left home — so that giant annual chore is out of the way.
Thanks to lobbying by the tax preparation giants (I’m looking at you H&R Block and Intuit), the IRS is legally prohibited from offering automated or even directly prepared returns. There is so much mandatory financial reporting in the US that the government could fill out 90% of your return ahead of time, which is how it works in some other nations. Instead, we all have to prepare or have prepared our own incredibly complicated forms. I did mine by hand for many years, on the assumption that knowing the details of tax law was a worthwhile effort. About 15 years ago, the already complex process became so impossible that I had to start using commercial software. As a sop, the tax prep giants offer free filing for many lower income people but each taxpayer has to figure out which firm, if any, they qualify for and millions of people aren’t even aware of the possibility as it isn’t well publicized. It’s a perfect example of dollar politics, where the rich can write their own laws and regulations even when it’s not in the public interest.
Thursday is busy but unexciting. I’m working on trip planning, sending out dozens of tentative hosting requests (since I don’t know more than a day or two ahead where I’ll be), and other necessary tasks. Eric is decompressing and relaxing after finishing work in early afternoon. Taking care of his bicycle touring guests while pedaling every day isn’t easy and he works three weeks straight without time off. He’s lucky, though, to be able to spend most nights at home.
A neighboring couple are screaming at each other, she on their balcony, he on the street. This is apparently a recurring event here and, tonight, someone calls the police. Seven officers mill around trying to defuse the rancor.
Friday turns out to be a lazy day. Eric takes the van to pick up some purchases from a warehouse and I get a message saying a Romanian acquaintance is in Barcelona, heading back home today. I stayed a few days with Florin in his small town. He is ex-army and in his retirement has his own one-person trucking company hauling car parts around Europe. We went out every day to see the sights in his region of Romania and he was a great guide. I spent some jolly time with his relatives even though some of them didn’t speak English. In Romania and Hungary, alcohol is a significant part of many people’s day and diet and I spent a lot of time there fending off proffered drinks, including firewater, often with the completely honest excuse, “No thanks. I can’t afford to get any more stupid than I am.” My last ditch strategy is to lie that I have a bad liver and alcohol will kill me, but no one has ever been so insistent as to drive me to that extreme. I invite Florin to stop by for a reunion on his way out of Spain and I walk to a supermarket to get some lunch and dessert supplies.
He arrives later than he expected, 5:30 PM, and can only stay 15 minutes as he has to get his load, for which the shipper made him wait in Barcelona four days (!), to Belgium by morning. He looks very tired, but he insists coffee will get him through the night safely. Florin has a childhood friend riding with him for company. Vasily is Romanian but, by sheer coincidence, lives a block away from Eric here in Sarriá de Ter. Serendipitously, he gets to meet one of his neighbors through my Romanian connection.
Saturday, I decide to start my road trip early Monday morning so I need to finish everything I need to do today and tomorrow. I drive over to Girona’s shopping area to buy some basic, camping gear. Decathlon is the REI of Spain, with an enormous selection and reasonable prices. I end up with a tent, sleeping bag, folding camp stool, and an insulated cooler bag, all low end and just consumer quality. Surprisingly, rigid camping coolers are an uncommon item here. The rest of the day is spent on the computer doing stuff that shouldn’t be neglected but has been.
Sunday is packing day. I like to keep everything invisible under the load cover in the rear of the Berlingo to minimize the chance of theft but that area is quite limited so too much load means I’ll have items exposed in the back seat. To avoid that, every bag and box must be tight-packed, which requires planning and experimentation. Piled up in Eric’s garage, it looks like much more than will fit but I think I can manage.
By the time Eric returns home from a typical 3-hour Catalan lunch with a friend, I’ve done all I can do. He and I take a ride up into the nearby mountains and past some of the region’s dams and reservoirs, almost all of it on narrow, sinuous mountain roads.
To put it extremely simply – which is the only way I understand geology — about 65 million years ago, the Iberian tectonic plate careened northeastward into the much larger Eurasian plate, turning the smaller plate into today’s Iberian Peninsula, ie Spain and Portugal.
The idea of giant land masses drifting randomly on the earth’s mantle like ice floes and reconfiguring the continents every 10 million years or so has always fascinated me, especially since as a young child I stared at maps of the Atlantic Ocean and noted that the contours of the land masses to the east and west seemed like they would fit together if the ocean were removed. This idle observation came years before the theory of plate tectonics became sufficiently accepted to reach the public eye.
The Iberian impact pushed up the Pyrenees Mountains, the present day border between Spain and France. The stresses of that uplift (I think of the analogy of ripples radiating outward from a rock splashing into a pond) also resulted in the formation of the Catalan Coastal range, the low mountains near Girona through which we’re driving. This region has deep canyons and exposed cliffs everywhere you look so the views are frequently very dramatic.
Returning home after an intense drive, we go into Girona proper this evening and have dinner at a Catalan restaurant.
The food is very tasty but the portions leave a lot to be desired from my point of view. The service is very sluggish and I can’t figure out if it’s due to understaffing or the fact that there’s no custom of tipping in Spain. I guess speed of service doesn’t matter because Catalonians linger for hours over their meals. Eric tells me they are so focused on preserving their unique culture that ethnic restaurants have never gotten much of a foothold in Girona. Many Catalonians reject the idea that they are Spanish and wish for independence although that will almost certainly not come to pass.
After our meal we walk around Girona’s old town a little and Eric shows me the footbridge designed by Gustav Eiffel years before he designed the Eiffel Tower. I jokingly ask whether the structure was also intended to be a tower. Did it then fall over and the city made the nest of it by using it as a bridge?
Returning home, Eric and I say our goodbyes before going to bed because I plan to be on the road before first light tomorrow.
I’m off to son, Eric’s, house near Girona, Catalonia, Spain this Monday morning, a lengthy, grueling trip from my home in Livingston Manor. Susan’s last minute decision not to come along throws me into a completely different travel mode. By the way, if you’re interested in riding along for a while, contact me ASAP.
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Instead of someone driving us to JFK airport, I use public transportation, loaded like a burro with heavy backpack, duffel bag, and two shoulder bags. In case you haven’t tried it, once you have a backpack on, a shoulder bag becomes a dead neck weight. Two of them are a choking hazard.
Susan drives me to the Coach USA bus terminal in Monticello. Due to their sparse schedule, I have to catch an 8 AM bus to make a 5 PM flight. It’s been quite a while since I bused to New York City and I’m shocked to see the terminal and ticket counter no longer open in time for early buses – another example of the decades long trend of CSID, “Customer Service Is Dead”. I have to figure out quickly how to buy my ticket on my phone.
The Short Line, as it used to be known, was never a luxury service, but post-pandemic it’s gotten sloppier. The driver pulls in late, without apology, and his destination sign carelessly says “Binghamton” instead of “New York”. I imagine he rolled out of bed ten minutes ago. Once we’re on board, he announces we’re making an unscheduled detour to Middletown. He has to go where management tells him, of course, and when some passengers complain he’s making them late for work he ignores their comments.
Most annoying, he plays religious preaching radio for the whole trip. I can hear it clearly from my seat in the second row. At one point, when the bus is stopped, I ask, “Can you turn down the sermon, please?” but he ignores that, too. Before departure, most drivers offer a stern warning that passengers playing music at a volume others can hear or engaging in extensive cell phone conversations are at risk of being put off the bus for discourtesy. This guy supplies the audio disturbance himself. The Conditions of Carriage do not include being evangelized throughout the ride. I complain to the company but don’t identify the trip because I don’t want to risk getting the driver fired. I suggest they remind all drivers not to subject passengers to personal religious beliefs.
Arriving at Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, I struggle into the depths to catch the subway to Queens, followed by a long bus ride to JFK. A couple of short Skytrain rides and another long, burdened walk gets me to the American Airlines ticket counter. Here I can finally shed my loaded backpack. I always use soft luggage because it’s easier to pack in my car, but I lose the benefit of wheeling it around.
On my way to the gate, I encounter a new procedure: the ID checkers ahead of security won’t let you proceed if you’re carrying more than two items. I’m told I have one too many and required to repack things to get rid of one. I’m already wearing extra layers of outer clothing that wouldn’t fit in my luggage but, fortunately, there’s just enough slack in my flexible bags to consolidate four into three.
The security checkpoint is easy thanks to PreCheck but I will never stop resenting that passengers have to pay the federal government to qualify for a procedure that saves it labor and improves service for everyone – opportunistic bastards. Oops, is my problem with authority showing?
I had hoped to while away the idle hours in an airline lounge, with food and comfortable chairs, due to a benefit I have on one of my credit cards. After an hour of confusion on the phone trying to get usage details, I finally present myself at the American Airlines lounge where they immediately tell me my pass isn’t valid in Terminal 8 and I can’t transit to a different terminal lounge. There’s a restaurant where I could, instead, get $28 off a meal. Given it’s in the post-security hostage prison, that probably amounts to a 10% discount, but they’re closed on Mondays anyway. So I spend over four boring hours at the gate before my flight boards, which gives me time to notice that either American Airlines or Port Authority are letting things slide here. The nearest water fountain is out of order and the next one’s flow is so low you have to just about suck on the metal spout to get a drink. The phone charging station ports are mostly broken so users have to negotiate turns on the two functional ones. The seats have prominent electrical receptacles on them – but they’re not plugged into power.
The 7-hour flight is uneventful. Supper and a breakfast snack are supplied and there are no disruptive passengers. I have two seats to myself, so I manage to curl my six foot frame into a three foot sphere and catch some fitful sleep en route. Despite thoroughly understanding the physics involved, it’s still hard to believe that you can routinely hurl a 300 ton plane into the air and reliably expect it not to slam vertically into the ground at 200 miles per hour. All I really ask of an airplane flight is that it gets me and my luggage to my destination, alive. The days when flying was actually fun ended around 1980. I fly as little as possible and when I do, I like to amortize the discomfort and frustration over at least two months of destination time. For me, it’s actually more fun to drive 3,000 miles than spend a day being treated like a package of meat suspected of terrorism.
Arrival in Barcelona early Tuesday is a relief.
Thanks to my German passport, I breeze through immigration. Unlike US airports, European ones supply free luggage carts so once I claim my pack I’m unburdened for the long walk from terminal to the train station, broken up by a free shuttle bus ride. Barcelona’s two terminals are on opposite sides of the airport, about 15 minutes apart by road. You can’t walk between them.
Two train rides get me to Girona. The regional train has nearly airport level security, with bag xray, id checks, and queueing.
Arriving in familiar Girona, I had originally planned to take two local buses to Eric’s house but, since I’m again loaded like a pack animal, I take the easy way and opt for a taxi. Eric is at work so I let myself in and am asleep 10 minutes later. My complete door-to-door trip took 21 hours and involved car, bus, train, bus, train, train, airplane, bus, bus, train, train, taxi. Whew. I’m lucky I can still manage this sort of travel.
When I awake in the evening, I greet Eric. I see more of him now that he lives in Spain than I did for years before. It’s a happy reunion. He’s such a fine person, despite the acrimony he and I went through when he was young.