It’s been a two years since the last European road trip, and just over a year ago that I was driving up and down the East coast of North America for most of August. As with the last European journey, this one took place over the Toussaint holiday, but this time it was just me and Catherine. The venerable and much abused Renault had recently got a new alternator and gear shifter assembly, the rear tires were less than a year old, but still I wondered if I should upgrade my insurance to some sort of broader coverage (2,000km towing radius, rental car, hotel stay, etc.) just in case – there had been problems before.
The reasons for driving to Portugal were: for a change of scenery, to talk writing things with a couple of writer/editors, Miranda and Krister, dad-daughter road trip, and to pick up a couple of bags that Miranda had graciously agree to put in a shipping container she was sending from Virginia to her new home in Portugal.
Catherine and I left La Garde around 11:00am on Thursday, deciding to try the northern route: since the direct route, the impossible one, is through the middle of the Pyrennes, the only realistic routes mean skirting the mountains by choosing an ocean: the northern route to the Atlantic by way of Toulouse and San Sabestian, or the southern route to the Mediterranean by way of Perpignan and Girona. Google maps indicated that the northern route was only twenty minutes longer than the southern route, and since I had already driven the southern route around to Barcelona several times, the route via Atlantic would be better.
It didn’t matter: rain, fog, clouds, and the need to concentrate on the road meant that even if there had been anything worth seeing, it remained hidden. Along with the weather there were construction delays, and I was ready to quit driving around 7:30pm; through the wonder of my GPS running the OsmAnd app, we found a hotel not far from the highway.
Friday was the hard day: the drive across Spain was long and not scenic – a variation on the monotony of Route 50 through Nevada: drive to the top of a ridge line, there’s a view to the next and very far ridge line, then descend into the flats for a while. Repeat. Moreover, the days of driving ten hours or more, straight through with minimal stops are over: these days five hours behind the wheel are enough. Travelling through Spain you can see how the American West was easy for the Spanish: both are dry, desolate lands. Still, we made it to Elvas, exited the highway, drove through then out of town, and just before sundown, following the GPS to what I thought was Miranda’s house, turned down a wet, muddy road.
I shouldn’t have been worried about the Renault – it was the driver who would be a problem. Not thinking, I drove through and managed, barely, to exit a large puddle whose depth I had misjudged. Given that there were more puddles ahead, a bit of caution kicked in and we left the car on a dry mound, between puddles, as I decided we should walk up to a distance house to confirm it was Miranda’s before risking getting stuck in the wrong driveway – better to be stuck in the right driveway.
Catherine wore her pink Wellie style boots, but I had forgotten to bring mine (green, not pink), so I walked carefully up the muddy road. It was quiet, twilight, on both sides of the road were fenced pastures with oaks and olives here and there. As we passed a herd of cows, Catherine asked why they were all looking at us; l answered because they had nothing better to do. After a few minutes we came to a house where an older woman was working outside. Clearly this was not Miranda’s house, and my “Donde esta casa Miranda?” yielded nothing. Of course that was Spanish and we were in Portugal, but it was something, but she either didn’t know Miranda (indeed, Miranda had only recently moved to Elvas) or didn’t understand my rusty and limited Spanish. After a few more attempts I gave up, thanked the woman, and we walked back to the car – my plans was we would drive back into town, let the GPS reset, and try again.
This time the gods were against me: I got the car turned around, and decided to try a different side of the puddle, but about half through, at about the same time, the tires would only spin and I hit a chunk concrete that has been submerged and hidden in the mud and grass. No permanent damage was done to the car, although a little plastic thing was split on the front. The car was tilted in the puddle such that we had to exit on the passenger side, and as Catherine asked me what we were going to do, I noticed that my phone had turned off. Odd, but not worrying – I turned it on, then entered the PIN to unlock the SIM (could that sentence have been written twenty years ago?). I entered the PIN correctly, all four times, yet each time it was rejected, and after the fourth and final attempt, the phone went into emergency call mode. Death to Samsung, death to Android.
My car was stuck in a puddle in a dirt road outside a small town in Portugal. My phone was not working. Catherine was with me. We may have been within a half mile of Miranda’s, but after the phone problem I wasn’t in the mood to trust the GPS software. My first thought was to walk back to the older women’s home, and use her phone to call Miranda. But I had Miranda’s number in my phone, which was not longer working, so I couldn’t call Miranda. The only thing I could do is call Annie in France, and get Miranda’s number.
We walked back to the women’s house, who now had been joined by her husband (I assume that’s who he was). Despite saying telephone, telefon, telefono, telefonia (in several cases, declensions, and accents), and doing interpretive dance of someone making a phone call, the response was always just a shake of the head. I supposed I looked a little bit suspect, but Catherine often offsets any misgivings people have about me. Or perhaps they simply had no telephone. We left the couple and walked up a little further, to an intersection of two paved roads. On a bench at a bus stop was a man drinking from a large bottle, otherwise the intersection was quiet. Across the street were a series of attached homes, sort of pueblo like, whitewashed, with older people coming and going – it was some sort of remote, elderly, Portuguese Melrose Place.
With no car and no means of communication, I decided that we should get a few things from the car, then make our way into town, by walking, bus, taxi, whatever. For a second time we walked all the way back to the car, got a few things, then for a third time walked back to the paved road by the woman’s house, and past it to the paved road that lead into town. Just for fun, I took another look at the GPS, and this time it showed us not really very far from Miranda’s. The choices being a walk to what might be Miranda’s place, or a longer walk into town, I chose the first. We left the four corners area and headed up a street – by now it was completely dark, although we both had flashlights with us. However, as we came to a corner, there were a lot of dogs barking, and since some seemed to not be leashed, I decided we should turn around, head back to the four corners, then figure out how to get into town.
The Moldavians to the Rescue
Back at the four corners the bus stop bench had been vacated by the bottle drinker, and Catherine and I sat down and ate some chips before beginning the walk into town. As we sat there the couple we had seen before came to over us and started talking rapidly and energetically, then they were somehow suddenly joined by three or four old ladies from the apartments across the street, and with that a sort of spontaneous light opera broke out: the old ladies were gesturing to each other, looking at Catherine, and saying something like ‘the poor bambino’ – never mind that we didn’t understand. Everyone was talking and gesturing to each other, no one was listening.
After a few minutes of this one of the ladies disappeared and came back out with a young man, named Vlad. Vlad was from Moldavia, and was in Elvas for a piano concert (I was never sure if he was attending a conservatory in Elvas, or just there for a performance), and he was visiting his father who lived in one of the Melrose Place apartments. In addition to Russian he spoke excellent English and at least enough Portugese to talk to the old ladies. He offered me his phone, but there was no service there. After a little more discussion, he said he and his father could drive us to wherever we needed to go if we had an address.
Miranda’s number was hidden in my locked phone, but as it happened I did have her address on my tablet. I had written her address down earlier that summer before taking our August vacation: we would be visiting Vienna, and in case we went to see those white horses, I thought I might send her a postcard (Miranda and Krister, among other things, are also horse people (equestrian sounds way too pretentious for them)). I opened up my tablet, found the address, and showed it to Vlad and his dad, who by them had joined the rest of the company. The address, like places that are either very rich or very rural, was a name, not a number, something like Quinta della Lobos. Vlad’s dad wasn’t sure where that was, but he decided to drive to the place where the old English family lived, as they would be able to tell us where to go.
With that Catherine and I said good-bye to the group of people still standing around the bus stop bench, got into the back of Vlad’s dad’s newish car, and drove off in search of Miranda. Along the way we stopped a couple times on hills to see if we could get service from either Vlad’s phone or his dad’s, but neither worked. We never found the old English couple, but when we went back to the apartment complex, there was an older woman there who knew where to find Quinta della Lobos: after a fifteen minute discussion with her, we turned around, drove a couple of hundred meters, and were at Miranda’s.
Vlad and his dad accepted our thanks, and drove off. After abbreviated greetings, Miranda, Krister, Tor, Catherine, and I got into their beater French car, drove to where our car was stuck, grabbed the bags, leaving the car there for the night. We went to dinner at a place in Varch called Casa do Alentejo, where we ate a simple but excellent meal, and went through a few of the best beers I’ve tasted – it had been a long day. Catherine fell asleep at the dinner table.
At the quinta
The first order of business on our first full day in Elvas was to rescue the Renault. For this we called the foreman that helps Krister on the farm, Joachim, whose four wheel drive vehicle could help pull the Renault out of the pond. Now add Joachim’s name to the list of to be repaid after Vlad and Vlad’s dad.
The next five days were lovely. The quinta, Portuguese for small land holding, is somewhat sprawling: a main house with various appendages attached, their degree of repair ranging from rubble to new and nice. The house, quite old, needs on the order of several hundred thousand man hours of work, but Krister and Miranda don’t mind, and seem to enjoy the challenge. Days were spent eating, walking, drinking, talking, a board game here and there – it was all idyllic. Occasionally we were joined by their friend Faye, from the north of England, whose accent is such that there was a three second pause while I parsed and processed what she said into something I could understand, and I could see her do the same when she was listening to me. One afternoon we went out to look at their horses (I think they are known as Irish Drinking Horses, but I might be wrong on that), which until they can build proper facilities on their property, Krister and Miranda are boarding at a nearby stable. Another afternoon we all went to pick Thor up from school, and it reminded me of doing the same when picking up Catherine: in the late afternoon (Thor has a rather long school day) a bunch of kids, middle school age, stream of out the dates of the school, their looks a bit different, but not too much from those in France: some a bit darker, but some paler northern European types, too, all in a variety that make living over here wonderful.
Elvas, like La Garde, has an Intermarche, and even better is that theirs has an espresso bar and lounge, which locals use for socializing. One day Catherine and I went off on our own to look around Elvas, and we had lunch downtown. Like all places in Europe, in Elvas there are forts and churches and castles and old things, but on this trip we were not so much interested in these.
Their land has many olive trees, and Krister, adding olive farmer to his cv, is working with a crew to get the olives harvested and to the local mill – this year they are focused on olive oil, but I believe some varieties are better suited to eating. One afternoon we went out and picked a bunch for us to take back to France, then spent the evening sorting them (removing those that had worm holes) and slightly scoring them with a special tube that you push the olive through. The tedium of this work is relieved by alcohol and conversation.
The days went by, and then it was time to go. There was a Halloween Party to go to in La Garde, and the Toussaint holiday was coming to an end; we had talked about writing stuff, and a lot more (international bank transfers, clubbing baby harp seals, the order of operations for book design, and so on), I had retrieved my bags shipped over on the container. Our last night we went back to the Casa do Alentejo – I wanted to Catherine to have a meal there when she wasn’t exhausted, and the meal was again very good.
We left Elvas Thursday morning, taking the southerly route by way of Madrid. The drive was uneventful, although at one point a bird of prey, a hawk of some sort, landed on a fence post as we drove by. Even though I don’t believe in unseen forces guiding out lives, I happily and hypocritically take the seeing of a bird of prey as a good sign. The monotony of the drive was broken by listening to Kate Winslet reading Roald Dahl’s Mathilda – the highlight was hearing the very English and very feminine actress let out a convincing burp as she read a scene in which a schoolboy is forced to eat an entire cake – this was certainly as good as her playing Marianne in the Ang Lee film. That night we stayed in a new, modern hotel in Zaragoza, the Hotel Hiberius. It was one of those affairs you find near technology parks or airports, built for holding conventioneers and business people. But the hotel had a nice room at a reasonable price, and bathrooms with up to date, high pressure plumbing. At the resaurant hotel Catherine finally got to wear the dress she brought, and the since there were no children’s items on the menu, the chef improvised a tasty, savory penne pasta dish followed by a plate full of chicken and vegetables (as noted – they were not used to preparing children’s plates there). I had a pork loin dish cooked after a local recipe, and took advantage of the included vino tinto.
Friday we checked out of the hotel and were on our way by 9:30. An hour or so out of Zaragoza we saw signs that we were approaching the Prime Meridian (0° longitude, and approximately 41°39′ north for you navigational nerds). If there had been a sign on the outbound trip, I missed, it, and this was exciting news to me: I assumed there would be a rest stop, some sort of informative plaque, maybe a diaorama – but there was nothing, not even a place to pull over and take a picture. We drove over the prime meridian, went from west to east so to speak, and I remembered the last time I anticipated crossing a major meridian, and was disappointed: from my journal in May, 2003, between New Zealand and French Polynesia (Cam and I are on watch, taking turns helming the boat; John is the captain):
[from Auckland]...we headed south and southeast, but we never got as far as 40° South, coming short by just a few miles. We then turned East. It was on one of my watches that we crossed the international date line. We had been talking about it, and watching for the changeover on the GPS, wondering when the read out would change from 179.xxxE to 179.xxxW. I’m on watch with Cam when John comes into the cockpit to check on things. John glances at the GPS and says, “Oh, I see we crossed the dateline”. I look at the GPS, yes it’s true, we missed it. Cam and I look at each other, dumb and dumber. Oh well. But I finally got that lost day back.
The drive was very scenic, finally, all the way to Girona. Once we merged with the autoroute that follows the Meditteranean coast the traffic picked up and was busy, but by 7:30pm we made it back to La Garde.