Damn it, Andora

According to the world map, sandwiched between Spain and France there is a tiny country called Andorra. Nestled in the mountains and known for it’s popularity as a skiing destination, we couldn’t possibly resist passing through.
After an hour in Andorra I still wasn’t convinced that it was a real place. 

Essentially just a big shopping city surrounded by nature, at 32°c it felt extremely claustrophobic trying to navigate the winding streets. We drove from one end to the other without finding a street with free parking, let alone anywhere to get out and explore. Lots of billboards advertising cigarettes though. Staring wistfully up at the green grass of the ski paths, we admitted defeat and decided, “Fuck it, let’s go back to France.”

Stopping to get diesel at one of the many cheap petrol station (because the one thing Andorra seems to have going for it in the summer is it’s tax-free shopping), the shouting garage attendant alerted us to the coolant leaking out of the van. A tense wait as he and Josh played a game of charades trying to communicate a solution to our problem, as I waited in the passenger seat running through drills of how quickly I could grab our cards, phones and passports if the van happened to explode. The thought of breaking down here, with our bottles of warm water and little tincan home that smells of feet was utterly horrifying.

Ironically, driving out of Andorra was a picturesque utopia. There was snow on the top of the mountains and once you’d rounded the corner you couldn’t even see tthe rabbit warren of shops and apartment buildings anymore. Damn, Andorra, why you gotta be like that?

This was the first place we’ve encountered that was disappointing, which isn’t bad going considering we’ve been on the road now for almost a month. Time to reevaluate our winter ski holiday!

Madrid: The City That Never Sweats

Madrid was too hot.
I’d never really considered that a place could be too high in temperature. I’m English; I spend most of the year staring at the clouds in the sky and worrying. I lie in the garden once a year and burn myself enough to earn my dairylea triangle tan lines and I’m done. Obviously the major pull of travelling around Europe in the summer was the thought of not wearing a jumper.

But no, this was the first city that we had to concede to the sun and stay in the shade. We audibly gasped with happiness whenever we felt a breeze. We might as well have been undercover agents on Mars, because the people of Madrid walk the scorched pavements with the confidence of someone with an air-conditioning system physically installed inside them. We even saw people wearing jeans. Some people had jackets! And grey t-shirts, grey! No one else seemed to be complaining about how their hair was sticking to their skin or walking with the unstable gait of a heat-stroke sufferer. I think I could live in Madrid for ten years and never get used to their 35°C summers.

That said, once I’d cut all my hair off, it was a great city to explore. We visited the Reina Sofia museum where there was an excellent exhibition on Picasso and his famous Guernica. We stared at a painting called The Great Masturbator for a while and there was an angry feminist collection that I appreciated greatly. I love visiting museums with Josh because he’s like me; we go in with the best intentions but by the end you’ll find us staring by a wall of geometric shapes ranting “how is this art?!” or laughing at the descriptions written by overthinking art critics. In some rooms I would find myself looking at his expression as much as the paintings, my amused blurb covering his Portrait Of A Young Man Thinking WTF.
There was also a museum of culture with very comfy sofas where we saw a great exhibition of Teresa Margolles’ work on the erasure of trans safe spaces. There was a weird military indoctrination faire happening near where we were parked that seemed geared towards showing kids how fun it is to be in the army (nice helicopter though). We discovered an antiques sale hiding in the artistic quarter. We walked through Parque del Retiro and fed little birds straight from our hands, saw turtles and wandered through a big book faire before realising that of course it was all in Spanish.

My Spanish remains terrible, but I struggled through a poor pronunciation of “fried anchovies” when ordering dinner on our last night there. Having no idea of portion sizes, we ended up with a lot of fish and no clue whether we were insulting local customs by eating it poorly. Generally I am just pretending I’m in Grim Fandango and walk around saying “Buenas dias, Manny”. 


We walked back to the van after a day sweltering in the city and someone had defaced our van! I didn’t know whether to be angry they didn’t draw a proper picture or relieved we don’t have to drive through any checkpoints with a massive penis on the back doors. Thanks Madrid!

Peneda-Gerês National Park – Portugal 

They say that bad things happen in threes, which must mean I’m due another period next week. That’s right, your trusty adventurer is having her second period in two weeks thanks to my now depo provera-less body.
It was also the day we decided to climb a mountain.

Wincing into a pair of shorts and realising that there was no good reason why I hadn’t brought a hot water bottle on the trip, we filled our bag with snacks and headed Up.

The Peneda-Gerês National Park area is lush; little villages dotted around a landscape of impressive natural beauty. The small town of Gerês has babbling brooks and streams cutting through it’s boundaries, with water so clear you can fill your bottles straight from the cliff. Which was handy, because I was dehydrated and wheezing after the first fifteen minutes.
I don’t know how I found the strength to climb two thousand two hundred and fifty feet up a trial that was little more than dirt, stones and fern leaves. My head was sweating, my butt was worse. The sort of cramps that would have normally been expelled from me via a hot bath were now a cry to the local wildlife warning them: do not fuck with me.

But my word, once we reached the top all that faded away. From the looking point everything became insignificant. We found a giant lizard and a geocache that had updates spanning back from the last five years. Just to take a second and take it all in made the torturous climb worth it. 
But, like the gravity ravaging my body, we had to go down. Down was easier. Down was nice. The “I am woman” endorphins made me practically bound down that mountain, no sweat. Okay, maybe a little sweat – did I mention it was 25°c?

That’s when a gang of extremely pointy horned cows appeared in the road.


This guy seemed nice enough, just curious about our presence their and strange human habit of sticking to footpaths. The cow was blocking ours. And then, like snipers in the trees, I saw all these horned heads in the bushes turn to look at us. One of them let out an angry moo and that’s when I began to consider the possibility that we could be murdered by cows.

We’ve never climbed over an awkward placement of off-the-beaten-track rocks faster, the sound of cowbells echoing behind us like a very slow car chase. We had avoided being murdered by cows.

I can heartily recommend Gerês to anyone looking to spend four hours walking up a mountain. It is exceptionally beautiful and the trail we took led us over a variety of terrain, so we got to see how the plants and vegetation changed with the altitude. I am now accepting donations in chocolate and backrubs. 

Gijon

Okay, I should probably start sharing some areas of interest, not just my discomfort at cultural differences!

Arriving at Gijon and looking out at the sea was majestic. There’s a carpark about fifteen minutes walk from the city centre where caravans could stay for free, so we headed there. It was relatively quiet, apart from the guy listening to The Offspring really loudly in his car in the early morning.

Gijon is excellent for bikes. There’s a really clear cycle route that goes through the park, along the promenade and into the city and it’s separated from the car lane by little bollards so pedalling noobs like me aren’t at risk of death. We cycled the whole of it and went through the city, past the old town full of rustic buildings and towers, and into the suburbs.

Another thing we did not expect to find in Gijon was a bagpipe museum. The Museum of the Asturian People is a large open air space with a main exhibition and a collection of small buildings in the grounds housing smaller collections. We saw a 3D display of photography from the 1800s (way better than my phone’s camera, even two hundred years later!) and learnt about the evolution of the radio. Turns out bagpipes aren’t purely a Scottish pastime, they’ve been blaring out sick tunes on them in Spain the whole time. This was my favourite one;

We were casually strolling through the park to find some cafe con leche when we heard the call of the peacock. Desperate for any foreign animal to take a shine to me, we ventured further and found a whole aviary hidden in the middle of the park! Chickens, parrots, geese and emu, all either wandering the grounds or going quietly mad in their cages. I spent a lot of time clucking at the parrots, because of course we had a connection. 

We were sad to leave Gijon, but the weather soured and it started to rain! Rain, in Spain? I would definitely buy a house overlooking the beach though; this was a city of nice surprises. I am disappointed we didn’t manage to eat goujons in Gijon though.

Le Piscine Dangereux

Three days without a shower and things were starting to get desperate. We drove into Santander (the Spanish city, not the bank.. although I did steal their WiFi to send my last blog post) and located a swimming pool.

In France, the only stipulation seems to be that boys wear trunks instead of swimming shorts, which is why Josh has a lovely pair of tight black things hanging on our in-van washing line currently. 

Here in Spain, the changing rooms were segregated by gender, which seems archaic.. but since the only privacy to get changed came from the toilet I hurriedly locked myself in, it made sense. Yep, Spanish people really don’t care who sees their pink bits. It was like a school locker room, the one I occasionally see in my nightmares still.

I think it’s nice, and a far healthier attitude for children to grow up into rather than leave them be to manifest their own crippling body dysmorphia and shame like I did. Oh well, let me be a cautionary tale to them. I threw my clothes into a locker and went into the main pool. Without Josh and my glasses, I was going in blind.

The attendant stopped me as I hugged myself over to water’s edge. Here the pool rules required us to wear swimming caps and sandals whenever we left the pool. They generously gave us some to borrow as I made another mental note to google the Spanish word for “sorry”. I took the navy rubber hat and left Josh with the barbie pink one. I needed a victory.

We were expecting a slide. Or maybe even a fun wave machine bit like we found in the pool at Fécamp. A jacuzzi? Nope, this swimming pool looked like it was in the process of training the next Olympic team. The rectangular pool was split into lanes and all but a couple of them were filled with kids powering through the water like tiny sharks. They managed to clear the length of the pool and back before I’d barely made it to the other side, bobbing up and down to the rhythm of my weak breast stroke. 

We tread water in the deep end and wondered how long we had to be here before we were allowed to get out with our dignity still intact. The answer ended up being roughly half an hour, whilst I alternated tired half-drowning with short bursts of anxiety-fuelled power swimming. I’d just wanted a nice shower.

So please, close your eyes and imagine my facial expression when I dragged myself out of the pool, removed my swimming cap and discovered that the shower cubicles didn’t have doors. 

I don’t think I’ve showered faster in my life, and I still stayed in my swimming costume. Blurry naked eight year olds wandered around the changing room as I threw shampoo at my head and imagined their perplexed faces at the crazy lady showering in her swimming clothes. “It’s ok!” I wanted to shout, “I’m British! A lot of us are very repressed and don’t feel great about ourselves! You’ll be ok, you’ll always have a suntun!” But instead I legged it into the toilet cubicle again to change into my shorts and shirt. Because thank god, Spanish toilets still have doors. 

€4 each. Bargain.

No Spain No Gain

Spain is hilarious. Neither me nor Josh took the language at school so we have all of “hello” and “thank you” between us, and none of that basic understanding of words that seems to stick in the back of your memory since Year Nine. Despite their liberal use of vowels, I stare at the street signs and they blur in front of me like I’ve developed a special dyslexia á Espanol.  
So… ordering tapas was an experience. I asked for some octopus and Josh panicked when the bartender was describing some of the dishes (“mwah, mwah, delicious!”) so he ended up with a blended crab paste that came in a glass. We are clearly in a different region from that chorizo we like so very much.

Crossing the border was so underwhelming it was exciting. I’ve never crossed a border before, unless you count going to Wales which I definitely don’t. One minute we were in France and the next we weren’t. No passports needed! It was a weird experience, and then we were in the mountains.

Initially I was put off by Spain because:

  • After seeing no police presence in France, and half the local village stations seeming to close around 4pm.. an hour into Spain we drive past an intersection with cops patrolling the road with guns. Like, automatic rifle type guns. I’m not going to lie, my sheltered British butt felt pretty shaken.
  • There are no public toilets in Spain, or at least very few around. For a country with a plethora of drinking fountains, there is nothing at the other end of that scale. Our first stop was a small village, deserted and in the kind of heat that makes you feel sleepy and claustrophic. No bathrooms. We had to drive to a McDonalds. On the plus side my McFlurry tour of Europe is going very well.

But actually, wandering around the city of Vitoria Gasteiz was really enjoyable. This bit of Spain is a lot like England but the weather is warmer and the beers are smaller. There was even a Primark. The outskirts of town smell like rubber because of the Michelin factory but the centre is filled with nice old buildings and statues, and I found a Rosie the Riveter mural next to a vending machine full of sex toys. There are vending machines for everything here. 

In the old part of town there is a museum specifically for playing cards! We had a look around and marvelled at the collection which dates back from the 1600s to the present day. It’s all in Spanish, but we enjoyed looking at the cards, which are a lot more political, cultural, geographical, botanical and satirical than my basic deck at home.
A cafe down the road from where we’re parked does a lovely coffee with complimentary freshly squeezed orange juice for €1.25; dirt cheap and a lovely way to start a day of exploring. My bladder was dreading arriving here, but I’m glad we did.

My favourite Spanish word so far is Velocidad. I’m not sure what it means, but I think you can guess what I’m imagining. 

Observations Whilst Travelling Through France

We’ve been in France, and on this trip in general, for a week now. Driving through the gorgeous French countryside and visiting small towns and campsites. At the moment we are close to Bordeaux and a couple days away from Spain. My sunburn has sunburn. 

I’ve been stealing WiFi (and Netflix downloads) from roadside McDonalds’ which is why I know that the beef burger here comes with Dijon mustard and that life back home is still going. One of my favourite book series is about a group of kids that go camping and their country is invaded, whilst they are oblivious. So you know, worth checking. 

Anyway, it’s hard to craft a proper blog post of informative French history and culture. I want to tell you about the castle on the island or the small towns with American flags and street names like “Rue de Liberation”. I don’t know how much learning I’m meant to be doing on this trip; I’m basically just an excited puppy with her head hanging out of the car window, tongue lolling about. Some observations though.

  • French people like to say “bonjour” a lot. It’s like going for a walk through the British countryside; everybody greets you. Have spent a lot of time anxiously hoping they don’t let their “hellos” continue into anything resembling a sentence because my French is awful. Have been smiling and nodding a lot. 
  • French animals on the other hand are cold and aloof. Cats run from us, birds scatter. I made friends with one massive brown dog but otherwise the chiens of France are disinterested. And I say bonjour to all of them!
  • Everywhere typically shuts between 12.30 and 2pm. For lunch. France gets actual lunch breaks where everybody can leave their place of work, de-stressing, chill by the quay or whatever. It’s a much better outlook on the way to work, but bloody annoying when you’re a hungry English person who keeps forgetting when on route to the supermarket.
  • Mint flavoured squash drink is not as tasty and refreshing as you want it to be.
  • They do, however, have lemon toothpaste which I am very excited to try.
  • There are wind farms everywhere in the countryside, and they aren’t obtrusive, ugly or noisy like English people need to pretend they are to justify not having them. 
  • So much green and open space in France. Everyone is growing something in their garden and we’ve passed houses that look like set pieces from The Witcher series.
  • Nearly every small town we’ve passed has a church, sometimes two, and a huge stone monument of Jesus on the cross. We’ve taken to shouting “White Jesus!” as we pass through, like some sort of religious i-spy. 
  • When you fill up your van with petrol, sometimes the petrol station will take the maximum amount you could potentially spend, charge you that and then return it in a week or so. Seems incredibly shifty and remarkably inconvenient. We found this out when Josh realised he had next to no money in his prepaid account; he’d been charged £130 for £40 of diesel. So do watch out for that.
  • Some toilets are just a hole in the ground with foot grips. Nooooope.
  • LAUGHING COW MERCHANDISE. I bought some spoons!