San Sebastian & the Pyrenees, Spain
From the wine regions of France we headed west towards Spain, where the scenery took a definite downturn. The traffic became heavier and it took us what felt like forever to enter the country. We did make it, I just wasn't sure when we made it exactly, as there were no signs saying 'Welcome to Spain' or 'You are leaving France'. The only reason we noticed that we had entered a new country was that the road signs were suddenly in Spanish. Plus the houses changed from a dusty beige colour to white with orange-tiled roofs. It was the easiest border crossing in existence.
Slowly we drove to San Sebastian, a seaside town close to the border. It was a lot bigger than we were expecting and we ended up driving around in circles for ages looking for a place to stop, including jumping on and off the motorway a few times (luckily there weren't too many tolls here). We found a car park and pulled in so we could stop for a second to get our bearings. To our surprise, this car park just happened to be an overnight parking spot exclusively for campervans. It was perfect. We did get slugged with a €3 fee to stay there overnight (and all they really provided was a piece of asphalt and some cold water - not even a toilet) but we were so happy to have found a place to park that we didn't care.
Leaving the car we went wandering around the amazing-looking town. All the buildings were 6-8 storeys high, decorated in a variety of colours (we had passed by so many towns of the one colour in France) and a mishmash of grand architectural styles. The whole place looked expensive, more like a resort than a town and I could imagine that it would be packed in summer. There was free wi-fi everywhere but my laptop couldn't pick it up - it has been acting up since the little melting fiasco back in Paris. We walked along the beach for about an hour, passing heaps of kids and teenagers dressed up in costumes. We later learned that it was Carnaval, which explained a lot.
Back at the van Danny cooked an amazing pizza, with grilled veggies and goat's cheese. We bought the base at a nearby supermarket and it was completely different to the pizza bases we buy back home. It was sold as raw dough and rolled up in a packet (like filo pastry). We needed to pre-cook it for a bit first but it turned out to be absolutely incredible. In Australia the bases tend to be pre-cooked, highly processed and taste like cardboard. They could learn a thing or two from the Spanish.
We decided that San Sebastian didn't have much more we wanted to see, so the next day we drove to the Pyrenees. There were a lot less toll roads in Spain, as we took the motorway almost the whole way without seeing one toll sign. Also, they don't like to build roads up and over mountains. Instead, they just build a tunnel straight through the middle of it. It's great for us, as I don't think our poor van would make it up the steep hills.
Our first stop was Aoiz, where we had hoped to hike to a large lake. After a short walk along a river we encountered a huge gate and couldn't continue any further. So that was the end of that.
Instead we drove to Lumbier, where we completed a one hour hike through the middle of a gorge along an old railway track. Part of this walk included tunnels that were a couple of hundred metres long and pitch black in the middle. Not ideal when the ground was uneven - I still don't know how I didn't fall flat on my face. The gorge was fantastic, with a blue-green river running through the middle, and the sound of the running water echoing off the surrounding rocks. At the end was another short walk along the edge of a cliff to an old, disused bridge known as Devil's bridge. The walk was slightly terrifying, as there was nothing stopping us hurtling down the edge of the cliff face. Obviously, we survived. On the way back Danny noticed some wild thyme growing along the path and picked a few stalks for dinner. It was only later that we saw a sign saying don't pick the wildlife.
On our way to a main town, Sanguesa (which is tiny and not worthy of being recognised as a "main" town), we passed thousands of teenagers and adults all walking along the side of the road, most carrying large backpacks and some lugging signs. We later discovered that they were part of a pilgrimage to Santiago, a major event in the Christian calendar here. I'm pretty sure Santiago is on the other side of Spain, so they had a long way to go. We also saw loads of people dressed up again for Carnaval. Must be a country-wide event.
Incredibly we found a caravan park in Sanguesa that was open and packed with locals drinking at the bar. The park itself was empty, but the bar seemed to be the most popular spot in town for the local residents. We chose a spot to park before taking a stroll around town. There was nothing to see.
When we arrived back we found that there was wifi reception near the front gate, so we decided to move our van closer to pick up the signal. When Danny was backing out he managed to run straight into a light pole, which then sported a very clear lean. Our van was fine. Danny's ego was not, as there were witnesses. Later on Danny also managed to drop our TV and spill beer all over the inside the van. He was not having a great day. He did, however, make another fantastic pizza, this one with topped with wild thyme.
We went to the snow! Not intentionally, but that didn't matter. It was awesome.
I kept reading about Parque Nacional de Ordesa in the Pyrenees, popular for summer hikes. We decided to go and check it out, although we almost turned around a few times as we weren't sure if the Prince would get up the hills. He did, but only just. The entire drive passed by bright blue lakes and snow-capped mountains - the scenery was straight out of a movie. As we neared the national park the roads began to be lined with snow, causing us to think that the park might be closed. We made it to Torla, a gorgeous small town set right at the bottom of a huge mountain, and kept going up a winding road to the park entrance. When we arrived we discovered snow everywhere! It was completely unexpected, but a welcome surprise.
We jumped out of the car and followed the signs to a cascade, the entire way on snow. There was no path carved out for walkers but we were able to follow several others who clearly knew what to expect. Most people were dressed in full snow outfits, snow boots and carried walking poles. We had sneakers, jeans and coats - we didn't quite fit in. Still, my €25 runners from a French supermarket did well and my feet didn't get wet at all. Nor did we fall over, despite there being slippery ice at times (who needs walking poles??). Our hands were bordering on frostbite by the end though. On the two hour walk we saw several cascades, many of them frozen with long icicles hanging down from the rocks. It was phenomenal. Today was one of our favourite days so far.
We drove back to Torla to look for somewhere to stay, plus a supermarket as we didn't have any food. We found neither. So we continued on to the next town, Broto (which had a great, non-frozen waterfall that we could walk right up to) and still found no supermarket (everything was shut on a Sunday). Instead we stopped at a bar and bought a croissant, a jamon sandwich (for Danny), a deep fried cheese ball (for me) and a blueberry muffin. Not your usual pub-fare but there wasn't much on offer. We also bought a half litre carafe of red wine, served straight out of the fridge, for a whopping €2.50. Can't say it was the best wine we've ever tasted but for that price we weren't complaining. Back in the van Danny fried up our only vegetable, an eggplant, in an attempt to have something healthy (even though it was drenched in oil). Another nutritious dinner for us.
The following morning was extremely cold, which wasn't unexpected as we were in the Pyrenees. It dropped below 0°C overnight and was still only 0°C when we left at 9:30 a.m. We drove to Zaragoza, a town at the very bottom of the mountains, to break up our journey to Madrid. Our sat nav decided to have a hissy fit and refused to turn on. Maybe it was too cold for TomTom too. So we had to go back to basics and use maps, which wasn't so bad as there was only one road between Broto and Zaragoza. Once we arrived at our slightly warmer destination we pressed the reset button on the sat nav and it was all fine again. We don't know what we would do without TomTom.
In Zaragoza we picked up a map and followed the local walking tour to visit the main sights, which were all pretty much churches. One cool landmark was the Teatro Romano, an old Roman amphitheatre carved out of the ground. The main plaza was also a photographer's dream, bordered by a huge basilica on one side and modern buildings on the other, with a few fountains and statues thrown in for good measure. It was a cool city, big enough that we didn't get bored quickly but not too big as to be overwhelming. There were also loads of cafes and bars, which is our kind of town.
The weather was kind to us again today (after our cold start) and it reached 15°C, our warmest day so far in Europe. We even had to open the windows in the van to let some cool air in.
Zaragoza thankfully provided supermarkets, allowing us to stock up on food - we were determined to have a proper meal tonight. It wasn't all healthy though - we also bought a bag of eight croissants for €1 and two gigantic containers of bite-sized biscuits for €1 each: bargain. Danny cooked a vegetable risotto with local sausage (Danny is obsessed by local sausage wherever we go), which was spectacular as always. It definitely made up for our lack of dinner last night.