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Published: July 28th 2016
In the last week in southern France, we have been feeling forty plus degree heat. With the sun holding a searing blowtorch to the landscape right up to sunset around 9:30 pm, and little or no shade in most of our campsites, we have been looking forward to a climb into the Pyrenees. Our route over the last few days has been from Pau in south-west France toward the city of Pamplona in north-west Spain. So as we began to ascend the relatively gentle western crossing of the Pyrenees, it was a welcome change to turn off the cabin air conditioning as ambient temperature dropped to a comfortable 25 or so degrees. Then I flicked the headlights on as fog bought visibility back to less than 50 meters. It’s good to take it slowly on these mountain roads, allowing an occasional glimpse down the sheer vertical drop off beside the road. Once we ascended for a few minutes, I couldn’t see the bottom, but as there is usually no armour rail, I am sure the bottom would be there to eventually arrest our fall should the tyres decide to veer over the edge. As we came around the curve at the
end of each switchback, the opposite side of the ravine did a full frontal, decked out in deep green, right in my face for a moment before bowing away when I turned the steering wheel from lock to lock to get around 180-degree turns. At the top, a sign announced an altitude of 1,500 or so meters. I thought ‘Why bother with such a piddley little rise,’ compared to last August’s drive up the D902 to col l’Iseran reaching 2,700 meters. (The tollbar ascending the range to Toowoomba lifts you about 650meters and Mt Kosciusko is 2,220 meters above sea level.) Yesterday’s rise may not have been as high or as steep, but it did require concentration, albeit for a much shorter time.
As they say, ‘what goes up, must come down’, and within a few seconds of reaching the peak, the fog lifted to reveal quite a straight downward slope along a smooth slick bitumen tarmac.
“The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain.” What a lot of codswallop.
Rain and mist envelope the northern French side of the Pyrenees, cloaking the mountain side with verdant growth. That contrasts with the southern Spanish
side which is dry as a dead dingos donga.
Wheat harvest has nearly completed in northern Spain and so as we descended onto the plain, healthy golden stubble glistened, dominating the landscape colour of straw. Rolls and stacks of baled straw gave testimony to the voluminous yield of this year’s harvest. Lines of mountains topped with wind chargers stood as a backdrop guarding over the fertile plain and completing the picture of a Mojave Desert barrenness to the complete landscape setting. There was no sign of rain: not even a cloud. There was no dead dingo; no roadkill of any species. Where paddocks remained fallow, the soil looked like it had been imported from the moon: yellowy brown and looking like a close relative to Arabian beach sand, it looked hopeless to farm. If I had not seen the tens of thousands of acres of freshly harvested wheat stubble. I would have written this county off as totally worthless. Except that baled straw remained to testify that the useless looking soil supports lush growth when good winter rains fall.
Continuing southward, putting kilometres between us and the hilly southern Pyrenees, the vista relaxed to undulating and later to
rolling plains. But everywhere, hot wind from Africa, dry sky parched the land with a uniform spent look of harvest completed, work finished, worn out readiness to give up all under blowtorch rays of a summer sun. This was the antithesis of what I expected in Europe.
Then I discovered that 2016 is delivering the worst drought in Spain for 150 years. No wonder it's dry. So it would not always be this parched in summer.
We did not know what to expect in Spain. We were reminded of some GFC overhang and difficulties in the Spanish economy when last week the EU financial system in Brussels took a stick to the Spanish and Portugal governments threatening to cut off support, for doing what Rudd and Gillard did in Australia, exceeding expenditure sides of their budgets.
Our first impression was the quality of roads, our second impression the quality of housing, and our third impression was seeing modern infrastructure in this rather remote part of the vast country that is Spain. Pamplona is a modern city displaying a carefully planned appearance, while surrounding towns contain clean, well maintained, and substantial houses showing that the people who live
there care about their surroundings. Negative publicity about the country’s financial woes had me prepared for a re-run of Italy’s depressing south. We drove off the main road for lunch and pulled up in a tidy little industrial estate. It was not until we had stopped that we realised the entire estate was vacant. Someone lost big money here. But even though it was empty, the estate was clean and still loved.
So it looks to me like the Spanish might have overspent n infrastructure at the wrong time, but they still have those facilities and one day should move forward financially. That’s just a temporary problem. That is a much better long-term position to be in than say a state where exponentially rising mining royalties were flushed down the toilet of excessive payments to layabout job sharers duplicating payroll positions and ‘consultants’, handing out cash to purchase Chinese TV sets, and leaving that state without infrastructure improvements while still taking on a level of debt that is challenging to service. NEXT DAY
Cities and Towns are few and far between in this western part of Spain. towns along the highway are sparse. Cities like Valladolid
(187,000) and Burgos
(176,000). and Salamca (228,000) have few towns in between them and each services a large agricultural industry.
The landscape continues as described above. Dry. A dozen cans of San Miguel beer sells for E4. We don’t see any Spanish people worrying about media reports of their national debt. They all speak nicely, they drive nice cars, apartments and houses look clean and well maintained on the outside; as they step out their contented look suggests things are comfortable inside.
Burgos looks like a city like Toowoomba, with a comprehensive agricultural services industry. But there is more.
Besides having one of the nicest free camping ‘Aire de services’ south of the Pyrenees, the city has one of the best cathedrals around. St Mary of Burgos Cathedral is arguably better than Florence’s ‘Our Lady of the Flower’. Interior artwork in numerous side altars and chapels shows more creativity and is more inspiring than much of the Florentine wall decorations; ornamental towers fill the view as you approach, and go on to draw you gaze upwards when inside toward the flamboyant detail on all surfaces. What takes the cake is the way the mouth on
the statue of Papamoscas opens and closes as cathedral bells ring.
We are not allowed to take flash pictures inside. It is truly magnificent. Also known as Santa Maria de Burgos; it took 346 years to complete and was finished in 1667. Apparently, the builders took some time off for two centuries during the course of construction. I do not know if they got the pay rise or better conditions.
In 1984 the French Gothic style (with many spires, windows, etc) cathedral was UNESCO World Heritage listed. The building is 88 meters high and sits on over 1 hectare.
THREE DAYS LATER
Still dry. Still, haven’t seen a dead dingo. Maybe the locals eat all the roadkill. Now that wouldn’t be likely. Good tucker here. And good value.
We pull up for Saturday night at Salamanca. Nowhere radiates from this centre. Diesel is E0.91 a litre. Compare that with Italy’s E1.50. Wine is E.59 a litre and it’s about 13.5% alcohol by volume. None of that sugar 95 stuff like the Italian’s have.
Salamanca is a clean well to do city, obviously benefiting from centuries of agricultural prosperity.
Old cities don’t
impress me as much as they used to. But walking around old Salamanca was good for my spirit. Compared with many old European cities, Salamanca is clean and even in the random way streets run into and off one another, there is order. As in provincial cities all over Europe (except southern Italy) that we have visited, people are well dressed, clean cut and respectful; they are not afraid to make eye contact or attempt to converse. We walked across one of four of the city’s bridges over the Rio Tomes; the Puento Romano, built in the 1st
century. Seeing how the Spanish have maintained and extended the life of old infrastructure and buildings puts me in awe of them; observing the detail on buildings like the New Cathedral (Yes New- built in 17th
centuries) and the baroque city square (Plaza Mayor) finished in 1755 display how country people in Spain build quality structures and then look after them. Seeing the way these country people drive, walk and conduct themselves impressed how respect for themselves and one another has built a great nation.
We will only be in Spain for a short time. After seeing
their wild west, we may consider a trip through their east and south.
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