Monday, September 10, 2012

SPAIN: Trans-Iberian Express departs

Munson near highway around Burgos

And so we’re off to the south of Spain today. A little late in leaving at 10am, the exit from Gascony is the
slowest part of the trip as we don’t reach a fast road until Mont de Marsan just over an hour later. It is
nonetheless gorgeous countryside which is exactly what you want to compensate for the time taken. After that we travel south past Dax, Bayonne and Biarritz to reach the border at 12.30.

680km to SalamancaAlthough it’s a Sunday I thought it worthwhile checking if a mobile phone store will be open just across the border around Irun or Hondarraiba so we can get some local SIM cards for the trip. Since we’ll be more reliant on online maps and translation facilities, I don’t want to be using roaming data that will soak up more money in a couple of hours than a local SIM card would charge for in a month.

I tried to find out online but none of the mobile store locators indicated opening times. But it is near Domingo siesta time so we’re not in luck and instead go to Maccas for wifi and fries. It’s an opportunity for me to give Gustav some quick pointers to Spanish food words: pollo/chicken, carne/meat, and especially espero/wait for twenty minutes while the lady ahead of you in the queue organises the catering for a child’s party for fifteen minutes.

Our diversion has taken an hour, and then we’re on the highway again taking us halfway to Bilbao before
turning south on the road to Madrid, and our equidistant destination, Salamanca. Despite having stayed in both Salamanca and San Sebastian before, I never travelled directly between them, always diverting through Pamplona to the east. Now we have miles of beautiful new highway with over ten kilometres of tunnels to speed us through the mountains.

The western end of the French-Spanish border sees the Pyrenées running into another band of mountainous terrain hugging the coast through the Basque territory. The housing is very high density, often plugging nooks in the lush green foothills facing north to the Bay of Biscay.

P9090284-286_stitchWhen we finally emerge from the mountain tunnels, the landscape changes dramatically  to the more arid steppes of central north Spain. The colours and textures are those of sloughed reptile skins, vegetation straddling green and grey. If you painted this land, you would do as well plastering your worn out brush bristles to the oils to replicate the sparse straggling plant life. There’s a lot of cattle too, but they’re skinny beasts baking on dry hillsides.

We make one roadside pit stop to stretch our legs and admire the terrain. The only other time I’ve been in such a landscape was in Mexico, being driven from Leon airport to San Miguel de Allende, but we could just as well be in some dry part of the  midwestern Estados Unidos.

About an hour before Salamanca, the sky is swollen with grey distant rain which has the odour of some salted dusty dampness. This I do remember from my time there returning from a day trip to Segovia and Avila. I hope the rain catches the car to wash the farm grit off it, and the several messages written on the dusty rear window. Finally it does arrive, beating solidly against the front of the car and leaving not a drop on the rear. It’s not till we’re almost on the outskirts of Salamanca that it’s finally given a cleaning.

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