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My Spanish Nightmare 1 - Barcelona to Cabo de Gata

SPAIN | Saturday, 5 July 2008 | Views [5308]

(Written late March, 08)

How to find accommodation in Barcelona during Semana Santa:

Quite simply, you can't. Don't even try. Not only will Barcelona be full of various Europeans on Easter holidays, but also every single American girl on "spring break" from her European place of learning will be there. Every single one. And not only will these American girls have booked up all the hostels, they'll also be walking around with endearingly perplexed expressions, saying "I can't find my friend...?" and you'll have to practise all your best vacant-American-girl deflecting kung-fu moves just to survive.

I know this because I managed to book a hostel for my first night. It was full of vacant American girls and some sweet but unworldly American boys who knew a lot about knives. It had been a long time since I'd stayed in a European hostel, so re-acquaintance with this ungracious form of accommodation was jarring: I had a squeaky top bunk in a tiny, windowless room, backing onto a corridor where the American girls on spring break would congregate because you could only actually fit one and a half midgets into the communal spaces, and only if they hugged really tightly.

My room was also right next to the showers, which meant (and I should have seen this coming) that at 7am everyone in my room was woken by the hysterical screams of the American girl on spring break who couldn't work the shower's bi-folding doors in order to get out of the shower, and the accompanying screams of another American girl on spring break who was trying to reassure her.

"It's ok, we're going to get your out of there!"
"WE'RE ... GOING ... TO GET YOU... OUT!!!"

The night after that I stayed with a Couchsurfer and spent the whole day on the internet trying to find accommodation for the next night instead of wandering the broad boulevards of Barcelona admiring something made by Gaudi.

But listen, if this ever happens to you, try this: This was my backup plan if all else failed, and I'm a little sad that I didn't get to try it out because I think it rules.

1) The airport in Barcelona is only ten kilometres from the centre. It's a normal (1.30) train ride away. It's open 24 hours, and you can sleep there. It might not be particularly luxurious, but if you've got a sleeping bag and an auto-swelling mat and a tent it might be kind of nice to avoid the American girls on spring break.

2) Sants Station in Barcelona allows you to store your baggage for about 6 euros per 24 hours. After sleeping at the airport you can come back into the city and put your bags in a locker while you look at things made by Gaudi.

3) Or, sometimes hostels allow you day-use of the facilities for a small fee. The hostel I stayed at on the first night gave you baggage storage, showers, kitchen use and free WiFi for 3 euros. This could also be an option worth exploring.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your desire to have me sleep in the airport) I found a wonderful Couchsurfer man 50kms north of Barcelona who agreed to host me for as long as I needed. He had a lovely house in a little village close to the sea and surrounded by hills and forest. He also had an enthusiastic basset hound. He was my favourite thing in Spain. I should have just gone home after meeting him.

Sant Pol de Mar: Three kilometres from Sant Cebria where I was staying. The train station is in the foreground and in the distance you can see the brown tops of trees in the park. I point these out for reasons that will soon become apparent.

On hiring a car and getting out of Barcelona:

But no! I decided that it would be an excellent idea to hire a car. It was cheap! Only 11 euros a day if you forwent the comprehensive insurance and drove less than 100kms a day! So I hired a ridiculous little "Smart" for ten days.

7 Reasons why hiring a car in Spain is a bad idea:

1) Spain drives on the right. You drive on the left.
2) Petrol is expensive in Europe.
3) As are the tolls on the highways.
4) You don't know where you're going, or how to avoid the tolls.
5) You can't drive or park in the cities, which means you have to stay in camping grounds and you don't get to see the cities.
6) Spain is big. You will end up driving more than 100kms a day, adding an extra 8 euros per day to your hire price.
7) You have to pay extra for the comprehensive insurance. If you refuse, you will be constantly stressed because, may I remind you, you drive on the left.

Up until the day before I left, I was planning to visit the Pyrenees. Then there was a whole lot of snow and road closures in the Pyrenees, and I decided to go south instead. Precisely where, I didn't know. Just away from the snow because, you know, I didn't have the "you've slid on snow and crashed into a ditch" insurance.

The first task, therefore, was to get out of Barcelona. I had maps, but not of the city. I asked the guy in the hire place how to get out of the city and he shrugged. I jumped in the car in the hope that all would become obvious. Within ten minutes done two potentially bad things:

1) I had almost driven into the side of a van while driving around and around and around the same roundabout at the base of the highway overbridge looking for the onramp. My wing mirror snapped inwards into a more defensive posture. I said "Fuck" a whole lot.

2) Then I drove up on a kerb with a dramatic "KER-PLUNKPLUNK!" I said "Fuck" a little more.

I pulled over and shook my fist at this highway overbridge. Then I took a few side roads (earning some shaken fists myself not to mention a few blasts of the horn) and found the on-ramp. Then I slipped my burned Chili Peppers CD into the little slot, slid back the sunroof shade and exhaled.

On accepting rides from strangers:

To put the exhaling into more perspective, here's what happened on the way to pick up the rental car.

The village I was staying in was three kilometers from the train station where I had to catch the train to Barcelona. The buses from the village to the train station were every hour. I missed the bus and decided that I could easily walk three kilometers.

And I could. No problem with that. But it was hot, and it was tiring, and I was thinking, "if I was one of these people driving past and I saw a girl carrying a big backpack and obviously walking to the train station, I would probably offer her a ride..."

So when a man pulled up beside me and offered me a ride to the train station, it hardly seemed strange to me. I took a peek in his back seat for obvious signs that he might be a murderer, and I saw a baby seat and a laptop. These were very soothing objects for me, so I walked around the car and got into the front.

Then there was pornography. A nice magazine full of all sorts of shades of peach and pink, lying on the floor. Not so soothing. I raised my eyebrows at this and the guy made "ho ho ho" noises and shoved it to the side. I thought that I could hardly judge a man by what he reads or does in his car when he's alone, particularly if I was only going to be in there for five minutes.

We drove a little bit and exchanged pleasantries, then he pulled out the porno again and waved it in my face, inquiring as to whether it was material that I enjoyed reading. I pulled a "meh, I could take it or leave it" face, and he grabbed his crotch in a gesture I took to mean "this material pleases me greatly." I smiled. Everyone is entitled to express their opinion and offer recommendations for reading material... and it wasn't too much further to the station.

We turned down a dead-end street. I knew the street because it's where my couchsurfing host would park when he'd walk his dog, and it was right next to the playground where I had napped in days previous. "Oops!" said porno man, and turned the car around.

I was stupidly rather surprised when I glanced back at him and saw him with his fly unzipped, tugging on his penis. He gave me a slightly apologetic look and asked (in Spanish, it's amazing how much I can understand from context) if I could please suck on it "just a little". I gave him an equally apologetic look and said no, sorry, and that I would walk to the station now. I opened the back door while still sitting in the front seat, just in case he decided to speed off with my backpack (and laptop). It was a feat of co-ordination incongruous with the fact that porno man was still jerking on his dick and looking at me. I gave him my best "you've made me very sad" face as I dumped my stuff on the road, and he drove away.

I shouldered my backpack and walked to the station to catch a train to pick up a car.

On stress:

Following the Penis Episode and the Getting Out Of Barcelona episode, I considered that the rest of the first day of my roadtrip surely would be all downhill. I drove. My little car was ridiculous but zippy. The highways were smooth and I was passing through pretty countryside: All dry hills and chiseled rock, and later through endless expanses of orange orchards. I stopped in those homogenous highway stops and bought caffeinated beverages. I napped on a rare patch of grass as the sun was going down because I had been awake since 5am and I still had 150 kilometers until Valencia.

Up until that point I hadn't been too bothered by the tolls. I'd been told to expect them, and they were only two euros here, five euros there. Then I got to the toll booth not too far from Valencia and the little sign said twenty euros. TWENTY EUROS? I asked the man if he was sure. He was sure. Twenty euros. That brought my toll payments for the day to over thirty euros. Sixty dollars. Christ.

I followed the signs towards Valencia. I figured it would all become obvious. I ended up in some asshole industrial satellite suburb, asking at the petrol station how I could get into the centre. Too many highways, too many exits, too much "Valencia north!" "Valencia west!" "Valencia south!" and not enough "Valencia centre, stupid!"

I got into Valencia centre and had no idea where I was, and everyone was tooting their horns at me. I pulled over and asked a lady on the side of the road: She was sweet. She saw me approaching with my map, and she smiled and said "tell me." She and her daughter explained to me as best they could, then told me to follow them in their car and they'd lead me there. Again, I exhaled. I got into the city, found the market, parked my car and found my hostel. Success!

Only it wasn't really success, because I knew I'd have to do the same thing again tomorrow, and because tomorrow presented a whole host of other problems:

Firstly, I wouldn't be able to leave the car where it was in order to explore Valencia: It was a two-hour parking zone, which meant I had to move before 11.30am. Longer parking would have cost between 12 and 20 euros.

Secondly, I didn't know how to get out of Valencia. I'd been guided into the city, but the consequence of that is that I had no idea how to leave.

Thirdly, I didn't know where I was going.

Fourthly, I was sure that wherever I decided to go would cost me an arm and a leg in tolls and petrol.

Fifthly I was terrified of driving in the city with no insurance when I usually drive on the left.

Sixthly, I wasn't even excited to be there. Lastly, I was missing a boy

The result of all this? Never in my life, as far as I can recall, have I been so stressed. Sure, I've been anxious. I've been worried. I've had a little pressure on, and I've been flustered on a great number of occasions. But stress, like this, was something new. My brain was zipping through all possibilities, pushing against the doors to see which one would open. When it couldn't find any openings, I just sat down and cried. I cried through my dinner. I cried through one lovely man's attempt at conversation. I cried in the shower. I cried in bed. I didn't sleep because I was still looking for options even though my body had long given up.

To function, or not to function?

In the morning I got up early, purchased bread and strawberries from the market, spread my giant map over the kitchen table and plotted my course out of Valencia along the backroads.

On the back roads:

The first half of my second day was nice: I got off the autovia as soon as I could and spent the next few hours meandering through little villages in the general direction of the middle of nowhere. I drove through pretty national park that was reminiscent of dry Australian landscapes. I got lost on numerous occasions and endured lengthly directions in Spanish where the only words I understood were "left" and "right".

Then I realised that I was only about a hundred kilometers from Valencia and I had a shit's show in hell of reaching the place I wanted to reach that night if I continued at that pace, so I jumped on the "red" road (national road) and made speedier progress through hills and more little villages. I drove past a beautiful unexpected lake with a nuclear powerstation camped on its banks, to emerge from the hills into that monotonous landscape of rolling land covered in olive trees with distant mesas and violent, insistent wind. Brown and grey and industrial.

This is where I did most of my screaming.

I was slightly soothed upon entering the hills and forest again, with their dramatic gorges and lack of wind. I found a spooky deserted campsite at the bottom of a valley, paid the ridiculous fee to set up my tent and ate a cold dinner of dried bread, strawberries and cherry tomatoes.

The next day was a repeat. I'd been planning to do some exploring of the national park but it was so outstandingly cold I couldn't face it. I tried to find a bed in a hostel in Granada but they, too, were full of American chicks on spring break, and besides -- I couldn't find anywhere to park my car. I tried to visit the Alhambra but there was some sort of event going on that required the police to dress up in fancy uniforms. I spent fifteen minutes sitting in a queue to get to the carpark, then drove over the median barrier  -- KERPLUNKPLUNK -- and completed a 30 point turn to drive back out of there again.

I drove through alternating patches of sunshine and squalls of splattery rain. I drove through mountains, such mountains, with villages perched on their sides.

I drove to the sea.

As soon as I hit the sea, the grey skies and rain and threatening snow fled and it was all sunshine and that late-afternoon goldenness. I drove along dramatic coastline with little castles perched on clifftops and the wind whipping up white peaks in the Mediterranean beneath me. I got out of my stupid little car to take photos and the wind almost ripped the stupid little door off. I looked for recommendations in my Lonely Planet and the Lonely Planet said "Go to Cabo de Gata", and so I did.

This is where I wrote my previous entry.

Kind of a castle thing on kind of a big rock thing. Look at how rough the sea looks, and then imagine how my hair looked right about now.

My ridiculous little car at the same place.

On the benefits of picking up hitchhikers in a Smart:

Right after I'd finished writing the above-mentioned journal entry I took a drive. Firstly to look for petrol. Secondly to look for gas so I could make myself a coffee, dammit. I rounded a corner and there were a couple of reassuringly rancid looking hitchhikers waving at me in an enthusiastic manner, so I pulled over. I said that if they could fit in my car I would be happy to drive them. They squeezed their bags in the back and then squeezed themselves both into my front seat, and giggled.

They were German. They were lovely. They were hitchhiking and bussing from Malaga to a place called San Pedro, where they said there were lots of hippies living in tents and in caves, and an old pirate castle. They wanted a ride to Las Negras which was the closest car-accessible town to this hippy/pirate beach. Coffee took a back seat (figuratively speaking, we were in a Smart) and I drove them the twenty kilometres to Las Negras.

Here is where I go back on everything I have ever preached about in the past. I don't care what I've said before: It is much more fun to explore with other people. We got lost and ended up at an abandoned gold mine. We climbed around that and sat on the steps burning our knees in the sunshine. We arrived at Las Negras and sat staring at the ocean and eating whatever food we had. We went to the bar and had a beer: My first beer in Spain. We drove to the next beach where they cooked for me and made me a coffee (finally!). Then I drove in the dark back to my depressing campground full of old couples, with the idea of heading over to that pirate beach myself the next day.

The abandoned goldmine. You can see why I thought it might have been a prison, and you can imagine how disappointed I was to discover it was not.

The Germans engaging in dinner preparation.

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