Sunday, 27 April 2008

Barcelona 1 - Buenos Dias, Chocolate, y Picasso

We arrived in Barcelona at night, which is instantly disconcerting in any city. Danny had devised a system to take us down the one way streets adjacent to Parral-lel, working out the route beforehand and then writing down the number of turns we had to count before our next right or left. It worked, though no thanks to Michelin.

We chucked our bags and bikes off the train as quick as we could (I stood below while Danny threw things at me - panniers, tents, sleeping bags) and assembled our structural masses on the platform before taking the lift up to street level. Outside the scenery was confusing. I remember it as mostly being dark, though there must have been street-lights. Danny brought out his compass and made vague directional gestures with his hand before finally deciding on the other side of the station. We got ourselves onto a big road, indistinct in this rather quiet sunday evening, and it looked like we were heading in the right direction. Slowly but surely making our way through side streets, counting as we went, we finally wound up (I know not how) outside the Youth Hostel, wherein we had beds books and friends awaiting.

Fred and Lucas (how wierd to talk of people from back home in this, otherwise, entirely foreign story) were not in, for they had left to sample the delightful tastes of tradition spainish foods - a pizza from pizzahut. We saw them through the window before they saw us, they were engaged in conversation with others from the youth hostel, so Danny made silly faces to get their attention. We finally got their attention and they came out to congradulate us on getting this far, whilst a couple of others from the youth hostel joined in with the praise. We joined them indoors as they were just finishing up (splitting the bill as people of our age, by not paying for more than ate - which invariably leads to arguments and less money being forthcoming than appears on the bill).

We sauntered back to the youth hostel and talked our trip over with Fred and Lucas. There people made plans for the evening, a trip to the "travellers' bar" and perhaps something later. Then Rosie came bouncing up the stairs and introduced herself. She was off to meet a friend elsewhere, but said she would join the group later. So we left, as all big groups do, in varying waves of speed and enthusiasm. Danny talked to Fred and Lucas, while I mingled with others and spent most of the trip talking with a guy called Simon about bikes. In the dark, our trip had no relation to any later trip we made in the light the next day; almost as if we were walking in a different cities. Onto La Ramblas, the "travellers' bar" was off this road of heavy tourist traffic. Outside the bouncer was English - this really was an international bar. The bartenders spoke English so it was far too easy to order alcohol. We found an empy corner and sat with our beers and chatted about stuff.

The metric system of measuring alcohol is mostly unfortunate. Half a litre lacks the directness of "a pint" nor the foolish accurateness of "568ml" when measured in metric itself. Its a round number at "500ml" but it lacks life, and I missed the pint whilst I was out there. Another thing that was odd was that I quickly slipped into the spanish way of drinking: slowly and little.

Conversation was good, company great and everyone was very friendly. Reminded me of first week of university, where everybody doesn't know anybody; cliques aren't yet established and there is a free movement of people from group to group. Rosie joined us not long after and we shared a few conversations on interesting and varying topics such as, art, feminism, etc.; all of which we moved through with the ease and interest of two people really thinking at the same level.

Time was called at around 2am, and while the time had passed quite consistently it took me by complete suprise it so late and myself so awake. It took me a bit of time to realise that it made perfect sense - we hadn't got to the bar till 10pm! We walked through the faint pattering of rain in search of bar that was still open. The group found a club open in the Placa Reial and we queued up (though I wasn't keen on the idea - club's require payment on the door and generally don't allow for much in the way of conversation, and I was in the mood for conversation). Danny, who had not bought civvies with him on the trip, was instantly rejected by the bouncer's (for what we ain't sure, he didn't look too bad to be fair). With the group looking like it may split discussion turned into stalling, and eventually Rosie took the lead (she works as a teacher so is quite good at it) and lead a small group of us, Danny and I included, to find a bar that was still open. She had lived in the city before and knew the place far better than the rest of us so hopes were high for a drinking establishment to hole ourselves up in till morning.

A couple of non-starters later, we realised that even BCN, a city that never sleeps sometimes needs a rest and Sunday was its night to get a nap. The bars we tried were all closing up and had stopped serving at the bar before we got there. Danny started grumbling for food, and I was also in the mood for eats, as we had both missed dinner that evening. So we gave up on drinking and focused instead on getting a kebab of some sort (yes they do them in Spain, though quite different to what we expect back home).

Food sorted (I can't remember much about the kebab other than it was rather tasty), we returned to the Youth Hostel, where the night-shift receptionist seemed rather put-off by our insistent talking in the common room after midnight (it was a rule - a pretty crap one). We carried on as he got more and more irate, till finally we couldn't be bothered and so went our seperate ways into our rooms. Each room in the Youth Hostel slept 6 people and we were sleeping in room 4, the room where Fred and Lucas were also sleeping. When we went in we saw all but two of the beds were taken, Fred and Lucas and the other two had all got back before - we assumed they hadn't gone clubbing after all. We got into our beds and looked forward to a good nights sleep...

Which we didn't get because at about 5am we were woken up by someone exclaiming that there was someone in her bed. The night-shift receptionist was roused, and I got out of bed to help try figure the problem out. The receptionist kept asking me if I was George, and I kept having to explain to him that I wasn't. Finally he got the little slips of paper out that somehow organised the Youth Hostel sleeping arrangements and we found mine and Danny's slip. We had been given room 4 to sleep in and a locker key in the self-same room. Except Room 4 already had 6 people sleeping in it. So Danny, not looking very happy, and I were put in another room with a promise that it would all get sorted out in the morning.

I should perhaps mention that both Danny and myself quickly became associated with rather unsocialable things. For Danny it was his quite astounding snoring (and I felt quite sorry for everyone in our room - sleep could not have been good for them for the two nights we were there). For myself it was the quite upsettingly potent stench of my feet, in particular my socks. I had only take three pairs of socks with me, and as my shoes were constantly open to the elements they all became quite wet - I believe I have not had dry feet for some 2/3rds of this trip so far. The bottom of feet were disgusting to look at, wrinkled, white monstrosities that looked rotten and just plain wrong. My feet themselves were not overly bad, and my shoes were also hardly the worst I've smelt, but the socks, all 3 pairs of them were eye wateringly bad. It was for my feet that I became known in the Youth Hostel. Ah well.


The next morning we woke suprisingly early as Breakfast was served from 8-10. I say served, it was left out for us to pick through. Toast, butter, cereal, tea or coffee made for a good breakfast (though far less in quantity then we were used to). Danny and I were among the first up but eventually others joined us in our wide-eyed awakeness. Most of the conversation was on the early-morning mix-up that the receptionists had got everyone into, everyone was damn sure it wasn't our fault - which was good. Rosie appeared for breakfast, poor thing, and we chatted for awhile, but she quickly went back to bed for a siesta after awhile - she had been sleeping in the bed next to Danny's, she can't have got much sleep.

The plan for today was to hang around with Fred and Lucas on their last day in Barcelona. They wanted to take us to Parc Guell (umlaut not included), which sounded like a pretty good way to spend the day; the sun was out and we were in a strange town. Danny also made reservations to meet up with Rosie during the day for a tour around the old town.

Plans set, we walked out of the Youth Hostel and into the warmth of the Barcelona sun. Up La Ramblas we stopped in a little known market called La Boqueria - you may have heard of it. The colour there was fantastic; a thriving throng of fruit stalls and others all aching to sell their wares to passers-by. I didn't buy anything on that first day, but subsequently I would only feel happy after I had purchased a kilo of golden delicious from my favourite stall there: they were so cheap and so delicious it made it hard to think of a good reason not to.

Onwards and upwards to the metro station at the Placa de Catalunya, we passed the most horrifying aspect of La Ramblas. The entire boulevard is packed with street performers the kiosks selling postcards and other tourist memorabilia, but stuffed between these two innocent money-making tourist traps were two stalls selling birds locked in cages. One of them was run by a nasty hobbit of a man, who sparkled and smiled in nasty, grimey way as people (most, I think, with a sense of, "I cannot believe this kind of place exists!") milled around, sometimes inquiring about prices, sometimes not. Lucas made a little film of Fred asking the hobbit-y man where one of his street pigeons had come from and how much it was. The man replied that it was from Madrid (I think) and cost 5o euros! We left him to his cruelty and boarded the metro that would take us to the Parc Guell.

We got of the Metro and followed the signs (they have good signs for local places in Spain) up to the hill, the top of which housed Parc Guell. So steep was the terrain here, the wise governors of Barcelona had decided to install escalators to aid the travel of interested tourists and tired locals. We had seen escalators like these before, and it is quite wierd to see such mechanical devices completely divorced from their usual surroundings (covered and near, or in, shopping centres). It is a long way up, and the hill rises at such an angle as to make one really question the veracity of the signs pointing toward Parc Guell - how could anything balance atop such a peak?!

We didn't see much of Parc Guell, but sat half-way up the path running toward the centre to just marvel at the view of Barecelona. A maze and mass of buildings that stretched for miles everywhere - Barcelona really is an impressive city, nestled so sporadically between the mountains and the coast. We sat there for awhile, Fred and Lucas pointing out interesting sights to us, the sun warming us so pleasantly. Before too long we had to leave to meet Rosie in the Placa Reial, so we made plans to catch Fred and Lucas later outside La B
La Boqueria at 4pm as we planned to have dinner with them later.

Danny and I walked down to the metro station and armed with the map found ourselves back on La Ramblas again and reached the Placa Reial spot on 2pm. We couldn't see Rosie though (and no-one turns up exactly on time anyway) so we went to a near cafe and Danny ordered a coffee - to take-away. I wasn't sure that it was something they would offer, but sure enough Danny exited with some coffee in a little see-through plastic cup. What wonders Barcelona offers.

Finally we spotted Rosie and Caroli, another girl from the Youth Hostel. They had been waiting at the fountain in the centre all along. Introductions sorted out, we hadn't met Caroli before, Rosie suggested a tour of the old town; a maze of close streets and balconies that join the many plazas that dot the city of Barcelona. One particular plaza that painted a particularly poignant image was the one where a large number of rebels during the Spanish Civil War were slaughtered by Franco's soldiers; you could still see the pocked walls where bullets had broken the skin of those buildings. And amongst all this history of violenc children were playing football without a care in the world. How wounds heal.

Our group was a very unusual one. Caroli didn't speak much English; Rosie spoke (to my ears anyway) fairly decent Spanish, though she often had to search for the right word; Danny was still learning, but looked fairly competent; and I spoke no Spanish whatsoever (I could say "hello", "please", "thankyou" and "good-bye"). This meant that Rosie had to act as translator for Caroli if our English conversations got out of hand, and when Rosie and Caroli spoke Spanish, Danny tried to follow along and I listened to noise. Still, we managed to communicate pretty well as a group with sign-language, and whilst Caroli didn't speak much English, she spoke well enough for her to ask me questions and understand my answers - made me ashamed to be English, not least because she also spoke Italian well enough to even start using Italian in her Spanish by accident!

We hardly saw even a quarter of the old town, though I was distracted by conversation with Rosie for most of it, so we may have seen more: I was to revisit this part of town in much greater depth whilst aimlessly wandering when it was just me left in Barcelona (Danny took to cycling quite early on). One of my favourite parts of Barcelona was the internal streets: behind every big door in these streets was an internal street from which the higher levels could be reached. They looked fantastic, like a city within a city.

One of the reasons we ventured into town was for supplies. Not food supplies, we were fairly competent with that now; we were looking for clothes. I was in need of new socks (my feet were awful, my socks even worse), and Danny was in need of some civvies. We spent a bit of time walking through that part of old town that was full of little shops and indoor markets, but we couldn't find anything cheap enough for Danny, and socks just did not seem to be on the menu.

As the time approached 4pm we made our back to La Ramblas and to the market where we met up with Fred and Lucas. They wanted to get back to the Youth Hostel, but we wanted to do a bit more shopping and also get food for this evening: Danny planned to cook a mean for us four and everyone else as it turned out. For the purposes of dinner, we took a little detour through the Carrefour Express on La Ramblas. Danny is like an old-woman in a supermarket, he spends ages getting just the right ingredients; it's quite funny to watch. Rosie was the one to point it out to me.

Don Simon: Danny has a taste for cheap red wine, and he found his greatest in Spain. It goes by the name of Don Simon and sells in Carrefour for 64 cents for a litre. So cheap it makes you wonder how the make any money off it. It is disgusting, and the Spanish we talked to were ashamed of it, but if we ever exclaim "Don Simon!", it is this we do it for. We also found the Sangria version 1 euro and 4 cents; it tastes much nicer and is far easier to drink.

Food shopping done, we stopped for a coffee and relaxed for a bit; staring at the cats on the wall. The siesta that afflicts the Spanish shopper between the hours of 12 an 4 was finally at a close and we quickly found lots of little shops selling cheap stuff cheaply. In one we found a shirt for Danny and new shoes, whilst I picked up some new socks and new underwear. Our tasks finally done we returned to the Youth Hostel so Danny could prepare dinner and I could finally wash with the prospect of something that didn't smell of stale sweat to put on my feet.

I spent 20 mins cleaning my feet alone, washing them over and over again till I could be sure that any smell eminating from them was only the lemon of the soap. That is something I've learned the hard way on this trip: Feet are important, do not underestimate the need to protect them from the elements and from themselves. As they spend most of their time enclosed in the same material all day long, it is vitally important to be able to change them into something more comfortable and allow them to air in dry socks and shoes. Next time I would definately do what Danny did, which was to have one pair of shoes to cycle with, and one pair for when the cycling is over. Fleece socks are also important, and waterproof shoes or over-shoes for when the weather is against you.

Finally, with feet done and socks donned, I stepped out into a world where I did not need to feel ashamed of my feet anymore. Fred and Lucas were not in when we got there, so we waited a bit before Danny decided to start cooking without them. I don't know at what point he decided to cook for everyone who was in, but it ended up as a meal for 9 people. In itself this is quite impressive, what makes it staggeringly god-like is that the Youth-Hostel, while equipped with a kitchen, did not have a cooker so Danny did the entire thing on our little camping-gaz stove. It really makes you realise how wasteful we are of our 4-hob monstrosities. If you can cook a meal for 9 on one hob, imagine what you could do with 4!

Dinner cooked, and Fred, Lucas and the others waiting and hungry, we sat down for a meal of epic proportions. There was so much food that Danny had to cook it in two batches! We ate well and accompanied by Don Simon (we had snuck it in as alcohol apparently forbidden) the entire meal was a great success. After Dinner we planned the proceedings for the evening. At the start everyone was planning to go out in one big group, but as the time got later and later, Rosie, Ethan and myself got impaitent and we decided to meet up with them later if we could.

The goal for the three of us was to visit a champagneria (or something like that - basically a place where they only serve Cava). The place we had seen during the day opened a 7pm, but it was shut because it was a Monday (The Spanish seem to follow the Garfield philosophy of week-days). With no chance of excessive amounts of Cava, we stopped off in a particularly plush cocktail bar. I can't remember where it was (perhaps Rosie can help), but it is certainly a place to go to if you are in Barecelona, if only because it made the most potent cocktail I have ever tried: the Hemingway. It was a cocktail made from Cava and Absinthe and may well have been made in the same way as the
Death in the Afternoon Cocktail, the name of which is suitably descriptive of the stuff we drank. Rosie and I both had a Hemingway, while Ethan stuck with the far safer Mojitos. We had only sat down for a couple of minutes before Ethan said he had to rush to meet some friends of his. I didn't mind, he left his Mojitos behind, which meant more alcohol for us.

And so Rosie and I, accompanied by the quite potent mixture of the Hemingway cocktail, talked and talked. About what, I couldn't say; for how long, I have no idea. Conversation was effortless, pauses were comfortable, words flowed and wit was forthcoming. Topics were interesting and obscure, the kind of things that you only talk about when you are "talking shop", but here we were doing it in the context of open and friendly conversation; light-hearted mixing the deep and shallow with the simplest of ease. Basically, we connected. It was odd to find this here in Barcelona; a freak's chance. The excitement associated with meeting Rosie over the next few days can be quite accurately analogised to the feeling of excitement you get on Christmas Eve; a restless sense of expectation, which never fails to disappoint as a child: and meeting Rosie never failed to disappoint. It was not a new experience; we had met before, this companion and I, but to find her under a new guise was an unexpected pleasure. Her rarity had been shattered, with two there could no longer be one, and with two there could only be more: an interesting prospect.

But I digress. After polishing off our cocktails, and the one that Ethan left, we moved on to a small bar near the Placa Reial (which had seemed to become the unofficial centre of Barcelona). Here we randomly met a bloke from Rosie's school, who was enjoying a quiet drink with his newly acquired fiance - he had proposed to her only the night before in that very same bar (which was odd, because it wasn't a particularly romantic bar). We stayed there for awhile, but let the two lovebirds get back to revelling in their rings and plans (or whatever it is fiances talk about). Onwards, and me and Rosie dropped into a small bar in the Placa Reial (everyone ends up in the Placa Reial sooner or later), where we supped on fruit juice as we were both feeling the effects of the Hemingway with exceptional vividness.

At last tiredness crept up on us as the alcohol high left, and so we made our way back to the Youth Hostel, passing the largest chair I've ever soon. Though Rosie had been in Barcelona for some days already she had not noticed the big chair, it was like some giant chair-shaped elephant. She has a great interest in chairs (why? See here: ) and I toyed with the notion of trying to climb up on it, but decided against it due to complexity and lateness of the evening.

When we got back, we expected the others to still be out, but no! Our little evening had outlasted their flamenco one, and we found Danny asleep in his bed. I introduced Rosie to Beirut (Elephant Gun is where you have to start), but before too long the night receptionist bloke started getting tetchy again so we retired for the evening, at the exact same moment that Danny began to snore. God! I felt sorry for the others in the room - I was largely used to it by now, but for the others it must have been difficult to get some sleep. Come on tomorrow!


Today was the day we left the Youth Hostel, it was expensive and we were poor. Fred and Lucas were also leaving today so we stuck around with them till in the morning till we had to vacate the building at 11am. We escorted them, bikes in tow, to the metro station and then left them to their costly flight home - what fools they were, they should have cycled.

Our plan of action for today was to find campsite, and I had chosen one not far out of Barcelona (for there is none in Barcelona) called Tres Estralla (Tip: never stay at a campsite whose name is a direct reference to how well it has been graded by the local authority - that sentence was not nearly as succinct as I would have liked it, never mind and onwards). But to get there we had to get out of Barcelona first, and that was to prove difficult.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Day 30 - Spain and the Great Conspiracy

What dastardly deeds did the Spainish Government hold for us on this day of days?

Our train was to leave from Zaragoza train-station at 12:21 exactly (though we were not sure if trains in Spain took the Swiss approach to departure times), and so we endeavoured to be there an hour early so that there would be no chance we could miss it. Packing expertly we wheeled our bikes, fully laden, out of the hotel and up the street that led, almost directly, to the train-station. Passing a small shop, open on a sunday, that sold stuff useful for breakfasting and lunching, we stopped for a short period to stock up. Inside they sold the most fantastic large croissants for 50 cents each - Spain is literally so cheap for food. After our little stop we continued at a pace and arrived at the station at 11:21. Excellent! An hour ahead of when the train was due to leave, exactly.

It was at this point that I noticed a large digital clock outside a pharmacy that, inbetween telling the public that a) the building it was attached to was a pharmacy and b) that the temperature was a decidedly warm 20 degrees, gave the time as 12:21. My suspicions were aroused and I recalled a little conversation we had with an English couple in Duras, cycling from Bergerac to La Reole, that the French would putting their clocks forward on a certain sunday. I continued this rather disturbing train of thought to the logical conclusion that Spain, also, made the changes to the clocks so that, appearing one hour early for our train's departure, we had actually arrived just in time to see it leave without us. Damn!

Suspicions were confirmed when Danny, throwing Spainish around like a pro, inquired at the ticket desk about trains. Bum. Well thankfully another train was to leave shortly before 5pm, but till then we had to find ways to amuse ourselves. We sat outside in the sun, ate lunch, and while I dozed and went for explorations, Danny made friends with a Polish guy, who had been living in Spain for only a year or so, and thus both used very simple spainish - definately a good way of getting some practice in.

Finally, after much waiting, our train was scheduled to depart. To get to the platform we had to pass through suspiciously heavy security - one of those x-ray machines that you find in airports - so we had to take all our bags off our bikes then quickly put them back. When we got to the train we once again had to take our bags off and then suspend our bikes vertically (which I was able to understand quite well from the man who was trying to tell us because, as I didn't know the language, I focused on his use of sign language, whereas Danny was too involved with trying to figure out the words he was using). Finally all our bags packed away we were off to Barcelona - Buenos Dias, Chocolate, y Picasso!

On the trip we met a troubled, female cycle tourer, travelling to Taragona, who had punctured a tyre but was stuck without a pump (surely the pump is the towel of the cyclist - I was not impressed). Danny helped her fix the bike and we swapped tales of where we had been - it's amazing how much info you can get across when you cannot understand a word the other person is saying (she was spainish). She had a mountain-bike, and huge tyres, but her set-up looked far more professional than what we were carrying (in fact, our gear has without fail looked haphazard compared to every other cycle-tourer's gear, a fact of which I am proud).

Danny had invested some money in a detailed street map of Barcelona and so spent most of the trip either planning our route to the Youth-Hostel where Fred and Lucas were staying or sleeping. I, however, read Nietzsche, listened to music and stared at constantly changing scenery (as somekind of replacement for all the terrain we were not going to cycle through to get to Barcelona).

And so we arrived in Barcelona, but that deserves its own post so I'll write soon.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Day 29 - ... or "Day 28" take two

So with our rather failed day yesterday - Zaragoza was not reachable - we know had to spend most of today trying to either get my bike fixed or figure out a way for us to get our bikes and bags to a train-station so we can get a train to Zaragoza.

Danny woke earlier than I did, I just was not feeling in a good mood that morning thanks to an overwhelming sense of despair that I had completely fubared any straightforward attempt to get to Zaragoza and thus Barcelona. Danny left some breakfast and sailed off on my bike into Ejea to a) find the elusive tourist info office of the day before and b) see if my bike could be fixed. We didn't hold up much hope, but Danny insisted that we try.

He left and I stayed behind to have breakfast and pack things away, which I did slowly as the sun was making things hot and all I wanted to do was lie down and soak in the pleasure such weather brings to the skin. Eventually, after much moving of things I took the time out to lie down and just not think of a thing. So enjoyable in the sun. There is something quite unique about the warm sun on your skin, it isn't the warmth that does it, but some strange combination of everything that great nuclear furnace in the sky gives us. Its how I imagine plants must feel when they are fed with solar energy.

I dozed peacefully in the sun till I heard Danny cycle up the farmer's road and onto the field. Ah, what a welcome sight, for Danny appeared with bike and a new carrier, shining bright and shiny in the sun that I had so been enjoying. We packed up quickly and continued on the route were to have taken the day before. Ah, but cycling of the day before had gone, as if in punishment for my broken-down machine. The wind tore right into us and the straight roads left us travelling directly into the wind for most of the day. Slow, so slow. Danny was suffering from a somewhat upset stomach that day, so he was not on his best performance. The sun was still hot, but the rest of the day made the whole experience frustrating rather than enjoyable.

Danny wished to take the train to Zaragoza, to make up for lost time and because he was feeling unwell. I had chosen a route that would not only take us near a town with a trainstation, but would also take us closer to Zaragoza as well.

Trains in spain do not operate as they do in the UK. We reached Zuera to find the trainstation for Zuera wasn't actually there, but rather in a small industrial part of a smaller town just outside it. Once more the Spainish signs came to ruin our day and we spent an hour or so cycling through industrial estates. We found a huge carpark, and we thought it was connected to the train-station, but on closer inspection it turned out to be a car-depot for cars before they are shipped off to be sold.

Finally a friendly spainish bloke showed us in his car, and we stopped to check the time-table and what can only be described as a very run-down and, more importantly, very shut train station. It turns out there were only two trains a day that stopped in Zuera (its not a small town), and in between times the station was closed. Very, very strange. Obviously trains were never as important as they were in Britain, and Spain never developed a history of travelling by train to the same extent as we have.

With no train till 5pm, we decided to make the 25km to Zaragoza instead. In Zuera we stopped for lunch (late), and then cycled south to join the main roads into Zaragoza. We arrived there, along a messy and busy motorway-esque dual-carriageway, that was mostly the complete opposite of pleasant. Once again the Spainish made finding the tourist info offices hard to find, so we cycled to the train-station of Zaragoza as the light faded away. We found a tourist info box and whilst I counted the seconds on a rather cool digital clock, Danny queried the people inside.

We found out that there was a train tomorrow at 12:2o, just as on saturday (seems sundays work the same as saturdays for trains in spain), so we went a-searching for accomadation. We ended up in this dingy, if somewhat grand hotel, in that classic style where everything is brown and everything is bathed in brown-light.

Danny went down to the cafe that stood next to the hotel, and I slept and watched spainish TV. I became fascinated by the Spainish version of our channels devoted entirely to those stupid word games. The woman presenter (whose face reminded me of the "Mouth of Sauron" off of the films - her mouth was out of proportion to the rest of her head) seemed to not be getting any calls at all, and because I couldn't understand the language I focused entirely on the body-language, which was classicly nervous - it was almost fun. Eventually I drifted off to sleep, and Danny returned at 3am (though really it was 4am, and had we known that we would have been in Barcelona earlier).

Tomorrow Barcelona and the apex of our travels.

Day 28 - Sun and the Citrus Air

We awoke to yet another day but, oh, what is this ... sun? Indeed yes, for the skies had cleared and the sun was out (as is its wont). It was really quite hot, so it was certainly time for the shorts and t-shirt only affair (wish I had taken my Oceana top as I think the dual combo of type black lycra shorts and tight black lycra top with lapels might just have been a winner) - we looked like proper cyclists in our gear.

Out of the campsite we joined the main road again and carried onto Olite, which sports a rather dashing castle in the Navarre style (or at least thats how I view it). Onwards and onwards, with the wind behind us, and we had finally found good roads in Spain for cycling. The weather was so good and the cycling so much better that I almost forgave the devious Spainish transport departmant for its dodgy road "planning". We cycled at a pace that was fast but so easy, some 16mph and before too long we had done 20 miles and I hadn't even felt it. Fantastic! It was like flying.

The most noticeable thing about the whole day was the scent of plants that mingled in the air giving it the sweet mediterranean smell that I instantly associated in my mind with memories of going to Portugal and Greece so many years ago - so much so that I wasn't sure which one was which in my head. The smell, the air, warm sun on my legs, everything seemed designed to make me feel more alive than I ever had. I feel sorry for all those people in cars, for even with their windows down they couldn't have felt how glorious the entire day was.

We reached the town of Carcastillo before midday and it looked like we would make the journey to Zaragoza in one day (which is what we had planned to do). It was then that I made a small map error and cycled the wrong way up a road away from our destination, I only figured this out after we had cycled up a hill someway and realised that the valley that should have been on our right was in fact on our left, we had gone up the wrong side of the hill. However, not to be put down by such an error and not to make the small but steep climb up the hill a pointless venture I noticed a small road that followed a river south further ahead that would take us back on the right track.

It was in fact slightly further up the road than I had thought, and it wasn't actually a river nor a proper road, it was in fact an access road for utility vehicles to a canal. But it was on the map and I knew where it went so we sailed along this road for some hour and half or so, crystal blue water glistening in the concrete basin of the canal and our bikes making the most of the flat if somewhat rough road. Finally we made it to the town of Sadaba, where we stopped to have lunch.

Next we raced down to Ejea, a trip that was far shorter than I had expected and we looked to be making good time, though Zaragoza would not be reached that day and Danny made the call to get as far as we could but camp early rather than try to get to the city at night. So we stopped in a Lidls in Ejea and stocked up on water and tasty foods. We spent sometime in Ejea looking for the tourist info office, for it was well sign-posted from the centre of the town, but to no avail for (as Danny was to find out the next day) the plucky Spainish had decided that the best way to support tourism in this part of Navarre was to have a sign for the tourist office pointing - the opposite way to where the office actually was. In fact, the tourist office could almost be seen from the sign if you stood underneath it and ignored where it was pointing. Almost, but not quite as good as the Tourist Office in La Reole, but definately in the top five worst signposted tourist offices in Europe (we are making a list).

We cycled out of Ejea aiming to camp wild somewhere in the hills to the east. However, we had barely got 5km down the road before Danny noticed something rather disturbing about my back carrier on my bike, it seemed to be dangerously leaning to one side. In fact it was completely fubar, the stand connecting it to the back forks had broken, snapped completely on one-side. There was no way that this was a safe thing to cycle on, there was no telling when it would break completely. Danny spotted a little wall on the road side, that shielded a small field from the view of the road and we stopped down there for the night. Feeling slightly guilty that I had ruined our trip a bit with the crappy bike, I cycled off in search of a bit of extra food for breakfast. Things were not going well for me and my bike, it seems that as soon as one thing is fixed something else breaks.

I returned and we slept well, sustained, psychologically speaking, by chocolate. The plan for tomorrow was to somehow get a bike shop in Ejea to get a new carrier on my bike, and if that failed we were in a bit of trouble. Zaragoza was so close, less than an hours car journey away, but for us on our bikes (and especially mine) it was an almost impossible goal.

Day 27 - The Going Down

We awoke rather warmer than we otherwise would have been, and praised the world for radiators. We left the campsite after paying (very important) and got lost. Stupid bloody Spainish road system.

Finally I figure out where we went wrong (bad Spainish signing was to blame) and we cycled up and out of Leukanberri. As we climbed higher and higher we could begin to see snow appear in small corners of fields, then across most of the field, until finally our vision was just bathed in white. The going was easy however, the roads not too steep, and we reached the peak of the pass without too much trouble at all. This road had not been swept clean of snow and I enjoyed making patterns in the slush (kept my mind off the stupidity of the venture). We saw a huge rat like creature, road-kill, in the middle of the road (it looked like it had been there for sometime), but I don't have a clue what it could be, very strange. At the peak of the pass (780m) we stopped to take a few pictures before cycling on (I love it when you reach the top because the way down is ... well ... down). However, once more the cold ripped into us, and I can safely say that it was even colder than it was the night before. The hill was so steep going down, and we carry so much weight, that there is nothing you can do but coast, which is not a thing that makes heat. Not helping matters was that we were still in marginally wet clothes from the day before so all in all a bad going down.

Not looking to try that again in a hurry we quickly popped into a restaurant in a large, ugly town that seemed to exist merely for the purpose of being in a place where three roads intersect. Got some chocolate (instant make-good) and warmed up over some coffee. Danny ordered some calamari tapas for us whilst I went to the loo. He had asked for two orders of calamari tapas and was given 3 rings of calamari, which begs the question: "What do you get when you order one?" We didn't need to share anyway as Danny had mistakenly thought it was one of the two orders and eaten them all before I got back. Wouldn't have mattered anyway, I was waiting for bigger lunches than that.

We followed the main road into Pamplona and ate lunch alongside the main square before sitting in a cafe for an hour or so to warm up again. The weather was starting to clear and we as we looked south we could see clear skies. Yay!

We finally reached Olite after dark and found the campsite thanks to good (if somewhat oddly place) signage. For the campsite in Olite was not in Olite, nor on the road to Olite. But such are things in Spain. Slept well to a peaceful night free of rain, wind or snow.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Day 26 - Traffic, Tunnels and Temperature

I may have mentioned at some point that I do not like the Spainish road system, today was the day that solidified this opinion in my head.

We left the campsite relatively early to a rather dismal looking rain then no-rain kinda weather pattern, huge lines of cloud punctuated by lines of clear sky seem to be very popular with the northern coast of spain (perhaps that is why we saw so many umbrellas - those umbrella companies are making a tonne of cash in Spain). We said goodbye to our drinking partners from the night before and wished them well (though I was secretly envious of their red car) and set-off. The way down, being a steep hill all the way, nearly had me off the side once or twice - when cycling in hilly areas make sure you are equipped with decent brakes - and I felt sorry for my little rubber brake pads, who were really feeling the burn that day.

Got into town and tried to navigate our way out. We had picked up a map of the town centre, which handily included the direction toward, what seems to be, the only way out of San-Sebastian - the big fat main road. Dodging motorways like crazy, we finally get onto what we hope is the main road out and to Lasarte-Oria, where we were to begin our trek south over the mountains along a minor road that dived in and out of the motorway going the same route - to Tolosa and further, if you wish to check the map. Lasarte-Oria is literally a blip on the map, but it took us over an hour to get there thanks to the enormously complex and crappy Spainish road system that seems to exist in these parts. Signs appear occasionallly, but mostly to prohibit bicycles, and we had to rely a lot on pray and guesswork to finally get us to Lasarte-Oria where - they go and do it all over again.

Lasarte-Oria lies on the route that the N-1 road takes south to Tolosa, but which we cannot follow because it takes on motorway characteristics there. Beyond Lasarte-Oria there begins a minor road that connects all the small towns alongside the N-1 together and to the main road. However this road doesn't start in Lasarte-Oria, to get to it you have to - travel up the road we cannot travel on! We didn't realise this however, so we followed the main street going through Lasarte-Oria as it turned south hoping to join the minor road that followed the N-1 but thats not exactly what happened. Okay, picture a normal road, two lanes, one going south (we are on this one), one going in the opposite direction. Lots of turnings off to the motorway, but we are clued up on the signs for that (blue is bad for bikes) and we head straight south where the road doesn't so much end as goes into someones garage. The lane north leads from the north-bound lanes of the motorway and are one way, the southbound lane is actually only there so you can drive to someone's garage. I mean, c'mon! They are not making it easy for us.

Obviously looking forlorn and lost, we were helped by a really friendly guy in a white van. I had already figured out a way round our problem (I've become quite interested in the art of map-reading and navigation - I like maps), but he showed us the way. Basically it involved us climbing up what must have been a 15 or 20% hill to a town just east of Lasarte-Oria and then following the road there further south to join the smaller road to Tolosa and beyond. I don't like hills, but such are the Pyrennees, and it wasn't too hard going after the first climb. When we finally reached the town of Urnieta and followed the road south to Andoain we thought that our troubles were over... No, no they weren't. At Andoain the regional government had cleverly not put up any sign detailing how to get from Andoain to the next town up the road. Wasted an hour looking for a way round, and eventually through sheer chance found a sign pointing in the right direction. At last we were on our way out of there.

But, no. The sign we saw didn't point in the direction we wanted and we found ourselves on this rough track heading up the side of a river. I had had enough at this point and after a little checking of the map realised that this may take us to sort of where we want to go (but certainly not a planned route). Danny asked a couple of walkers if this road led to Lietza, and they said that yes it did, but it was very steep (it wasn't), so off we set into the wilderness. We kept on this road, little more than a stoney track, for what seemed like hours (we have no idea how long it took us) because we had to cycle so slowly due to having thin tyres rather than heavy duty thick ones more suited to this type of terrain. Danny's in particular are extremely thin, 23s, but guess who sprung a puncture? Me. So we stopped and I replaced the inner-tube and we set-off again (though unbeknownst to me, my tyre still wasn't right as I had a slow puncture which would later make the trip very dangerous late at night).

This track was just amazing to cycle on, and the road wasn't steep at all. I had been dreading the Pyrennees quite badly, as my hill-climbing is appalling and I just end up in absolute pain from it, but this route proved to be slow, easy and not painful at all. Indeed it was actually a lot of fun and I really enjoyed the entire way up to Lietza. The river was a raging torrent, and supplied many interesting vistas. The road wound through the mountains and in some cases through the mountains. Tunnels, though we weren't sure about how they had been made, offered plenty of excitement as they were unlit and some of them wound round so much and were so long that it was pitch black in them (the only way Danny could make it through was thanks to his head torch, the only way I could make it through was thinks to his back light). One of the tunnels, which made me question whether they had been man-mad, rose up to the height of a small church, far beyond what would be needed to fit a car through and was quite site. There were also old abandoned tunnels and bridges where the road had changed course and these relics of a previous route had been claimed back by nature; the tunnels becoming bat caves (to the bat cave!) and the bridges becoming beautiful, vine-entwined paths for the wild-life to use. It was beautiful.

We finally reached the end and cycled to Leitza as the sun began to go down. We still had a little way to go, and on the map it seemed to follow a little river valley south. It didn't. It climbed higher and higher through the mountains till we must have been over 800 metres. As we climbed, and it was a fairly steep climb, the snow began appearing. The road had been cleared, but on the sides where these huge mounds of snow, like decomposing snow-men. In my mind the whole scene is blue, like some Narnia winter or the Parkwood Path in the 1st year when it snowed. I was not in a good mood, it would be fair to say that I was in a very miserable mood. I was tired and I was too hot, for indeed, whilst there was snow on the ground, rain in the air and a temperature that got cold enough so that for some of the way it really did precipitate snow, cycling up hill has the odd effect of making you really really hot. I was obviously wearing all the clothes I could (including my new hat that I had bought, but I had to unzip everything just because the heat was getting too much: our bodies were working so hard that the excess heat was making us boil.

Obviously as soon as your body stops working your core temperature plummets crazy-mad, which is what happened on the way down. It was round about this time that I realised that my back wheel was going down: the slow puncture had made itself known. But we couldn't stop, had we stopped it would have been very difficult to start again. I do not think I have been so cold in my life. So there we were, coasting down-hill, my back-wheel feeling severely under-pressurized and the light fading fast, heading for the town of Lekunberri, where we hoped we would find a campsite that was open. We did ... sort of. It was actually closed, but the woman in charge was there and she let us stay in one of the log cabin places (basically a room with bunkbeds to fit six and just for the purposes of sleeping). The rules said no cooking, but we cooked anyway and I had a very odd night of not sleeping on the ground (for I had chosen the top-bunk!).

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Day 25 - San Sebastian

And so the next morning with sea-air up our nostrils and slightly dryer wet clothes, we stepped into the windy, yet sunny world of San Sebastian and Basque land. Absolutely amazing, completely. The Spainish know how to do cities, they really do. Everything just fits in so well together.

We had a bit of a mission today, we had to go and find new tyres, new gas canister, map our way out, get food and get to the campsite.

First, tyres. Went to this great little bikeshop and bought some suprisingly cheap tyres that haven't blown up once yet. We also got some new inner-tubes and sat down outside a cafe to eat lunch (which Danny bought) while I tore off my old tyres, front and back, and lovingly put on my brand new ones.

Next step was gas canister, so we asked at the tourist info spot and was forwarded to a little shop full of odds and ends. Danny found a gas canister, but had to really fight for it as the owner kept insisting it was the wrong one until Danny took his burner in and tried it out inside the store saying, "No, I want this one". Do not get in the way of Danny and his gas burner.

We found a little Lidls, hidden away underground inside this fantastic fruit market. But my eyes were on the Lidls and so I completely skipped over the fruit market (in BCN it was to be a different story). Took a bit of time because there was so much good stuff, but managed to come out with a food bill totalling €14. We love Lidls.

It was getting darkish by this time, and having decided on a plan to get to Barcelona (namely cheating and cycling to Zaragoza and catching the train from there), we went off in search of the campsite - which was up a bloody great mountain. I was not impressed and much hurt by the terrain. Once there, we soon realised that the Spainish don't care much for campers, for their pitch for us was muddy, sodden and unkept, and while there were lights they didn't work. The areas for the caravans on the otherhand were lovely.

We, quite randomly, met two girls and a guy travelling by car and doing a tour of Europe (with the eventual goal to Poland). We had just reached a 1000 miles for the trip and wanted to celebrate and extended an offer for them to join us in the campsite bar, they counteroffered with an invitation into town to sample the san sebastian night life. We accepted and, in smelly clothes, joined them on the bustrip down (after eating of course).

After a - long - journey down the mountain we got into the centre with about 2 hours to go until the last bus back. Danny had espied a little street full of bars in the old quarter so we checked out that place. We bar crawled a bit, Danny quickly attaching himself to one of the girls with a shared interest in learning Spainish, while I swapped experiences with the guy who had also done cycle touring to Budapest in 10 weeks.

We visited a Tapas Bar and sampled the local beverage for free, thanks to a nice New Yorker couple, which was essentially white wine poured from a great height to give it bubbles. We didn't sample any of the tapas, as it was far too expensive for our meagre wallets. Onwards once more and we found ourselves in a rather spainish looking place, all dark with terrible english music blaring out over the speakers. Very traditional. We sat and drank an awesome little beer called Keler, which I can't seem to find anywhere else, and which at 6.5% had a nifty little kick to it. As well.

Finally, with the hours creeping into morning (we had missed the last bus) we attempted to get a 5 person taxi. Not happening, Spain seems to be devoid. So instead we split and Danny and I got one and the others got a second.

All in all, a good night out. And a great way to relax, which was good as the next day was to be extremely stressful.