From San Sebastian to La Mancha
Trip Start Feb 10, 2008
45Trip End May 13, 2009
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I keep going, keeping my eye out for petrol stations but they are all the same sort. I have no choice but to keep going and try and find a manned one, but the one I find is closed for lunch, so I push on, otherwise I'm going to lose a few hours, which will ruin my day and I and won't be able to get the oysters I'm lusting after. The inevitable happens and the car splutters to a stop, fortunately only a couple of hundred metres from a LeClerc store, which has a petrol station attached (automated, of course). My problem is not only to buy petrol, but to carry it to my car and pour it in the petrol tank.
LeClerc is a large Target type store (or KMart, I never know the difference), so I go in and wander the aisles trying to find a petrol container and a long funnel, which of course you can find easily in a Target store in Australia in the automotive section, but not in a LeClerc store in Arcachon. So I went to the laundry section and bought a blue plastic bucket, then to the kitchen section and bought a packet of 3 funnels (small, smaller, and smallest).
Then out to the petrol pumps and accosted a man who was filling up his car and asked if I could give him 5 euros and he could use his credit card to fill up my blue plastic bucket - he looked at me carefully for a while and must have decided I wasn't a loony (the grey hair helps) and agreed, and looked on amusedly as I filled the bucket. Then I lugged it over the busy road, trying not to spill it over myself (which you can only do by walking slowly and steadily, which makes you a sitting target for the motorists speeding along), across a rough field, down and up a deep ditch, and across another road. Now the moment of truth comes - I have to pour petrol from a full bucket into a kitchen funnel that has the capacity of about a cup. Then I find the funnel is too short to reach and open the safety valve on the petrol tank unless I push it in and hold it in with my hand, which means the other hand has to lift the bucket, tilt it and pour the petrol carefully into a cup-sized container.
Not having had much practice with this situation previously I lose a lot of petrol down the side of the car and on the roadside - fortunately nobody is near with a match otherwise we would have gone up.
So then it's back to the petrol station where I have to accost another man and persuade him to accept 20 euros and use his credit card to put petrol into my car, using my pidgin French/Italian fusion language and charades-type actions (in this situation the subject matter is obviously mineral).
Back to Spain:
It continues to rain heavily as I drive into San Sebastian (Donostia in Basque), the first major city in the Basque region. I stay in a place called Pension Izar Bat in the old part of town.
I am excited to be here and quickly go out to explore the streets. There are bars and restaurants everywhere, full of animated people standing at bar, eating, talking, smoking, etc. and I have a feeling I'm going to enjoy this place.
For my first meal I select a rather modern-looking place, which is quite out of character with the neighbourhood, but it's menu in the window wins me over.
I stroll along the bar, eyeing the assortment of pintxos (Basque for tapas) and scanning the blackboard list of wines, before sitting down and happily mulling over in my mind what I'm going to have (this is a serious endeavour and takes a bit of planning as there are a lot of choices and I can only eat and drink so much).
I have the following:
Pintxos - stuffed sea urchin, bacalao confitado (prepared salted cod with caramelised onions), pulpo (octopus), Hongo con yema de corral ( mushrooms with fried egg), foie gras con manzana (fried duck liver and apple),
Wine - Albariño (white), Marques de Vitoria Crianza Rioja (Tempranillo), Altos de Inurrieta Reserva (50% Merlot, 50% Cab Sauv).
It was an excellent start to this trip to Spain and I retire to my lodging very happy indeed.
I have always been fascinated by the Basques (actually that is the French name for them, they are called Vascos in Spanish - the Basque "country" extends from the south-west tip of France to northern Spain). Their language is unrelated to any of the Indo-European languages which totally prevail throughout the rest of Europe, and is thought to be part of a much wider language group that was spoken before the Indo-Europeans came). It's one of those fascinating riddles I love about humanity.
Donostia/San Sebastian is set around a beautiful bay, La Concha Bay, with an island in the centre valled Isla Santa Clara. I walked the full length of the beach (a couple of kms at least) and it is bookended by 2 sculptures on the rocks ar either end (see photos). It was wild and windy (and rainy) in my few days there, and enormous waves came rolling in and crashed against the sea walls, with spray of 10 metres and more washing over the promenade. I saw a young man in a wet suit walking the city streets with a boogie board and fins and followed him to the river, where surf waves from the sea were rolling for several hundred metres upriver.
I had a great time in Donostia, notwithstanding the weather. There are a great many beautiful streets with lovely apartments, buildings and churches, but also a number of very modern museums and exhibition spaces, eg the Koldo Mitxelena Art Centre, and the Salle kubo-kutxa in the Kursaal where I saw an exhibition called H2O, in which one of the most striking exhibits was of a film showing a man's face floating down a river while singing Bach.
Walking the streets I saw a few ETA (the main Basque separatist group) signs painted on walls, and during my stay the head of a road construction company that had won a tender to build a freeway in the area was shot and killed by them in broad daylight only a few blocks from where I was staying.
After this sobering event (but not because of it) I hopped into my car and drove for around 5 hours to Madrid. The city was unbelievably packed with people and I had a little trouble finding accomodation. I found out that I had arrived at the beginning of a holiday long weekend, comprising the 30th anniversary of the 1978 Spanish Constitution the next day (Dec 6) and the festival of Mary Immaculate on the Monday, so lots of people had come to celebrate. My hostal was only a couple of hundred metres from the Congreso (Parliament) and all the streets for some distance around were cordoned off so I put my car in a car park in Calle Madre de Dios (Mother of God street) and left it there the 6 days I was in Madrid. For some reason I have not been able to fathom there was a huge, modern Scientology centre around the corner from my hostal - it's hard to imagine many Madrid people sharing similar ideas with Tom Cruise and John Travolta, but there you go.
My landlady had a policy that you had to hand the keys in every time you went out. As there was a tango festival on I told her I could be coming home at 5 or 6 in the morning, but she said it was no problem, and when I did she shuffled to the door in her nightdress and slippers and opened it for me, treating me as if I was her son and she had been waiting up for me.
My time in Madrid was a combination of frequenting museums & galleries during the day and tango at night, interspersed with trying out lots of bars and restaurants, of which there are an inexhaustible number. My favourite bar was a sherry bar called La Venencia - the walls, floor, bar, in fact everything (including some of the waiters) looked like it has been stained by tobacco smoke for the last hundred years. On shelves on the wall behind the bar there are hundreds of old sherry bottles covered in a thick layer of dust, and there are 6 barrels of sherry lined up alongside. La Venencia is nearly always full and it's hard to get a table so most times I dropped in I squeezed my way to the bar and stood and drank my sherry (normally a manzanilla, or a fino), and ordered a plate or two of the small selection of tapas - queso (cheese), salsichon (dried sausage), various other smoked meats called mojana, cecina, and lomo, slices of hueva (salted pressed fish eggs, a bit like Sicilian bottarga), all quickly cut to order on a small wooden board, and bright green olives. The barman would write down what I had on the wooden bar counter in front of me with white chalk, which he rubbed off once I'd paid, ready for the next customer - very simple, fast and efficient.
Another very fun experience was at El Brillante, a big, noisy fast food place brightly lit with neon lights. I entered on a rainy lunchtime and it was heaving with people, there was a constant coming and going, and virtually every inch of space was taken up. I stood around for a few minutes and as soon as someone left I quickly took their place at the counter and ordered their famous Bocadillo de Calamares, a 30cm long baguette filled with tender, juicy fried calamari, then zarajo de Cuenca (deep fried skewered lamb intestines), washed down with a couple of cañas of cerveca (glass of beer). One other meal of note was at La Biotika, a macrobiotic vegetarian restaurant in Calle Amor de Dios (Love of God street), which made me feel virtuous the next day.
Madrid has some fabulous museums and I spent literally days in them. When I visited the Museo Reina Sofia there was a special exhibition about the Spanish Civil War - the original of Picasso's Guernica is there along with the preparatory sketches & drawings, archival films, etc so you can see the whole process involved in its creation.
The Prado, where I spent over 8 hours is the most impressive and wide-ranging collection of European artists I have seen in one place so far: Italian - Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian, Tiepolo, Tintoretto, Veronese, etc (but no da Vinci or Michelangelo): Spanish - Goya, El Greco, Murillo, Velasquez, etc; Flemish - Rubens, Rembrandt, Bosch, Cranach, Dürer; as well as many French, Dutch, and German artists.
The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum had a special exhibition called 1914 The Avant-Garde (who were also known as Futurists)& the Great War - it's hard to imagine now but many artists at the time glorified war as cleansing a corrupt society and volunteered and died (some friends on opposing sides).
In between these cultural activities I walked kilometres around Madrid visiting the Royal Palace, La Almudena Cathedral, the Debod Temple (a 2nd century BC Egyptian temple relocated to Madrid when the Aswan dam was built on the Nile), and the huge Sunday morning El Rastro flea market. Everywhere there were long lines of people buying tickets for El Gordo de Navidad, the Christmas lottery, which apparently 98% of Spanish play - it had a total of 2.32 billion euros in prizes.
After a very full and interesting time in Madrid I decided to follow Don Quixote's footsteps and drove to Toledo as the base for this journey.
I have now been driving for over 6 months and covered over 30,000 kms. I have driven the length of Italy a couple of times, gone through some of it's most crowded and dangerous cities, covered thousands of kms in Morocco, etc and driven into numerous cities in the rain and dark, lost, often peering with my reading glasses at a map propped against the steering wheel, traffic bearing down on me from all directions and drivers beeping at me and pushing me along - and not had an accident.
As I enter Toledo on a clear sunny day about midday, on a dry road with little traffic, I go around a roundabout on the outskirts of the city, and all of a sudden there's a car in front of me on my right and I hit it on the side. It's a glancing blow, neither of us are hurt, and although the cars have dented panels they are still driveable. What an annoyance! The other driver pulls over - he is a nice man, about my age, and it's the first car accident he's ever had. He says we should call the police and wait for them, but after exchanging names and addresses and waiting for 20 minutes or so, he says he has things to do so, vamos.
I continue on and fight a nice little hostal just outside the walls. I didn't know much about Toledo except that it's famous for steel. It's a lovely little city - a mixture of Spanish, Arabic & Jewish - some churches are converted mosques and synagogues, there are Arabic baths, etc. Wandering around Toledo I came across the Sinagoga del Tránsito y Museo Sefardi, with a fantastic interior which combines Islamic, Gothic, and Hebrew geometric motifs, topped by a beautiful wood ceiling. El Greco lived in Toledo for a good part of his life but unfortunately I couldn't visit his house as it was closed for renovations. However I went to the Cathedral of Toledo, which apart from the magnificent retable and choir has over 20 El Greco paintings of Christ, the apostles and saints plus a Titian, Caravaggio and Rafael.
On a high promontory above the Tagus river, which surrounds Toledo on three sides I came across the Museo Victorio Macho - he was sculptor born in north-west Spain who lived in Madrid, Chile, and the USA, etc then Toledo where he built a beautiful house, which now houses his art. There was a fantastic exhibition called Geographies of Islam, which was a selection of works from The Aga Khan Museum, and displayed Islamic art works from Africa and Europe to China and Sulawesi.
I also found a great restaurant called La Abadia. Like many Spanish bar/restaurants it's very crowded in the evening and once again I had to wait a few minutes until someone moved from the bar so I could squeeze in sideways and claim the 30 cms in front of me. From the bar menu I ordered:
Crujientes de langostinos (raw shrimp) with guacamole
Grilled goat's cheese & fried tomatoes in crunchy wafers made from ground almonds
Parillada (grill) of mixed meats - pork, chicken, sausages, beef, lamb, morcilla (blood sausage) - all cooked perfectly
Dessert - tart of fresh white cheese with chocolate and berries
Accompanied by a glass of Albariño, a tinto from Galicia, and a brandy from Jerez I waddled home down the hill. I know it doesn't sound very relaxing or enjoyable standing up tightly squeezed at a bar, eating and drinking, but I find it fun - these places are full of energy, you can banter with the bar staff, talk to the people near you, and it's great being in a place where people are really enjoying themselves, without the formality so many restaurants have.
Next day I returned for lunch, which was much quieter and I was able to get a table. Once again I had a delicious meal:
Ensalada de Codorniz Escabechada (salad of pickled quail)
Perdiz a la Toledana - Estofadado (partridge cooked in casserole).Partridge is a specialty in Toledo as I saw it on quite a few menus.
Tarta de citricos con nata de almendras (citrus tart with almond cream)
Extracting myself with difficulty from Toledo in my slightly battered car I followed a small section of Don Quixote's meanderings in La Mancha. Most of the time I was in this area it was foggy and very cold, which gave a particular atmosphere to my journey. I arrived in my destination, El Toboso as it was getting dark, just like Don Quixote and Pancho. El Toboso was the home town of Dulcinea, his true love, in whose name he performed many of his knightly activities. This is how he describes her:
"her name is Dulcinea, her country El Toboso, a village of La Mancha, her rank must be at least that of a princess, since she is my queen and lady, and her beauty superhuman, since all the impossible and fanciful attributes of beauty which the poets apply to their ladies are verified in her; for her hairs are gold, her forehead Elysian fields, her eyebrows rainbows, her eyes suns, her cheeks roses, her lips coral, her teeth pearls, her neck alabaster, her bosom marble, her hands ivory, her fairness snow, and what modesty conceals from sight such, I think and imagine, as rational reflection can only extol, not compare".
Going by this I think men have regressed significantly in their description of women since that time! The joke of course is that Dulcinea was a simple barefoot village girl living in a dusty remote village and his image of her was dreamed up in his deluded brain. Anyhow, I love the story so I just had to go and see the town (maybe I was looking for my own Dulcinea? :).
Next morning was freezing, with a thick fog blanketing the town, but I ventured forth to follow Don Quixote's steps. I walked the "ruta literaria" (literary route) which follows a series of plaques quoting verses from the book, set around the town at the appropriate locations, then I visited Dulcinea's house and Don Quixote museum.
After this very satisfying ritual I drove on to Campo de Criptana, the site described in the book as "At this point they caught sight of thirty or forty windmills which were standing on the plain...". There are 10 left now and they looked fantastically eerie through the fog.
The weather was cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey, so after an hour I retreated back to my car and set off due west, across the region of Extramadura for the almost 700 kms drive through rain and bad weather to Lisbon, which of course you will next hear about.