22 Feb On the road
We’re in Irurzun, a small town in the Basque country, about half way between Pamplona and San Sebastian or, as they call it here, Donostia. And almost half way home.
The 1200-mile journey back to London is mostly a joy. A drive through Spain is a visual extravaganza. Splendid quiet motorways unfurl across the huge plains of Murcia and Valencia with their backdrop inland of graceful sierras. There’s always a ridge in the distance catching the morning light, its dips and hollows casting shadows like the dark folds of an exquisite satin skirt. Strange shapes have been etched on the roof of these mountains by time and weather, perhaps by wind most of all. Some rise up to absurd peaks like a thumb sticking up beside a clenched fist; others are crenelated like paintings of a mythical world dreamt up by a child.
You’ve left the ghastly poly-tunnels further south and you’re into a land of fruit. The landscape is laced with miles, miles and more miles of trees: orchards of almonds and of plums, groves of oranges and of olives, one crop follows another and all planted in unerringly regular rows, each one an essential part of a deeply pleasing symmetry. A road trip through south-eastern Spain is a tiny corner of heaven for an obsessive compulsive; they can gaze on a spectacle of dazzling harmony and feel content.
I am in awe as I think back to my efforts on a tiny vegetable patch to make my rows regular the way other people seem to be able to do and somehow make it look so easy. There were always a few seeds that drifted off line so that my carrots were never a ‘drill’ but looked wayward and uncared for. And it’s not just the regularity of the planting, it’s the way each tree has been pruned and shaped, fashioned to conform, the height and reach, the way branches divide, all uniform. Out here on this scale, it’s a sight to soothe and bring joy to a mind seeking order.
From Valencia you turn inland heading north-west, away from the fruit farms and the sea, up onto Spain’s vast central plain. Fields are ploughed ready for crops but only a few peep above the ground to brave the cold. There’s snow on the mountains in the distance and night-time temperatures are well below zero. Here and there are vineyards with squat little vines clasping hands across the rich red earth. Though ‘red’ is not quite the right word to describe the colour of the land up here. It’s the shade of a billion bricks battered to a fine powder, or perhaps a piece of prime beef matured just long enough to take on a deep, aged garnet.
On and on almost 300 miles through this stunning, chill, windswept terrain. Until it finally relents up here in the Basque country where the landscape is green and it takes you by surprise. We see grass for the first time in several weeks and remember how lovely it is.