Thursday, 24 December 2009

Walking in a winter wonderland (well mostly driving, too cold to walk!)

written 18th december

Esta nevando = it's snowing!  not a phrase I had envisaged needing on this trip!

Back in La Rochelle, we had made contact, through Bill, with and a general request for recommendations had elicited a great post from John which included all sorts of suggestions, including St Jean de Pied de Port in France and Pamplona in Spain.  Initially these had been just too far out of our way - would be fine in the midget but petrol consumption and hills are more of a concern in Jules so we have had to modifify our usual route finding trick of looking for the highest up, wigglyest road in the area... - however finding ourselves in Orthez had the unexpected advantage of putting both these places on the quickest route back to spain over the Roncesvalles Pass (and one which didn't retrace our steps again!) and meant a trip in the mountains which we had thought we wouldn't get.  I like mountains, possibly as much if not more than cliffs and coastline, I guess coming from fenland cambridge, any geography is exciting... :)

The road looked a bit wiggly and steep on the map - again, not something we would even have worried about in the midget - but a thankfully promptly responded to email to John confirmed that if the weather was ok, the road would be fine as he had driven it in a much bigger motorhome than little Jules. 

And so, after a very welcome cup of tea with the lovely lovely lpg, we set off from our little woodland home.

The road to St Jean de Pied Port was up and down but nicely wide - so the big lorries could overtake us on the up slopes! - and we arrived under a grey lowhanging cloud which didn't bode well for much in the way of views but as promised there was a walled town, originally mediaeval but more recently another Vauban design - we are getting good at spotting the classic pointy star shaped spiral with steeply sloped walls making multiple lines of defence - and the combination of its geographical location, in the mountains and on a hill,  and its walls make it the most well fortified place we have so far been.  The citadelle is now a school of all things so you can't go in but we followed the walking tour round the streets and walls and into the church where it was obviously cleaning day as it was full of little old ladies polishing and smelt of honey and beeswax.

Town : check
Walking tour : check
Citadelle : check

time to move on out. 

By this time, after our late start with internet, it was about 3pm and getting chilly so we wrapped ourselves in our sleeping bags - they unzip at the bottom so will can stick his feet out on the pedals, all perfectly safe! - and headed to the border which we duly reached - again, absolutely no warning of crossing this time, we guess it is because up here they are all Basque so only far away governments care about such imaginary lines -  and having expected that the border would be on or around the highest point - it is on the crease in the map, and good though our atlas is, it is not great at overlapping pages so it was not clear - we were surprised to still be going up.

Without really noticing it, we found ourselves above the cloud line and skirting the bottom of the snow line which was a pretty dramatic - not snow, snow in the trees in a clear line

and deciduous trees which is different to anything we have seen before -

and very exciting when suddenly we rounded a corner and it was like having driven through the wardrobe and into the silent, snowbound, perpetual winter of the White Witch.   although in this Narnia, Christmas did arrive in our little van!

And I say silent, it probably would have been if we had stopped and got out but we were too wrapped up in our sleeping bags to contemplate that so it was silent except for the quiet running of the engine - I love the new throttle! - which is a way behind us under the bed anyway and our Austin mix CD - the radio having given up ages ago, and which we had chosen to remind us of warmer times - so accompanied by Carolyn Wonderland, Carrie Underwood, Dixie Chicks and Taylor Swift (we bought CDs of all the bands we saw live out there and a couple of others, like Carrie, which regularly cropped up on KGSR and KASE101) and subsisting on oranges and chocolate biscuits (we hadn't stopped for lunch or breakfast in our eventual keen-ness to get on) we pottered on through this curvy, magical winter wonderland past a frozen waterfall,

until we got to the top - Ibaneta 1057m - and were rewarded with a fabulous view back down the valley.

It has been an expensive, €50 petrol cost, trip to find the €6 of lpg which will keep us in tea and hot food for a month but that drive more than made up for it.

The way back down was less windy and took in a couple of much lower passes and some deserted looking, shuttered up towns, although at one scary moment we were flagged down by machine gun toting police men who peered at us in our sleeping bags and in the back and asked where we were going before waving us on.  I don't know what they were looking for but thankfully we weren't it!

We have also realised that we have been on the Camino de Santiago (pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela) and every now and then we see cheery signs which say that there are only 790km to go - if I were walking, I would not be cheered by this...

Arriving in Pamplona in the just dark, we had a frustrating hour of driving in circles in the snowy streets  as the satnav couldn't find a road it recognised us as being on and the address of the tourist office in LP was wrong and with pharmacy signs helpfully telling us the temperature was -2 in case we hadn't noticed that it was cold!  And the only road signs to the tourist office pointed down one way or closed roads.  But eventually by abandoning Will and Jules and setting off through the snow on foot I found it and it was open although she said it was illegal to sleep in your van in the city and pointed us to a campsite 7km away.  Which would have been fine except the satnav tried to take us up and over a mountain - the road being closed helped make our decision to turn back! - and we would have bought snowchains except the garage didn't have any so with the alternative route heading up a hill and Jules sliding sideways, we decided that discretion is the better part of valour and pulled off the main road to consider our options. 

We were just considering a cheap hotel, which felt a bit like giving in, when we pulled into a space opposite a bar in the industrial suburb of Arre.  a combination of phrase book, pointing at a picture of a VW camper in a magazine and at our van and "policia"-shrug elicited the response that stopping in the street would be no problem and that God only knew whether it would still be snowy manana - although he did spend an inordinate amount of time telling us that it was cold and there was a hotel only 5mins and 500m down the road... - so we had a wine and a whiskey and trekked back across the road, narrowly being missed by a snow plow truck which was barrelling along the road at a completely unnecessary speed! -

where we set about warming up the van by cooking pork and vegetable risotto with our lovely lovely lpg and starting the christmas decorations before zipping our sleeping bags together into a cocoon and snuggling in for the night under the duvet.

And ok, it is somewhat my fault, back in San Sebastian when we still had gas, I said it would be exciting to wake up and find it had snowed outside...

The next morning, the snow had miraculously practically disappeared so we headed back into town to the free parking indicated by the tourist lady which is just across the river from the lift/funicular effort which transports people invisibly up through the city walls to the top.

Pamplona is obviously famous for the San Fermines festival over seven days in July and during which there are seven bull runs from the top of the town through to the bull ring which start at 8:30 am and last approximately 3 mins each but oustide of that week of frenetic activity, it is quite nice for a wander and has a good map and walking tour from the tourist office and there was a christmas market in the bull ring - which was warm if nothing else :) - and is all quite pretty but very cold - although Will tells me that it is only after your feet go numb and then get unnaturally warm that you are in danger of them falling off....

Like san Sebastian, Pamplona is also a contender for European Capital of Culture 2016 - was it a quiet year for applicants? - will be interesting to see who wins (if we even remember by then...)

Pressing on, with Will now wrapped in Grandma's knitted blanket, our next destination was Burgos which, according to Bill, has the most fabulous cathedral

and the drive took us across a landscape of rolling snow covered vineyards - well this is rioja country but the grapes must be hardier here than their pampered cousins in bordeaux in their temperate climate! - and fields and hills looking like a ruffled white patchwork quilt with mountains in the background.  Still following the Camino de Santiago, we did one wiggly mountain road detour off the main road - the actual pilgrimage is mostly on its own footpath and there were footprints in the freshly fallen snow, what mad mad person is doing it now???? - past a pretty, roman-esque walled town at one end of the little road and a surprisingly ugly industrial town at the other end which, in the snow, looked like somewhere in siberian Russia, and a stop for coffee in Santo Domingo de la Calzada - small coffee like treacle, yummy! - before arriving in Burgos,

where it was quite pretty right in the centre of town in the snow, only to find we had just missed the tourist office - again, signed from the road but down pedestrian streets! -  and the pharmacy signs now saying -5. 

We consulted our new Aires de Service book only to find that four of the five aires listed under Burgos were actually several 10s of kilometres away and set of to find the only one which was actually anywhere near.  The directions weren't great, no address, just a main road, a junction number and a suburb name and after much driving around on the snowy roads we gave up and headed back into town to find a supermarket, arriving just moments after it shut.  So we headed into the nearest open bar instead to defrost.  The TV news was on so we spent a happy hour guessing at the news.  Started by something somehere sunny (costas?) and a birtish woman saying she might lose everything (but not sure what).  Earthquakes in Southern Portugal - good job we're not there in the warm yet then.  Then a report of severe cold and snowy weather across spain and other parts of Europe which included reporters shivering in fur coats in Leon, Paris and, yes you guessed it, Burgos - but at least it is unusually cold enough to be news!  To add insult to injury however, the next report seemed to be about a heatwave in what looked like the south of spain and I'm sure it said 40 degrees.  Having spun out two small glasses of wine as long as we could, this seemed like the point to leave so we headed out into the snow again.  Not really fancying a night at the side of quite such a busy street, we tried the book directions again and this time found the tiny sign we missed but it was a campsite which was most definately shut for the season so we pulled in off the road behind a lorry outside the bridgestone tyre factory and stopped, having passed signs cherefully telling us it was now -9... Well to be fair, the LP does describe Burgos as "somewhat chilly"....

Cooking special fried rice with pork and tinned sweetcorn - the only veg we had left - warmed the van somewhat and we decided that we'd been warm enough the previous night so we would be ok.  Turns out -9 is significantly colder than -2 but we piled all our discarded coats and jumpers on top of the two sleeping bags, duvet and blanket and it was all ok.  Again, we could have found a hotel but if you give up when things get a bit difficult or if you have loads of money and therefore everything is easy, it's all not quite so exciting and think how much we will now appreciate merely -2, if we ever find somewhere that warm again...  and anyway, it wouldn't have seemed right, leaving poor Jules out all alone in the cold.

This morning we have woken up, toasty warm in our cocoon, to find ice on the inside as well as the outside of the windscreen and the olive oil and bottled water largely frozen -

but nothing a nice cup of tea can't sort out!  After some backwards and forwards-ing Will managed to get Jules out of our snowbound layby

- more easily than the lorry in front of us seemed to be finding it anyway

- and we are now on our way into town.  The signs still say -5, I am wearing a short sleveed t-shirt, a long sleeved t-shirt, a woolly jumper, a hooded top with the hood up, a fleece, a woolly hat, three gloves (2 on one hand), thin socks, thick socks (can't fit anymore socks in my trainers without making my feet numb through cut off circulation, did try!) and my tracksuit bottoms under my jeans - it is a good look...

Bill, this cathedral better be worth it.... ;)

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