A photographer faces many problems when on a road trip. Too many subjects to shoot, not enough daylight hours, insufficient time to traverse the distances required. A lack of self-discipline only serves to complicate matters.
Last night I went to bed convinced there would be a view worthy of an early morning, so I was out the door as soon as daylight began to press against the window. I have to say I hate it when I’m so right. Prenafeta is one of those traditional Spanish villages. There’s a narrow, barely sealed road winding up the middle until the ascent of the sierra behind becomes too great, at which point the road splinters into narrow private drives to the last houses at the top of the hill. Rising amid the scrub behind the last houses are remnants of a Castillo.
The houses are heavy stone and perched so close to the road you can peer in through the windows (or catch someone peering out) as you pass. Many of the houses occupy tiny plots of 5–10 acres, and the small paddocks, poc-marked by very old olive trees, have been ploughed recently. I can only assume that many of these properties supply fresh vegetables to the nearby city of Mont Blanc, with a little kept aside for personal consumption.
After a few hours of wandering between the houses, I returned to the hotel, had a desayuno tipico of preserved meats, toasted bread, tomatoes, juice, and coffee. From there, I packed the car and made my way back to Mont Blanc, stopping for a little while to shoot off several dozen pictures of a still functioning finca, nestled in the middle of endless vineyards. I’d passed all this on the way in last night, but it was dark then, and I was busy counting the last kilometre on the odometer.
From Mont Blanc, I back-tracked a little to La Riba, a mesmerising river town nestled in the mountain ranges that march north to the Pirineos. In the town proper, there is little room for cars, especially larger ones, and footpaths snake up the mountain side in all directions, winding between (and under) apartments, shops and a school with a view to die for. The highway and the train line bypass this sleepy town by way of a massive overpass high above the river, and as such, the exit is a blink and you’ll miss it affair.
I disposed of a couple of hours with ease, before eventually I realised I hadn’t really started travelling towards Madrid yet, and it was already midday. This ultimately meant I had to forego Vilaverd, another potential photo-fest I’d spotted just up the road when I last passed through on the train.
So I struck out in the direction of Lleida, thinking I would simply stop there for lunch, and then press on to Zaragoza, and beyond that, Madrid. Approaching Lleida, it seemed to be another industrial city, similar to Geelong and just as dull, but as I found my way through the industrial area and headed towards the city centre, I caught a glimpse of what must be the main attraction—an enormous fortress and cathedral perched atop one of the higher hills in the area—and I knew immediately, I would be spending a few hours here. Somehow, I managed to negotiate my way to the vicinity of the fortress, parked the car and got myself a decent lunch nearby.
One of the good things about Lleida, is that it’s not exactly a tourist destination—at least, not in the sense of Segovia, Barcelona, or Toledo. The people that are visiting it, are either lost, or have sought it out specifically. The end result of this is there are very few tourists. Arriving there on a weekday did help as well, as it meant the local influx was kept at bay also.
I can’t remember the exact dates here, but many of the exhibits within the cathedral were from the 12th and 13th centuries. It is notable for it’s place in Roman and Spanish history, and the view from within the cathedral courtyard was incredible. The bell tower was a different story—not sure what compelled me to climb that, but by the time I got to the second, larger bell, the passage had narrowed and the steps steepened, and I was hanging on with everything I had hanging free. There was the chance to go up even higher, but one look at how narrow and steep that ascent was, and I was easily convinced it was a bad idea. Halfway down, the bells went off to sound out the hour, and I very nearly came down the fast way.
From Lleida, the road rose up to Llanos de las Menorcas, and beyond, the passage between Montes de la Retuerta de Pina and Montes de Pin de Farlete. For the most part, all I could see in either direction were wheat crops, sprawling away to the horizon—accompanied at all times by the dark shadows of mountain ranges to the north. On numerous occasions, the crumbling remains of abandoned fincas, homesteads, churches and castles rolled by, and I found myself constantly pondering whether or not to pull to the side of the road, to fire off a number of photographs, especially as the arrival of magic hour kicked off rich earthy hues in the stone of the ruins.
I found myself with little choice but to press on. Zaragoza was going to be a prize stop. The sun was already nearing the horizon and I was still a long way away. Yet, still I couldn’t resist the urge to stop a few times. One included a truck stop, with roadside vendor in an adobe shed, complete with pit toilets, an intriguing aroma and a swarm of half-crazed flies. On the opposite side of the road and a little up the soft slope of a hill, a long shed stood drunkenly on its foundations, and I couldn’t help but pop off several (dozen) shots.
As Zaragoza neared, the harsh, denuded slopes of Montes de Alfajarín marched ever closer to the highway. Eventually, I couldn’t contain myself any more and I pulled in to a service station, with an abandoned van pointing down the road towards a small castle, possibly an outer watch tower, sitting atop one of the peaks at the outer west of the city. By the time I actually reached Zaragoza, there was so little light left it wasn’t worth stopping. I told myself “next time” (because the interview in Barcelona had gone so well).
As I drove out the south-west corner of the city, through the industrial estate, and at a place where stopping to get a photo was impossible, I looked to the east to see some of the strangely coloured hills I’d spied from the train previously. Rising above them was a giant orange moon, sitting against the refraction band that truly separates day from night. Looking at it, I knew I could wait a thousand nights more and I wouldn’t see this again, yet I couldn’t stop to shoot it. The best I could do was to stop at a truck parking areas a few kilometres down the road, and shoot the moon rising between the wind turbines.
Here I was leaving Zaragoza, the halfway mark between Barcelona and Madrid, after sunset on the second day of the journey. It resulted in me not arriving in Madrid until after midnight, which was just as well, as it enabled me to have a gentler introduction to the manic driving of Madrileños. Had there been more daylight hours, I probably would’ve arrived even later, because no matter how much further I knew I had to travel, I couldn’t help saying to myself “Wow! Look at THAT!”