08 Jan Escape
Spain. 1200 miles not counting the ferry crossing. The road is long, but the driving is easy. Those French autoroutes with their silken surfaces and service stations that do good coffee in sensible quantities. Thanks to that and the absence of heavy traffic, we find we can forgive the high tolls. Those Spanish autopistas, more rough cloth than silk but empty and mostly free. The coffee? Almost as good. It’s a journey, despite being repeated four times now, despite always being in the first few days of the year, despite the wearying effect of hours of sitting listening to the persistent sound of rubber on tarmac, that has a surprising magic.
The magic is more than just an escape from the dark nights, cold weather, city chills, and the bleak political landscape and radio soundscape of home. Though there is, I admit, a roguish sense of playing truant from all of that. The real magic, and it is always a surprise to me, is the land we pass through. We’ve found the best route, so we take it each year and it’s never the same. This is a road trip through geography, history, meteorology, language, culture, engineering, colour – and the quality of coffee.
How to rhapsodise it in the space of a single post?
From Caen to the Pyrenees the route is largely flat. Gentle hills topped with windmills. Trees backlit by the rising sun. It burns up the early mist that lies on huge fields ridged with brown, even shafts of ploughed earth waiting for seed and season. Trees bare but for globes of mistletoe hung like outsize Christmas decorations. Distant farmsteads snuggle against the land; plumes of smoke from squat chimneys swirl in the cold air. On we press, Le Mans, Tours. Lunch at an ‘Aire’, coffee made strong with crema on top, baguette avec beurre et fromage. Delicious.
Now fog has cloaked the land. More windmills. We see only their blades turning lazily like ghostly heads above a shroud. Poitiers. English king, French queen. Then come the B’s – Bordeaux, Biarritz, Bayonne. The far corner of France where we climb into Spain. Euskadi, says the sign that tells us we’ve crossed the border. Basque country. We stop for the night a few miles north of Pamplona in Irurtzun, an unlovely village in an alpine setting with a clean, cheap, comfortable hotel and a challenging menu, heavy on meat.
Day two we’re motoring through the heart of Spain a diagonal line south-east from San Sebastian to Valencia. Navarre, Aragon. English King, Spanish Queen. In the distance, hills give way to high, pointed peaks; layers of land folded like the pleats of a kilt made from subtly deepening shades of grey. Mist lies on the faraway floor of massive plains, like distant steaming cauldrons. The temperature gauge fluctuates wildly, the ice warning sounds on and off as we move through landscape and atmosphere. Zaragoza, Teruel. High plateau, ice-cold. Frosted grasses, hedges edged with crystal, the road lined with white filigree. The gauge rises again. Back to browns, fauns and greys, glorious tweeds of winter.
Fog again. My eye is drawn to the surface of the road. It feels smooth under the wheels but it’s a mess of scrawling lines. As if Jackson Pollock was let loose with a pitcher of bitumen and the strangest canvas of his career. Miles and miles of intricate repairs worked seamlessly. More windmills above the mist like airborne gymnasts moving in effortless synchronicity. Bare low vines stand in neat rows, shoulders rounded against the cold, holding hands.
We descend to the coast. The first sighting of the Med, the first glimpse of oranges on countless trees. The hubbub of Valencia sprawls for miles along the coastal plain. Suddenly it’s busy. Roads intersecting roads. On we go. Inland to avoid Alicante, then south towards Murcia and Almeria. Oranges and lemons. Fields of plastic covering infant crops. Sierras banked on left and right. Red soil. Golden sky. Setting sun.
Finally, we leave the road to Almeria to climb to Bedar, the pueblo in the hills.