Friday, October 22, 2021

I Love Driving in My Car - in Spain!

I love driving in my car. I do. I bloody love it. Which is just as well because I’ve driven thousands of miles in my time both for business and pleasure and following my footie team which doesn’t qualify as either. It’s not the make or model of the car that I’m particularly bothered about because otherwise I'd treat myself to a Jaguar, it’s the freedom, independence and adventure afforded by the ability to travel. All I really ask from a car is reliability and a modicum of comfort, both of which the current ElRealThing Fiesta provides very nicely with it’s modest 1.0 EcoBoost 95 BHP engine allowing me to feel like I’m driving as opposed to aiming and usually without concern that I may unwittingly push the boundaries of speed camera tolerances from time to time. Usually. Not always.

Yes, it's a marked walking route but will your SatNav know?

Now I can’t pretend to rival Sir Ranulph Fiennes in the adventurer stakes but I’m certainly no Professor Chris Whitty which probably makes me normal, or at least pre-Covid normal before the nation ceded safety for freedom, started clapping like seals and considered a risk assessment necessary prior to venturing outside their front doors. But after seventy eight weeks of flattening the curve, squashing the sombrero, saving the NHS, fire breaks, tea breaks and lots more besides, Mrs C and I decided that it was time for a bit of adventure so off we set in our trusty wagon, early one September evening for the three hundred mile drive down to the Eurotunnel. After five and a half hours on the road, we stopped off for a kip in the car at the Stop24 Folkestone Services, just north of the tunnel in readiness for our 05.50 crossing in the morning. Armed with all the new-normal, "papers please" Covid-related documentation, we successfully negotiated the check-in booth and that was pretty much that. We were out the other side by just after half past seven local time and crossed the border into Spain, via our usual Somport Tunnel route, eleven and three quarter hours later. Lovely! Mrs C found and booked, via, what turned out to be a splendid accommodation in the small and extremely picturesque town of Biescas. We had sufficient time to nip into town and avail ourselves of a pint of the locally brewed draught Tensina IPA (ABV 6.4%) which also was lovely. And so were the next three pints.

A slightly later leave than originally planned the following morning but nonetheless we hit the road for the enjoyable bit - driving through Spain. Driving through Spain is a delight. The scenery tends towards the spectacular almost as a default. Mountain ranges, dramatic cliffs, lakes, rivers, sunflower fields, vines, olive trees. I could go on (don’t say it). Our usual toll-free route takes us past Huesca, Zaragoza, Teruel, Albacete and Murcia before landing at Mar de Cristal, a mile or so beyond the town of Los Belones. And with the next seven weeks on our hands, we had a lot more driving through Spain on the planner.

Deer my arse!

Little known fact. There are no deer in Spain. There are lots, hundreds, possibly millions of signs at the side of Spanish roads, every few kilometers all across this vast country, warning of deer. Warning: Deer (for the next) ten kilometers. Deer here. Deer there. Deer everywhere according to the signs but it’s all a big lie. I am sure that there used to be deer and I have no idea what the Spanish have done with them all but let me assure you that they do not exist. Not in Spain. Not anywhere near the road anyway. Approximately two and a half thousand miles or thereabouts over seven weeks driving through Spain and probably two and half thousand road signs warning of deer and not a single, bloody one of the little buggers. If you like to see deer when you’re out driving, don’t go to Spain.

Over the course of the next few weeks, we undertook a couple of airport round trips to Alicante, a three day trip to Valencia and an eventual route home via Frigiliana, Gibraltar, Salamanca, Ribadasella on the northern coast near Gijon and then on to Santander where, unusually for us, we took the ferry option back to the UK. That’s a fair bit of driving but I do like driving in my car, especially in Spain. Here are a few highlights from our final week.

Heading south of Murcia on the AP-7 Autovia del Mediterraneo provides, at times, a near assault on the visual senses and at unarguable value for the €10.90 toll charged on the Cartagena - Vera stretch. This was the second time in three months we had driven this route and the long coastal stretches between Almeria and Malaga offer scenery which is just breathtaking. Perversely, the same route heading back north up the coast is tame by comparison, as if all the scenery is constantly behind you. Anyway, first overnight stop is in Frigiliana, just inland from Nerja and famed for being “Spain’s most beautiful and well-preserved village” and it is indeed beautiful and well-preserved and well worth a visit. It is also jam packed with bus loads of tourists visiting for the day from the nearby coastal resorts. I love real Spain but plastic real Spain not so much. But Frigiliana did have one major redeeming feature and it was called El Colmao Wine and Experiences (El Colmao).

I don’t normally do wine bars but we were struggling to find somewhere to eat and there was a punter sitting outside this particular wine bar drinking a bottle of Estrella Galicia so that was good enough for me. We perched on two stools with a small high table outside the bar and awaited our fate. It always bugs me when we are recognised as being English even before I have opened my mouth and delivered a few utterances of Essex-accented pigeon Spanish. Nonetheless, we were banged to rights on sight by the proprietor, a local guy who spoke better English than what I do (joke!). This guy is passionate about his wine, I mean really passionate, so he was less than impressed with my ordering the Estrella Galicia. Nonetheless, Mrs C certainly does have a penchant for the Spanish red stuff and so the beer heathen was accommodated. A second round of the same soon followed and then a third accompanied by plates of iberico jamon of quantity guaranteed to induce a meat sweat. Almost replete, one for t’road was most definitely in order and by now, feeling suitably mellow, I asked our fine host what drink he would recommend I should indulge on this, our last opportunity at his fine establishment. Now, imagine any one of Guillem Ballague, Mikel Arteta or Cesc Fabregas responding with their heavily-accented but nonetheless perfect English and you’ll understand his retort of “You’re in a fucking wine bar, drink fucking wine” was entirely in keeping with a most splendid evening.

Scary mechanical theatre actors 

There is only one reason I would bother returning to Frigiliana again and that is the bar at  El Colmao Wine. I certainly wouldn’t go back for the various and arguably quaint mechanical theatre installations dotted around town because they can be a bit scary late at night, especially when you‘ve had several beers throughout the day and a glass of fucking wine.

The next morning and we’re on the AP-7 again beyond Malaga, then switching to the toll-free A-7 all the way down to Gibraltar which, of course, is not Spain. Gibraltar is where Mrs C and I met and married thirty years ago and we love the place which is why we’re here again, for the first time in over ten years, to celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary with some very special friends. The ElRealThing Fiesta however did not make the cut, opting instead for a three day rest in a car park just over the border in La Linear de la Concepcion and as this particular blog is about driving through Spain, we now fast forward seventy two hours to said car park from where we exit and follow a once familiar road out of town where we pick up the last stretch of the A-7 heading south before we hit the Autovia A-381 heading towards Jerez (home of sherry). We’re on our way to the autonomous region of Asturias, six hundred miles north.

I am not averse to driving six hundred miles and more in a day but we’re in no great hurry other than a desire not to fall foul of the post-Brexit ninety day rules so we determine to head initially for Salamanca, being around two thirds of the way, on the A-66 Autovia Ruta de la Plata which route roughly corresponds to the ancient “Silver Route” from the mines of northern Spain to the Mediterranean.

Autopista (AP) tolls in Spain tend to be fairly few and far between nowadays and not unduly expensive. Indeed, whilst of no benefit to us on this occasion, the AP-7 toll charges from the French border down to Tarragona were scrapped on 1st September, adding to other sections of the country’s AP motorway system similarly freed up over the last few years as the highway concessions expire. Over the two days and six hundred miles of this particular journey, we hit just the one toll road north of Leon at a cost of €13.50.

I have already alluded to the scenic delights that come with driving through Spain. The biggest surprise of this particular two day journey occurred between Jerez and Seville with a long stretch of completely flat landscape (wonderfully scenic nonetheless) which was not dissimilar to driving along the A17 through Lincolnshire except for the fact that you’re doing 75 mph and there are no tractors. But then it was back to normal again with the same old boring mountainous settings, rivers and lakes etc etc.

Salamanca is a beautiful university city, its Old City declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988 and we did enjoy an hour or two wandering around the old bit from bar to, err, back to the same bar again as it happened. We had neither the time nor inclination to do the city any real justice and the one real memory that sticks is how bloody cold it was the next morning when we hit the road again. Are temperatures of four degrees even legal in Spain?

Ribadasella with the Picos in the background

We have decided to stay in Ribadasella, a town situated on the Asturian coast to the east of Gijon and our drive there takes us along the fringes of the Picos de Europa, a mountain range forming part of the Cantabrian Mountains. Before that, the Autovia A-66 remains a joy to drive before picking up the equally joy-giving AP-66 at Leon (with the toll referred to above) towards Gijon before turning right and heading north east cross country to Ribadasella.

Throughout this road trip, I have been poorly looked after in terms of decent craft beer but Ribadasella came to the rescue via two particular bars which stocked bottled craft ales. Cafe Bergantin had a fridge full of options including Mahou IPA, Alhambra Citrus IPA, Complot IPA, Ordum IPA and an Asturian Pale Ale, plus others, from Asturian brewer Cerveza Caleya. Needless to say, our four night stay in Ribadasella included four visits to said bar. Guadana IPA by Asturian brewer Asturian Brewing Company was another very acceptable quaff on our final evening but my memory is surprisingly hazy as to where I actually had it. Somewhere in Ribadasella is about as close as I can get.

Looking down on Ribadasella from
the top of Pico Mofrechu

The Picos de Europa are stunning. So much so that to control visitor numbers, you can’t get to a lot of it without indulging in something akin to park and ride schemes. Warning: The Spanish are not good at queuing. Particularly the oldies. However, it transpires that a bit of jumping up and down, demanding a refund of your bus fare because the oldies have gazumped your queue position does in fact work albeit would probably not qualify one for a position with the diplomatic corps. Anyway, armed with a cash refund, Mrs C and I thereafter explored the Picos independently of officialdom by using the age old method of driving around aimlessly which, on this occasion, proved to be reasonably successful (ha ha, take that you ill-disciplined, septuagenarian, queue jumping bastards). Admittedly though, we never did get within ten miles of the Lagos de Covadonga being the lakes we had originally intended to visit. Hey ho.

I think it may be an age thing but I can be a bit of a luddite from time to time. It took many years before I would consider using a satnav and even now I am a firm believer that one should only use it as an accomplice to a previously well researched route plan. But if you ever find yourself in or near the Picos, you must use a satnav. This is not because you might not know where you’re going but rather that the satnav will almost certainly add to the enjoyment if, like me, you love driving. It would seem that your typical satnav has little comprehension as to what may or may not constitute a modern-day drivable road in terms of road width, surface condition, steepness, oxygen levels or indeed a combination of all these things. In the Picos de Europa, set your satnav free and you will love it forever more.

Top of the world.

As we were getting a little tight by now on our ninety day European allowance, a firm plan was required for getting back to the UK by no later than 20 October. It had been our plan all along to undertake the twelve hour through-France journey in one fell swoop as we had done on the way down. The usually redoubtable explorer that is Mrs C is somewhat less redoubtable when it comes to crossing water and the prospect of a ferry crossing has long been filed in the "it ain't gonna happen" drawer. So it was with no little surprise that I received her suggestion we might consider the Santander (a mere seventy five miles from Ribadasella) to Plymouth crossing as an option to France. The weather forecast looked good. It would save us either the cost of a hotel on the UK side or another five hours in the car after twelve hours in France and it would be a final mini adventure to finish off what has proven to be a fantastic few weeks. So that is what we did.

It only took us an hour and a bit to get to Santander along the coastal N-632 road and Autovias A-8 and A-67 all forming part of the European E70 route. It was an easy enough journey but something was particularly intriguing. As one drives through Spain generally, the flora and fauna encountered is plentiful and majestic, not least of which Cortaderia Selloana, a species of flowering plant in the Poaceae family commonly referred to as pampas grass. Back in the UK, one tends to see this resplendent plant adorning suburban front gardens but here in Spain it grows wild and nowhere more so than along the E70 route. As we progressed towards Santander, the pampas grass was positively bulging out from the Autovia roadsides and central reservations and Mrs C was positively sniggering as we went. Me? I am none the wiser until Mrs C tells me why it generally only adorns suburban front gardens in the UK. Well, I never knew that. And does it mean that they are all at it

Very Pleasant
in Spain? Fortunately, I remain very happy with Mrs C even after thirty years of marriage so I won’t be looking to introduce Cortaderia Selloana to our modest collection of flora and fauna here in Burnley any time soon. But I’ll never be able to walk down Lakeland Way again without sniggering just a little bit.

The ferry was fine, ideal in fact in current circumstances and the Lagunitas IPA was a pleasant surprise. But it was a bit boring and I certainly wouldn’t choose it as a preference to driving. But there again I love driving my car. I do. I really bloody love it.