Plan B - How to avoid a mother-in-law - CycleBlaze

Plan B

Tudela: prettier than the surrounding countryside.
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All sorts of things must go on in hotel rooms that the owners don't know about. The cleaners who follow you each morning must have the time of their lives analysing your life.

One thing nobody may have guessed is that I got out my camping gear, set up the stove in the bathroom and made coffee before eating bread and honey on the bed. There are times when I think I may not have lived up to my mother's hopes for me. It was comfort food, really, the equivalent of eating a whole packet of chocolate biscuits and not caring. And why was comfort needed? Because, to be honest, I'd had enough of rural Spain. On the advertisements, it looks great. It's full of grinning men called Pedro who lead donkeys as old and as bandy-legged as they are through charming hillside villages full of dark bars and cactus plants. The reality, strangely, is different.

The reality is that the countryside is open, brown, dry, dusty, remote, unpeopled and largely without charm. When you hear they filmed spaghetti westerns in Spain, because it looks more like the Nevada desert than Nevada does, it comes as no surprise at all.

Re-evaluation was called for. I wasn't going to Madrid for any reason than to go to Madrid. It was the right distance and I'd never been there. It wasn't even supposed to be that stunning. Toledo was, a bit further on, but not Madrid. Madrid had been picked as the capital for where it was, right in the middle, rather than what it was.

Next morning I walked to the station before full light and, to my delight, spotted a train on the timetable that ran direct to Irun and even Hendaye. That's up on the coast where the French border chases Spain into the sea. It's just along from San Sebastian, which is lovely. But the delight was short-lived because, as the ticket man explained, the train would take my bike only if it were boxed.

Barcelona, capital of Catalonia, which is "NOT SPAIN" insists a large graffiti outside the station.
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I asked about Barcelona. Yes, he said, that was much easier. He didn't seem at all surprised that a man who wanted a ticket for one end of the country was equally content to go to another, but maybe he had come across cyclists before. He said I could take a local train to Zaragoza, then change for the line to Barcelona. He wrote the times for me and I noticed that a train that left not long after midday wasn't going to get to Barcelona until five. A shrug on my part. So what? It was a train journey, an escape, and an experience. It was also confirmation that I had done the right thing for nowhere between Tudela and Barcelona did the countryside change from arid and dull, except that sometimes it went up and down and sometimes it didn't. It also rained.

There were a couple of hours to fill before my train left so I returned to the hotel, had breakfast, reloaded my bike and set off to wander about the old area of town. It's prefaced by a large and ornate square a little like the Grande Place in Brussels. But beyond it, and not obvious unless you read the guide, is an area that the book describes as little changed since the Moors left the city centuries ago. And this time the book was right.

It's a blessing that it had never been torn down. Most other towns wouldn't have hesitated. There'd be blocks of flats, a multi-storey car park and nothing but chain stores and a night-time drug problem there. But they left it, bless them.

There were dark streets just wide enough for a horse and a small cart, the walls towering above them on each side to create sunless canyons. The Moors were north Africans and the feeling of being in somewhere like Libya or, further east, Turkey was inescapable. A few streets, wider than the others, had signs of greater prosperity, the facades painted, statues created, trees planted. But the rest, and in some ways the more appealing, had walls that had peeled to reveal the stone or brick beneath and that general patina of dust and neglect that would have made most 1960s town planners send for the demolition crews.

Tudela: tell me you can't imagine the ancient Moors still walking these narrow shabby paths
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I have a fondness for the shabby and the decaying. Many detect it in my own appearance. I felt at home where the Moors had been and, once more, a Spanish town had compensated for the countryside that surrounded it.

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My train to Barcelona stopped at every station. The single line wound round rocks and across plains and past a nuclear power station and through little towns so seemingly without support that you wondered how anyone could or would want to live there. The weather worsened throughout and I was content to sit in my train and watch the rain fall on the windows.

The approach to Barcelona was dramatic, the track running next to the sea and only a metre or so higher than the top of the beach. Waves large for the normally placid, almost tide-less Mediterranean showed a wind was blowing and the low grey clouds ruled out bathers on the beach. Other, that is, than surfers for whom the conditions were appealing. That wind was howling when I got to Barcelona. People struggled against it or ran against their wills when they had it at their backs. But mostly they sheltered from the driving rain. Across the road from the station was a large sign painted on a wall in English. "Catalonia is not part of Spain", it said. So I had come from one area, the Basque country, which wanted independence and landed in the capital of another.

The traffic was chaotic in the weather and the rush hour and the directions I'd been given by two hesitant young women at the station's tourist office didn't help either. All I wanted was to find the sea and then ride along it until I cleared the town and reached one of the numerous camp sites shown on the map. But the conditions and the repeated ending, restarting and moving of the cycle path, plus the impressively worrying intersections and interchanges, meant it took an hour to cover just six or seven kilometres. And when I got to the coast it was blasted by the wind that had had people cringing in the city centre. It had abated a bit but the idea of a pleasant evening ride beneath palm trees with the sea for company was impossible.

The wind had the flags of Barcelona flapping
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My reserve plan was to find a coastal hotel, somehow thinking they'd be cheaper out of season and delighted that I would fill a bed late in the day. But that is not Barcelona. Instead, the hotels had four stars and impressive reception areas. I did ask at one, on the basis that if I didn't then I'd never know the price, and the answer from a receptionist speaking French and showing clearly that she didn't revel in the idea of my staying there, was that one night would cost €110 - plus taxes. Bugger that!

So, I turned back into the city. I felt more hungry than tired but an element of weary despair had come to the surface. And then salvation came. Across the road at one of the

Barcelona, a lovely if busy city known for its cathedral designed by Gaudi
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difficult junctions came a black couple. Could they help? They could. And in French. I'd like to have asked why it was that he answered my Spanish in French and how, while both of them evidently understood French and he spoke it fluently, they talked to each other in Spanish. Had they perhaps grown up on an island divided down the middle by Spanish and French invaders? I never found out.

"The signs will tell you to take that road there", the man said. "But don't: go to the right and then left and you'll end up on a long straight road to the centre. You can ride right down the middle on a cycle path. And when you get to the end, you'll see hotels everywhere, and not too expensive." That was the route the tourist office should have suggested. It was a delight to ride, a broad pedestrianised area separating the traffic lanes and crossed now and then by light-controlled access roads from one carriageway to the other. Riding back into town took a tenth of the time it had taken to ride out. I even had the wind behind me, such a novelty that night that I had to confirm with a pair of teenagers that I was going the right way.

"Yes", the boy said in English. I smiled and waved my thanks.

I found my hotel before the end of the avenue. Next morning, turning on the television for a weather forecast, I didn't need to understand much Spanish to discover the cause of the previous night's wind: there had been a tornado. I saw pictures of the inverted, hip-swivelling black cone bearing down on the city. It had struck some kilometres out, towards the airport, and what I had felt was the air rushing in to fill it. A few days later I found there had been not just one but two, although when the second was, I don't know. We don't do tornados in Europe.

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