Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Spain - there and back again!

Today is a pretty big day for travelling. We are now heading away from Portugal - all too soon - to head back to England and sort out the car registration etc.

We leave Lisbon after two nights and head out initially for Fatima. The day is warm with a predicted temperature of 15°C. It is surprisingly easy to navigate out of the city - in fact Lisbon has been easy to get in to, get around on the metro and busses, and finally depart. Traffic is heavy intially when we leave just after 8:30 am but this is to be expected in peak hour on a Tuesday morning.

The sky is mainly clear, although it does not have the intense blue we have become accustomed to and instead looks rather wan. The vapour trails from planes flying into, out of and over Lisbon criss cross the sky just like over London in 1940. The real clouds are thin and high, indicating cold winds in the upper atmosphere. As we leave Lisbon, the air is very hazy and I am glad that we got such great monumental photos over the last two days. It would have been nice to spend some more time here, but . . .

We pass the town of Montalvo with a huge Tupperware processing plant on the outskirts. So there you go - made in Portugal!

The trip to Fatima takes us about an hour and a half. We come off the motorway and into town at a large roundabout where there is a statue to the young shepherds - Lucy, Francisco and Jacinta - to whom the Virgin Mary appeared in 1917. As we turn away from the main roundabaout and head towards the shrine, it is like we have stepped back in time and into another world. The houses and people are simple and thankfully the shrine is too. It has not been over commercialised, not made glitzy or tinny. The land surrounding the shrine has been not touched and it is very easy to imagine a flock of sheep and three young children quietly watching them. There is good reason for me to reflect here and dwell on our good fortune that allows us to be here, as well as on the tribulations that face our family and our country.

Then back onto the highway, past little stalls operating out of people's front rooms are who are just setting up - no doubt in time for the pilgrimage busses that can't be too far behind us. The simpleness is touching and feels very appropriate in this place.

We head south again for about 20 kms before we turn to head east across Portugal and back into Spain. The land is still very 'bumpy'. We are not far off the coast at this point and the we can see the back of the coastal dunes - vegetated but with huge sandy masses as well. During the trip east, we almost feel as though we are travelling through the Granite Belt of Queensland or even in the high country around Tenterfield in northern NSW. The land becomes very rocky and we see balancing rocks and wonderful weathered formations.

Desolate looking - if it weren't for the towns small and large that exist within the spaces in these areas. Many of these have brilliantly whitewashed houses capped with terracotta tiles, but the further into the boulder country we travel, the harder we have to look for them as the local stone is now used and the towns seem to be camoflagued in the landscape. We come around one bend and over a rise and are almost blown away with the beauty of the view ahead of us. We can see for miles and miles across two towns - Fundão and Covilhã and up into the snow capped peaks of the Serra de Estrella range.

Then we reach the Spanish border. We had wondered just what we would find here and believe it or not, just as we did when we crossed the border into Portugal in the south, almost as soon as we cross the border the landscape changes dramatically. Gone are the rocky outcrops and the land opens into wide grassy plains again. It is though the Spaniards have decided that they do not want to be as rugged as the Portuguese! It is not long before we are driving down steep gentle curves into the floor of a large open valley. And back onto the fantastic roads of Spain.

One of the funniest things about today is that we keep travelling past vehicles that have the sign 'Veiculo Longo' on the back of them. Now, no prizes for guessing what it means, but these are attached to the back of every bus, semi and pantech we pass. God knows what they would make of the road trains of outback Australia - or even of the B-doubles that are so common on the streets of home.

We had originally planned to go via Coimbra to Bilbao today, but decided to make less stops and so chaged our plans and are heading for Salamanca overnight before we go on to Bordeaux, Nantes, Mont St-Michel and Calais in France. We arrive in Salamanca about 3:30 pm and end up driving into a square following the directions that place us outside the door of the Catalonia Salamanca Plaza Hotel. Michael gets directions to the car park and is back before I can even unpack. "We have to stay another day," he asserts. "You should just have a look at this place!" Turns out he turned a corner and came upon the Plaza Mayor on the way back to the hotel. So, a quick negotiation with the concierge and we secure another night at the great rate of €50. We are in a lovely suite - the Monleon Suite according to the plaque outside our room. The bed is enormous - almost as big as the one at Cardona, there is a lounge and a mile of space. Luxury. Again!

So, here we are, with me foregoing a day in Bordeaux to spend a full day exploring here tomorrow. After unpacking we head into the Plaza for a coffee and to find the tourism office. Information in hand, we head to a cafe where there are lots of University students (well, it will be reasonably priced!) and opt for that Spanish staple - hot chocolate and churros instead - yum!

Tonight we head back to the same establishment - the Cafe Novelty (in Plaza Mayor, Salamanca since 1905 they boast) for dinner. A much less formal affair tonight but still yummy. Michael settles on Plate No 1 - Fillete de ternera, Huevos Fritos, Patatas Fritas, Tomate (Fillet of beef, fried egg, Fried Potatoes, Tomatoes) while I have Plato No 4 - Huevos Fritos, Patatas Fritas, Croquetas Caseras, Tomate (Fried eggs, chips, croquettes Caseras (cheese), Tomato. It was nice to have something a little junky after all the gastronomic delights of the last month! As I type this, Michael (who was going to go for a night walk) has fallen asleep on the bed so it must be comfortable. So I will sign off and head to bed as well.

Funnily we are only 240 kms from Madrid where we were two weeks ago - hence the blog name.

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