Lost in Translation

Online blog of life in Barcelona for a English guy making a life for himself out here and trying desperately to have a good time, become fluent in Spanish, and most of all - not be constantly mistaken for a tourist!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Summer holidays

More of a traditional blog entry today rather than a quirky take on some random event or other, which is what I usually aim to write about. Let´s see how I get on when sticking to chronological events!

Well, the summer holiday period has really hit me square between the eyes and I´ve had some great holidays and days out recently. Not content with that, I´ve now got plans for enough new trips in the coming weeks to make Judith Chalmer´s travel diary look like the summer itinerary of an agoraphobiac. I´ve been to Rome and Florence, had days out around the coast of Barcelona, am planning a week in Galicia, and just last night, I got back from my first ever weekend in the Basque country, after spending a couple of days in San Sebastian, and having left with a definite taste to return again in the future.

As I finish work at around 2pm on Fridays, I cunningly took advantage of the opportunity to cause a bit of jealousy amongst my colleagues by arriving that morning with that unmistakable “I’m going on holiday and you’re not” look on my face, fanning myself with my San Sebastian tickets, their faces rubbed further into the dirt by the sound of my trolley bag wheeling nicely behind me. The edge was taken off slightly when I had to admit I would be travelling on the bus, squeezed into a ridiculously small space for the 8 hour journey, but 10p millionaires like me can´t afford to be too choosey, and as I only planned the trip about 3 days before hand, I´d left it a bit late for any flight bargains and apparently slave-powered sedan chairs are outlawed these days who knew?!).

Boarding the bus at Barcelona Sants station was the usual example of confusion that could easily be avoided if only Spanish transport officials wouldn’t been so stingy with presenting simple information. They have numbered laybys for each bus, but refuse to show any information as to which bus is going where, so everyone is trawling up and down the narrow walkway dragging bags behind them that inevitably get in eachother’s way and having to ask each driver where he’s going. The buses have the destination on the front, but this doesn’t really help when you see that there are 3 or 4 buses going to the same destination, but via different routes and with different bus companies. You can’t even identify easily the bus company as they sub-rent buses from other firms to cover busy routes etc. Let’s just say, logic is not in abundance. Why they can’t have a simple screen (or even just a simple blackboard) showing the next departures at each layby, I just don’t understand. They have a departures board at Barcelona Nord station so why not at Sants? Anyway, we eventually found our bus, popped our luggage in the hold and joined the rest of the passengers in the collective hope that the odd looking individuals hovering around the station looking for something to rob, wouldn’t do what would be completely easy in the commotion and just take a suitcase from the bus’s luggage hold and casually wheel it away (presumably hoping to find more than someone’s dirty underwear and a cheap travel iron inside!)

Squeezed into my seat with knees pressed up hard against the seat infront and with the air-conditioning turned to a positively barmy “Arctic”, the next thing to happen was a visit from the Guardia Civil. I misheard him at first and when I saw his official police badge being flapped in my face (he wasn’t in uniform) I thought the bus company were just taking a particularly heavy-handed approach to correct seat allocation, until I realised they actually wanted to see our ID as the bus was going to the Basque Country (presumably the mode of transport of choice for your average separatist terrorist is a chilled sardine can on wheels). I thought he’d take a quick look at my ropey English drivers licence and my “wouldn’t last 5 minutes in Al Qaeda” facial expression and pass it straight back, but he actually collected up everyone’s ID and then left the bus with the lot. Half an hour later (and now way behind the official departure time) we appeared to have been declared terrorist-free as he came back to hand out the cards again in a Paul Daniels “pick a card, any card” kind of way. On seeing my driver’s licence poking out from a fistful of Spanish DNI cards, I felt a bit like the joker in the pack… literally, but I quickly decided that passing myself off as Purificación García Jimenez, or Miquel Angel Lopez Fernando was always going to be a tall order, so I sheepishly slid out the card with the most boring name in the pack and popped it back in my wallet where it had come from.

The journey itself was uneventful, apart from the moment we made a comfort stop somewhere in the middle of nowhere outside Zaragoza and left the fridge on wheels only to be punched in the face by the air temperature outside. The difference was spectacular and was just like the well-used analogy of opening the oven door while holding your face just that bit too close to the blast of air. 25 minutes later, and mildly sun-scorched, we were back on board and underway again.

A trip like this really reminds you just how much wide open space there is in Spain (and the north eastern strip of Spain is reasonably highly populated so goodness knows how much open space there must be in the southern regions like Extremadura for example) as much of the landscape, once outside of Barcelona until you reach the Basque country, is pretty bleak indeed. A mixture of sun-dried mountains and dusty open land, made green in places by the irrigation systems spitting out water over the crops. OK, it’s far from being like Death Valley, and is beautiful in many ways, but the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, it certainly ain’t!. However, the change as you cross the mountains and reach the Basque region is spectacular and made the not-very-nice bus trip much more worthwhile. The only way I can describe it is that it’s as if the theatre stage hand has mixed up his ropes during an amateur production of Bonanza and suddenly the wrong cardboard scenery has dropped down. Where there was previously an arid bleak landscape that you would easily associate with inland Spain, there are suddenly beautiful rolling green hills and lush forests as far as the eye can see. This surely can’t be Spain, but remarkably it is and it just seems to go on and on and on. The hills are sparsely dotted with the occasional village (or just a single house in many cases), often with their trademark Basque-style wooden shutters on the windows. If anyone out there is ever lucky enough to have a country summer house in Spain, you could do a lot worse than choose this part of the country. OK, it may rain a lot more here but the results of all that water speak for themselves.

We finally rolled into San Sebastian at about 11pm and were picked up by my friend’s father for the short ride to their house (taking in a bit of a nighttime tour of the city first though). Despite the lateness when we arrived, everyone was up and waiting to greet us… mother, brother, sister-in-law and even the 8 year old Ukrainian girl that my friend’s parents look after for 2 months of each year as part of a program to take sick or at-risk children away from the poisoned area around the Chernobyl site. After kisses were handed out all around, out came the food of course leaving us with full stomachs as we fell into bed.

After having been warned many times about the unpredictability of the Basque weather, I wasn’t expecting miracles, but we certainly got one the next morning as it was a gloriously sunny and pleasantly warm day without being too hot to enjoy it. Four of us went for a walk which, within about 100 yards of the front door found us by the sea front of a stunning natural harbour. “Our” side is called San Pedro, while the neighbours just across the narrow stretch of water live in San Juan, and after a stroll along our side, we took the little boat across. San Juan is prettier with quaint streets and houses backing directly onto the waterfront.

Later in the day we went into the centre of San Sebastian and took a long stroll along the prom. “Prom” is a good way to describe it as it has a definite Victorian English feel about it with its decorated ironwork seafront railings and low-rise buildings which easily conjure up images of the rows of well- kept B&Bs and guest houses that you might see in some of the nicer British seaside resorts. Of course, the presence of a crystal blue sea is something I’ve never seen in the UK but you get the impression. A trip up the funicular railway to take in the view of the entire city, followed by a walk to the edge of the sea wall to see “Los Peines de los Vientos” (metal sculptures jutting out of the rocks) completed our daytime activities and we headed back to the centre of town to grab a bite to eat before going home for a late siesta, an evening meal with all the family, and then drinks in town. Like all good Spaniards, we didn’t even leave the house until well after midnight, but the city was heaving with people. A jazz festival was being held on the beach, but someone had unwisely put two giant stages too close together so the fierce competition to be the loudest ended up spoiling them both. Now, I know jazz is often all about improvisation with whatever number of instruments you have to hand, but this was just too much. I’m not a fan of jazz music anyway so we decided to head away from the beach and have a look around the bars in the city centre. The fact that they were charging ridiculous amounts for drinks on the beach sealed the decision!

San Sebastian is not short of bars, and certainly not short of people to drink in them. And drink they do! I’ve gotten used to the calmer approach to drinking that exists in Barcelona (aside from the foreign tourists who are throwing up on La Rambla by 11pm while most Spaniards are still eating their evening meal) but San Sebastian seems to have a culture of drinking slightly closer to the British system. OK, not as bad, but certainly more so than Barcelona. There was no sign of trouble though and everything was very lively and good-natured. We had a walk around and combined a bit of late night tourism with a few gin and tonics until the early hours before heading home. The next day we had to catch the bus back to Barcelona so it would be a wasted day unfortunately.

Now I’m home again, I’m putting the final touches to my plan for another week away, this time in Galicia and Asturias. I head off there on Sunday morning, and absolutely cannot wait!


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