Thursday, July 14, 2011

Crossing Spain

Riding days are fast becoming my favourite days of the trip. They are long and tiring, for the navigator and of course more so the driver. They are hot and sticky and they start with packing and end with putting up the tent. But they come not only with the freedom of being on the bike but also the best views and the most authentic experiences of each country.

We decided to leave San Sebastian a day early to split the ride to Benicassim up over 2 days. We worked out our itinerary based on driving times by Google Maps and, both of which more or less matched the other. Our GPS has other ideas, and while it has so far lead us down paths that cost us less in both petrol and tolls than anticipated, it also generally takes a lot longer than anticipated.

The ride from San Sebastian to Benicassim was probably my favourite so far, or at least equal with Cherbourg to Beauvoir. As we packed up the tent it was drizzling, the final signs of a very rainy night. We rode into the hills towards Pamplona and into a massive thick fog cloud that meant windy roads, sheer drops and zero visibility.

As we got closer towards Pamplona the weather cleared, and by the time we were passing by red and white costumes and parks filled with sleeping festival-goers, it was sunny again. It was a little difficult to navigate through Pamplona because a couple of roads we closed off for the still-going festival, but once through the entire landscape changed.

Gone were the lush mountainsides and produce fields and in were dry and dusty paddocks of stark vegetation. We wanted to get to at least Zaragoza, a city exactly half way between our points A and B. We made it there easily and decided to keep going, eventually stopping as day turned to evening, having made it 90% of the way to our destination.

The ride had been anything but boring. The desert landscape only got drier and we passed bright orange cliff faces with little wooden doors in them. There were a few houses scattered in front but for a few minutes there was nothing but cliff houses with hobbit sized doors. We stopped for lunch at a truck stop with a really great restaurant and meandered through the desert for another couple of hours.

Only minutes after thinking ‘how could anything live out here?’ we passed a sign warning of deer on the road. We didn’t see any (the signs are frequent across France and Spain so far and we are yet to see one, knock on wood) and I have no idea where they would come from. Occasionally we would pass the ruins of old clay houses or see castles or churches in the distance but tey were few and far between. When we first saw water again it was so incredibly blue against such an intense, unforgiving orange that it almost looked like a mirage.

As quickly as it arrived, the desert left, and we wound through mountain ranges, twice avoiding cars that thought it a good time to pass those in front of them, coming towards us on our own side of the road. Generally though, the mountain roads were awesome. The views were incredible whenever we were near the top, but we have no photos at all because there was nowhere to stop.

The best part was coming around corners and finding small villages crawling across the valleys and hilltops. Many of them and hundreds of years of architecture built on top of each other, parts looked like they were occupied by ancient civilizations before any of the current inhabitants.

The best town we saw was Morella. We rounded the corner without any idea there was anything but more mountain around the bend. Instead, a huge fortified town loomed above us, the city walls and turrets imposing power on the valley below while the village inhabitants beyond went about their day, likely unaware that the sight was anything more than ordinary, having lived behind it for so long.

Deciding to give up for the day, due to both GPS battery life and petrol, we drove through a very small village called Chert. The alleys were tiny and often more dirt than cobblestone, and the locals stared at us as if we were aliens. We decided to keep going and settled in the next town, Sant Mateu. By then we were only 60km from Benicassim but we treated ourselves to a hotel room for the night. There was no hot water, no wifi and the TV was all Spanish, but oh my goodness sleeping in a real bed was heaven.