On friends and family

Had to get back to London to do some serious childminding for some lovely friends, so had to face the long journey back quite soon after the journey out!!!

My portuguese adopted family had grown by the time I planned this return trip though – by one (very long, dextrous, non-green-apple-eating one that is). “Y” was visiting with Manuela and Hans in Cascais, and needed to get to Paris/Brussels- quickly, and as cheaply as possible.  I needed talking company for such a long drive, and there was always the chance I’d need a strong pair of hands  to carry my suitcase down the freeway should the car no longer wish to do so.

So we “hooked up” through Facebook – you know, as you do these days.  Manuela organised it all, including getting the victim – oh, I mean the fellow passenger – to the start-point, and ensuring he had warm clothes, a telephone charger, and enough data paid for on his sim to last through at least Spain…

Monday midday we took off, and I’m sure he’ll agree – it was a really easy trip!

The wonder of it I can’t really share, as I was too busy driving to take pictures, and he was too busy sleeping… heh heh – my driving scares them to sleep apparently.  But we had more than one massive and ongoing rainbow which seemed to prance ahead of the car, stretching across the road in apparent welcome to this young man, on his first trip to Europe, and possibly to Fame and Fortune too, in almost every region we passed through.

My blue lady friend behaved very well.  We found food and petrol – well, diesel actually – as well as substantial quantities of coffee, in every direction we turned.  Why is it that the almost empty freeway between Madrid,  and Coimbra in Portugal,  is densely laced with petrol stations, with coffee machines, some with hotels, some even with night clubs (nearly 50 kms from the nearest large village… and potential clients?) and with at least one local road bridge across the new high speed rail tracks?  Was it an EU directive to turn Spain into a nation of garage builders?

Its a strange and over-constructed landscape with very little beautiful about it.  Perhaps one can admire the amazing flatness of the landscape, which does highlight the occasional rainbow very well.  As well as the faded, well-worn grey or cream stone churches and cathedrals rising starkly above the medieval parts of towns and villages along this part of the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella.  The landscape when you’re driving on the freeway, encourages you to look at each little interesting detail, as there are few.  Walking might be better.

On the first stop, we benefitted from my previous learning, and booked a hotel before we reached the town. It was late, 7pm when we booked, and still an hour away, but systems like Bookings.com and airbnb work amazingly well in these circumstances.  And no, they’re not paying me, just took good care of me a couple times now!

Vitoria Gasteiz is about 700kms from home, not as half-way as I’d have liked, but as we only left around noon in the day,  it was as much as we could manage without driving through the night – and there wasn’t really call for that kind of dedication or fatigue.

The hotel, Desiderio, chosen by Y so quite by chance, reminded me of a wonderful group of women friends from my teenage years, we called ourselves Desiderata, and it felt right.  I love names and words that “coincidentally” match up, it makes me feel like my path, my route, is recognising me somehow – that I’m in the right place and time. Is that just me?

Anyway, importantly, we found a receptionist, even though it must have been 9:30pm,and more importantly, he gave us the wifi key (I think Y’s data had started to run low by then). Checking in, in all ways, took a while, but hunger then called loudly.

We walked around to find a restaurant, as the tourist map the receptionist helpfully provided, didn’t really have open restaurants marked clearly – so it was visual recce time.  And we walked.  Boy, was it cold, windy, and closed. The whole place seemed shutdown.  We could not find any restaurants apart from the occasional tile floored bar with one or two customers propping up the counter, which didn’t seem a very realistic option with a starving teenager (did I mention he’s about 6 ft 2 or perhaps more?  and he has extremely large feet which were completely hollow by then, having only been fed a small sandwich all day!)

Eventually, although there was no option of giving up even in the face of the icy biting mean Spanish wind that feels as if it blows in across the plain from some sun-forsaken mountain somewhere, we found the really old,  cathedral end of town, a cool-looking electric trolley-bus or tram on a grassed track in the road (!!) taking greening to a whole new level, and a restaurant that was open.

Not just any restaurant – the coolest italian spot you’ve ever seen.

Red plush walls, heavy wood carvings, framed old black and white posters of Sophia and her friends, wine glasses and table cloths, small kiosks and intimate lighting – and it was heated.  We could both have danced a jig, but made do with finding the table furthest from the door. Then the menu evaluation drill.

Y is on a very very tight budget for a 1 year or longer gap year (South African Rands, anyone? Going extremely cheap. Sadly)  so he did all the maths – accounting was one of his best subjects apparently, and it showed!  Amazingly, when you have the time and the motivation, there are mistakes in menus or possibly details are not clear, as he seemed to find a good value pizza which was 5 cents cheaper than another and had slightly more ingredients, so he felt he’d gotten a good deal – and it was brilliant when it arrived too – thin crust, loads of topping, crispy – well, the brief glimpse I had before it disappeared, was impressive.

I had half a plate of fantastic home-made pasta and half or perhaps slightly less, of a similarly brilliant dessert consisting two lumps of italian ice cream separated by cookies, balanced precariously on chocolate brownie – nothing to hate. I tease, but in fairness I could not have eaten the portions served, and was quite happy to share with young Y.  He’s going to be working it off pretty fast, from what I hear of his plans to play club football in Europe.

Having eaten so well, life became very pleasant, so we wandered a very circular route back to the hotel, did a load more internet stuff as you do when you’re just 18 and away from your friends, and slept – late as it turned out, but Spain is an hour earlier than Portugal so in a way we still had time.  We discovered a little Spanish secret – those odd looking snacks we’d seen in the bars, sandwich type food, are extremely good value. At our hotel’s attached bar/cafe, we had a good breakfast of egg rolls, coffee and juice for €3.

Off we set again, making excellent time through Spain to the French coast, through all those amazing tunnels on the toll road.  The roads are however incredibly straight and smooth in France once past Biarritz – while a pleasure to use, they’ve literally churned up the countryside into an incredibly ugly patchwork of tollbooths, 4lane freeway and loads of bridges, to form enormous pipelines for trucks, between the big cities and manufacturing areas.

We were grateful for the space and the straight lines just outside Bordeaux, when we were hit by a storm that was definitely a kind of cloud burst.  We both just watched in horror as a trainsmash worth of water poured down over the windscreen suddenly, blocking or slowing the wipers or perhaps it was “our lives flashed before us in slow motion” making it look like they simply weren’t able to deal with the amount of rain pouring down.  Luckily I’m getting better at dealing with situations in cars than the time I won driver of the year at Uni (a tongue in cheek award and I won’t go into the damage here.  It was a long time ago) so just kept the car completely straight, and didn’t touch brakes or any controls. If you’re planing on a ton of just fallen water, I recall reading somewhere, its best if the tyres are still facing straight forward when you do hit drier tar, if you do.

Anyway, to break the suspense – since I’m writing this, we must have hit dry tar… heh heh.

Y was really shocked at the cost of the tolls.  Some are as much as €30 per leg – two such heavy tolls between Bordeaux and Paris which almost makes taking the train option look cheap.  For me, while its pricy, I feel better using toll roads as they’re really fast, and direct, and there’s loads of support, help phones, regular petrol and coffee and toilet break stops, about the only problem with them in a wrong-side drive car, was paying the toll out the passenger window – although having Y on board solved all that, which was a timesaver.

I won’t use toll-roads again though, as I realised when taking alternatives, that these big modern closed-loop motorways (you can’t easily get on or off) prevent local businesses from getting passing traffic.  Research probably proves that installing toll-roads destroys a huge percentage of any local economy.  Using them just stops you easily visiting small villages or one-traffic-circle “dorps”, instead you are forced to utilise the international franchises and give your money to the oil companies that own the petrol stations along the toll roads.

So – deciding at the pretty much last minute outside Bordeaux that the really best option for Y was a lift into Paris, to Gare Du Nord, we took the Paris freeway instead of the La Havre one, and I put my foot down.  We did about 930kms that day, to get him to Paris in time for an intercity train – which despite planning an hour of leeway, he only just made, as the one way’s and traffic lights and just the mass of traffic in Paris, even on the freeway close by, were a nightmare.

So Y was on his way to Brussells – or at least I hoped so, it took me nearly an hour to find a service station where I could park, get online, and ask his dad in South Africa.

I love that someone in South Africa knew pretty much straightaway that Y had made his Brussells train, whereas the closest “family” in Paris had to wait to check in with them to find out – we are living a very online, digitally connected life if you hadn’t noticed 🙂

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