The rain in Spain - How to avoid a mother-in-law - CycleBlaze

The rain in Spain

Advice for you...

Do go to Barcelona. It's a lovely, vibrant city full of warmth, character, life and wonderful architecture. Eminent are the buildings by Gaudi, an architect who created in bricks and mortar the same melting, dripping effect that Picasso achieved on canvas. But don't go there by bike and don't leave it by bike. Barcelona is a big city served by monstrously fast access roads. Just take the train for the first and last half-hour.

Setting out next morning was easier than the night before. The wind had dropped and there was no obstacle on the roads worse than branches and rubbish blown there by the storm. The sea was where I had left it but it had settled into a calm sulk, battered sand and upturned bar umbrellas the only evidence of what had happened.

I turned left - north - along the coast road and contented myself that in an hour or two I would slip back to the days when I hadn't started shaving. A page or two back, I mentioned I'd bought a record of one of Cliff Richard's silly sing-along songs when I was on a school trip to Spain. That was my first visit to Barcelona, in fact, although I was only 13 and so my two memories are of buying a sombrero and throwing it over a pigeon. My hat went hopping across a large square and briefly acquired flight to the great amusement of my pals and probably raised-eyebrow tut-tutting from the Spanish.

We stayed on that trip in a little hotel in a place called Blanes. Things have changed and there are no longer any little hotels in Blanes. Or there are but they are hotels of fewer rather than more than 250 rooms. That, now I think of it, may have been the first hotel I ever stayed on. Whatever the price, it was worth it because it stood on a the edge of a dried-up river which had a low bridge to reach the rest of town. The locals concentrated more on the "dried-up" than the "river" because they parked their cars there. Come the day when there was torrential rain, we were disappointed to look through the windows at the back of the hotel to see it falling and then much cheered up by seeing what had happened to the river bed at the front. It had flooded, of course.

Better than that, especially for a 13-year-old highly appreciative of other people's problems, the water had scooped up all the parked cars and swept them down to our hotel. And there they had jammed under the bridge in a multi-coloured metal logjam. But in three dimensions.

Feeling sorry for the owners of the cars, as any young boy would be, we rushed down to take pictures of the mayhem. This was far, far better than the geography and history business we were supposed to be absorbing. There is nothing like crunching metal to lift a boy's heart. This was still the Franco era, though, and the street was full of caped policemen wearing those funny black helmets that had their peaks raised vertically at the back so they could lean against walls and smoke cigarettes. Franco's men weren't at all sure about our spoiling the image of a Spain only then realising its potential as a sunshine destination and we were waved away in angry Catalan. We were, in fact, chased away. But any 13-year-old who couldn't outrun a policeman clearly had no experience in the matter.

Well, all this made me quite keen to get to Blanes, to see how it had changed. After an involuntary circling of a power station that blocked the coast road and gave me unrivalled chances to observe the industrial activities of the Spanish, I rode to Badalona, a suburb, where the road rejoined the sea. For some time it was a pleasant ride on compressed sand at the head of the beach. But that ran out just as the road itself turned into a walled 130kmh highway. It is bad enough when you have just a kerb beside you. When a wall holds you out in narrow lanes of traffic, traffic driven by tired drivers who have raced through the night from northern Europe and now neither want nor expect a cyclist in their path, it is no fun at all. I caught a train on the coastal railway and, with a change at the next station, got off in Blanes.

I hadn't expected to remember anything and I was right. The sea front looked familiar but it could have been anywhere. I had a ride up and down, looking for a restaurant, then in a side alleyway and courtyard found what I'd been half looking for: a place that sold steak pie, chips, beans and an egg. Great British Muck Food. The stuff that keeps the British cheerful as they walk once more along rain-dampened pavements.

"Gravy on that, is it?" the waitress shouted, unaware of the gleeful irony she was creating. She had lived there 30 years, having first come to Spain - to the Canaries - as a tour rep. She spoke fluent Spanish and she could understand although not speak Catalan. Her accent, though, was pure London, all twanged vowels and glottal stops. It wasn't her restaurant, she said. She simply ran it. In winter she just put her feet up.

The couple sitting outside were a carpet-fitting estimator ("semi-retired now") and his Polish wife, who had left Poland when she'd heard that life and food were better in the west but must surely now be having her doubts about the food bit. The man harped on about how he'd loved cycling as a kid, although what it amounted to was playing hide-and-seek in the park.

"One of the lads, he always hid in the same place and he never did find out how we always found him," he said with dewy-eyed passion. That was as interesting as his recollections got. He must have realised it himself because he changed tack almost straight away.

"Got everything you need to mend punctures, have you?" he asked.

The road north to Lloret de Mar climbed straight out of a roundabout on the town's edge. The map showed a lesser road closer to the sea and that's what I thought I had taken. At the top of a hill possibly steeper than the one I'd been clever enough to avoid, I realised that either I was on the wrong road or that it didn't run quite so clearly to Lloret. Enter two more Belgians.

They were, they said, from Antwerp and they had moved to Blanes three years ago and found their lives much improved.

"There are a lot of people like you live round here," the man said.

"What, cyclists?"

"No, Dutchmen."

There is a love-hate relationship between Belgians and their northern neighbours.

"But I'm not Dutch."

"But you must be." I'm sure he didn't mean that being Dutch had become obligatory but equally I wasn't sure what he did mean. So I went for a diversionary tactic.

"I'm more Belgian than Dutch. You know Kalmthout?", I said, naming a village 20km north of Antwerp and now rather chic and full of Dutch professional bike-riders who thereby avoid high Dutch income tax. "Well, I used to live there years back."

"G*dv*rd*omm*!", the man said, pronouncing the G like an H but also filling in the asterisks that I have left there so as not to give Dutch-speaking readers the vapours. We walked together as they took me to a point where they could explain how to pick up the main highway again. I was sorry to say goodbye to them.

There isn't much to be said about the road to Lloret. It's a succession of hotels and batches of countryside, the hotels so numerous that they are indicated on signs not by name but by code numbers and letters given to them on maps and by tour operators. There'd be too many to list by name. The roads, too, were marked - not with hotel names but the name of the towns, because the Vuelta had passed this way a few days earlier and it was good advertising to stick before the TV cameras.

The rain poured on the Lloret road and I pulled into a bus station, which had a café. Full of French people, as it turned out, but much more remarkable was the reaction of a man waiting outside. He simply stared at me as I rolled up in my waterproofs and with the yellow covers down over my bags. He was agog. He didn't even look away when I held his eyes for a moment. It was as though I had dropped in from some alien land of which he knew nothing. Which, to somebody being driven round Spain in a tour bus, I probably had been.

By the time I'd had a coffee and something to eat, the rain had stopped and my man had gone. I rode on to Tossa de Mar and stopped at a camp site on a hill beyond the town. A good site, too, not cuddly in the way of sites away from tourist areas but nicely organised and well appointed with a bar, pool and shop.

There was nobody at the office out by the road so I rode down the slope into the site, found an out-of-the-way pitch on a ledge served by steps and put up my tent. Later, for the sake of my conscience, I'd walk up to the entrance again to see if anyone had arrived. I thought I was about to have another night's free stay. As it happened, I had only just got the tent up when a security man arrived on a small motorbike to tell me that there was another reception office 200m beyond where I was.

"Hay tambien una oltra entrada," he said.

We can't have fallen out too badly, though, because later that year they sent me a new year's card.

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