Day six of our first tour away in Iggy, and it was time for a change of country. After five whirlwind days in France we were heading for the border into Spain. Our daughter and her family were getting on the plane to Faro today, and we had five days to drive done and meet them in Lagos.
I felt the enticing mix of excitement and trepidation that always seems to hit me when I’m going to cross a border. No matter that we had spent a month driving around Spain last year. Familiar or not it was still different. After just five days in France we were already adjusting. The language, the street signs, the food, the landscapes. The sense of not knowing what was coming next was still strong, but the raw edge of it was gone.
We humans have survived so long largely due to our development of an amazing ability to adapt. Take us out of our comfort zone and we learn fast. It’s one of the things I love about travelling. The uncomfortable, but glorious feeling of my brain literally expanding. Of my very self changing, altering as it soaks in information at top speed from every side in order to adapt to the new environment.
Familiar as France was from the past there was still this seemingly inevitable adjustment process every time I came to the country. And now, just as we were feeling a little bit comfortable, it was time to start all over again in Spain.
Google maps estimated it would take about sixteen hours to drive from Arcachon to Lagos. Evenly split over the five days that would be just over three hours a day. Today we were pushing a little bit further with the plan of spending tonight close to the border in the Basque town of San Sebastián – or Donostia as the Basques call it.
This meant a four hour drive according to Google. We tended to be a bit slower in the van though so I was guesstimating our journey time at about five hours. Pop in a one hour lunchbreak and it was going to be a long six hours on the road again today.
With that in mind we quickly packed up Iggy for driving and set Satnav for the city Aire in Donostia. We were really looking forward to visiting the town. We’d planned on staying there on our way back from Spain the previous year, but after problems with a hotel booking had given it a miss at the last minute. This time it was going to happen!
Satnav chirping instructions, and one of our friends’ CDs on the car stereo and we were soon singing our way Southwards again for Spain. Even the morning traffic wasn’t quite managing to dampen our enthusiasm – though it was sure trying it’s best! Rush hour should be safely over by now. Why was there so much traffic on the roads?
We didn’t know and could only assume that the Bordeaux area is one of those perpetually busy nightmare areas to drive in. It wasn’t busy enough to slow the traffic down. Unfortunately for us. Nope it was just that perfect level of busy to have it whirling in a full speed frenzy all around us, with full on, horn honking punctuation for any foreigner hesitation on Iggy’s part.
Poor Jay did an awesome job of not getting us all killed while I cringed in the navigator seat shouting instructions.
“Second exit. No third. Third! Satnav isn’t counting that one!”
We will probably never understand Satnav’s strange method of deciding what does and doesn’t count as an exit when telling you which one to take at a roundabout. Old “No Entry”, chained off farm tracks that have clearly never been public roads are blithely marked as exits. Meanwhile the turn off into the service road is completely ignored as a non-existent figment of the navigator’s imagination.
Throw a pile of road works and diversions into the mix and the stress levels are getting a bit high in Iggy’s cab when we turn a corner and I scream “Stop!!”
“Low bridge! Low bridge!!” I shriek as Jay frets about the line of traffic behind him – understandably not wanting to block the busy main road.
But with my shouted warning and the sudden appearance of the bridge before him he thankfully slammed on the breaks in the nick of time, and brought Iggy to a halt two vans length from the looming menace. Where had the signs been? Had there been signs?
Neither of us had seen any on the approach, but then we weren’t yet used to looking out for them. Years of car driving makes low bridge signs almost invisible. An interesting piece of road furniture, but one that is completely irrelevant. We knew we had to be aware of low bridges now we were driving around in a 3 metre van, but knowing and actually doing are not quite the same thing. The body works largely on habit and our bodies had the habit of not watching out for low bridges.
Horns blared behind us, and both our, all ready elevated, stress levels shot somewhere into orbit as I jumped into the road and started gesturing to drivers in both directions to stop and let Jay turn Iggy around.
I could almost thank the first few drivers who completely ignored the reality of the situation, blared their horns, gesticulated angrily and sped past us, and almost into the oncoming traffic! Somehow, having to deal with them, pushed me that much needed step past trembling fear and abject embarrassment into just dealing with what had to be done.
Thank heavens for the next set of drivers in both directions who immediately caught on to what the problem was. Hazards on, they slowed the cars behind them to a merciful stop and gave us the much needed space for Jay to swing Iggy round and over to the other side of the road. I leapt back into the cab and we were on our way throwing a world of gratitude into our departing waves to the helpful drivers. I just hope they caught it!
Satnav roundly ignored, as she tried to get us to turn around and rip Iggy’s head off on the low bridge, I somehow managed to find a track through the diversions and road works and the madness around Bordeaux finally disappeared behind us.
Euphoric from our brush with disaster, and our successful escape it was a very happy Iggy and crew that bounced on down the road to Spain. Satnav seemed to have temporarily lost her desire to commit harakiri at our expense and led us on a wandering track through the rolling French countryside.
Even when she turned us into a road marked “Chaussée déformer” it couldn’t dispel our high spirits. Road deformed? Okay Satnav what have you got in store for us this time you little ray of sunshine you? Or “Bring it on!” as we say in Scotland. We were invincible!
Deformed roads safely navigated the long run South continued smoothly as we crisscrossed from one back road to another as Satnav dutifully avoided the Toll roads. The tensions of the morning and subsequent euphoria took a bite out of our energy levels and we found ourselves growing increasingly tired and looking forward to Donostia and the end of the journey.
It gave us a huge lift then as we approached the border and whooped “Espana!”
A few yards over the border and we stopped to fill up with €0.99 diesel. Iggy had been getting a bit low on the fuel department, but we’d hung on for Spain and cheaper prices. It’s great fun doing this border crossing stuff. Finding out what costs less where. Spain was one of those countries where everything was cheaper and as ordinary folk with hard filled wallets it felt good to be a little richer just by crossing an imaginary line.
The last stretch into Donostia seemed to take forever to our tired brains, and we were relieved to find the drive to the Aire pretty straightforward. Only one wrong turn that was quickly corrected and we were there. Yes!
Or “No” as it happened, as we quickly realised the Aire was absolutely chocka and there was no resting place here for Iggy tonight.
The teary melodrama of the over tired wasn’t far off as we spun back out onto the roads of Donostia trying to find somewhere to park Iggy up safely for the night. The traffic was intense again, and Jay was exhausted from keeping Iggy safely trundling through the rush. Motorhomes were packed in to every spot we could find that seemed suitable for us. Was there a fiesta of some sort?
No matter! We were too tired, tempers were fraying. Once again San Sebastian/Donostia had eluded us. With a growing sense of dislike for the town we turned away and sent Iggy South, up into the mountains, in search of quiet and peace.
Really needing to stop now I navigated us towards a free Aire in the town of Beasain. Google had pretty much nothing to say about the place. No historic buildings. Nothing of note at all. In fact it seemed to be the most uninteresting place in the world ever!
We were a bit sad to be stopping somewhere with nothing interesting to see, but too tired now to care we gritted our teeth for the last twenty minutes and heaved a collective sigh of relief when we arrived at the simple Aire in Beasain.
Facing some trees at the side of the football stadium the free motorhome parking was simply that – parking spaces at the back of a larger carpark. Elated to be stopped for the night we quickly turned the gas on for the fridge and set off to stretch our legs and see if Beasain was really as mundane and boring as our quick internet search had suggested.
Our first impressions were surprisingly good. Beasain is a major manufacturer of railway carriages and the town felt prosperous and pleasant. Modern apartment blocks and old Basque chalets grew straight as mountain pines from the surrounding slopes and a crowd of colourfully dressed, laughing children ran alongside the sparkling, clear waters of the river.
Always ones for waterways we followed in the direction the children had gone. It felt great to wander along the river path in the clean, fresh air and warm evening sun. Everyone we passed smiled cheerily and people called out to each other in the street. The general atmosphere of friendliness and community wrapped us up in a blanket of genial warmth. We stepped lighter, the cares of the day falling from our shoulders as we turned a corner in the path and stopped amazed! Why was this not on Wikipedia!!
Spread out before us was some kind of medieval complex, complete with what looked like an old Manor house! What find! And all the better for being so unexpected. A comprehensive range of information placards in Spanish, Basque and English explained the function and history of the different buildings, as well as the many traditions and festivals of the old Igartza.
We spent a fascinating hour wandering around the old mill and foundry. The fabulous space of the old Manor house – still used today for concerts in the town. And last, but by no means least the old Inn. Still in use today as a free hostel stop for the Pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago, a well known Pilgrimage we had not heard of until now.
Finally we took our leave of Igartza and wandered home through the bustling, smiling streets of Beasain. A small troupe of children marched along the road playing musical instruments. Everywhere faces beamed and split with laughter as flocks of children ran through the playground and played in the shallows.
We could not believe such a beautiful place could not have a glowing write up in Wikipedia, although further searching discovered a Spanish website for the Igartza complex. Laughing together we decided that Beasain did not want to be discovered by the outside world. That everyday, citizens search the web for signs that the outside world is being told about their paradise mountain community of healthy children good neighbours and clean air. And wherever they find talk of their presence they eradicate it. Deftly hid from prying eyes their happiness continues. Undisturbed save for the Pilgrims and the odd, wandering motorhome.
And such is vanlife. Connected to the world around us. Never knowing what awaits around the next bend. A sudden low bridge. A breathtaking view. A struggle to find a safe place to sleep. An ancient community by a bubbling mountain river. Life in Iggy was proving to be everything we had hoped for. And more, and more, and more…