3 Northern Spain
Early March on the northwestern Spanish coast has been one of those intervals when we have been news-starved. Each night that we have a TV in our room we immediately check for English stations, which we rarely find. As travelers, we’ve discovered that it is very difficult to fill-in the background or build-up to stories as the BBC and CNN usual are just reporting what is new, not what happened 2 days or a week ago. So, we get restless and worry about the loss of continuity when we go more than a week without hearing at least a bit of news. And as often happens, when the hotel TV’s are non-existent or don’t have any English (or German), we also can’t access the internet through the hotel phone lines and often can’t find internet shops or English newspapers—our access to news vehicles is usually “all or nothing.”
But my finger on the pulse of the universe was working unusually well on the day of the Madrid bombings, as I was oddly motivated to check-in with the news. When our room TV didn’t work at all, I searched out one in a hotel common room to discover the only hours-old story of the tragedy unfolding. I thought I had the gist of what was happening by watching Spanish language TV but I really wanted to know the extent of the disaster. My fruitless search for something more than a closet-sized grocery store in our little port town did, amazingly however, deliver a rare internet shop. And even though I couldn’t get into AOL to check our email, I was able to log on to CNN to catch the story. It was very comforting to be as clear as anyone was at that point as to what was happening and for our own safety issues, to know how widely out the incident was rippling.
It was startling to see the lack of reaction to the Madrid catastrophe on the streets of our little fishing town on the “day of”. I peeked into the bars and café’s with TV’s on and there wasn’t any special commotion. People weren’t drawn around the screen and there didn’t seem to be any hand-wringing going on—it looked like business as usual. But I remembered reading that this extreme northwestern part of Spain had a centuries-long history of feeling isolated from Madrid and the rest of the country—that the people had long looked to the sea and to South America for its connections rather than to look inland.
Though Malpica, the port town we were staying in on March 11, didn’t visibly react to the bombings, much of the country did. We were in the large city of A Coruna the following day when the country staged its protest march and A Coruna participated with an impressive turnout. The streets pulsed with the throngs of people gathering for the peaceful demonstration against terrorism and we watched on TV as the scene was repeated in many cities throughout the country. And a few days later I finally realized why the office supply store had no black marking pens of any kind in stock—they must have been wiped-out by people making black ribbon signs on paper and fabric to display their solidarity with Madrid.
We contented ourselves with watching the news in Spanish in the following days, being confident that we at least got the beginning of the story right with the help of online CNN. The Spanish Prime Minister elections were 3 days after the bombings and we watched as the reigning party lost its power, largely due to the outgoing Prime Minister’s (PM) mishandling of information in the first hours after the Madrid incident—the political advantages of blaming ETA had apparently colored his judgment.
We found it odd that it became so much of a party election—that people weren’t voting for the candidates but against a party. The outgoing PM Aznar made a serious judgment error, so his designated successor was punished by not being elected as had been predicted. (Subsequently we have heard that most Spaniards don’t think that their new PM is qualified to lead and are now anxious about the consequences of their protest vote.)
Being in Germany during their last elections has made us follow that country’s politics more closely and now too we’ll be following the outgoing PM Aznar and incoming PM Zapatero with great interest. We have been impressed with the positive things Aznar did for Spain as he appears to have done a skillful job of managing Spain economically the last 8 years. Daily we are taken with the signs of prosperity in the country. The people look like they are doing well, there are signs of construction everywhere, there are recent public improvement projects in even the smallest communities and overall Spain looks like a country that is really ‘on track’. Of course, we also have seen signs of Aznar’s biggest blunder (until this week), which was the mishandling of the Prestige cargo ship’s fuel oil disaster a couple of years ago. But despite his backing the war in Iraq against the will of 90% of the voters, his party was expected to win the election based on the economic successes Aznar shepherded.
Seeing the many well-done 1990’s public works projects throughout Spain again reminded me of one of the books I’d love to see, which would be entitled something like “A Better Life For You in the EU.” (We did look in an official EU bookstore in Frankfurt a couple years ago for a book to inform us about the Union, but its volumes were more statistical than descriptive.) We often wonder how many cultural mandates there are in the EU regulations. Unifying the trade and monetary matters are the most talked about objectives, but we know that there are other ‘re-alignments’ going on. We read in Poland about their target dates for bringing their highways up to EU standards and we wonder what else is similarly affected. In Spain, my ‘EU rules pondering’ has been triggered by all of the new playgrounds we have seen. Some of them seemed to have sprung up in the oddest nooks and crannies, giving them the look of filling a quota. In Hungary last year, we literally saw the play equipment being installed. In Spain, most of the ones we see look brand new and are all composed of similar looking, brightly colored and inviting equipment.
We spent weeks biking the Galician coast on our northwards, scenic meander. Some days the up-and-down course along the Spanish coast line only took us as high a 300’, other days we were up above the clouds at 2000’. With regrets, we won’t be biking in the Alps this year but on some days in Galicia we felt like we were in the Alps for the effort we were expending. A 17% grade here and there and miles at a time that ranged from 6-12% grade kept us focused, with the rare 3% grade feeling like we were going downhill. We consider anything over 100’ gain per mile as a tough haul and some of our long stretches in Galicia were over 100’ gain per kilometer (180’/mile). Though I must say that, even at the high points, the Spanish vistas didn’t deliver like the Alps do for the effort expended.
Modern, electricity-generating windmills were constant companions as not a day went by that we didn’t see dozens or hundreds of them. And here, they aren’t just on the highest mountain ridges like in Greece, but even a couple hundred foot rise at the coast is enough to prompt placing a few. When we started our travels, I looked at these windmills a bit harshly, as an unwelcome intrusion into our views. But now we view them very fondly as they are a tangible symbol of why we aren’t breathing in more polluted air at the moment.
Windmills are “in” in northwestern Spain and the Moorish influence is definitely “out.” The lack of historical presence of the Moors shows up both in the absence of influence in the architecture of the past and in the lack of women on the streets with Islam-dictated head scarves in the present. And bulgur, or cracked wheat, that is fancied in the Middle East (and by us), also has disappeared from the market shelves. I look for it every day and it’s just not there, even in the health food stores. The Moors of 1000 years ago made some attacks in these northern parts but, unlike in most of Spain, they never controlled it for long.
The rustic life and centuries-old traditions are never far out of sight in Galicia. The elevated stone or stone and wood granaries can be seen on the edges of highways and in the backyards of farms. Huge concrete laundry basins plumbed with only cold water can be spotted on the backside of village homes with heavy-duty garments hung to dry overhead. Slate roofs with huge, petal-shaped slabs are nestled on old sagging buildings and some new houses sport small, rectangular slat shingles individually hung for siding. Corrugated sheet metal appears on the roofs and sometimes on the end of a house where an additional building might someday be built. And donkeys are still in use for hauling carts or loads of greens down the road.
If you look long enough, you’ll spot men mending fishing nets in any of the port towns. (For us, “mending nets” is a standard joke—a code word for doing sit-down chores, but here it’s no joke). Sometimes they are just inside the doorway of the ground floor entry of a meager residential building or sitting out on a sidewalk bench or just outside one of the buildings lining the port that are used by the commercial fishermen. At one port we were sure that the 2-storied, white with red trim buildings and archways in the distance were vacation condos, but instead they were storage and work areas for the fishermen.
According to the Asturians, the residents of a province-like region, we are finally in the real Spain: everywhere else we have been is according to them, in the “reconquered land.” Asturias occupies a narrow strip along the northern coast of Spain and it alone never succumbed to Moorish rule that occurred in the rest of Spain during all or part of the period from the early 700’s until the mid 1400’s. And I wonder if it isn’t a bit of that Asturian pride that resulted in a blue, tie-tack sized pin being added to the collection of souvenir pins on Bill’s handle bar. Bill was in a market looking for something for a much needed midmorning snack and one of the retired Spanish men that I was ‘chatting’ with pulled out a brand new Asturian coat of arms pin from his pocket. He gestured towards Bill’s bag and it wouldn’t do to wait for Bill to attach the pin, I had to tend to it right away. I ceremoniously placed it so as to form the point of a V shaped pattern that was begging to happen in Bill’s arrangement.
The Asturian coastline is remarkably different from Galicia to its west. Galicia was craggy and rugged with vegetation varying from eucalyptus and pine groves to blooming Scotch broom and scrub. I feel like a novice describing what we see in Asturias as bluffs, as “bluff” just isn’t one of those words used to describe the Oregon landscape. But here we will ride along the top of a lush green, meadowy plateau about at 500’ above sea level that then suddenly drops off to the sea as a steep cliff. The road is too safely back from the edge to afford us many of those great views, but I suspect that road placement has at least in part been prompted by that ‘falling off’ tendency of the land. Much of the land here seems to be a compacted conglomerate of old river or sea bottom and is easily carved away by the earthmoving equipment and the waves.
Both the Asturian and Galician coastlines challenge us with their relentless up and down roads. The yo-yo effect is so great that my fatigue one day prompted a tallying of weekly gain and indeed, we had just touched the magic line of 15,000’ in a week. That is the point at which my body starts questioning if we really need to be doing this. The legs start loosing their spring and like a faithful old dog, they will go a little farther but would really rather not. (I could push that limit out by hitting the 15,000’ mark repeatedly, but we make a point to keep our emotional and physical reserve tanks on “Full” and for emergency use only.) The daily gain here is usually accumulated in unspectacular 200-400’ increments but there are so many of them that they do add up.
We would climb up to the top of a ridge in Galicia or a bluff in Asturias and cruise near the coastline, sometimes with the sea in sight, other times not. Then we’d make a seemingly arbitrary turn inland and begin an equally steep descent, still moving inland towards the first narrowing of the broad estuary. Next we’d do almost a complete circle as we crossed the river at 20-50’ above sea level, and then we’d start climbing back up to the top of the next ridge or bluff. We’ll easily cross a half dozen of these long, wide estuaries in a day.
One of the disciplines we’ve had to develop as cyclotourist’s is to not hate down hills that present themselves in our day. They are exhilarating and great fun, but one too quickly learns that cycling has its own twist on an old adage and that “everything that goes down must come up.” The fun of the whiz down the hill is somewhat blunted by the knowledge that it will be instantly followed by an uphill of equal magnitude—it’s just that it will take a lot longer.
But one of the bonuses of this gyrating topography that plots out like a chart of an indecisive stock market is that most every lunch is spent in a little port or on a hill top. The ports are especially visually interesting and we’ll seek them out if it’s not too windy. Many of the ports in Spain are tiny, almost neighborhood affairs. There must be hundreds of ports along the Galician and Asturian coastlines. The small boats are often freshly painted and though each is usually only two-toned, the harbors are as festive looking as a carnival. Ah, and if those boats have a backdrop of blue sky, its picture postcard time.
In Asturias, one of the surprises is that the aroma is less of fishy, ocean smells than that of cow manure. They do love laying a heavy coat of rotting manure to green-up those fields and we’ve pedaled for hours hoping to escape the stench. But in Asturias, since we are pedaling mostly due east and the storms are coming straight out of the west, the winds tend to pick-up and carry the land smells with them (and us).
On both the west and north coasts of Spain, we’ve gained a new respect for drenching rain. We thought it was just the Costa de Morte that kicked up the swirling rain, but Asturias’ Costa Verde (Green) has them too. We can generally ride all day in rain and not have the hair on the back of our heads get wet, presumably from the sheltering of our helmets, but not around here. It only takes minutes in these swirly, rain laden winds to soak the backs of our heads. And never before had I felt my shower-cap covered helmet trying to take flight so many times in a day. Usually in winds I am totally focused on staying on the road but here I am also very conscious of the wind and rain literally messing with my head. Squalls; hail; gusty winds; sudden, intense downpours; and 10 degree temperature drops were all routine parts of many riding days on the Spanish coasts this April.
Though the coastal experience was vivid, one day we were left wondering “Are we in Asturias or Austria?” I did a double-take when looking up at the hills we traversed as it seemed like a snapshot from my memories of a similar sunny end to a rainy day in the Alps last year. Those lush green, steep slopes with chalet-styled homes scattered between the pastures and patches of forests only a few hundred feet above sea level looked remarkably similar to those in northern Italy and Austria several thousand feet higher. The new look has come with a sudden topography change and it is very different than the flat-topped bluffs we skirted along the last few days. And indeed, we are cruising by the “Pico’s de Europa,” a mountainous region Map Man hoped to take in. But the scenic gorges will have to wait for another year as the snow level is still too low for us to comfortably visit the area.
As we ride along in these drenching rains, I keep wondering if “Asturias” means “umbrella” in the local Spanish dialect. It seems that no urban Asturian leaves home without an umbrella in hand. And many of the small shops keep a collection of loaner (or forgotten) umbrellas in the doorway stands that must be for unfortunate customers that entered in a dry spell and are now exiting in a downpour. Even some of the joggers carry umbrellas. I never did when I ran in Portland, but I might have carried an umbrella if I’d been a runner here. The sudden downpours are onerous and instantly saturating.
As a native Oregonian, I’ve always felt like I was well versed in the vocabulary of rain. But our hair-splitting words that differentiate mist, drizzle, sprinkles, light rain and showers are all weighted towards the light, continuous end of the spectrum. Asturian’s must have their own special words for the common precipitation phenomena here like: “heavy rain mixed with pea-sized hail;” “quickly soaking rain with strong, swirling winds;” and “heavy rain that lasts for hours” vs “heavy rain that passes through in minutes.” We’ve even been amusing ourselves with the technically inaccurate but more description image of “Look, here comes a blue cloud” on the days that blue sky is only seen in fleeting, small bits.
Even the rural Asturians take their roadside walks with a large, sturdy umbrella in hand like their urban counterparts. But they add slip-on wooden clog overshoes to their arsenal as well. These clogs look like a cross between Dutch clogs and antique Chinese wooden shoes. They are unpainted wood with slightly upturned toes like Dutch clogs, but they are sized to wear over regular shoes and are open in back like a slip-on shoe. But like some old Asian footwear, the clogs are elevated in 2 places by 1½” high strip of wood under the heel and ball of the foot. They appear to be used for making quick trips outside or to the barn without soaking down your regular shoes in the puddles or mud.
We laid over in the Asturian city of Gijon (which, when pronounced is no more distinct sounding that a heavy sigh) to visit their ancient Roman baths, which turned out to be closed for renovations for the week. So instead, we did something very Roman, which was to tend to our taxes. The process that could have stressed us for days couldn’t have gone better. Bill downloaded all 58 tax related pages onto his tiny micro drive that he plugs into the system unit of the internet shop computers. (He is loving the little drive as it is much simpler to use than burning CD’s in the shops.) It was one of the very few internet shops that we have used in Europe that is for business people instead of kids, which made it wonderfully peaceful and mostly smoke-free. Bill was easily able to print out the signature pages and did it all for about $1.50. Then our hotel clerks bent over backwards to help arrange for pick-up by DHL for express delivery back to the US. We had budgeted 7-10 days to complete all of the steps of the process as we continued traveling and looking for the needed services and instead did it all in a morning.
With time on our hands after turning around our tax documents by noon in Gijon, we happened across what we jokingly call our “Big Book of Celts” in English at a bookstore that carried very few English titles. It is hardly an easy-to-pack book, but the topic of the coffee-table-sized book was too perfect to resist. It is the second historical atlas I have purchased while traveling and I’ve discovered that historical atlases can be my perfect learning format. This book covers about 100 brief topics, each covered on 2 facing pages. The topics discuss the Celts by looking at their history in a chronological context, by comparing their presence in various regions, and examining specific subjects like their art and religious practices. Each pair of pages has an inviting mix of colorful maps, sketches, and photos interspersed with the text.
The “Big Book of Celts” probably wouldn’t have found a home in our crowded panniers had we not felt a bit history deprived in our sight seeing (as well as current-news starved). The historic sites in northern Spain are few and far between and for one reason or another, we’ve only been able to see a few of those. So, the book addressed our hunger for information even though the topic was a little off the mark. But once we started reading it, we appreciated it even more. We realized that this year’s tour will largely be in ‘Celt Country’ as they had a strong presence where we’ll be spending most of our time: Spain, France and Great Britain. And Map Man is busy making notes of Celtic sites mentioned in the book to be included in our northward route.
Another bonus is that, like the Romans, the Celtic tribes covered a huge area in Europe, though the Celtic civilization’s power peaked earlier, about 200 bce. And reading about the Celts and pre-Celtic tribes is serving as a review course in our ‘in the saddle’ study of European history. We were stunned to read that the Celtic ancestors in Moravia in Czech Republic where we previously toured were trading with the Mycenaean’s of Greece in about 1500 bce. Map Man was busy reviewing how he navigated us around those regions to guess what routes they used as he said “A good route for hauling bronze is a good route for a bike”. We have inadvertently traversed a number of ancient salt, amber and other trade routes the last several years and now I want a historical atlas format for “The Ancient Trade Routes of Europe” to answer a new wave of questions triggered by the Celt book.
In addition to Roman trade routes, we’ve seen a lot of sunrises in Spain. Spain is as far west as Great Britain and yet its time zone is an hour ahead—aligning itself instead with the continent. The politics of it all may make perfect sense, but it sure throws our biological clocks for a loop. When we arrived in Spain in February, sunrise was after 8 am and sunset after 7 pm. It was odd seeing the sun rise over the low hills at 8:15. Things were just starting to feel a little more normal to our body’s clocks and then they did the daylight savings time switch, so we are back to sunrises after 8 am. Now, maybe if we lived in Alaska it wouldn’t seem so odd but it messes with all of our internal ‘knowing’ about when daylight should be.
The out-of-sync’ness of our natural rhythms with that of the Spaniards goes beyond the time for a proper sunrise. We like to awaken with the sun (which we would expect to be about 6:30 this time of year but isn’t in Spain), find a place to stay by 5 and fall into bed about 9:30 or 10 at night. Spain, as many more southern European countries, shuts down for several hours between 1:30 and 5--right in the heart of our public time of day. When we are ready to settle in for the evening, the shops and street scenes start up again. By the time we are getting ready for bed, many Spaniards are just sitting down to dinner.
Now that we are out of the depths of low tourist season and no longer have the hotels to ourselves, the difference in our rhythms is more apparent. About the time that we are sinking deeply into REM sleep, our Spanish neighbors are returning from dinner out. An hour or 2 of TV viewing or animated conversation with the kids running around at midnight or 2 in the morning isn’t uncommon. And the young Spaniards apparently wouldn’t think of arriving at the bars until after midnight. We are learning it’s a mistake to select a hotel on a town’s pedestrian streets on Friday and Saturday nights as we are invariably awakened at 4 or 5 am when the bars empty out and the party continues out on the cobblestones. The voices of dozens of young adults echoing off the narrow stone corridors sounds to our sleepy heads like a throng of hundreds at 5 in the morning. The occasional shouts and general drone of voices often persists for an hour and then the stillness of the night returns until about 6:30 or 7 when others are beginning their day.
The abruptness of these intrusions into our precious sleep prompted Bill to download a white noise generator program for our laptop from the internet. Since we have learned that these noisy neighbors’ episodes don’t last for just a few minutes but for an hour or 2, we are becoming quicker at clicking on our own counterbalancing noise. It’s the fluctuations in the volume of the voices that disturbs our sleep and the white noise fills in the low ebbs, giving us a more constant background of sound. It won’t remedy the very worst noise situations, but it’s already given us several nights of deeper sleep through the wee-hours community noise.
Sometimes I wonder if our time spent living in a Portland attic has made some imprint on our heads that we are unaware of. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a pointy head but I have to wonder if others do. Or maybe since cyclotourists sometimes camp, hotel clerks think we’ll be happiest in a room resembling a tent. I don’t know what’s driving it, but I am stunned at how often we are offered sloped ceiling, attic rooms when traveling.
It happened again today. I was inquiring about a room in a nicer hotel in a small town in Spain. It is low season and we can often get great prices in nice places because of it. I was shown to a room on the top floor of this large hotel with a sloped ceiling and a small, high window. My heart sank, as I love big windows and to be flooded with natural light and we’d be here for 2 nights while doing some sightseeing. Assuming that there were likely few other guests in this large hotel, I stuttered a few Spanish words and gestured that I’d like a room with a big window, if possible. The clerk and I scampered down 3 flights of stairs and he asked me to wait while he got another key. He then showed me a corner, 2 room suite for 3 people with 4, floor-to-ceiling windows. If I leave the door open of our end-of-the-hall room, I pick-up 2 more windows. Both the attic room and this suite are the same price as they charge per person.
Though I must say that despite this “pointy head” experience, the Spanish usually offer us very nice rooms. In some countries our guide book recommends always asking to see the room before taking it or risk being given the crummiest room in the house. For the most part, we have stopped doing that in Spain as the best rooms seem to be given out first, and being low season, we often get them. The best rooms may be those with more square footage because they sleep 3, a corner room or a better view of the ocean.
Well, maybe not exactly a binge, but our appetite for some prehistory sites is starting to be filled. We rode back and forth on the main road a couple times until we decided that the unpaved little road that looked like a driveway must be the route to a site of some ancient rock cravings. At the road, the sign said “500 meters” (less than ½ mile) so we decided to proceed. The next sign said “900 meters” and the next said “1300”. Indeed, it was the first time that something was getting farther away as we got closer, or so it seemed. The terribly steep, rutted road became too much for us on our loaded bikes and we ditched them at the road’s edge with little worry of theft as we proceeded on foot. The road got worse and the signage more confusing, but we eventually found our trophy of a few Bronze Age carvings on an outdoor rock face at the top of a knoll. It was hardly a grand site, but at least we had found a genuine prehistoric site.
Next we tracked down “El Pindal,” which was equally poorly marked. We don’t know what the “1.5 km” sign was to, but the site was well beyond that, not to mention the several hundred foot drop down a hill with 15% grades. The guide refused to share her English and we had to settle for what we have subsequently learned about the scant cave paintings we saw there. But at least we saw our first 15,000 year old cave paintings. We were more grateful for the sighting after the next cave we tried to visit “Tito Bustillo” was closed, perhaps for the season, though we still aren’t quite sure.
The next stop was to be a real prize: Altamira, with its extensive ceilings of 15,000 bce polychrome paintings. We knew we’d be seeing a well done replica and not the real thing, but we were terribly disappointed when the English tour that we had been told was available didn’t materialize. I re-lived the tantrum-like frustration that I experienced as a child when an older child dangled something in front of me that I wanted but it was carefully placed just out of reach. “They told me I could have it, I desperately wanted it, I could see it, it was almost in my grasp, but I couldn’t have it” was the feeling of being there and yet not getting the explanation we were seeking. (No pictures were allowed, even though it is a replica.)
A less frustrating but unexpected, unseen “sight” wasn’t about prehistoric art but was learning in a small maritime museum that we were just inland of the world’s deepest sea canyon: Cañon de Aviles near the town of Cudillero. The museum’s diorama was impressive as it traced the path of the 15,585’ (almost 3 miles) deep underwater canyon through and off the continental shelf—a canyon that was only recently discovered. I must say, however, that our encyclopedia doesn’t acknowledge this canyon and instead says the Grand Bahamas Canyon is thought to be the deepest at also about 3 miles. (By comparison, the Grand Canyon is about 1 mile deep.)
And speaking of unseen sights, Atapuerca was another prehistoric site we had longed to visit after seeing an exhibit about it at New York’s Natural History Museum. Atapuerca is inland, near Burgos, and we had literally been “snowed out” of our visit there about a month earlier. We again reserved our slot by phone and hopped a train with our bikes back to the mesa to try again for a visit there that was only available on weekends. The temperatures had only made it into the 40’s, but at least the snow was gone and we were able to see the site.
It is one of those sites where there isn’t all that much to see. It was an ancient cave that was slowly filled in through ten’s of thousands of years of use, habitation and erosion. The site wouldn’t have been discovered were it not for the 1800’s mining operation that made a rail line cut through the hill and exposed a cross-section of this archeologically-rich, filled-in cave.
But though there wasn’t much to see, we were happy to have the sense of closure that came with finally standing on the hollowed ground and seeing the active archeological dig site. But at the same time we had to contend with our frustration with the guide talking long and hard where there was little to see when we were so eager to learn more. We knew she must have a least a few tantalizing tidbits in her talk that we would have savored, yet w were linguistically shut out—we’d have to wait for another situation to get the information.
Being back in Burgos was interesting for some unexpected, modern cultural study as well. The very prominent black ribbons displayed in honor of the dead at the Madrid bombings had disappeared as we moved into Asturias and then neighboring Cantabria. We had wondered if it was ‘that the time had passed’ for the display or if it was a regional difference in sentiment. We wondered no more when back in Burgos to see Atapuerca, which is in a different political region, and we again saw the black ribbons prominently placed in shop and home windows. And then as we biked back towards the coast and into Basque Country, the black ribbons suddenly vanished again.
Clearly there is still a palpable tension between most of Spain and the northern, fringe regions. The lack of sympathy and sense of community with Madrid during its time of crisis was certainly telling. The other more routine reflections of the tension is in the road signage, where the proponents of the local dialect are using spray paint to take their stand: we often see bilingual road signs on which the Castilian (standard Spanish) has been obliterated by spray paint, leaving only the local dialect showing.
France on the Horizon
Yes, even before arriving back in France, I am reminded of too many past slights by the French. This time however, the remembering isn’t triggered by being a target for the unkind treatment but as an observer of the French. Instead of being sympathetic with the French tourists struggling with their broken English when speaking with our Spanish host, I got a peevish bit of pleasure—the tables were turned! They were humbled by and struggled with their imperfect English. Predictably, the Spanish were patient and remained engaged as they do with our clumsy Spanish, which is very unlike how most French receive non Francophiles. Of course, the awkwardness of the French tourists likely isn’t being experienced by the perpetrators of the rudeness we experience from the French, as I suspect that the French people that travel outside of France are kinder to foreign tourists than the non-travelers.
As France draws closer, I find myself reflecting on our recent 2 months in Spain. Spain is a very easy place to be: the people are helpful and pleasant, the motorists are extremely courteous, and the prices on food and lodging are just enough lower to make a difference. We find that we can ‘buy-up’ for an extra $10 and have a lot nicer room in Spain whereas in some countries paying more doesn’t assure getting any more for it. And the Spaniards score high marks on our new civility scale which includes a country’s treatment of women, dogs and the environment. Women appear well integrated into the society and aren’t relegated to mere sex objects on TV. We don’t see stray dogs in Spain and the dogs we do see are mostly treasured pets or cared-for guard dogs. And the level of roadside garbage is quite low, though not non-existent. Spain has much of the comforting neatness and courteousness of the Germanic countries with more of the openness and kindness of some of the more southern European nations—a very pleasant mix.
And Spain has the least amount of evidence of alcoholism that we have seen in any country in Europe—their attitude towards alcohol seems to be more similar to that of the US. We don’t see people grabbing an alcoholic drink on their way to work in the morning, nor do we see the laborers dropping into the market at lunch time to turn in their empty bottle for a lunchtime brew. And the selection of non-alcoholic beers in the markets, no matter how small the shop, is impressive. (We’ve been back in France several weeks and have yet to see any non-alcoholic beer in the markets.) And we don’t see as many people on the streets modeling the different stages of alcoholism as we do in some countries—a very welcome change.
Spain is so pleasant for travelers and the coastline so interesting that I highly recommend northern and western coastal Spain for those of you who enjoy a back roads meander—by car, I mean. There are interesting transitions in the geology, the topography and the cultures as you progress along the coastline. The western coast of Galicia is rugged, craggy and culturally more rustic. The northwest corner and north-facing coast begins as high bluffs and becomes more mountainous but with many engaging ports along the way. And the eastern end just into Basque Country is increasingly urban and modern with both huge industrial ports and smart leisure craft ports. Lodging is plentiful along the way and tourist services are never hard to find. Little back roads trace much of the coast line, with faster roads never far inland if you want a change of pace. And a drive of an hour or 2 inland gives a dramatic change in scenery, whether it takes you into the mountainous areas or onto the high mesa.
Where We Are Now, 5/17/04
We will be in Paris tomorrow afternoon for a 6 night stay for some museum hopping. We hadn't originally planned a stop-over in Paris this year, but our visits to a half-dozen decorated caves in southern France changed our minds. Much of the 'moveable' art found in those caves is scattered around Paris, so we decided a visit there would top-off this round of our Upper Paleolithic cave art education. After that, we'll head west to Normandy, an area Bill had planned to visit in 2001 before I said "What about going to the Czech Republic instead?"
Ten days ago it was 36 degrees at lunch time and we rode in alternating sun, rain, hail and snow. Tomorrow's high is predicted at 80 degrees! We are scrambling to change our routines for this instant summer weather.