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Spain

 

 30 November

 Autumn fades to winter today. Or it does in most years.  

This morning (our 26th wedding anniversary) started grey and glum. Hopefully no reflection on our marriage! By 11.00am the sky had cleared and as we approached the Spanish border, the Pyrenees loomed in their snow-covered magnificence. So much so that all the Spanish truckies seemed to get the smell of home and took off like riding school horses once their heads turned to the stables. 

By the time we caught up at the frontier, hundreds of trucks had massed at the motorway entrance on the Spanish side heading for Barcelona. Inch by inch we all edged our way on to the motorway, through the  toll gates and OFF at break-neck speed for home!!

We soon abandoned the fray and headed for the Costa Brava town of l'Escala through beautiful countryside, a strange mix of green fields and brown autumn colours in the afternoon sun. The vineyards of Provence were pruned and ready for the onslaught of winter. But on the Spanish side of the border a sudden return to grazing land and vegetable farms totally changed the appearance of the countryside.

Like the resorts of France and Italy, the Costa Brava is virtually deserted now. Just the way we and the handful of like-thinking travellers and the locals like it! We share the huge camping ground of Cala Montgo, which in summer would easily accommodate thousands, with four or five other campers, including yet another mob of Australians from Cannon Hill, with three kids, who are on the road for four months.

Around us there are hundreds of empty mobile homes and wooden bungalows; across the road, the other half of the campsite has a humungous pool; the laundrette, supermarket, medical centre, restaurant, cafe and Turkish baths are all shuttered for the winter, but the Telebanco (ATM) is still open. And the other camping ground right beside us offers more of the same - this is a camper's heaven. Oh, and by the way, 300 metres down the road is a bay with a sandy beach, clean, clear water. White-washed villas are tucked between green pine trees all the way up the hill and an assortment of restaurants, cafes and pizzerias offer tit-bits for when you get a bit peckish. With temperatures in the high teens and clear skies, the feel is much the same as July and August on the Gold Coast. But without the people. These towns are seriously closed down for the winter!

Outside - clear skies with twinkling stars, champagne chills in a bucket of cold water; inside - the "Gypsy Kings" play mood music. Life's a beach!!

1 December

The Aussie family we met last night are doing much what we did 13 years ago - travelling Western Europe with their three kids. They hired their van from the same company in Holland and they live in CANNON HILL! The family they have travelled with for the last two months live in Crown Street Holland Park, 500m from us!

The beaches of the Costa Brava filled the first part of our day today. Again deserted and beautiful in the warm, now winter, sun. The notion of a 'season' is foreign to us. These towns totally close down from September/October until May/June. That means shutters up, closed shops, hotels and every other service.

The small city of Girona about 100 km north of Barcelona was a pleasant surprise. We decided to drive through and stop only if we could find easy parking (a major problem in the van!). Spain however seems far more accommodating of large vehicles such as ours. We found safe, free parking within easy walking distance of the centre of town and strolled into what the guide book said was a well-preserved medieval town dominated by a Gothic Cathedral.

The clouds had gathered and showers threatened so we expected the worst - an end to our luck with the weather!  But…as we strolled the narrow medieval streets, the clouds again cleared and we climbed the hill to the truly Gothic master piece of Girona Cathedral. Having brought only our sunnies, the eerieness of the solid stark cathedral was enhanced by the artificial darkness of the glasses!

Barcelona was our final desination for the day. As it turned out the freeways of Barcelona proved more of a challenge than we anticipated. Perhaps we have become over confident following our successful conquest of  such urban nightmares as Istanbul, Izmir, Athens and Rome? The city must have spent billions on its freeway system for the Olympics. The spidersweb of three to six lane highways got the better of us for a while but we eventually found the camping grounds and are settled in for a couple of nights.

Camping grounds in Spain are heavy duty! We were impressed with L'Escala’s Cala Montgo last night, but tonight's spot takes the cake. Three pools, water slides, tennis courts, billiard room, supermarket, beach (12kms from Barcelona), restaurant, several bars and space for 2-3 thousand people! The only draw back is that we are under the flight path for Barcelona airport.

2 - 3 December

Ever stood on a beach and seen the sun rise over the water and then returned in the afternoon to see it set over the water on the same beach? In Barcelona this time of the year the sun takes a rather small southern arc, rising about 7.30am and setting about 5.30pm and from the beach where we are camped the sun both rises and sets over the Mediterranean!

Today,  3 December, was another freak day. The sky was a deep blue and while there was a bit of a sneaky westerly breeze every now and then, the temperature was in the high teens for most of the day. As it was yesterday, the city today was full of life. People here come out in droves for this sort of unseasonal weather.

Yesterday we took a 'bus touristica' for a loop of the city. Sitting on the open top level, we were able to appreciate the architectural variety of this great city! Heavily influenced by the modernism of Gaudi, Dali and Picasso, Barcelona is a work of art in progress. The towers of Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia (Holy Family Church) dominate the skyline. Rebuilding commenced in 1982, almost one hundred years after the foundation stone was laid. Even with the engineering technology available today, Gaudi's design must be a major challenge. I hope we live long enough to see the finished product. It will be a true masterpiece!

One area of the city features buildings designed by Gaudi. It is easy to see how the English language coined the word 'gaudy' to describe anything outlandish! But here it works.

Walking about today we roamed through medieval streets, modern waterfront developments, grand nineteenth century public buildings, beautifully laid out parks and gardens, and busy streets packed with character and life.

On the hill of Montjuic, above the city, are the sites of the major Olympic venues of 1992 - like most similar sites, looking very empty, but, no doubt, well-used. Also in this area is the Poblo Espanyol - a village re-created for the 1929 Exhibition to demonstrate the major architectural Spanish styles and now  a tourist heaven of craft and souvenir shops.

Everywhere in Barcelona the Catalan spirit is foremost. One suspects the  Spanish national flag is only displayed to comply with legal requirements. Music and dancing fill the squares of the city. Much of it seems spontaneous and it is obviously enjoyed by all. There is a strong South American influence in the street music and dancing. People with obvious South American Indian heritage are prominent in the street entertainment scene.

 

 Mexican influence in music in particular seems strong in Spain. When you think about it, this reversal of the 17th and 18th century colonisation of the New World is not unprecedented. The United States long ago eclipsed Britain as the most influential English speaking cultural power. Brazil dwarfs its 'mother country', Portugal, in both size and influence. Mexico is bigger than Spain yet through its close contact with America, its culture is perhaps more familiar than that of Spain, thanks to the all pervasive American media . 

Street crime is supposed to be endemic here and in other big Spanish cities. But we felt safe, with the exception of a few moments where our now fairly high developed sense of danger cut in. Groups of 18-20 year olds hanging about on street corners hovering and watching the passing crowds for the 'slowest gazelle in the herd' are not as common in Barcelona as in the cities of Eastern Europe, but the unwary are always likely victims of the snatch and grab thief, despite the warnings everywhere -both verbal and written.

 4 December 2000

 Barcelona turned it on again this morning. Another beautiful day as we headed south towards Valencia. Much of the country near the coast is just like the rest of the 'Mediterranean Strip' that reaches from Turkey to the Atlantic French-Spanish border, row after row of villas and units for thousands of kilometers, all aligned to catch the sun. The colours change subtly from country to country. The Spanish favour the white-washed look, much like the Greeks.

 Cranes crowd the beachside skyline along much of the coast between Barcelona and Valencia. Yet another boom?

 Abandoning the Autopista (Motorway world) we took to the local highway, N340 to experience some of the local countryside. The villages are becoming more as we imagined them the further south we go -  wide streets, stucco buildings and just enough dust to be authentic!  In the olive groves, orchards (oranges of course!) and fields, you can still spot the ruins of older homes, abandoned as the new prosperity arrived. The charm of the older pueblos still seems to be preserved  in the centres of the bigger towns.

 Just as we were getting in the relaxed mood that these good roads, civilised traffic habits and weather engender, BANG! A blown tyre. Janita was driving and did well to keep the van on the road. After a tense half hour on the edge of the road changing the tyre in heavy traffic we were off again.

 After the shock of the blow-out, we decided to take a 'punt' on one of the many camping sites open along the coast. Winner! 'Torre la Sol' outside Castella about 60kms north of Valencia. It tops all camping grounds so far! This place has its own bull ring! It is full of the most luxurious vans we have ever seen. All German. Some are the size of Greyhound buses. All the usual 'basics' are available: jacuzzi, sauna, heated pool, mini golf, several restaurants, bars, beach and... did we say 'BULL RING!' The place is packed with retired Germans - all set in for the 'winter'.

 Spain is luxurious, but reasonably priced. We did a supermarket shop today that we calculate would have cost us about AUS$300. In Spain, $200! Fuel is about EU average, AUS$1.20/lt.

 Despite all the messages - from the Autopiste company to the man in the "Change" office yesterday - about Spain being a "very safe country ...BUT.. watch out for....", we have found the people we have met to be very friendly, helpful and honest - even the payment collector on the Autopiste this morning refunded the extra 5 pesetas we had inadvertently given him. 

We have had enough of this weather. Tomorrow we head inland towards Madrid where we expect snow in the mountains and the bitter cold we came here for! One can take only so much warmth and blue sky and besides, all our T-shirts are dirty!  

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