Saturday, August 29, 2020

Do You Know the Way to San Jose?

Dionne Warwick may have been a great singer but even now, at the age of 79, she really hasn't got much excuse for not being able to find her way to San Jose. A mere 340 miles north west of Los Angeles, she would just need to take US Highway One out of L.A. and in around six hours, which includes a couple of wee stops (she is 79 after all) she'd be there. Bingo! Nothing to it. But if she were contemplating a road trip from the UK to San Jose in Spain, then we could forgive her for being a tad nervous about the prospect of going wrong and losing her way. So, in the absence of trains and boats and planes as a travel option, we at El Real Thing will help her make it easy on herself because, after all, that's what friends are for.  

Driving to Spain is an adventure. It's not for everyone but we love it, even though the French bit is boring. For us, France is there just to get through. That is not to say that we haven't found some wonderful overnight stops whilst driving through the country but France is basically the stick through which to get to the carrot that is Spain. Driving through Spain is just wonderful. And as this blog is about Spain, we shall condense the French bit into the following short paragraph;

Calais (via tunnel), toll road tourist route heading Rouen, Le Mans, Tours, Poitiers, Bordeaux but then we deviate from the main tourist route heading to Pau and then Zaragoza (signed Saragosse in France) to enter Spain through the Somport Tunnel. Total distance 720 miles. Toll charge total €109.70. Tip: use french-toll-tags on the French toll roads to avoid queues, frustration and possible divorce. 

Taking the Somport Tunnel route through the Pyrenees allows for a toll-free route through Spain right down to the Region of Murcia and one which we think a typical crow would be proud. Once in Spain, we aim for Zaragoza, Teruel, Cuenca (but see next paragraph), Albacete, Murcia and Cartagena then we're pretty much there after 480 miles. Dionne, bless her, would still have another 130 miles beyond Murcia to get to San Jose, near Almeria and she's probably wishin' and hopin' that she was there but hang on in there girl, another couple of hours and one more wee stop should do it.  

Cuenca, by all accounts, is a beautiful city and well worth a visit although with that crow in mind, whilst we initially head to Cuenca from Teruel on the N420 we turn off at Carboneras and do a little cross-country to pick up the N320 which is the road from Cuenca heading to Albacete. Don't worry, it will make sense when you look at a map.

So that's the bare bones of the route but what about the adventure itself? Well, we have done the trip non-stop on one occasion (didn't enjoy it - my ankles swelled up!), more typically with two overnight stops and most recently, last summer, returning to the UK on a very leisurely three overnight stop schedule. On the Spanish part of the above route we have stopped over in Zaragoza and Teruel, and on previous route variations we've stayed in Pamplona and San Sebastian, all of which offer spectacular, very Spanishy city centre bars, restaurants and facilities. Two years ago we travelled through France on the E1 route as we decided to stop over for a couple of nights in Barcelona. However that does of course bring the Spanish toll roads into play and these, aside from depriving you of more money, can also get very busy.

Whilst it may be sensible to book ahead during the main six-week summer holiday season, we prefer to play the overnight stops by ear. Setting off to drive, say, 400 miles in one day to reach your booked destination is fine if the weather, the traffic, your ankles and a general feeling of (both driver's and passenger's) healthy well-being all combine to behave themselves. But what if they don't? Last summer, we were gearing ourselves up to stop at around 5.00 p.m. in Rouen so that we could do justice to exploration of the historic city centre there but then the heavens opened and the forecast was for same all night. So we spent another four hours in the car and got as far as Le Mans, utilised to find an overnight stop where we could get a meal, a comfy bed and an early getaway. A four hour headstart the next morning got us all the way down to Teruel that evening where again came up trumps with a lovely 4-star hotel in the city centre at a ridiculously cheap room rate. And it wasn't raining. We do find that Spanish hotels typically offer substantially better value for money than the French ones en-route and they generally offer better weather too.

Obviously one learns from experience. Over the last 12 years, we have learnt that;
  • you must always sing "Under the Sea" (from The Little Mermaid) once the Eurotunnel train goes into the tunnel.
  • sleeping in the car isn't great - not when there's four of you.
  • sleeping in the car in the foothills of the Pyrenees, even in late August, is bloody cold.
  • calling it "an adventure" won't wash with the family a second time.
  • parking up at night, adjacent to an airport (whether knowingly or otherwise), should guarantee that early morning start you wanted.
  • the inside of your car windscreen will never not be foggy once you have slept in it.
  • hotels are generally a better idea.
  • quirky, town centre, bed & breakfast type hotels in France will have pungent, chemical toilets in what were previously bedroom cupboards thus providing intense aromas with notes of contortionism.  
  • French motorway service station croissants and their vending-machine coffees are life savers.
  • French motorway service station pre-packed sandwiches may as well be eaten with the packaging still in place because they taste like plastic.
  • Learn to count beyond ten in French (or cue panic when you realise you've just filled up at pump no. 13 at the motorway service station).
  • After a long day in the car, aim to get to your hotel by 7.00 p.m. latest, freshen up, go straight out, have a couple of beers and a meal. You will be back at your hotel by 9.00 p.m., in bed fifteen minutes later and up with the larks for a 7.00 a.m. departure.
  • French beer is expensive but you only need two for the magic to work.
  • The Somport Tunnel, between France and Spain is 5.3 miles long.
  • Driving in Spain is a million times better than driving through France
  • All the spectacular scenery is in Spain
  • Petrol is cheaper in Spain than in France
  • France sucks
So then, that is our not-very-detailed, hardly worth it, bit of a guide to driving from the UK to Spain. You need to sort out your car headlights beforehand (although you can buy the headlamp converters at the Eurotunnel terminal), make sure that you have a GB sticker displayed and all legal accessories easily accessible inside the car, not the boot (just google requirements for France and add in an extra hi-viz vest for each passenger which is the additional requirement for Spain). 

One final bit of advice.............bacon sandwiches! 

If you're aiming to do the journey quickly and don't want to waste time stopping for non-essentials such as food, the best thing you can take with you is two days' worth of bacon sandwiches made with Warburton's Toasty sliced white bread. It has been scientifically proven* that the Toasty bread is the right thickness ro retain the bacon flavour without going too soggy over 24/48 hours, thus ensuring that the sandwich is even tastier on Day 2**.

* Scientifically proven by me
** Unfortunately it doesn't work for Day 3  


Thursday, August 20, 2020

Our Mate Trevor

We didn't want subsequent blog posts to push Trevor out of sight or mind so he's now got
his own page - see menu for Our Mate Trevor. 

Thursday, August 13, 2020

A Healthy Dose of Scepticism?

These legs are rapidly losing their tan after
14 days of isolation living in a cave somewhere
in the wilds of East Lancashire (probably).
As that well known football chant goes - It's all gone quiet over there! 

Where have we been at El Real Thing over the last three weeks? No blogs. No tweets. It's almost as if we've given up on Spain. What on earth has been going on?
They didn't teach the art of being permanently offended when I was at school but in an age of political correctness, the old joke that Irish medical experts have invented a cure for which there is no known illness is obviously now racist, undoubtedly bigoted, probably offensive to cross-dressers and most definitely not funny. But it does provide an excellent metaphor for the current times we are living through as governments worldwide come up with new and ambiguous ways to control the spread of a supposedly deadly virus whilst simultaneously crashing the world economy. If an evil genius somewhere had been working on a plan to dismantle capitalism, control the population and encourage complete reliance on the state, then he would have been hard-pressed to come up with something more outrageous, devious and downright brilliant than Covid-19 as a means to carry out his fiendish plan.
So, I hear you ask, what's all this got to do with El Real Thing where we like to concentrate on real beer in Spain, real football in Spain and real Spain itself? Well, I'll tell you what it's got to do with El Real Thing. El Real Thing's plans for world domination have been completely scuppered by all this Covidiocy over the last three weeks and we're not happy. Okay, world domination might be pushing it a bit but popping back home to the UK for five weeks, to prepare for another several-week stint in Spain thereafter, was all part of the master plan. With the 14-day quarantine restrictions lifted for travellers returning to the UK from overseas our Ryanair flight back to Blighty was duly booked for 30 July. But by the time 30 July arrived, the UK government had decided to reimpose the 14-day quarantine restrictions for travellers returning to the UK........but only those returning from Spain. Bastards! And then, within four hours of actually arriving home, the UK government double-whammied us with the announcement that our home town was to face additional restrictions of individual liberties because of an Islamic holiday. Double bastards! 
I mean, we none of us advocate irresponsible behaviour in times of such (choose which applicable) crisis/ concern/ mess/ plight/ drama/ hardship/ scare-the-population-so-that-they-do-what-we-tell-them but ordering me (do they not know who I am?) to lock myself away for 14 days having travelled from the safest part of Spain to one of the (apparently) unsafest parts of England is the equivalent of telling me to wipe my feet as I leave the house. 
I confess that I am a mask-sceptic. The merits of a chocolate teapot comes to mind so I am not altogether chuffed with the Spanish government and their current edict on mask-wearing but as a guest in that country, I (reluctanty) accepted that I had to act the good guest. But honestly, it doesn't take a genius (evil or otherwise) to see that many people in Spain and the UK have been scared witless by a constant bombardment from both government and a slavering media intent on over-stating all scare stories and under-stating any good Covid-related news. Did you know the recovery rate for Covid infections is actually 99.9%? Here at El Real Thing we don't pretend to know all the answers, we just fear that not enough of the decision makers actually know the right questions and it's almost certainly not their fault. We reckon that if you laid all the so-called medical experts, head to foot, in a straight line they still wouldn't reach a conclusion. So the situation calls for a bit more common sense in dealing with a virus which is producing fewer fatalities per infection than previous outbreaks of seasonal flu. We can't protect ourselves from everything and we don't want to live in glass cases. Chocolate teapots, restrictions on the liberty of healthy people and a broken world economy do not add up to a common sense approach. As a well known President of the USA has said, "we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem". 

Forty eight cans of Brewdog helped keep us
sane during isolation. Our cave hideaway
enjoyed some nice views of Burnley. The town
hall can just be seen in the image background.

Unsurprisingly, we are still as fit as the proverbial fiddles and we could have spent the last 14 days saving the UK economy by supporting the hostelry sector and utilising the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme (we're very public spirited in that way) but instead we've spent this time rotting away in solitary confinement with only a mail-order 48-can Brewdog pack  to keep us company. And now that we have been released back in to society, is our early September return to Spain in jeopardy? Our 3-night research trip to Palma vulnerable? Our whole El Real Thing raison d'etre in peril? Mrs C is a tad concerned I can tell you.
Now, whilst it is feasible that a sliver of tongue-in-cheek has infiltrated some of the above, we fear that much of what we are currently seeing in terms of restrictions on individual liberties, including rights and freedoms to travel, could become norms if we are not careful, sacrificed on the altar of public health and nanny state knows best. Within reason and common sense, free spirits need to remain free spirits. We look to you our fellow travellers to keep the free spirit flame flickering. Bon voyage (very soon we hope).