|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
13 - 19 September 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Not only on the plainOur holiday destination: Andorra, free port, shopping outlet and tourist resort. Tucked into a pocket formed by six high valleys of the Pyrenees, this tiny joint principality sandwiched between Spain and France seemed an ideal retreat from Egypt's congested capital and summer heat, writes Jill Kamil
The tiny state of Andorra covers a mere 453 square kilometres and has a population of 32,000. Hardly a home from home for residents. of Egypt. From a country which lies at the crossroads of the four points of the compass to one that for centuries has slumbered a long way from a main road -- that was my idea of paradise.
Santo Domingo's famous Cock and Hen, one of the streets run by the bulls at Pamplona
But the road to heaven is paved with obstacles. And so was our journey.
To reach northern Spain -- Basque country -- we and our faithful Saab spent 36 difficult hours aboard a ferry from Portsmouth across a storm- swept Bay of Biscay to Bilbao. It was not a perfect experience. A north-easterly Force 7 through the night was not quite what I had in mind. It was by sheer luck that I had a packet of Qwells, so I felt well enough to make full use of the dining room despite the pitching and heaving of the boat in the wind-swept seas.
We had planned that on disembarking in Bilbao we would see the Flemish paintings collection in the Muses de Bellas Artes and, of course, the new Guggenheim Museum, an architectural masterpiece and showcase for contemporary art, built on the site of the old shipyard. Unfortunately, that was not to be. The downpour which had spread over southern England before we left had followed us to Spain. Eliza Dolittle was wrong about the rain in Spain falling mainly in the plain: it is concentrated on the coastal range of Euskadi.
The torrential rain obscured the port. We were unable to make out even the road markings, let alone the signs saying Salada (Exit). So, following the line of least resistance, we joined the queue of cars only to find that our Saab, and ourselves, had to be decontaminated before proceeding. Spain, with no Foot and Mouth Disease, is anxious to keep it that way, so we were asked to get out of the car, into the pouring rain, and march over mats to disinfect our shoes. Now damp ourselves, we drove out of the port area. It was still pouring and although our windshield wipers were working double time, we still couldn't see the road, or a sign, or any indication of where we should go. To drive in a strange country where you don't speak the language is bad enough. To arrive in filthy weather and find yourself trailing behind heavy trucks on a two-lane road is one of a motorists' worst nightmares.
Nor was our road map much help. We knew it would be difficult to find the Guggenheim. I had read the blurb on Bilbao, which had been quite explicit: "Even if you're passing through (Bilbao) you'll probably get good and lost among the bizarre topography and endless roadwork." Well, that's what we were. Good and lost. Vehicles honked their horns behind us. Visibility was virtually nil. Our tempers were by now a little frayed after the stormy Channel crossing and that purification process at the port.
"Lets get out of here. We can see the Guggenheim another time," my friend grumbled through clenched teeth.
"Another time! But we're here now! We might never have another chance!" I growled back.
"Well, how do you suggest we get there?"
I gave up. But we still had to find a way out of Bilbao, and you can only read a road map when you know where you are. Gingerly, we made our way through the maze of near-invisible streets, and headed in a direction we assumed was south-east towards, we hoped, clearer skies.
Two hours later, it was still raining. A 'Bar', a sort of rest house for workers, made us hunger for a strong cup of coffee and we ventured inside. The coffee was excellent, but our attempts at friendly communication came to naught. Blank stares met our, "Coffee good" -- accompanied by smiles and the universal gesture of approval of thumb and forefinger forming a circle; and, "Weather bad" -- pointing out of the window and shaking of heads. We later learned that even greetings and farewells, Buenas dias and Buenas noches, fell on deaf ears in the Basque country. A huge contrast with the rest of Spain!
North Spain is "Green Spain," not at all like the dry mesita in the south or the Costa del Sol with its tourist resorts. Here in the north there are few summer visitors, and the "short season" is likely to remain so because of the threat of rain. We chose a route through the high Pyrenees, meandering through scenic mountain roads in preference to the more direct highways, and looking for and finding secluded picnic spots in picturesque places. Our favourite lunch was fresh bread, an assortment of cheeses and paté, washed down with a plastic tumbler of good Rioja wine. We also stopped at tapas bars and -- for lunch, when it was raining -- cafeterias, never quite managing to sort out the difference between tapas and pinchos. The former means 'lids,' which started out as little saucers of goodies served with a drink, somewhat like our mezza. A pincho is a small delicate sandwich, somewhat like an hors d'oeuvre with, say, scrambled eggs topped with delectable tidbits from shellfish to olives. Before we learned the difference between them, the enthusiastic owner of a small roadside 'bar' decided that what we faltering foreigners really wanted was a fat sausage and chips, and that is what we got.
Having missed Bilbao, I insisted on a detour to Pamplona. The famous bull run had taken placed ten days earlier, but I was anxious to see the city and the route along which the bulls run.
Pamplona is delightful. At its centre the Plaza del Castillo is shaded by the knitted boughs of plane trees, with the narrow streets around it jammed with shops and bars -- all shut for the siesta when we arrived. The mediaeval Gothic Cathedral tucked behind the ramparts of the girdle wall of the city was almost hidden behind an ugly, 18th-century neo-classical facade. As for the route of the running bulls, we could only imagine the insanely dangerous annual festival, which officially opens at noon on 6 July when thousands of Navarrese, in their festival attire of white shirts and white trousers or skirts, and with red sashes and red bandannas, gather in front of the Town Hall. Posters advertising the run were splashed in shop windows, pinned outside restaurants, and plastered on lamp posts. When the rocket is fired at the start, the city councilor cries: "People of Pamplona: Long live San Fermin!" in Spanish and Basque, and, as the city explodes with the popping of tens of thousands of champagne corks, the bulls are let loose to career through the streets.
Back to the Pyrenees, through sheer breath- taking scenery. Our journey from Bilbao, which could have taken six hours to Andorra on a highway, was taking us as many days. By day we passed through magnificent countryside; as night fell we stopped off at a hotel in the Paradores Hotel chain. What a marvellous way to discover Spain: each hotel is in a beautiful natural setting, or in picturesque historic and artistic surroundings. The network of 85 Paradores de Turismo includes restored former palaces, ancient convents, mediaeval castles and historic national monuments.
Santo Domingo is one of the most famous mediaeval towns on the Pilgrim Way to Santiago de Compostela, and rightly deserves its place as a major tourist stopover. The mellow stone buildings in the centre are closed off from normal traffic. The local Paradore is built around a magnificent medieval hall and one- time pilgrims' hospital, across a narrow street from an equally magnificent 12th-14th century cathedral of the famous "Cock and Hen." Tradition says that among the pilgrims who came to venerate the relics of Santo Domingo de la Calzada was a couple and their 18-year-old son, Hugonell. The girl at the inn where they were staying fell in love with the youth, but he rebuffed her. Bent on revenge, she placed a silver goblet in his luggage and denounced him to the Corregidor of the city. The hapless youth was duly arrested for the theft, and hanged. His distraught parents, however, heard his voice telling them that his life had been preserved by Santo Domingo de la Calzada. They went straight to the house of the Corregidor -- who was sitting down to dinner -- and told him of their vision, to which he scornfully replied that their son was about as alive as the cock and hen he was about to eat. At that moment the cock and hen leapt from the plate and began to crow -- and happily, the Corregidor's words proved true. Imagine my surprise when there, in the magnificent Romanesque cathedral, I found the crypt with the tomb of the saint, complete with hen house, with a living cock and hen -- permanent reminders of the miracle.
Our long drive to Andorra was a trail of discovery and a feast for the taste buds. But our goal was Andorra, the small state ruled jointly by the president of France and the Spanish bishop of Urgel.
Up a wriggly road, through fairy tale scenery and round stomach-churning bends, we finally reached it at midday, driving abruptly from nature's wonderland into a shopping resort. Indeed, here on the French/Spanish border we had hit one huge shopping mall.
In winter one associates Andorra with winter sports, in this respect it is much written of, photographed and extolled. But here in the middle of summer with the pastoral Andorran mountains offered a combination of healthy and relaxing activities for all types of visitors: pathways and tracks for hiking, riding or mountain biking, and ancient pathways along which to absorb the beauty of the woods. But we were not in for walking!
Andorra benefits from a natural richness which springs from its soil -- the hot thermal waters of the Pyrenees. These health spas are the largest in southern Europe, wonderful if you are full of aches and pain and have not had the pleasure of luxuriating in the Paradores for the past week. But we were not in for relaxation!
The privileged tax status of Andorra enables visitors to take advantage of highly competitive prices for wines and tobacco products, jewellery, optical goods, sports gear, perfume, electronics and clothes -- and the shops are open seven days a week, and stay open through the afternoon siesta. But we were not in search of exceptional value designer labels!
Little Andorra has hotels of all categories offering two-thirds as many beds -- 25,000 -- as it has people. But it didn't take us long to realise that, apart from sampling the gastronomic cuisine of the principality which, we had been told, blends the very best of French Catalan and Spanish cooking, we had no desire to stay. Now we had seen it, it was time to move on. There were too many tourists; too many quick-food outlets -- notably and happily missing from northern Spain -- and too many teenagers. To someone like me, everyone seems to be a teenager!
How disappointing. We had reached our destination, and we were already thinking of leaving. Was that because it had begun raining? As we left the restaurant where we lunched, one of those delightful places housed in a bordas, an ancient mountain barn, the heavens opened.
It rained as we drove through this spending- spree playground of Europe. It rained as we began to climb above the city, with the rain obscuring both the peak and valleys. It rained as we made the spectacular climb out of Andorra to the 2,407-metre high pass into the mountains. And there, on the road, in the rain, were energetic hikers making their way, seemingly with effortless ease, along what must have been a formidable barrier only 50 years ago. They had come to Andorra to hike and enjoy the scenery, and in spite of the rain they were going to do just that. All along the road, kilometre upon kilometre, we met hiker after hiker.
As for us, we steered towards the French border. Eventually we made it through the rain belt. We were in the sun. We were in France.
Both EgyptAir and Iberia have direct flights from Cairo to Barcelona.
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