Aragonian Pyrenees, Aragón, Spain and Canary Islands
Sunday, August 7, 2016
We’ve been driving all across the top end of Spain for a week. Picking up the car we headed out to the region of Aragon as we hugged the border between Spain and France weaving through the Pyrenees. The landscape transformed dramatically as we sped across the freeway leaving behind the sprawling city of Barcelona. Flat plains gave way to serpentine roads as we began our descent through the mountains. As we wound around the millionth hairpin turn, I turned a violent shade of purple as I fought to keep the contents of my stomach from spilling out. The drive is incredibly scenic as you would imagine, undulating hills giving way to dramatic mountains and valleys.
Along the way, we catch the sight of monasteries and small medieval villages crowned on top of the hill. We stop at the most interesting ones – one with a tower and fort, surrounded by a moat, its alleyways crammed with artesian stores selling handmade local goods – leather-bound books, bags, and shoes, or a colourful toy store displaying a variety of wooden swords, shields, bow, and arrows. We sit in the cool shadows of the ancient stone walls, as swallows fly in and out between the church’s wooden beams twittering delightfully. A cool breeze blows through the quiet courtyard while the swell of a Latin mass floats out to meet my ears. I close my eyes and imagine how this place must’ve seemed centuries ago – the clicking of hoofbeats against the cobblestones outside the square, or the whispering sounds of leather soles coming up into the hallowed halls. But the most memorable sight is a monastery built under a hanging rock dating back to AD 70 and carved out of the mountain. It is also where I have the best gazpacho of my life in a restaurant in the village of Santa Cruz that has no name.
The higher we go, the Pyrenees looms over us dominating each corner, drawing our eye line up to the heavens. It is humbling being so close to these monoliths, at a museum, we discover various layers of rocks dated further back than 170 million years and I am reminded that we are mere specks. Being in the mountains always does this to me, it helps to put my life and all its worries into perspective. While the ocean revives, it is the mountains that remind me not to sweat the small stuff. While the mountainsides are covered in a forest of pine, its peaks are bare and grey. We wind past ski towns and alpine chalets, I imagine how majestic this place must look blanketed in snow. The chair lifts swing empty in the breeze awaiting the next season’s bountiful falls
After a week the mountains gave way to the sea as we wind our way towards the coast and into the jewel of Basque country, San Sebastian. As luck we would have it, our arrival is a noteworthy follow-up to the ‘watergate’ incident in Dubrovnik. This time, we arrive in this well-heeled city stinking of vomit, Sofia has picked up a tummy bug which unfortunately manifests itself as soon as we arrive in town. It turns out the bug also strikes Peter down and half our unit are bedridden for the next day or two. But San Sebastian is an easy place to spend a few days, as we stay in a loft apartment in old town we are within walking distance of all the sights. Being by the coast, the harbour and esplanade areas are teaming with people sunning themselves or grabbing a bite to eat in this pretty area of the north, after the ruggedness of the mountains we find San Sebastian very genteel and cosmopolitan. There are delicious pintxo and tapas bars on every corner.
It is a weekend and there are markets in the town square with musicians playing on every corner. We find ourselves tapping our toes to catchy jazzy numbers as we munch on smoky sausages and crusty bread on a park bench. In our apartment, we pop the window hatch on the roof open and peer out over the buildings at the harbour, the squall of seagulls a constant reminder of the sea. I can hear the sounds of the old quarter percolating below me as the sun goes down, the smell of fermented yeast wafts up as does the smells of seafood sizzling in hot oil.
Having an apartment is luxurious after being on the road for the last 5 days and staying in small hotels. I am grateful to have a kitchen again and laundering facilities. There is also more floor space for the children to play on, being able to watch movies and to relax which is a luxury in itself when you are constantly in motion.
All too soon we farewell San Sebastian, but not before a spectacular last night of fireworks kicking off a week-long festival called the Semana Grande which seems to involve pirates, music, and fireworks which go all night. It seems that all of Spain is here in old town as we fight through a surging tide of revelers just to get back to our apartment. Thankfully Bilbao is only an hour away, as we pull into town we are struck by how quiet it is compared to the madness of San Sebastian, it is so civilised. The main attraction in this part of Spain is undoubtedly the Guggenheim which we breeze into and around without the hassle of pressing crowds. We while away half a day there enjoying the exhibitions and also the unique building itself which was also designed by Frank Gehry who we encountered in Prague. The design was inspired by his fascination for goldfish which explains the gold panels covering the curvaceous building, and the material used was a nod to the industrial history of Bilbao. Next, to the Guggenheim, we discover the best kids playground since we landed in Europe and a small water feature which sees children darting and weaving in and around the gushes of water as it shoots up periodically.
It is here in Bilbao that I am struck down with food poisoning. After weeks of meat, potatoes, pizza, and pasta I am craving some Asian fare and when we spot a sushi restaurant across the road I am thrilled. We order noodles, teriyaki chicken on a bed of rice and a serve of rainbow rolls which avocado and salmon. Worst mistake ever. When the roles arrived I was perplexed to find them covered liberally in sweet chili sauce and topped with coriander. I don’t know what was worse – the chives mixed in with the sushi rice or that the pieces of salmon on top looked like they were hacked up and hastily put together to look like one solid piece. What followed over the next 2 days was nothing short of hell, which was an unfortunate way to start our next fortnight of adventures in a camper van. The only upside to food poisoning? Immediate weight loss.