08 September 2015: As we exited the Hertz parking garage there was nowhere to go but into the flood of traffic on Avenida Diagonal, one of the biggest and busiest street in Barcelona. Deb was trying to get her bearings, driving an unfamiliar manual car on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, while I was trying to set up the GPS, watch the street signs and guide us towards a supermarket we believed to be a few blocks down on the other side.
I relive last year’s fantastic holiday by bringing posts over from the trip blog. This doesn’t aim to be identical to the trip blog, but an improvement, with text edits and more / better photos. Find all these posts under the tag: Spain2015.
As Deb wrestled with setting off the windscreen wipers rather than indicating lane changes and trying to get the car into the right gear at traffic lights we just had to follow the crowd. We soon found ourselves whizzing past the supermarket and unable to find anywhere to stop.
It really was as though we’d fallen into a flooding river and all we could do was try to keep our heads above water while bobbing along in the torrent.
Luckily we were pointed towards our final destination, Montserrat, so we just kept going. Meanwhile I had managed to enter a rudimentary destination into the GPS, but the directions were all in Spanish, so I was translating on the fly.
Before long — Montserrat is only about 60 Km from Barcelona — we’d made it to our hotel for the night without real incident.
Now, 1500 Km later, Deb is a pro at handling whatever the Spanish landscape gives her to deal with. From tiny village streets barely wide enough for a single car to country roads with roadworks to 4 Km long tunnels on toll roads, she has it all in hand.
Over the last 5 days we’ve come to appreciate the Spanish road system, its efficiency and friendliness. We can also much better understand why tourists have a terrible time driving in New Zealand.
Now, to be fair, New Zealand is a long, thin country with a tiny, widely distributed population. We have only a handful of actual motorways, and getting from point A to point B is often a matter of heading north (or south) for a long way, then maybe turning left or right.
Wellington to Auckland? Drive north on the main road till you get there. Christchurch to Invercargill? Drive south on the main road till you get there.
By comparison, Spain is a roughly square country with dozens or hundreds of major cities and a population of 48 million, ten times that of New Zealand. There are hundreds, thousands, of major roads that cross and join and part. Some major roads are free of charge, others are toll roads.
There are motorways, large roads, local roads, country roads and tiny tiny village alley ways. We’re travelling between centres on the free and paid motorways and it’s such a breeze! It’s when we reach some tiny rural location that things get tough.
We whizzed along from Barcelona to Montserrat, mainly at 120 Kph. There were several lanes going in our direction, and the opposing traffic was utterly separated by medians of various kinds, but all structured in a way that it would be impossible to cross to the ‘wrong’ side of the road.
The motorways are straight(ish) and flat. They have gentle curves and bends so you don’t get too hypnotised by long straights. If a bend does come up after a straight stretch there are flashing arrows to remind you to turn. Viaducts, all named it seems, whisk you across valleys, and tunnels, also named and with the length clearly indicated take you through hills.
The signage is clear and helpful. Motorway exits are numbered: if the GPS, now speaking English, thanks to Deb’s wizardry with the device, tells us to take Exit 143, then the signs let us know we’re currently only at 142, for example.
The GPS is (mostly) great too, with plenty of warning for what to do next:
In 200 metres take the exit and keep right … take the exit. Once or twice though it’s put us wrong:
At the rotary take the third exit. Luckily, as Deb pointed out, a roundabout is a wonderful thing because you can just keep going round until you can see what to do.
On the toll roads, at least, drivers in Spain seem very well mannered. They stay in-lane, only moving into another lane briefly to overtake. The toll roads have been largely free of traffic too.
The first toll road we took was a breeze. We presented a credit card to the machine, the barrier arm lifted, and off we went.
The next one though had us stumped. The machine didn’t want a credit card but instead a ticket. There seemed to be no way to get a ticket. We backed out — luckily no one was behind us — and consulted Google. When that didn’t help we cautiously drove across the apron to what looked like an office on the other side. It wasn’t. We returned to the barrier area, though to one side, and watched a few cars go through. It seemed they were taking tickets from the machine. Then we noticed the lane we’d used was marked differently. Finally we had our resolution: we tried a different lane, waited a few moments, and a ticket emerged from the slot. We were on our way again.
There are some hugely complex ‘intersections’ as multiple roads come together. You still don’t stop though. Instead there are series and layers of off-ramps and on-ramps, all marked with warnings that you’re 300, 200, 100 metres away.
One thing we’ve noticed is the absence of roadside advertising. The countryside is very ‘clean’, and while there may be an occasional thicket of road signs, there isn’t much of anything that provides a distraction. It does make it easy to watch the scenery though.
On the other hand, while there are rest stops with fuel, food and sometimes accommodation, and rest stops where you can simply pull over for a break, we haven’t yet seen even a single marked lookout or scenic viewpoint.
Luckily we haven’t yet had to park anywhere, except in hotel car parks or at tourist attractions where a car park is available. In Tudela though the hotel had a special rate for parking in a tiny area down a narrow alley beside the hotel. To get in we took a ticket at the barrier. Our hostess, who spoke no English at all, took it off us and indicated that when we wanted to leave we should buzz her doorbell and she would let us out.
Except that when we were ready, indeed keen to leave for our next destination, she was nowhere to be found.
We waited a while, tried the doorbell a few more times, then even considered paying the full fee, but we had no ticket!
Luckily we had added funds to our Spanish prepaid SIM cards just that morning so I called the phone number on the door. No answer. Then I spotted a Call button on the barrier machine. I tried that and heard a profusion of Spanish, of which I managed to understand nothing.
I tried the phone again and this time managed to somehow connect. I don’t recall what I said, possibly something that Google Translate had given me. Whatever, the barrier arm lifted and I sprinted round the back to get Deb to drive out before it dropped again.
Tomorrow we drop this rental car at Santiago de Compostela, because the next day we start our walk.
It’s been fun and very freeing travelling around by car, and I’m very grateful to Deb for handling the driving. We’ve been able to go to several very remote locations, staying at tiny little country hotels and experiencing parts of Spain we would have missed out on otherwise.