Spanish Summer Roadtrip: The Pyrenees, La Rioja and Friends


The Pyrenees

There were different points during this trip where, to myself, I said, “It cannot get better than this. We should quit now, go home, and remember it as a perfect experience.”

This was the thought that was on my mind as we headed up and over the mountains outside Tossa De Mar. Our destination was first the famous wine region of La Rioja and then our friends home somewhere in Asturias. I very much looked forward to both destinations but I very much was not looking forward to the eight total hours of driving that lay ahead of us. I was not keen on driving in a foreign land in the dark, again, so the trip began in the morning of yet another beautiful Spanish day.

Having spent three impressionable years as a child in Colorado left a long lasting mark on my soul. I love mountains. The bigger, the better. Barron, sandy, snowy or rocky, I love them all, but lush and tree lined with a bit of rocky stuff sticking out are my favorite. I dream to one day own a home where I can step out the door and just stare at some mountains and be flooded with that crisp, pine scented air. When I am around mountains, something moves deep down in my core…into my soul. When I am near mountains, I feel whole, humbled and exhilarated all at the same time. There is little doubt in my mind that my soul requires majestic mountains to remain whole. Being among them, from time to time, reinvigorates my soul.

As someone who had watched a lot of the Tour de France in the past, the Pyrenees Mountains had always been high on my bucket list. It might be the inherent Spain bias I have, but I always enjoyed the Pyrenees mountain stages over the Alps. They always seemed more majestic and exciting to me.

I knew on this trip, spending any meaningful time in the mountains and getting to know the Basque people was not going to happen, but I knew the route to the Northwest out of Tossa de Mar would at least get me a glimpse of the legendary mountain range. So I was very much looking forward to it.

The Pyrenees were as majestic and awe inspiring as I had hoped they would be. While I think technically, we were only among them for no more than an hour or so on the trip, it felt as if they were tracking us for far longer.

Ultimately, I found them to be a tease, though. We saw some amazing peaks, like Montserrat, which called to me for miles from the distance and I felt a deep disappointment when they disappeared from my view (although I would discover later they weren’t actually part of the Pyrenees). I wanted to pull the car over and breath in the mountain air and find a mountain stream to dip my hands in and become a mountain man.

However, at the end of the day, literally, we had to get to our friends for dinner and unscheduled detours were not going to be possible. The Pyrenees were going to require another trip to Spain, for sure. However, and again, literally, by the end of the day, that would all be forgotten about (until, of course, I decided to press my brain to remember for this.)

One of the small things that surprised me was the boys reaction to crossing the Prime Meridian. Without really knowing it, we had spent the last few days in the Eastern Hemisphere, a first me. There had been no indication of crossing it on our way to Tossa De Mar. However, on the trip North, ironically, there was this archway that went over the highway to let us know we were crossing back into the Western Hemisphere (which everyone knows, is the best Hemisphere). Despite the fact the boys had spent a week in Luxembourg earlier in the summer, they excitedly talked about the crossing there and the archway. It was something so simple, but I guess on an eight hour car ride, you need to find the magic where you can.

While the landscape in the south was absolutely dominated by endless acres of olive trees, the road to the North (when not dominated by mountain ranges) were peppered with long, bright fields of sunflowers and areas of tomatoes. These fields eventually gave way to “fields” of windmills. There were hundreds, possibly over a thousand windmills stretching out as far as you could see. And we are not talking about the windmills of Don Quixote…We are talking about modern wind turbines that are tall enough that they would have scared even Don Quixote’s giants. This army of super Giants would have sent the legend himself, running.

La Rioja

Entering into the valley of the famous wine region of La Rioja I was stressed about the progress we had made up to then. We were due at our friends house for dinner and we had all of maybe 30 minutes to spare in the region before we would be late. As Andrea plotted a course to a couple of wineries she wanted to try, I fretted about how we would make that happen. However, I would soon become absolutely overwhelmed by the beauty of the valley. It was every bit the Spain I had known, yet, somehow, more beautiful.

After stopping by one winery, a very modern building set into the side of a hill with a view of the valley, and taking in the wonderfully fresh mountain air, I knew we weren’t getting out of the valley anytime soon and I regretted not leaving earlier that morning. After convincing staff to allow her to sample some wine outside their normal business hours and then doing some calculations of exactly how much wine we would be able to take through customs, Andrea bought a few bottles and we headed out to find another winery.

We eventually stumbled upon a citadel called Laguardia and found parking outside it’s walls pretty quickly. When we wandered in, I was enchanted, almost immediately. At this point, we had traveled far enough north and in the mountains deep enough that there was a distinct, yet pleasant chill in the air. For the first time in Spain, sweatshirts were needed and it felt so nice.

The little walled city had a very Alpine feel to it. I’ve never been to the Alps, but, between the chill in the air and the decor of the buildings and, oh yeah, the dancing German like cuckoo-like clock we found in a square, it just screamed “ALPS” at me and I felt that you could have blindfolded me and dropped me their and my first guess would have been that I was in Switzerland.

Andrea found less of a winery and more of a bar off the “Alpine” square and wanted to take a look. At this point, the boys had not eaten much during the day, so I took them to get some ice cream. I still felt stressed about our timing, but tried to make the best of it.

By this time, a lot of people had gathered in the square to watch the dancing clock, while we went into the bar to find Andrea. She, all by herself, drinking fabulous wine and snacking on some Spanish Tortilla, seemed to be having the time of her life. She introduced me to her new friend, the bartender, and I knew right away that we weren’t going anywhere anytime soon. So she ordered some more wine and tortilla for the boys and we settled in a bit. (The tortilla, served cold and with a bit of onion in it, may have been the best we had while we were in Spain.)

I had to get out some anxious energy and decided to explore the city a bit. I found a closed Irish Pub down an ally and I swore that one day I would return and have a Guinness there. I also found a bakery and decided to grab a loaf of French (Italian? Spanish?) bread and some pastries I did not recognize. (To this day, Matt still talks about that baguette in dreamy tones. It was devoured in minutes in the car.)

Eventually, I was able to drag Andrea away from wine sampling and we headed out the gate of the city. Somehow, when heading in, we missed the vista directly across the parking lot from the gates. In my rush, I had somehow been oblivious to one of the most majestic views I have ever seen.

From this “balcony”, we could look out to the west through the valley. To the North and South were these grand, majestic mountains. Down through the valley were perfect little olive groves and vineyards. Cottages straight out of paintings and rivers and streams straight out of paradise. The rational part of my brain wants to tell me that the other half has over romanticized the view in the months since we left, but the less logical side tells me that it was like looking into the Garden of Eden and I wanted to just pull up a chair, a Sangria and soak up the view for the rest of my life. My camera failed to do it justice, as do my words. This was one of those views that needs Shakespeare…or Hemingway…to describe it.

Eventually we moved on, but we will one day return there, for sure!

The road out of the mountains out towards the sea felt like we were flying because the northern Spanish coast loomed out before us, but the road never seemed to leave the mountains. The highway had the feeling of being somehow detached from the mountains and suspended in the air as the blue ocean emerged from time to time beyond the rolling mountains. I had never been on a road with such a grand view of both the mountains and the ocean at the same time. It seemed like something out of a fantasy movie.

The dusty crusty mountains we had gotten use to in the rest of Spain suddenly were replaced by some of the greenest mountains I had ever seen. Some of these mountains looked devoid of trees yet were as green as anything I had seen. On some mountains, it did not appear as if any of the green was from trees, but from grasses and brush. It was as if someone had unrolled a great green shag carpet across the landscape. The mountains just seemed to explode in green.

At Long Last, Back with our Friends

The next part of this trip was the most difficult for me to write. It was in this part of our trip, I believe, that we found the heart of Spain. We had seen plenty of where Spain came from and had seen so many places that could be on postcards. However, the next part of this trip was where we saw beyond the touristy things and saw the soul of Spain and maybe even became a bit Spanish, ourselves.

Almost seven months have now past since we were there and I was looking through a notebook of thoughts I wrote while we traveled. There are a few things in there that I had already forgotten about and realized, I cannot leave my remaining memories of those days to the erasers of time, and knew that I needed to get my memories out and on to paper. Especially now, as my family and their family sit quarantined in our own houses, thousands of miles apart, it feels like it is even more important than ever to recall the time spent with friends in the Spanish summer.

Eighteen years had passed since we last saw our friends in Spain. We obviously have our two boys and they have three girls, so, much had changed for us. As we made that journey across the land, I found myself wondering if they would still like us. I wondered if we would still like them. Eighteen years is a long time. It was just months before September 11, we were all just starting out in earnest in a world that was about to change dramatically and I could not begin to anticipate what this part of the trip would bring us.

After a wrong turn or two (those damn narrow Spanish roads almost got us again!), we pulled into their driveway, with the sun laying low in the sky. They were out in the yard, anxiously awaiting our arrival. The scene was so picturesque and it felt like it was from a movie, but I was still so anxious in seeing our friends.

Alberto and I got along so well last time we saw them, despite the distance the language barrier put between us. I considered him a good friend, yet I wondered what was the proper way to greet him after 18 years. Handshake? Hug? The weird man handshake/half hug greeting?

When I got out of the car, I hugged Yoli and then turned to Alberto. I extended my arm for a handshake which he met with a huge smile. However, once the handshake broke off, he grabbed me in a big bear hug and I knew in that moment the eighteen years was but a single split second in time since we parted last.

Teenage and pre-teen boys are always awkward around teenage and pre-teen girls. When a language gap is thrown in, the awkwardness seems to get intensified. The three daughters of Yoli and Alberto seemed to be trying to figure out Benjamin and Matthew while the boys just seemed to want to be invisible. In Spain, kids learn English along side Spanish in school, so they could understand the boys but were shy with speaking their English. While the boys understood very little.

However, laughter and smiles were still shared during the meal, especially when they surprised Benjamin with a birthday cake and a joyful rendition of “Happy Birthday” in Spanish (he had turned 14 just the day before). After dinner, we went for a walk in the dark and the competitive girls, after finding out Ben was a runner, challenged him to races. However, it would take more than a day before the language barrier would break down a bit more between the kids.

The next morning, we ventured over to a beach that, once again, seemed to suddenly emerge from the mountain, but this time, with farmlands all around. The beach was long and had a river on one side of it and a cliff at the other. Being pretty far north, the water was cold, but clear and refreshing. As I stood in the water and looked back towards the country, I was amazed by the scenery. There was one layer of beauty on top of the next. It started with the dark tan sands of the beach that went up to this line of perfect evergreen trees. Behind them were rolling hills dotted with farms and their houses. Behind them were the layers of ridges of mountain ranges. Beyond that, storm clouds churned and gave the whole scene an ethereal feel.

For lunch, we met Yoli’s parents for a quiet lunch at an open air family restaurant. Served family style, plates and smile were passed around the long table and I was introduced to a local drink of “gaseos” water added to wine, a perfect addition to a hot day. It was an honor to be treated to this lunch by her parents, not just because of the generosity of it, but because it gave us an opportunity to see a typical Spanish meal outside of the normal touristy places we had been to. This was a restaurant that the average Spaniard might go to, filled at lunch on a weekday with families and friends. It was a glimpse beyond the veil of tourism and it was fascinating to be a part of it. We felt like Spaniards by the end of lunch.

In the afternoon, we ventured into the mountains a bit. We took this long scenic road deep into a narrow valley with mountains and cliffs on either side and a river meandering through it’s heart. We passed places where people could go on hiking, biking, rafting and many other outdoor adventures. Most of these scenes could have taken place nearly anywhere in Colorado until suddenly the spires of what appeared to be a medieval cathedral rose above the treeline. The Sanctuary de Covadonga, which included the Basilica de Santa Maria la Real and the Santa Cueva de Covadonga, was in the heart of the last catholic stronghold in Spain before they started pushing back the Muslims, and it was easy to see why it had survived, so far into this narrow valley. While the basilica sat on what appeared to be a natural pedestal in the center of the valley, there was a small open-air chapel set into the rock face above it. We explored both and I was left in wonder how such historically significant places could meld so wonderfully with such natural beauty .

We followed the winding road back out of the valley, making sure to do a quick drive-by of an ancient Roman bridge in Cangas de Onis. Eventually, we found ourselves near the mouth of the Sella River where it emptied into the Bay of Biscay. It had perfect little shops and a perfect little marina and gave every impression of a perfect little seaside town. I imagine it is similar to what Oregon is like…To be in the mountains and a steep valley in one moment and be at sea level and an ocean the next…minus the 2,000 year old Roman bridge.

For the first time in nearly two weeks, the rain began to fall on us in Spain, forcing us to put a hold on exploring and venture back for dinner.

On our second full day, we would go berry picking and the boys were becoming more adventurous. It was another very casual experience of walking around a farm that had a variety of berries and even included a banana tree. Alberto would explain to me, through Yoli, how Asturias was unique in that it’s climate allowed for a large variety of crops due to the temperature and the amount of rain they get, as the kids ran through a maze made of bushes and vines between collecting berries and climbing an ancient tree.

We then went back to their house and while I watched Alberto make a paella, the girls invited Ben and Matt to play soccer and it felt like I was living in a movie. Alberto and I laughed as we tried to communicate and I attempted to pour hard apple cider the way the locals do (hold the bottle by the bottom over your head while you hold the glass by it’s bottom as far away from the bottle as possible and pour– more ends up in the grass than in the glass). Andrea and Yoli chatted as Yoli worked on other parts of the meal and the kids giggled and laughed playing soccer.

After the fantastic meal (the best meal I had in Spain, which is saying a lot since we had so many good meals), the girls invited the boys to go visit some cows at a neighbor’s house. The adults decided to go for a walk to the ocean.

This walk took us past cute homes and farms and then along tight farm roads and eventually into barely seen paths. The paths made an ever steady way down until we found ourselves standing on what felt like the edge of the world. It was a rocky cliff with the waves of the Bay of Biscay crashing against them about 20 feet down. We stood on a grassy edge with a trickle of a waterfall dumping onto the rocks below.

There was an old concrete staircase with rusty iron handrails leading down to a natural ledge, closer to the water, so, of course, Alberto and I ventured down. Alberto laid down on the edge, took in a deep breathe and in his best English said how he could spend a day there. I could not agree more. While rocks surrounded us on one side, a vast ocean lay to the other side.

As we were on this hike, the girls called their mom and asked about going swimming at a friends house who had a pool, and if the boys could join them. Of course it was okay (and later we would learn that the girls, not knowing any other word to describe the garment, asked Ben and Matt if they had brought their “bikinis”).

After we walked back from the edge of Spain (encountering some more beautiful landscapes and a few cows), we found the boys laughing and yelling as they played in and around the pool with the girls and their friends. When they saw us, they talked in excited tones and I could tell that once again, the wonderful people of Spain had touched our souls.

While Alberto speaks more English than I speak Spanish, it still was not a lot of English. Yet, looking back at the trip, I felt as if I spent much of the time talking to him in a language we both understood. I learned about his house that he built and the plans for his land. I learned about the difficulties he was having with his garden and how he hoped to grow corn. He told me of the food and customs of the region their home was in and I felt very much a part of it.

While I loved the moments in “talking” with Alberto, I also loved the conversations with Yoli. She speaks great English and was able to fill in what was lost in translation with Alberto. She talked about their daughters and their adventures just a week before in the United States. It was comforting to have someone else in the country who could understand me. Someone that could give me more details on the culture and history.

Their three daughters are lovely, as well. To see their efforts and excitement to involve Ben and Matt into their lives was sweet. Watching them try to figure out Ben and Matt was interesting, with each of them going about it in entirely different ways.

I have written and re-written this section so many time because it is difficult to convey the impact of the very real and personal experiences we shared with Alberto, Yoli and their family. To be able to get beyond that tourist curtain and be able to live even a couple of days as an average Spaniard might live left such a deep impression on me. In our first trip to Spain, it was the dinners and hanging out with them in the early days and the big feast with Yoli’s family that left the biggest impressions on me. This trip was no different.

Spain is so much more than cathedrals, ancient bridges and impossibe architecture. Spain is more than the beautiful language, the outdoor cafes and the wonderful food. Spain is so much more than the mountains and plains and the oceans that somehow all come together perfectly.

The beauty…the wonder…the magnificence of Spain, for me, was in watching the kids play soccer together and seeing the joy on my sons’ faces when we found them by the pool with the girls and the neighbors kids and them telling us how much fun they were having despite not understanding the language. It was in listening to Alberto talking to me about the difficulties he had with his garden while holding an onion that he just dug out of the dirt, but still excitedly talk about his plans for future crops. It was in the making of that paella and walking to the ocean to the sounds of cows actually wearing cow bells, and standing there with Alberto and just listening to the waves crash below us. It was in the raucous and silly card games that Andrea, Yoli and the kids played at night as Alberto and I shared a bourbon I brought over from the United States. It was in walking along the beach and talking to Yoli about the region and their love for it and their dreams beyond where they are now. It was in that lunch with Yoli’s parents the races between Ben and the girls into the darkness of the night and watching the group get ready for an early morning bike ride with the sun just barely peaking over the horizon. The wonder and the magnificence of Spain is in her people.

That is what gives Spain such a special place in my heart. I would learn while with them, and exploring my Ancestry.com profile that I was actually 5% Spanish, a new revelation. I didn’t need technology to tell me that I had Spanish blood rushing through my heart…I feel like I new that for 18 years… but it makes me happy beyond what I can explain.

On the final day, we made a trip to look at some Franco era architecture at a local university and then into the city of Gijon, which seemed to be built around a kilometer long crescent shaped beach who’s “boardwalk” we walked along. It was yet another beautifully unique setting, yet he entire morning, my heart was heavy with the inevitable goodbye. Segovia was my favorite city in Spain before this trip and we wanted to take Ben and Matt, so our last 36 hours were to be spent there. However, my heart longed to spend more time with our friends and explore more of what was beyond what you could find on an old postcard. It was a bittersweet morning and when we finally left, the sadness stayed with me.

We would eat dinner that night under the lights that illuminate Segovia’s aqueduct. It was a fun dinner, but even now, when I look at the pictures, I can still feel the sadness I can see in my face in those pictures. The first night in Segovia would be tainted by missing our friends. Despite the next day serving as a fitting goodbye to this wonderful country, I still miss our friends so much and I cannot wait to get back to see them again. I refuse to let 18 more years to pass.

Up next…Segovia and bringing Spain home.

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