Spain's best road trip? Our loop around Spain & Portugal. First stop, San Sebastian
3 Deciembre 2016
For some reason I've always thought San Sebastian was a tiny village. I suppose if you define a village as having a population of 186 thousand it is a tiny village. It is on the north coast of Spain near France. Euskadi, as the Basque region is called in Basque, is an autonomous region of Spain near France and has a distinct culture and language. The Basque region traditionally covers the Pyrenees into France but Euskadi is officially only on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. Basque is the language of Euskadi and seems to have a lot of Xs in it. Txokolatea is chocolate for example. Txokolatea is now one of my favourite Basque words along with pintxos and txakoli. There is something all these words have in common and it isn't Xs. Food and booze. Pintxos is Basque tapas. Sort of. It is tapas and tostas and uniquely Basque. I've said next to Japanese food Spanish food is the best in the world. Strictly speaking San Sebastian's cuisine is the next best. Spanish drops to third if you put a distinction between San Sebastian and Spanish food. Txakoli is a local sparkling wine. It is poured from high to aerate the wine as it goes into the glass. The first time I asked for it I had no clue what it was called. I mimed the action of pouring and our barman said "Ah txakoli". We then spent the next 10 minutes getting my pronunciation right. You'd think with a X in my name I'd nail X words right away.
San Sebastian, Donostia in Basque, is a 4 hour drive from Madrid. Interestingly I did not take one photo for the entire trip. I have a feeling that was because we were running late. We had a deadline. Two in fact. One to be polite and turn up at our AirBnb at the appointed time, and two, because we had a reservation for dinner at Mugaritz. As per our usual tradition we got up late, had to get breakfast and supplies for the journey, and then pick up the rental car.
Georgia came with me to pick up the rental car. We cabbed it to Madrid Atocha, Madrid's main station, where the rental car agency was. Somewhere. We spent some time trying to find it. Madrid station is huge. Paperwork done it was then a walk down from the station past a queue of a million taxis to the car park. We were lucky enough to be upgraded to a Seat Alhambra. We needed the space. We didn't pack light for this trip with pram and ski gear taking up the bulk of the boot space. The first thing I checked for though was that the radio had Bluetooth so I could stream Spotify. I already knew that my travelling companions were likely to nod off almost immediately and I reckoned I'd have hours of driving with only music to keep me company. The rental car guy showed me a circular disk about the size of a 50 cent piece. This was the size of minor damage we could inflict on the car before we had to pay an excess he said. Pfft. As if I could do that much damage to the car. How's that for foreboding. The thing that gives me the shits about car rental agencies is if you reserve child car seats you're expected to install them yourself. God what a pain in the arse. 20 minutes of swearing, heavy breathing, sweat and skinned knuckles.
Having a slightly larger car brought its own problems. Spanish car parks are designed for shopping trolleys. I was constantly amazed at how any 4 wheeled vehicles could fit into car spaces, not to mention driving up or down access ramps to the parking. More than once I had to do 3, 4 or 5 point turns just to negotiate car park ramps. Then we had to squeeze into car spaces where it was impossible to open the doors. Luckily we had sliding doors for the back but I had to slip out of the drivers side door through gaps I have no idea I could get through. Sustaining bruising and scrapes to just get out of the car became the norm. And we had to pay a premium for the privilege. Spanish car parks in many cities are not cheap. We only needed parking at the car park below Santa Ana Plaza, at our AirBnb, for an hour or so while we loaded our gear. That done we left our keys and closed the door. We had the same AirBnb booked for our return to Madrid in a month.
Prior to picking up the car we'd stocked up on Jamon boccadillos from Enrique Tomas for the drive. We had hoped to get to Coffee & Kicks for a final coffee before we left so we thought we'd stop off on our way out of town. It is in a pedestrian zone and we spent too long trying to get a park nearby and in the end we had to give up and get going on our way before it was too late.
I did take one photo on the drive. A selfie at a petrol station at Setor about 40 minutes from Madrid. It was a pee stop. I also grabbed a bag of Magdalenas. Service station bakery Magdalenas are sensational. Who knew? They're little sponge cup cakes similar to French Madeleines. Like many European service stations they're stocked with an amazing variety of goods and souvenirs. I don't know who would be going to a service station to buy souvenir legs of jamon for hundreds of euros but you can. The available small goods and bakery items would put many a deli or bakery in Australia to shame. It was hard to just buy magdalenas.
It was exciting to get out on the road in the Spanish countryside. Spain is a beautiful country with an incredible variety of landscapes. Mountains, forests, treeless plains, hills and deserts. Some of the 70s spaghetti westerns were filmed in Spain because apparently the desert areas look a little like Mexico and the American west. If you squint and look at it snake eyed maybe (The Good, The Bad & The Ugly reference). I reckon it was probably cheaper for Sergio Leone to film in Europe and import his American stars, like Clint Eastwood, than film on location. On our first trip to Spain we drove from Barcelona to Zaragoza to Madrid. The region between Zaragoza and Madrid was surprisingly, to us then, desert. Some parts reminded me of the South Australian outback. You'd be flat out getting awesome pork crackle chips in South Australian roadhouses though. They were so memorable I was keeping an eye for them this trip.
It is mostly highway to San Sebastian so we often passed castles and hill top towns at a distance. Burgos Cathedral was visible from kilometres away for example. Spain is quite large, about twice the size of my home state of Victoria, and isn't as densely populated as some countries in Europe so the distance between villages and towns was often further than if you were driving through the Italian countryside for example. My favourite thing about Spanish highways are the huge Toro bulls. Billboards shaped in the silhouette of a bull. The image is iconic of Spain. Originally they were put in place for some long forgotten advertising campaign. They're on hills alongside the highway every 40 or 50 kilometres. I had intended to stop at some point and get a photo but the opportunity to stop in a safe good spot didn't come up.
It is around 450 kilometres from Madrid to San Sebastian. It was going to be one of the longest legs on our road trip around Spain and Portugal. Our plan was to take 5 weeks to drive a big loop around the Iberian Peninsula. Starting in Madrid then up to San Sebastian. Across to Portugal. Down Portugal back in to Spain. Down to southern Spain and then up through the middle to finish up in Madrid. After that we were going to fly to Germany and do another big loop in that part of the world - Austria, Germany, Italy and Czechia. But that was over a month away. We had to get to San Sebastian first.
I can't really remember how we used to get around in the days before GPS. I suspect it was paper maps and road atlases. Remember having to unfold paper maps or having to decipher tiny inscriptions and ambiguous direction markers on roads in the atlases? No? It was crap. I don't know how many vigorous discussions were had on the side of a road somewhere over who missed the turn and why do you have to turn the map upside down to read it. Now it is only vigorous discussions as to why the GPS can't take us right to the front door and what do we do when it tries to take us up a pedestrian only zone. The GPS we brought from Australia with newly installed European maps did try to take us to our AirBnb but after half an hour of circling around the old town of Donostia-San Sebastian looking for a route in that wasn't pedestrian only we gave up. I parked in a spot only a little bit illegally and ran to the apartment to check-in and get the keys leaving Michelle and the kids in the car.
This was the first time we've stayed at an AirBnb where the owners of the apartment lived in the building. I was met by a young kid, only about 12 years old, who checked me in and gave me the keys and a brief run down of the local area and most importantly where the closest car park was. Actually he was just a kid so he had no idea where the closest car park was. I had to figure that one out myself.
The benefit of choosing an AirBnb apartment in the old part of a town is it is generally car free and you don't have to put up with traffic noise. The downside is the apartment might be some minutes away from the closest car park. Not an insurmountable hurdle but dragging a bunch of luggage, a pram and a couple of kids a few hundred metres can be challenging especially when you've never been there before. There was still some urgency. We still had a reservation for Mugaritz to make. Mugaritz was about 20 minutes out of town.