Sunday, June 15, 2008

Day 121. The Pyrenees

Rain woke me up. Rats, the weather is foul, but I had already decided that I was going to visit the Pyrenees, and nothing was to stop me.

It was a long drive, with squalls throughout the way, so I had enough time to hear all about Euro 2008, and how Spain was expected to do in the afternoon on its game against Russia. Pity that Switzerland and Austria, the two host countries, had to debut with defeats against their opponents, but hearing the debate and emotions of the Spaniards I sure hoped for a good show. Good? It was fantastic. The Spain team creamed Russia 4-1, and I can tell you that the national spirit has been soaring ever since the end of the first half. Good for them!

I can’t believe how much Spain has modernized itself in the last 15 years. Tourism is their big industry, and they have embraced it with gusto. Nice hotels, condominiums and restaurants have sprouted everywhere, and the Spaniard, long a xenophobe who refused to speak anything but “castellano”, now greets you with “Gooth morrning. Can I ‘elp you?” with a welcoming smile.

Unfortunately with prosperity have also come high prices, and many Spaniards are being sucked into living on credit. At every supermarket I have been I see these monstrous totals, greeted with a sigh, and paid with credit card. And then everyone gets to complaint about the fact that credit card interests are killing them! The rise in fuel prices has by now triggered a rise in the price of food, and a serious loss of buying power, so many folks are rising their voices in protest. For example, the fishing fleet has decided not to put to sea this week, to protest for the high cost of fuel, and two teamster unions have called a three-day “huelga” for the same reason. Not having fish in the supermarkets may be annoying, but with many of the trucks stopped the country is going into panic. Fuels are not being delivered to gas stations, so on the first day of the grave panic shopping brought in a shortage of fuels (very bad for tourists like me, who depend on refueling along the way). Also, milk is not being collected from diaries, fruit is not being brought to market, and in general there is mayhem in the main roads leading to Madrid and Barcelona. I need to go to Madrid in a couple of days, so I hope things calm down by know. And what is it that they seek? Lower fuel prices. The government is willing to give rebates on the local taxes, or to suspend taxes for a while, but they cannot set an artificially low price because the European Union rules forbid it. Looks like a dead end to me! And who is to blame? Bush and the Americans, who attacked Irak and thus brought the wrath of the Arabs over the rest of the world! Alas, Spaniards may have changed their view toward European tourism, but their dislike for the gringos is still alive and well.

I finally made it to the Pyrenees, way north in the state of Aragón. The mountains are shrouded in clouds, and there is not a dry place to be had. OK, forget camping today. I found a small hotel in the mountain town of L’Ainsa, booked a room, and then headed up the mountain to at least do a bit of car tourism in the Monte Perdido National Park. I followed a narrow canyon, in one of those incredibly narrow roads that one can only find in the mountains of Spain, until I got to the trail head. Not wanting to be faint-of-heart I got out, and to reward me the rain took a break and I was bale to walk for a couple of hours through deep canyons bound by limestone cliffs hundreds of meters high. The Pyrenees are the westward continuation of the Alps, so they have the same type of structural deformation. The whole region is luscious with vegetation, not only for the recent rain, but because the snowmelt of the Pyrenees feeds all sorts of streams.

When I got back I went for a walk in the old town of L’Ainsa, and found a true jewel of the medieval ages. Today it is only two parallel streets that empty into a large central plaza, which is dominated by the stolid convent, but somewhere in the middle ages it was a mountain fortress that the Sarracens were never able to conquer.

Oh my God, my hotel room has a bathtub! You know how long it has been since I took a bath. I can see that I am going to profit enormously of my luxurious night in a hotel :)

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