Wanderung 14

The Plane to Spain replaced by the Bounding Main!

April-May 2007



So what were the lessons learned during this odyssey? On a practical level, we don't get seasick and thus future ocean voyages are definitely in the picture. The new cruise ships with stabilizers are really very steady. Rick, Brigitte, and Dave, our table companions, made the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean very pleasant. We never seemed to lack for things to do, even on the "at Sea" days, partly because we were trying to keep in shape with regular exercise but also partly because we took advantage of the opportunities to learn dances or other new things. Several times we faced the necessity of choosing one activity and letting something else go because we just couldn't be two places at once, which speaks well for the variety of ship activities being offered. I found out that the "Red Hat Society" will not admit a guy even if he had an official Northern Virginia Volksmarchers fire engine red cap, although I'm not sure why, and I never figured out for sure who the "Friends of Dorothy" were or whether it was a group I should join or not. These and other mysteries will have to await some future cruise.

We also thoroughly enjoyed each one of our stops along the way from Miami to Barcelona. The Azores have a lush natural beauty and exotic culture that was for us a very interesting combination. Lisbon was an interesting capital city but I was stupid to wear my "tourist belt" and paid a rather steep price in having Monika's camera stolen, which dramatically decreased my overall enjoyment of that day. The Alcazar in Seville was a beautiful fusion of Moorish and Spanish cultural influences; we thought it was great. The Caves of Nerja were a "see once" type of thing; next time I will just walk around Malaga or get to the Alhambra in Granada if I possibly can. Valencia was a much prettier city than I had been lead to expect by Frommer's description, and Barcelona was rather less enjoyable than I had expected from Frommer's description. But that difference in reaction may in part have been due to the beautiful clear, sunny weather we had for our walking tour of Valencia compared to the dull, drizzly overcast and rain that we experienced in Barcelona. Particularly for folks like us who tend to walk around and take a lot of pictures, the weather at a given place seems to affect our perception of it.

Our two week driving tour of Spain went, on the whole, very well. After driving 2,381 kilometers there, my judgment is that driving in Spain is relatively easy. The DRIVING signage for speed limits, curves, no passing zones, maintenance zones, and line markings were all excellent. Some things are marked much better than in the U.S., in particular the signage for which lane should yield when two lanes merge. Some signs are, however, not found in the U.S. In particular, what is called a "jug handle" type of left or U-turn in New Jersey (veer right to come back to the main road at a right angle) is marked in Spain with a white shepherd's crook on a blue background.

In contrast to the driving signage, however, the DIRECTIONAL signage for how to get to a given city is very inconsistent once you are off the major Autovias (interstate highways). Spain has apparently settled on roundabouts for all major intersections, and fortunately the traffic rotation is counter-clockwise, which seems normal for right side driving. These roundabouts are usually marked with the cities you can get to from each of the exits from the roundabout, but not always! Typically the signs will fail at some point as you work your way along a chain of roundabouts to try to get to your destination. At some point in each day's driving I typically found myself whizzing around a roundabout yelling at Monika, "Which exit do I take?" and she was responding something like, "Beats me!". Fortunately, Spain uses numbered routes in the same consistent fashion as in the U.S., so often we could keep on track by following the signs for the route number even if we didn't quite know what town was next. That made the driving easier than in Wanderung 2 in eastern Germany where memorizing lists of towns turned out to be the only way to avoid getting completely lost. Inside towns and cities, the old roads were typically a narrow, twisting labyrinth of one-way streets with cars strewn about everywhere. It was easy to get lost in such a maze and hard to work your way back out again, so I would strongly suggest buying the Michelin detailed street maps or guides for any Spanish city you try to drive in.

Driving in the Pyrenees or Picos de Europa mountains was extraordinarily scenic but physically hard and extremely slow. The narrowest of mountain roads were not used by tour buses, thank God, but even the smallest roads did seem to be used by trucks, motorcycles, bicyclists, and rickety old guys limping along with their canes. You just can't count on what might be around the next bend (similar to driving in rural Ireland in that respect) and for that reason I felt that I absolutely had to be careful not to overdrive my line of sight ahead. But the constant close attention to the road ahead made the driving mentally stressful, just as the constant mountain curves made my arms physically start to ache after several hours. I usually only averaged about 20-40 kph on the most twisty of the mountain roads. The worst part was when local drivers who probably knew every bend in the road would impatiently crowd behind me waiting to pass at the earliest opportunity. That tailgating made the mountain driving that should have been a stressful kind of fun become quite unpleasant.

That being said, the driving habits or mores in general in Spain are more or less similar to the U.S. Speed limits are generally obeyed within a margin of 10 kph or so and the driving is basically cautious and courteous, unlike Italy or France, and not as aggressive as in Germany. But some habits are different. People do not, for example, expect you to slow down and let them in when a lane is ending. I did that and it simply confused everybody, so I finally learned to just keep charging ahead at a steady speed and let the merging car come in behind me. Conversely, the Spanish drivers take the "Zebra stripes" pedestrian crossing zones very seriously indeed. I frequently saw cars come screeching to a halt when a pedestrian stepped onto the Zebra stripes. Pedestrians clearly have the right-of-way when in those crosswalks, but equally clearly if they are jaywalking everything is up for grabs and crossing a street becomes much more chancy. In general, I was much happier being a pedestrian in Spain than in most states in the U.S., including my home state of Virginia.

Towns in Spain had one very effective way to get drivers to really slow down to 50 kph: stoplights with speed triggers and cameras. These stoplights had speed detectors and were triggered to flash red at 55-60 kph, which then forced you to stop. If you had already slowed down to 50 kph, however, you could go through on a flashing yellow light without stopping, and that was a strong inducement to slow down early. Very clever.

The parking habits in Spain, on the other hand, were different than in the U.S. Any flat space, whether marked or unmarked, seemed to be a potential parking space, and double parking seemed to be accepted everywhere. Most people left the cautionary blinkers on while they left their car sitting there and wandered off to do other things. I don't know if there is a real "time limit" to this method of free parking, but I did see something like "meter maids" who I assume would write up a ticket. However, only once did I see a car booted in Spain, and that car seemed to be parked carefully on the side of the road rather than egregiously double-parked like the others. I would also have appreciated a guide to the color-coded markings of the parking spaces because the meaning of blue, red, alternating blue and red, yellow, and other colors for marking spaces was opaque to me.

I finally found out that the student driver sign in Spain is a white "L" on a blue (or green) background, which is somewhat similar to the big red "L" used in Ireland. If I had known that before we left, I would have printed out a big white "L" on a blue background to stick in the back window of my rental car in the hope that the Spanish drivers would cut me a little slack. As it was, I was overly cautious in many situations and had people either tailgating me or passing me impatiently, probably not realizing I was a foreign driver as we were well off the beaten tourist track. We were driving a Ford Focus and once again I felt like I would have definitely NOT wanted anything larger and even preferred something smaller. Ideal for us would have been a 2-person roadster with a trunk just big enough for all our luggage.

Whether we were walking or driving, the GPS was a godsend for not getting lost. Even though I only had the basemap of major roads in Spain and Portugal loaded into it, we could still find our way even if we were on minor roads that didn't show up on the display. Even then it would show our location with respect to the nearest major roads and cities, and show nearby topographical features like rivers, lakes, and mountains. Almost always that was enough to keep us located and on track. In retrospect for the next road trip in Europe I would spring for the Magellan CD with the detailed street maps of Europe and download those into the GPS for additional guidance. The Michelin map was also necessary for planning the entire day's drive and for keeping track of where we were on a more global level than the small GPS display. Monika used the map for strategic directional guidance but the GPS for the tactical, instantaneous position and direction information we so often needed. Having 1 full-time driver and 1 full-time navigator seemed to be a minimum requirement for driving around Spain's less-traveled areas.

We stayed in nice hotels throughout our driving tour of Spain, but none was perfect. The "star" rating system is, I think, basically rubbish, at least for someone like me. For instance, I'm guessing that hotels get 1 star for amenities such as a color television set or bathroom fixtures such as a bidet, but all I ever did was hit my head on those TV sets hanging out from the wall. The bidets were just stumbling blocks in the bathroom, except for the one that actively tried to swallow my razor and do to it whatever bidets do to things when people aren't using them. For me, those amenities would earn a -1 star rather than a +1 star. Now free Internet connections so that I can stay in contact with my family and friends or even make bookings for our hotel in the next town we are driving to, that would have been worth a +1 star in my book. Convenient, safe and free parking spaces would also merit a +1 star from me, at least if I'm on a driving tour because parking was so dratted difficult in so many of the town centers.

So here is a solution that I think might make everybody happy. What we really need is a fairly detailed description of each distinct facet of a hotel, say in a spreadsheet form like Excel, on which each person could impose his or her own unique weighting factor. Maybe some people desperately need bidets and for those folks giving the hotel a +1 for the bidet might make sense. My weighting would be something like + 1 for air-conditioning, ambiance/atmosphere, beds, breakfasts, cleanliness of room and bathroom, electrical outlets, English-speaking desk clerk, glasses (drinking), Internet (free), lift to get luggage to rooms, library of books to read, non-smoking room, parking (free), plumbing (conventional), quietness, reading lights, soap/shampoo, tub as well as shower, and view out the window. That is certainly an idiosyncratic list, but with a detailed spreadsheet we could each make such idiosyncratic profiles for our most preferred hotels and find the ones we really like.

So would we like to return to Spain? You bet. What else would we see? Well, I would like to see the Alhambra at Granada and Toledo at an absolute minimum. Beyond that I would like to walk through Cadiz and Madrid just to get a better feel for those cities, and take another shot of driving in the Picos de Europa to see more of that mountain range. The drive further west along the Atlantic coast from Santander over toward Portugal looks interesting to me. The part I did drive had many small seaside towns, some of which would surely have been fun to explore. Those selfsame towns made the drive extremely slow, however, so I would like to have several days to work my way out to the end of Spain and maybe come back through rural Portugal.

Copyright 2007 by R. W. Holt and E. M. Holt
Prolog Map of Cruise Map of Spain Epilog

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