Stranded In The Southland

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Getting Up Into The Mountains

So, to break our trip between Barcelona and Pamplona, we decided to stop off at Huesca, a small town at the base of the Pyranees. It's a pleasant small town, with good, unsophisticated food, and a nice people. Plus we got to do some drivin'!

I had originally planned to get a rental car in Barcelona to drive to Pamplona, but was put off by the high cost (80 Euros at least). So, instead, we wound up renting a car in Huesca and driving around a bit. Originally I'd intended to rent a car there and return it in San Sebastion or Pamplona, but we kind of got turned around and aggravated with trying to contact Avis, and rented from a fell-off-the-truck kinda agency in Huesca.

This meant that we'd have to return the car to Huesca, and since we didn't rent until after our hotel checkout time, we were stuck in the same (very nice, very cheap) hotel for another night. We decided to make a loop out into the mountains and see a castle or two and just kinda take it like we found it.

Alas, we were hammered, as usual, by the siesta. We finally found our way through a maze-like small town to the top, to see a famous church, only to find a sign telling us that it closed at 2PM. It was 1:50PM. When we'd hiked up a hundred steps or two -- psych -- it turns out it closed at 1:30PM. Thanks, guys.

Then we went on to Castle Loarre, a wonderfully, half-restored-but-not-all-the-way medieval castle, only to find out that it closed, you guessed it, at 2PM, about 10 minutes before we got there. Doh.

For all the aggravation of being unable to get into these monuments, it really was a good time. I spend a lot of time in California looking for good roads -- that is, Miata roads. These are roads that are twisty and fun enough to make the Miata (a car that is, alas, more about handling than power) shine. To find a Miata road in Spain, just turn off of the main roads. They are all narrow, twisty, crazy fun roads.

We headed up towards the mountains, only to discover that Spain has amazing huge walls of vertical rock, like something you'd find in the southwest, but with trees and grain and crops butting up right against 'em. Yow. After a wonderful drive through an amazing canyon, with a bright aqua river at the bottom (no doubt chock-full of minerals), we came to a wild dam.

This thing was built out of blocks of stone, which is unusual, but the really wild part was that the middle was a gigantic spire of rock. There were really two small dams, on either side of the spire. And the spillway was cut right through the solid rock! Yow. For some reason, the water was allowed to spill through into a beautiful waterfall, instead of being put to work generating power; it was beautiful.

After that, we zipped up into the really high mountains, towards snow-capped peaks on these little tiny roads that didn't even have room for cars to pass, surprising sheep being driven up the mountain, and zipping through tiny alpine villages. Wow.

We finally made a quick run up to Canfranc Estacion, a town built around a railroad station and a huge tunnel to France. The weird thing there is that the French discontinued train traffic through the tunnel after an accident, and so this huge station is mostly unused. Weird. It also had one of the most beautiful dams I'd ever seen at the base of the town (okay, I'm now over talking about them, but they really are amazing). We made it back into town in time of a slightly strange, but good dinner, and an early bedtime.

The next morning, we raced out of bed to try to drive back to the amazing castle of the day before in time to return the car at noon, checking out and leaving behind some toiletries accidently. The day that followed had the same pattern -- too much rushing, not enough planning.

We made it out to the castle, and were the first people in. It was beautiful and random and bizarre. There wasn't any symmetry to the place, so you never knew what was around the next corner. It felt like we really were exploring the castle (since the office to the place wasn't open when we got there, just the front door, we didn't have a map). What a fun experience!

Then we raced back, turned in the car, and picked up our gear and headed to geek out at a 24-hour Internet place we'd spotted the night before. Only to find out that it was only a 12-hour place, from 5PM to 5AM, and we'd been confused.

Then we found out that we missed the last bus to Pamplona. After much hemming and hawwing, we decided to take the train to Zaragostra, a large and not very interesting town down the road. The train was actually pretty cool -- more space, and more comfort, and a chance to walk around. We just geeked out at Zaragostra (at some pretty awful places) and had a good meal and crashed early. But it was a tough day, and we were both happy to relax and take it easy for a bit.

Larcelona, err, Barcelona

I actually took a day off when we first arrived in Barcelona, keeping off my feet in a somewhat useless attempt to get 'em feelin' better. M., however, went out and saw several people get ripped off, including a purse snatching and somebody losing track of their stuff at an Internet cafe.

Wild. She decided that the name of the place must be Larcelona, instead of Barcelona. It really isn't that bad a place, outside of the touristy old town, but that touristy old town really is hideous. I mean, take it from me, a boy born in Florida, an entire state devoted to squeezing every cent from the tourist[*] -- this was a town that sadly devoted to tourism.

We'd read a couple guidebooks which encouraged us to get a place near Las Ramblas, the main tourist street in town. If only we'd known! The whole street was plastered with nasty stores and bars and restaurants, many of them with touts out front trying to drag people in. The street was covered in a million and one lame buskers, plus a few too many of those all-too-worn-out I'll-stand-still-like-a-statue you-should-give-me-money guys (umm, hasn't that been done to death by now!?). Ugh.

When we actually got out of this mess to look at some of the architect Gaudi's buildings, the town was wonderful, full of reasonable friendly folks, and looking mostly normal, if a little Frenchified. We so shoulda found a place out of that ridiculous tourist mess, and just taken a ride down there when we needed a good meal (there's a kind of gourmet ghetto off to the side of Las Ramblas, surprisingly).

There was a great naval museum there, with a full-sized reconstructed galley, and all sorts of cool stuff. Unfortunately, the signage was all in Spanish and Catalonian, with a lame (as usual) audio guide. Yeesh.

Other than that, Spain's second largest city was a bit of a downer, although I'm still delighted to be here!

[*] Let it be said, Florida is a great place to live. No income tax -- the sales tax does a better job of taking an extra pound of flesh from visitors -- beautiful weather, and reasonably pleasant people. I love the look of the swamps and cypress hammocks and clear spring-fed streams and wild limestone underpinnings. Not that I'm gonna leave California or anything.