There are so many royal palaces in Spain that I suspect a ruling monarch would have to change address every month just to keep the dust from settling in any of them. From Bilbao, I bumped along the northern coast and, just before reaching France, turned south again to Pamplona, and beyond that, Zaragoza.
When I made the trip to Gernika a few days ago, I was taken by the view of a mystical range of mountains I could see to the east. Huge pillars of ash grey rock pierced the rambling hills surrounding them and thrust violently towards the sky. On seeing them, I was actually reminded of the Paramount Studios logo (but without the snow). I was fortunate then, that my travel out of Bilbao yesterday took me past these mountains, which dominate the southern horizon around Durango, enroute to Donostia/San Sebastián.
With the exception of a brief, fruitless stop in Durango in search of some lunch (though I did manage to get some half decent photos), I drove more or less non-stop to Donostia. Winding through the lush, steep gorges of the rugged north, I decided it was definitely a place to come back to on a future trip (fingers crossed, I’ll get a chance to do this again). I shadowed the A-8 on the smaller, windier N-634, which eventually broke clear to follow the coastline. I could imagine that this would be very popular in the summer, when the areas south of Madrid become hot and dry, and in many respects it reminded me of the Great Ocean Road, but with higher cliffs.
I finally pulled into Donostia and parked in the centre, close to the cathedral, which had interesting enough lighting on the exterior to draw me in for a quick look around the inside. Being a Saturday evening, there were a lot of people milling about, so interior photography was fairly limited. I couldn’t but be faithful to telepizza one more time, but this time around got some bad service, so am pretty much done with them now.
From Donostia, I had a clear run on the Autovía, through the foothills of the Pyrenees to Pamplona/Iruña, and in keeping with the theme of the running of the bulls, all traffic travels at speed through this region, especially on the major roads. That is, unless they’re a shitroen loaded with luggage, when every ascent is typified by the gradual reduction of speed, followed by a changing down of gears, and then the engine revving so loudly the gears need to be changed back up, followed by a gradual reduction of speed, followed by a changing down of gears…
The great disappointment here is that I passed through the foothills of the Pyrenees in darkness. Whilst the peaks I passed by/through/over are mere bumps by comparison to what lies to the east, they are the only truly mountainous region I’ve been in here, with the exception of the region between Zaragoza and Madrid, which I either traveled through on a train, or also at night.
As I descended from the hills and pushed towards the glow of Pamplona, I skipped past the city proper and headed to the south where my hotel was located (another destinia score). This morning, I drove back into the city and got lost (now so common for me with Spanish cities I will be surprised if it doesn’t happen in every one of them now). When I found my way back into roads wider than a footpath, I parked under the Plaza de Toros (yes, that Plaza de Toros), and tracked my way back up through the course for the encierro to the Ciudadela, a large star-shaped old fortress that dates back to the earliest days of the city’s existence.
From Pamplona, I pushed south to Olite, where a major palace is undergoing restoration. This palace is nowhere near as grand as the Palacio Real in Madrid, I guess primarily because it had been allowed to all but decay to bare rock, and was probably nothing more than a place for monarchs to retreat from it all. Yet despite the lack of opulence, it was far more engaging, and I quickly filled one CF card and got to work on another. With all of the restored areas being accessible, it provided the opportunity to see far more of the complex, and its isolation guaranteed few tourists of any kind, including locals. Had this palace been matched with the grounds at San Ildefonso, it would give second thoughts to a royal family about turning it over to the public.
From Olite, I traveled south, eventually turning up the NA-124, which eventually bumps along the base of a small cliff as it nears Santacara. As I approached the outskirts of the town, I started to notice a number of dilapidated doors embedded in the rock face, but the closer I got to the town, the more common, and upmarket, the houses became. Coober Pedy is of course, well known for its underground homes…well, it kind of is…within Australia…by some Australians; but I’ve never actually seen them up close. Unfortunately, I made the mistake (again) of not stopping to take photos, but with the sun barely hanging above the horizon, and a castle in Huesca to visit before going down to Zaragoza, time was against me, as always.
As it turned out, my decision to go past the cave houses was an even bigger mistake than I realised at the time. The road snaked down through the increasingly dry agricultural planes, which combined with the post-sunset hues of dusk to create a moon-like landscape. Shortly after the road emerged from Ejea de los Caballeros, it dropped a lane and suddenly I found myself enduring the same experience as when I was venturing into the Gargantas del Sil. The further east I went, the less light, and the less road there was, and just as it got dark, the road started to twist and buck in a way even the back roads back home wouldn’t do. I pictured myself disappearing into the Spanish wilderness, never to be heard from again, and my imagination began to run riot as to possible outcomes, though inevitably I found myself remembering The Hills Have Eyes.
By the time I got down out of the hills and on the road into Huesca, I was so glad to be on a road that was semi-flat and semi-straight that all I looked out for, were signs into the town. When I finally got into the middle of Huesca and parked to find where the castle was, I got a bit of a surprise. When I opened the book, I found I’d already come past the castle as I was barreling out of the hills. With the clock pushing nine, and another hour to Zaragoza, I decided to give up on the castle and go south. Just as well, because Zaragoza proved to be even more confusing than most of the cities I’ve been in to date.