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A Memorable, 18-Day Iberian Road Trip

November 2nd, 2017 · No Comments · Barcelona, Baseball, Dodgers, Sports Journalism, tourism, Travel

(Above: A statue to a bullfighter, in Seville.)

Passing references have been made on this site to our tour of the Iberian Peninsula.

Normally, more of that would have appeared here, as we went along, but the Dodgers were in a seven-game World Series — which vied for attention on this blog — originally intended to be oriented toward journalism and, particularly, sports journalism.

The morning after crossing back into France, on the 18th and final day of the trip, seems like a good time to review the long drive — my longest road trip since driving from Long Beach to Washington D.C. (and back) just the other day — in August 1975.

This one covered right around 2,260 kilometers in a near circuit of Iberia and into areas old to history but new to most of us.

“Us” included a pair of parents, regular travelers but new to where we were going.

We did it in a rented, six-gear, baby-blue Renault Scenic, the Euro version of an SUV, and about the biggest car you can drive, in this part of the world, while holding on to the hope of navigating narrow streets and alleys of towns that predate the appearance of the automobile.

The Scenic seats four comfortably. Less so when the undersized baggage area pushes quite a bit of stuff back up into the passenger area — yielding drinks and provisions and backpacks beneath feet and on laps.

Let’s just do this chronologically.

Day 1: A 340-mile drive from our place in the Herault, which abuts the Mediterranean, across France, north of the Pyrenees, through Toulouse and then down to rolling country in the foothills of the mountains. When we reached the Bay of Biscay, we turned left and into Spain and, shortly, into San Sebastian, the primary resort town of Basque Country.

We found the city to be tidy and well-kept and full of cyclists and joggers. Our new-ish apartment overlooked the main river through town. The apartment motif was Warhol … and more Warhol.

We had the first of a couple of dozen fine meals; it is easy to eat well (and inexpensively) in most of Iberia. In a jammed restaurant on the trendy east side of the river we encountered for the first time the regional skewers — of meat, seafood and bell peppers — which come to the table hanging on a hook.

The town is very big with British tourists in the summer, and it has a very fine, crescent-shaped beach area, and walking around can take up most of a day, with lunch in the old town.

We found the workers in the hospitality industry to be a bit aloof, which we later learned is a longstanding reputation. The apparent preference for many Basques to speak their own language sometimes made getting around town difficult.

A shortage of cultural activities makes San Sebastian a two-day town for the let’s-move-on road-tripper, which took us to …

Day 3, a 400-mile grind through the wet and lush hills and dales of the north of Spain (which until recently we did not know was so well-watered), arriving in Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia, around 5:30 p.m. Two of us had been there in April, at the end of the Camino — the pilgrimage route into the city.

We were returning to a small hotel on the edge of the old part of town, where we paid for a parking spot in a structure nearby.

(Ongoing challenges throughout the trip: 1) finding a place to park our oversized vehicle and 2) anxious moments getting from the main highways to the middle of towns — and back out.)

Santiago seems mostly about the Camino, these days, and we all attended the “pilgrim mass” at noon. Late in the service, in the standing-room-only cathedral, three of us tired of standing, and left; I hung on and was rewarded with a second viewing of the botafumeiro being swung — setting off a sort of nightmarish attempt to get out of the church quickly enough to tell the others to come back in, but I was barred from exiting in time.

One full day exploring the old town is generally enough for most visitors to Santiago, where work on the towers of the cathedral continues.

We had considered a side trip to Fisterra, but a winding and narrow road and forecasts of more rain meant a 90-minute drive in each direction to, basically, look at water washing up on the Atlantic shore of the furthest-west point in Spain. We already were streamlining things, and we set off on …

Day 5, and a mere 145-mile drive south to Porto. The second city of Portugal gave its name to the country, and is still known for the production of port wine, a sweet and fortified product available in much of the world.

For the first time, we paid to ride the “hop on, hop off” tourist bus, which looks ridiculous and makes one feel like cliche tourists, but the bus really is the only semi-inexpensive way to get a sense of the important parts of cities new to the wayfarer. After one gloomy day in Santiago (the only non-sunny day on the trip, remarkably) we were fine with sitting upstairs in the open air, and looking at the sites and getting the lay of the land.

A day later, we took the bus to see the “other” route, which dropped off passengers in front of the port warehouses. Good reports came in pertaining to the guided/tasting tours of the port distilleries, particularly that of Calem. (We also tried the oft-talked-about Vinho Verde, a young white wine that is very inexpensive, at 2 euros a bottle, and is a bit effervescent. It seemed a bit crude to our palates, and we did the one bottle and gave up on it. Two euros, wasted!)

Porto is the capital of the north of Portugal, and has a metropolitan area of about 1 million. It attracts far more tourists than I anticipated. The crowds (and hotels) were particularly thick near the Douro River’s edge, where boat rides were available — and taken advantage of.

We stayed on the south side of the river, an area known as Vila Nova de Gaia, a suburb which faces the Atlantic as well as the Douro. A storm out at sea produced some spectacular breakers onto the rocky beach — across the street from where we stayed for four nights.

Throughout Iberia, locally brewed beers tend to dominate the market and often are the only choices on tap. In Portugal, the favorite is Bock beer, and particularly Super Bock.

Not long after crossing the border from Spain we began to recognize Portugal’s standing as the poorest EU country, by GDP per capita, west of Greece and the former Soviet empire. Portugal is at less than 20,000 euros per capita; neighboring Spain is 26,600, neighboring France is 38,100 and Germany is 41,000.

Older, battered cars and less-well-maintained roads were the first sign of Portugal’s struggles, followed by metropolitan areas which seem trash-strewn and, here and there, falling to pieces. From the highway to our apartment, we went through rundown areas that called to mind Brazil’s favelas.

On the whole, though, we gave Porto a thumb’s up. And then, on …

Day 9 we drove 195 miles to Lisbon, with a side trip to Coimbra for lunch, making it more like a 225-mile drive.

Coimbra is given good reviews by travel books but it seemed more than a little tatty, as the Brits would say. I will remember it as the place where the ridiculously narrow underground parking garage left a scratch on the side of the Scenic.

Lisbon was by far the trickiest city for finding an apartment near the center of town; the street we were on stops dead at a bridge, then resumes on the other side, which require a lot of backtracking. We spent 30 minutes trying to get the final 200 yards to the apartment.

Our neighborhood was within walking distance of the Praca Comercia, right on the shore of the capacious Tagus River estuary. We had one memorable farm-to-table meal from the farmer/restaurateur at Banca de Pau, a short walk from where we stayed. The owner produced nearly everything we ate and drank, including the white wine. He also said the farmer/restaurateur life is so difficult that he is going to give up the resto in a year or two.

The heart of Lisbon was nearly gridlocked each time we saw it, leading us to ask a cab driver (mentioned in an item earlier in this blog) about how bad it must be in the “high” season — prompting him to say it was nearly impossible to drive because pedestrians spill off the sidewalks and into the narrow streets.

Most of us took a day trip to Sintra, a cool, green and hilly oasis near the ocean, in the northwest suburbs of Lisbon. Three of us hired a tuk-tuk driver to get up and down, leading to a full day out of the capital.

Lisbon seems to be gaining fans so quickly that it could join Venice, Florence, Rome and Barcelona, et al, in being at risk of tourism overkill. For now, it was do-able, just, in October, a “shoulder” month for tourism. Two large cruise ships probably didn’t help matters.

Which, after four nights in the capital, took us to …

Day 13, and a 310-mile drive into the Algarve region to Praia da Luz, a white-washed town of about 3,500 right up against the Atlantic.

The sun was out and strong, as if the town had never heard of the concept of autumn. Dozens of people were sunbathing on the beach. Others were out sailing. We had a fine Indian meal, for the first time since Abu Dhabi, a few feet from a small but charming church that was nearly packed for Sunday’s 11:30 a.m. English-language service.

We stayed in a third-story room with a great view of the main beach, from the balcony, and another fine view from a bedroom — as long as one did not cast his eyes below the horizon and notice the trash collecting down below.

The town is small enough that it can be walked around twice in a day. It also has a high-end grocery store that clearly caters to the crowds of northern Europeans who are thick on the ground apparently throughout the year.

We found the Portuguese to be reliably friendly and always ready to find the one guy in the shop/resto who spoke English, when a Portuguese/Spanglish conversation broke down.

And after two nights on the beach, we packed up on …

Day 15, which called for a 175-mile drive east, into Spain. The road got a little rough before we crossed the border into Andalusia, the sprawling but economically undeveloped southern region of Spain, and on to its capital city, Seville, the fourth-largest city in the country, behind Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia.

It was so warm and bright, on October 31, that I feared sunburn. Seville is well-acquainted with sunshine; it has the distinction of being the warmest/hottest major metropolitan area in Europe. The average high temperature in July is 97 degrees. Yikes.

Seville seems authentic, in the sense that most of what goes on seems to be about people who live there. Tourists seemed comparatively rare, aside from one or two zones and the ubiquitous on/off buses.

A ride around Seville seemed to reveal a town with not much going on of interest to a tourist; a special high-tech area seemed mostly deserted, and the town’s leading sights seemed to be, overwhelmingly, churches.

We noticed a slight bump in costs, compared to Portugal, but diesel fuel was cheaper. (We typically spent 50 euros to fill the tank, or about 58 dollars. Yes, a significant line item, given that we went through four tanks, and maybe five. We spent hundreds more on toll roads, too.)

Seville seems to have taken on Halloween as a significant holiday, as we found out while going to dinner. All little kids and most teens were wearing costumes of some sort, and the main street in the old town was crowded with revelers. It felt almost like Mardi Gras, and it sounded like it — our apartment was one floor above a bar/resto that served very late into the night and the noise produced there was a dull roar that not even double-paned glass and the white noise of an air-conditioner could eliminate.

Perhaps because of its heat, Seville seems to stay up late, very late. We were walking back to the apartment after dinner in a Moroccan restaurant when we passed a dozen well-dressed, middle-aged people who were just going to dinner — at 9:30 p.m.

And then came the our exit, beginning on …

Day 17, when we drove throughout the daylight hours, all 10 of them, and covered 610 miles (nearly 1,000 km) from Seville to Barcelona.

The main roads were quiet (perhaps because it was a bank holiday) even by the standards of the Iberian Peninsula, where the governments have put down freeways that seem to be little used. It is easy to find yourself going 150-kilometers-an-hour (93 mph) because traffic is so light. We did see one fatal wreck, somewhere around Cordoba, and wondered if someone had fallen asleep at the wheel.

It was a long day of sitting in a car, reminiscent of the sort of grueling days of road trips from my youth — the 5,000-plus cross-U.S. miles my brother and I racked up in 1975 … as well as the 2,380 drive miles in six days from L.A. to Jacksonville, Fla., with my elder daughter, for Super Bowl 39, in February 2005 … and more than the 1,840 I did in six days with a co-worker from San Bernardino, Calif., to Mexico City for a U.S. soccer qualifying match, later in 2005.

I believe it also was the longest road trip for the others in the car, who showed great patience and durability as we nearly completed a lap of an area that often reminded us of home — back in southern California, that is.

The longest day got us to an airport hotel in Barcelona, where we again managed to avoid pro- or anti-independence protests in the street and a full-blown attempt at secession.

It was in Barcelona, however, the night of November 1/2, that the World Series ended with the Dodgers on the wrong end of a 4-3 games breakdown.

Which took us to …

Day 18, which was a brutally long flying day for the parents and a comparatively easy 200 miles for us to drive back into France and to our place in the Herault. But at the end of each pair of travels … suitcases were unpacked for the last time!

We were glad Day 19 did not require us to squish all our stuff in the car. We stayed in bed without worrying about being somewhere miles and miles down the road before the end of the day.



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