15 November 2011

24 Hours or Less

Sometimes, the towns you find yourself in when you just need a break on a long road trip wind up defining a country. You turn off the highway toward that hilltop church in the distance because you know there must be a place to get coffee nearby. You drive toward the water in hope of some seaside spot for lunch. Many of these towns remain nameless in our memory. There are so many times that we regret not bothering to bring our cameras out of the car. But in a way, that's what make these stopover towns special.
A long, tired drive after a night full of goodbyes and an early morning family drop-off at the airport, lead us to Olite. Halfway between Barcelona and San Sebastian, the land had flattened and a golden haze had overtaken the day's blue sky. Wind towers turned like pinwheels across the ridge line and each side of the road dropped down into fields of gold and yellow. Vineyards in autumn. We stopped in Olite because there was a castle icon next to its name on our road map. Sometimes, it's just as simple as that.
The next morning, we awoke bright and early, hoping for a bluer sky for castle hunting. Hoping, also, to get an early start on the rest of our drive. The sunrise was magnificent and we ran out of the cobbled old town, past the railroad tracks, over toward the apartment complexes on the outskirts of town to get a great shot of the castle. We snapped until the sun had fully risen and then had coffee with the other early risers. Most men in the bar had brought their own breakfast, wrapped in aluminum foil. A James Bond movie played on the television set.We did a lot of driving in Spain, traveling across its belt from Portugal to Barcelona, then from its Mediterranean coast to its Atlantic coast. The Spanish countryside is vast and beautiful - sometimes red soiled and mountainous like the American Southwest, sometimes lushly forested or dramatically peaked. The region of Castilla y Leon was our introduction to Spain. Eagles soared overhead as we drove through the positively ancient feeling terrain. There were stone ruins, whitewashed hamlets and impressive churches everywhere. People walked the lengths from one town to another, hugging the side of the road with sticks in hand and covered heads. We spent the night in Covarrubias, where we were immediately greeted by a trio of old women walking arm in arm down the street, arranged from tallest to shortest. Hola! they said in unison, without breaking stride. Our pension's dining room was lined with taxidermy and ham legs and didn't open for dinner until 9pm. Until then, we visited each of the four bars in town, where we stood on discarded peanut shells and ate too much morcilla. In the morning, we wandered around the squares hoping to find a mailbox and our bewildered looks prompted each and every person to ask us what we were looking for, how they could help. This would continue to be our experience in Spain - Covarrubias gave an excellent, accurate first impression.
Then, there are the daytrips. On the Costa Brava, from our home base of Palafrugell, we had all sorts of lofty plans. Swim here, hike there, if only the weather had cooperated. On one of the less stormy days, we made it out to Tamariu, a cove surrounded by clifftop pines. It is said to have the clearest water in the Spanish Mediterranean. But it was difficult to tell through the froth, as waves crashed up onto the beached fishing boats and against the rocky coast. The beginning of our hiking trail was impossible to reach, obscured by the whitecaps. The scene was absolute natural drama.
Northwest up the coast was Begur, where we stopped in one afternoon for lunch. Our meal at a restaurant named Rostei was delicious and the rain stopped just long enough afterward to allow for a quick walk around town. It's a wonderful thing when a casual stroll leads you up to a 10th century castle ruin with views like this. In most towns that we spent 24 hours or less, we could have spent days.
Our final night in Spain was spent in Errenteria - a town outside of San Sebastian. We'd made a reservation weeks earlier for an anniversary dinner at Mugaritz, which sat on a nameless road in this easily forgotten town. Most people that dine there simply sleep in San Sebastian, a half hour's drive away. We stayed in a guesthouse down the road, and walked to dinner in nice clothes and headlamps. The local bar seemed to always be open. Cider and eggs in the morning, cider and sandwiches at lunch, wine and beer at night and coffee through it all. A flyer on the wall advertised a hunting rifle for sale and a local raffle collection was set up by the gambling machine in the corner.
Rolling fields were filled with sheep and cows. Vegetable gardens stretched in grids of cabbage. Burning brush puffed another cloud into the already full sky as the sun set at a wintery early hour. We sat with our pre-dinner coffees and took it all in. Our last day of Spain, our last day of this leg of the trip. In just a week we'll be home and this will all seem so incredibly far away. We will most likely forget Errenteria's name, but that's okay. It's the essence of it, the feelings that night that will forever be infused into our memory of Spain. The same is true for Olite and Begur and Covarrubias and Tamariu and all the other short-lived, long-remembered locales.

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