I decided to drive back to Madrid from my second visit to Barcelona, so that I could spend some time experiencing the “real Spain”. I would never have guessed that in order to truly find it, I had to get lost.
Ok, it was a simple plan.
It didn’t even come close.
This afternoon I collected the car from Sants Estacio, already two hours behind my intended schedule. A tip for new players when renting a car: book with an agency that doesn’t have a huge fleet, and book a car from the small and cheap classes, but still (barely) sufficient for your needs. It’s a fair bet they’ll often not have a car in the class you’ve booked, and give you a free upgrade to something bigger and better.
It took me a while to get used to the notion of driving on the other side of the road. Fortunately, the streets around the carpark are so narrow I didn’t have to worry much about traffic coming towards me…just the buildings. It’s a while since I’ve driven a manual, and the change in orientation of the car, and the driving conditions conspired against me. A tip for new players when driving in Spain: don’t stall the car at the traffic lights, especially not more than once…and don’t ever stall it at a level crossing or at a round-a-bout. Your ears will thank you, truly.
With several long detours and lots of swear words behind me, I was out of the car park, and on my way back to the apartment I’d rented for the week here. Driving in Barcelona is not unlike driving in Madrid—fast and aggressive. Missing a turn means driving for several kilometres past your turn off, and taking the wrong detour can mean several detours more. I’m finding the notion of driving in circles to get where you’re going when lost has suddenly developed a certain appeal.
By the time I packed my things, got them into the car and was on my way, I was already three hours (closer to four) behind my intended departure time. So off I went, making a bee-line towards the tower and trying my best not to drive like an old person (and mostly failing). The trip up took the better part of an hour to complete a trip that should’ve taken half that time. I arrived at Tibidabo around the time I’d expected to be somewhere close to Lleida or even Zaragoza, and knew as soon as I got there, that I was not going to be making up any time whilst there.
The basilica gets more impressive the closer you get, and its interior is humbling. Likewise, the small chapel underneath is equally as impressive, and the views from the plaza in front of the main hall are amazing. Most interesting of all however, is that an amusement park has sat at the entrance of the basilica for the better part of a century. The two are so close together they effectively share the same entrance, and I couldn’t help but think of the story of Jesus in the temple.
At 5:30, around the time I expected to be in Zaragoza, I got in the car and started on my way out of Barcelona. That was my first mistake (well my second, hiring the car had been the first). On the map it all seemed so simple, just follow the N-340 south to Tarragona, and then track west towards Lleida. I passed by the N-340 perhaps a dozen times without ever actually connecting to it…though on reflection, that could be a bit of a stretch, as it’s entirely possible I was on it from time to time but never knew it.
The thing with road signs in this part of the world is that they tend not to tell you what’s coming up, but rather the turn-off you just missed. Making matters worse, was my determination to stay off the toll-roads, which intertwine the N-340 almost all the way to Tarragona before suddenly ricocheting east towards Madrid. Before long I found myself in the midst of what I’d been searching for: tiny traditional towns perched on hilltops or on the floors of valleys, adobe fincas and homesteads, vineyards, vineyards, vineyards. As a bonus, it turned out the route I’d ended up taking probably allowed me to gain at least half an hour.
I never actually made it to Taragona, and instead headed east once the signs to Valls, the closest city to La Riba, started to become prevalent (seems the signs work just fine once you’re off the motorway). It was dark by the time I arrived in Valls, and by that time all I could think of was to find a place to eat, and then a place to sleep. If they were in the same place, all the better. Given the hour (9pm), I figured there had to be somewhere open for eating, after all, it was just coming onto dinner time. I even ventured into the Kangaroo Cafe, figuring there had to be an Australian connection, and realising I’d been longing for some Australian ambience. If there was, it was very obscure. Maybe the owner liked kangaroos.
After walking around the scrawny streets of the central district for an hour or so, I came up empty handed, and decided I may as well just go to the hotel I’d spied on the way in, and get some sleep. Enroute to the hotel, I took a wrong turn, and found myself in a completely new quarter of the city, where a small cafeterÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½a was still open. There, I managed to get a basic meal of steak and chips, and at a price justified by the menu and location.
Eventually I found my way to the hotel. Booked solid. Another hotel nearby? Only one other and it’s full as well. Valls is the origin of the Castellers, the red, white and black robed people who build very high human pyramids—which possibly explains the lack of hotels.
Prior to undertaking the trip, I’d been asked what I would do for accommodation on that bridging night. At almost 10pm, it wasn’t the best time for my dismissive joke about sleeping in the car to suddenly come to fruition. My map told me that Mont Blanc, not an insignificant town, was on the other side of the ranges to the west, so without any other choice, I got back in the car and headed out into the night.
Crossing the range was a touch nerve-wracking, as the narrow road squirreled up, and then down the sides of the mountains. On the way down, Mont Blanc was laid out on the valley floor in a carpet of lights. On entering Mont Blanc, I was amazed by the massive castle walls still encircling much of the city. In parts, the city has exploded from, or spilled over, the thick stone walls, spreading out towards the nearby river or out into the countryside.
As soon as I located a hotel, I found a park and went to the front door. No vacancy. There was another, less attractive and much older hotel further up the street, and I decided to give it a try as a last resort. It was, after all, nudging 11pm by now, and a cold, heavy wind was blowing with increasing strength. As I walked towards the hotel, I could see large rats scampering in and out of orifices in the building, and I wondered why there were no lights on. The facade had a definite 70’s feel, and I was getting a Psycho feeling as I walked up the ….oh, BUGGER! Closed for renovations.
I was certain I was not going on to Lleida. I didn’t have the stamina to drive another 150km, and knew that even if I did, nothing would be open when I got there. Heading back to the car, I ran through so possible scenarios of being discovered asleep in the car on the side of the road. Would anyone in these parts even care? Probably. Country people are definitely more curious, especially when strangers are involved. If they called the police, would I be able to explain my reasons for using my car as a roadside hotel? Was it even legal? Was that sign for a hotel 5km out of town real?
Worth a shot. I drove out into the darkness towards Penafreta, counting off every one hundred metres beyond 4km on the odometer. Pulling in to their front gate, it seemed a nice enough place, but everything looked closed. Peering through the windows of the restaurant, I could see the owners watching me. It was now past 11:30pm and they looked to be all of 10minutes away from bed.
They had a room available (thank GOD), but when I entered, it had a strange smell about it, and a large blowfly was having the time of its life in there. In the bathroom, I discovered why: evidently the previous guest had not grasped the finer points of using a bidet, and had left a fly trap in there. I asked for another room, and thankfully, they gave me one. Unpacking the car, I could see that the sky had cleared, and the dark mass of a large mountain rose up behind the hotel. I decided tomorrow would be an early morning, just in case my suspicions were real.
Sometimes getting lost is the best way to find what you’re looking for.