Travel. Culture. National ‘type’ or character or that thing about how a place feels. Rich but loaded territory. I stumble over it here and waft airily through memories following a break in France and Spain, foolishly crossing over into stuff which we may have to label judgement; knowing it’s not just ludicrous but probably downright wrong to make comparisons between places. It is, however, bloody tempting to try to capture some sense of what was wonderful – what we loved most.
Hey look I’m still cruising down the slope back into the Valley of the Working. Having recently nosed through the Vallée d’Aspe and then gawped at the Pyrenees from both sides, I remain 70-30 (percentage-wise) in the grip of Post Hols Daze-Virus Effort. And I have no raging urge to deny the affliction by deigning to re-enter normal life. Why should I, when so recently we were on Penä Oroel in the balmy heat watching some Aragonese bloke launch a paraglider? Into thermals us West-Walians would poetically-enthusiastically describe as liftin’ with vultures, mun? Why would the everyday exclude or even intrude on that? No, let’s loiter in that memory, please, have tâpas with it and drain the slowest of slow coffees. Until finally we click over into school pick-ups and yaknow, rain.
Yup we went from Wales to France and Spain, flying Stansted-Biarritz and picking up a car to skirt, drift and boot through the mountains to Jaca, Aragon. Critically, we could stay with friends in a tiny hamlet where climbers wipe before entering Los Pirineos; both on a financial level and in terms of accessing local cultural/geographical highlights this helped. In fact it simply made it possible.
Emerging from the likeably tiddly airport at Biarritz, more than faintly disoriented by the cack-handed Megane somebody foolishly hired me, we GET AWAY remarkably. Admittedly I’m looking for the wrong mirror/wrong life-endangering juggernaut but we are unmistakably away and into the drive – into our holiday.
We see some French roads – some Basque roads – and trees and villages. We look at the strangely conflicted words on the signs and fail (consistently) to say half of them. Whilst not quite meandering we draw in some of the local stuff – sweetcorn, mainly – and the colour red and the colour white. And tiles. Then poplars being sentries but maybe the sort that welcome rather than guard. We get in to that French Basque zone, gently… but sure… like tourists. Wondering how San Sebastian can be the same place as Donostia summink-or-other? Maybe searching for some dubious link between Basque and Welsh but ultimately leaving that one be. And just looking.
The flight had been okay. Ryan Air. Meaning a slightly edgy mob of wannabe guitar players, surfers and youngish families, all pretty unashamedly shedding the usual courtesies (here I do mean the passengers more than the staff, who were fine) and unzipping that myth about Brits queuing beautifully. The head stewardbloke – who may in truth have been directing the frenetic activity around him from a position of some Eckle(s)burgian insight – was actually genuinely good value as local prompter and wit, as well as accommodating er …host.
However the incoming flight had been slightly late, meaning an almost worryingly quick turnaround – raising certain perfectly legitimate questions. Like would the pilot need a drink? Or a kip? Would they make sure they had air-in-the-tyres/diesel in the tank/a shammy leather handy to wipe the driver’s window? We were all thinking this, or the aerial equivalent, I know: not just little old ahem plane-phobic me.
No the flight was fine but I’m kindof with Dennis Bergkamp on this. And soon enough, as our drive progressed (and my palms aired) there came to pass a seamless and vacation-appropriate gradation into ease. Bidache; Navarrenx; Oloron-Sainte-Marie. The visual momentum built as we went from countryside with a whiff of the special, to full-on gobsmacking, as we slid, in fact, into the Vallee d’Aspe. Now ’twas proper rip-roaring glacial scenery and proper mountains seen very close up, from the laughably tight valley floor. A brief, syrupy downpour and then tunnels into the guts of all this rock; into Spain.
We’d slithered south-easterly across France and now we plunged north-south just the few tens of kilometres to Jaca, through the area allegedly dotted with ski-resorts. (They are there – around Candanchu – but they simply weren’t on the mission schedule.) With the east-west grain of the Pyrenees at our backs as we ploughed on, we began to recognise gaps or drops into sleeping but boulder-strewn streams and the shoulders of some of the peaks; all this hauled or sprung from the memories of our previous visit, three years ago. We knew something of this place, ‘course we did. And the names now… Sabinanigo, Huesca, Castiello de Jaca. Familiar but still exotic.
About three hours all told to get from Biarritz to our stony, amiably street-dog-friendly village. Clunk the doors and look at the mountains – the foothills actually – Los Pirineos now being a few klicks to our north. Feel the hard, Spanish sun; the heat. A quick shuftie at the map confirms we’re at about Snowdon-height, looking up to between six and seven thousand feet; Snowdon times two, pretty much. Visau’/Bisaurin away and left, Monte Perdido maybe an hour going right. Hikes immediately – and I do mean immediately – available…
Wow. Must walk up there later – remember that next ridge? We walked it. That do-able on a mountain-bike?
(Answer – no, not for me – I tried it. Constant slippage or wheelies or punishing, pointless effort in near enough 90 degrees. My fitness is decent but we just skated on the gravel, on the dust. To be fair it was crazy steep.)
There followed days of exploring and rediscovering. Trudging then latterly floating up Penä Oroel , part shady yomp, part dreamy alpine meadow, concluding with stunning open views which genuinely (in that inadequate phrase) stirred the soul. Or driving with relentless purpose to blissfully little-known pools – pozas – to launch into deep pockets of sometimes shockingly refreshing mountain water. Then perhaps most memorably of all, trekking the bulk of a day, through, over and onto retreating snowbanks around 6,000 feet, faithfully following cairns in the absence of signage or people, to scale Pico d’Aspe. Looking down on France and the universe and (real) chamois(es?) flitting over the snow.
Mix in a dollop of ice-cream or fried squid in the town (Jaca), twenty minutes of Real Sociedad on the telly in the sports bar, plus a mowsie round the cave-cathedral that is San Juan de la Penä… and there you have it – or a flavour of it. Wonderful things and daft things. Like my daughter blowing all her holiday money on riding at Caballos el Pesebre, where instead of Pembrokeshire Nags there were sub-Arabian beauties. Where she cantered round (almost absurdly but beaming) beneath Los brooding but beautiful Pirineos. And I just sat and watched and read further into Homage to Catalonia!
I can’t pretend we engaged deeply with either the local social or political milieu. I am aware, for example, of the disaster that is youth unemployment in Spain and have views on that. I know that dangerous wee bit about the Spanish Civil War and have some relevant history; some; enough maybe to feel the nearness of Franco and hear the enduring bitterness towards the Guardia Civil. But we were tourists, staying with a family of (fluent Spanish-speaking) non-natives. So what was it, exactly, that made me fall for Spain?
The Pyrenees I find stunning and evocative. I failed, I admit, to entirely separate the view from the heroic defiance, the anarchistic militancy and indeed the sacrifice of the population (as was?) Ground like this is going to foster pride and passion and maybe a little wildness and given the essential local connection between folks and earth through time it makes sense that something preciously approaching a worker’s province could emerge here. I am very close to writing that you can still see that – feel it – the land simply seems worth fighting for.
In the 1930’s a truly remarkable revolutionary fire swept through much of Spain and continued to flicker defiantly here, in the forests and the farmsteads. Partly, no doubt, because the geography is with the rebel, the guerrilla, not the government. Partly, I like to think, because the people are big enough, generous enough to battle in order to share. Standing on a peak in Aragon, looking at a land that could not be mastered – not that gorge, not that Alpine slope! – I got sucked into all that… romance.
It’s a leap from here/there to the following – that I prefer Spain to France – but I will make it, without, on this occasion accounting for the frisson around the subtext. I’ll simply own up to the preference for (imagined) 20th century Spanish defiance over (imagined) French capitulation; that should do it.
There’s a certain deep richness to rural northern Spain which blows me away. Kindof uniquely. There is, in Los Pirineos, this endless slew of mountains, a splendid, inviolable peace; no doubt related to – arising from? – the scope, the scale of the view, the physical realities. But there is something else, beyond, beneath.
Even allowing for the fact that I was re-reading Homage to Catalonia at the time of our visit and am therefore likely charged with Engaged Lefty Wistfulness, I will dare to suggest that culture, politics, the mix of daily grind and grand philosophical breach – of war, of war, in fact! – breathes into this. In the wonderful, silent greenness of the slopes and the ochre plain I found something very rich and hearty and intoxicating. And though on returning to the French side I was much taken with St Jean de Luz in particular – Spain does it for me.