Mistletoe and Motorways

Mistletoe and Motorways

I did a quick Google search on mistletoe having concocted a story as we drove through France past trees laden with its parasitic pom-poms. Here’s a landscape smothered in mistletoe so, I conjectured, maybe the tradition of kissing underneath it started in France. I was surely onto something. After all it was the French, was it not, who invented kissing?

Google is quick to dispel dreams and disabuse you of such whimsies. But there is a story, albeit a bit less French et beaucoup moins romantique. Beyond the botanical basics of a plant that emerges in seed form from the alimentary canal of a bird, then lives off the tree where the bird has done its excremental business, there is a touchingly humane story.

Norse tradition has it that mistletoe is a plant of peace and that Norsemen had to stop fighting each other for a day if they met under trees bearing it. Hanging mistletoe over the doorway to bring peace and luck to the house was the next step in domesticating this warrior tradition. I was surprised to find that it was the English who took it further and started the kissing ritual – sounds very un-British to me. Apparently, after each kiss a berry should be removed and once all the berries are gone, so too is all the luck (and peace?) it can impart in love and marriage. To kiss under a berryless bunch is to court bad luck. So just remember, check the berries first before locking lips or, if you must, going for the full French….

Such are the delights of travel, delicious diversions such as this. It was the highlight of 9 hours on the road through western France, across its vast plains, towards long, low horizons, past millions of trees. A day of unremitting rain that swept across the land on fierce gusts of wind; a day rendered in a few dull, damp greys but enlivened by great globes of mistletoe clasped high in leggy, leafless branches. Stealing south over fabulous roads; paying tolls worth every cent to make it in a day over the border. 600 soggy miles from Ouistreham to Irurzun for a welcome overnight stop. Basque country, south of Bayonne, east of San Sebastian, the right angle where France meets Spain.

Day 2 of the drive takes you another 550 miles through a different world. Cross the Pyrenees, even the tame foothills at their western edge, and you are in a mistletoe-less land. Reddish-browns displace blue-greys; squat shrubs supplant trees in a landscape of sun- and wind-blasted plains and peaks. Morning temperatures this time of year are chill and the air sharp though the sun is full and feels strong. Roads are straight and, for the most part, empty. South we coast past towns whose names sound exotic, that we promise ourselves we will visit one day, stopping off on this long journey: Pamplona, Zaragoza, Teruel. On our first winter trip in 2015 we did stop at Teruel. It was a bitterly cold night. In the dark, poorly-lit streets of this old town we stopped in the only pension we could find without getting deep into the narrow streets of the walled medieval town and spent the night sleeplessly, shivering in the dampest bed imaginable. In the morning, still cold but now lit by pure winter sunshine, we found a gem of a town, awarded UNESCO world heritage status for its Mudejar architecture. Had we not stopped we would never have taken the trouble to find this out. Mudejar, by the way, is the name given to the Moors who remained in Spain after the reconquest but did not convert to Christianity; they had a big influence on architectural design. Had we not stopped perhaps I would never have taken the trouble to find that out either or to make the connection to the name of the motorway – the Autopista Mudejar.

We had passed signs indicating altitudes of 1,000 and 1,200 metres. You forget as you drive across this vast central plateau, skirting its ridges and glimpsing distant peaks, that much of Spain is high above sea level – hence the cold winter temperatures inland. Driving here, then, is as if motoring on the top of the Cuillin Ridge or taking the M6 over Scafell. Now, with every kilometre as we drop down to Valencia and our first sight of the Med, the temperature edges up. By the time we reach our destination at Bedar the gauge reads 24º and the air is still and the engine on the doughty, dependable Peugeot Tepee falls silent.

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