Trip to Spain

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Morocco to the south of France. Fes is to the north of the snowy uplands in the right of the photo, and Brive-la-Gaillarde is under clouds at the top center or maybe slightly off the photo. NASA satellite.

The Trip to Spain

If you’re a movie fan, and, in particular, a Brit, you may be thinking Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, but this blog post is more mundane and less amusing, and it also lacks the sadder, darker undercurrents of their comedies.

In a Walk above the woods I mentioned that Peace Corps vacation policy for Morocco volunteers was basically travel within Morocco, or anywhere in Africa, or Spain. Most of us had numerous opportunities to travel within Morocco, and, much as we loved Morocco, many of us wanted a change of scenery, and, perhaps, a bit more freedom. Algeria was officially considered a hostile country, so a visit there was out. That was unfortunate, because the Algerian people were friendly and happy to meet Americans, and Algeria is full of interesting places to visit. Airfare to the rest of Africa, or, to Europe for that matter, was limited and expensive. Spain ended up the place of choice by default. According to the Peace Corps, the cultural affinities and mutual histories made Spain a perfect visit. Some volunteers discovered even quieter and cheaper vacations in Portugal, but many of us went to Spain.

What you did in Spain depended a lot on your personality. Did you want to see historical sites, major cities, Islamic monuments? Lounge on the beaches, eat tapas in the bars, look for romance? Ski or hike the mountains? Appreciate art? Catch a recent movie? Spain already had an enviable tourist infrastructure, and the south coast had become an important destination for British pensioners. Spaniards were friendly and accommodating, and the food and wine was great.

And what you could do depended on where you went. Ceuta or Melilla were for duty free shopping and a visit could be as short as an afternoon or an overnight.

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Ceuta. Fishing boats. Monte Hecho in background

If you lived near these enclaves, they were only a bus ride away! The peseta was cheap, and the hotels were inexpensive.

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Ceuta. The harbor and town at dusk

Once in Spain, the possibilities were unlimited. If you were going to peninsular Spain, you could take ferries from Tangier to Algeciras or Malaga. You could also go to Gibraltar, but during much of my stay in Morocco, Gibraltar, because of Spanish territorial claims, was blockaded, and you could not get into Spain from the Rock. The shortest, cheapest route was Ceuta to Algeciras on the passenger/car ferry. It only took an hour and a half. Once in Algeciras, the train would take you north to any big city.

One summer I took my vacation in Chamonix.

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Downtown Chamonix. 1965. You could still encounter Gaston Rébuffat in the cafés.
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The Appalachian Mountain Club statue dedicated to the first ascent of Mont Blanc. The beginning of modern mountaineering. Of course, the Brits and the Swiss like to talk about the first ascent of the Matterhorn. A number of other alpine clubs contributed to this statue of Balmat and de Saussure 

This was, of course, against the rules, but I didn’t care. It was 1970. Perhaps the rules had even changed by then. The downside of making stupid rules is that no one pays much attention to them. Most organizations, even the most benevolent, have a penchant for making stupid rules.

The French had a special program for kids and young adults under the auspices of the Union Nationale des Centres de Plein Air. You could spend a couple of weeks learning and participating in just about any summer sport imaginable. The French government subsidized it heavily. During the previous year, I had been corresponding with a member from a Club Alpin Français section in the Pyrenees, and he suggested that I try it. I love the Pyrenees, and hope to return while I can still walk, but I chose Chamonix over the Pyrenees (and other Alps sites), because, frankly, Chamonix was more historical (the place where French climbing was born) and more spectacular (the highest mountain in Western Europe, and lots of high, vertical granite rising amid glaciers). I spent a month there, something I could never have done on my very limited Peace Corps budget if I hadn’t been subsidized by the French Government. Remerciements à l’UNCP!

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Ascent of the Allalinhorn, above Saas Fée. Another nice thing about Chamonix is its location on the border of Switzerland and Italy. This is Switzerland, of course. The Valais is separated by a low pass from the valley of Chamonix. The border control didn’t even ask where I was from or check my passport. He assumed I was French.
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Mont Blanc at dawn from the Italian side. Courmayeur is in the valley below. Far below! We got here, above the Val d’Aosta, through the Mount Blanc tunnel, and stayed at the Italian Torino refuge on Point Helbronner. No longer remember what peak we are on in this photo. We did several easy climbs in the area.
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My young self, Elizabeth, and Jean (French members of the cordée. The Matterhorn is off in the distance.
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Déjeuner sur l’herbe, alpine style. After a traverse of one of the minor “aiguilles.” I think the Aiguilles Rouges may be across the valley.

I will be forever grateful, too, and I am happy to learn that the UNCPA still exists after all these years. Thus I spent a month living with a group of fifty or so French kids, roughly my age, and I had a ball. It was co-ed. We were housed in comfortable chalets. In the mountain refuges, when the weather was bad, we ate, told jokes, and played cards

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The chalet in Chamonix, between hikes. We lived in a communal atmosphere, but most of the time we were outside. It really was a centre de plein air.

The food was fine, as you might imagine, certainly far better than French cité universitaire cuisine. This was a holiday in France! Would anyone tolerate bad food? Ben dieu!

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Dinner in one of the huts above Chamonix. I think we were climbing the Pétit Pélérin. Wine, bread, cheeses, and lots of good company. The sun is setting over the mountains to the west.
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Above Saas Fée. In Switzerland.

Now if you are wondering what this has to do with Spain, remember that I was living poor and had few resources. I figured I could save and scrape up enough for the train trip, but fortune shined. Jean, a young French kid from Brive-la-Gaillarde, had been touring North Africa in his Peugeot 404, and was passing through Fes just about the time I was about to leave. He was hoping to find someone to share expenses and driving as he returned home. How he found me, I don’t recall, but there weren’t that many foreigners in Fes, and I worked there. He met someone who knew me and knew that I needed to get to France.

We drove up to Ceuta or Tangier and crossed to Algeciras. It was late, and we were tired and we spread our sleeping bags out on the beach facing refineries in La Linéa.

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Gibraltar. On the left is the bay of Algeciras, in the distance, La Linéa

I would not try this today when crime in the region is a problem. Even then, though it was summer, it was damp and uncomfortable and the lights of the towers and burning gas lit up the beach with an unappealing industrial glow. The next day we drove up the coast, taking time to swim in the Mediterranean before turning inland.

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North of Malaga. 1969.
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A dip in the Mediterranean before a long dry day.

There were fewer roads, then, and even the main north-south routes were not very good. We skirted Madrid, and, after dark, pulled off the road into the stubble of a wheat field somewhere in Castile.

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My mummy bag in a field in Castile. Dawn.

The following day we continued north, stopping briefly in Burgos to admire the gothic cathedral.

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A spire and part of the facade of Burgos Cathedral. One of the best of gothic cathedrals in Spain. Spain is a place of beautiful and varied architecture, but gothic is not Spain’s forte. Much of Spain was still Muslim during the high point of gothic architecture.
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Door knocker on the cathedral door. Burgos.

We crossed the French border at Irun and Hendaye. I had been there once before, when I lived in Pau.

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San Sebastián Harbor, near the border with France. 1965.
france spain border Pic du Midi d’Ossau. 1965.
Pic du Midi de Bigorre, seen from the Spanish border. Note the armed border guards on the hill. It was 1965 and Franco still ruled. You can see this mountain from Pau, 40 miles away, at the end of the valley of Laruns.

The Mediterranean weather gave way to that of the Atlantic, and, entering the pine forests of the Landes, it began raining. It was now dark and wet, and we were exhausted, so we found a small, inexpensive roadside hotel that had one room left, but with only a double bed. Sharing a bed with a stranger was odd, but not a problem: we were beat, and neither of us had slept in a bed for two days. Outside it rained.

When we got back on the road the next morning, we were fresh. For Jean it was the homestretch. Brive-la-Gaillarde was only a few hours away.

That day began with some excitement. The Peugeot was beat up, made a lot of noise, and needed brake work. About mid morning, we drew the attention of a gendarme, who directed us off route to a police station. The police, finding that we were returning from Morocco, were interested in whether we were carrying drugs, which we were not, and, after a short interrogation, they released us to continue on our way. The route continued through the Dordogne. I would have liked to stop, but Jean was tired and eager to be home. He had done his sightseeing in Africa. Once in Brive-la-Gaillarde, I caught a train to Chamonix.

I can never think of Brive-la-Gaillarde without hearing the Brassens song, Hécatombe, in my head. Its anarchist message resonated with my younger self, though I am happy that Brassens eventually made his peace with the police in a later song, L’épave. If you can understand French, you may, depending on your sensibilities, find the songs hilarious or offensive. According to Wikipedia, Hécatombe is now associated with Brive-la-Gaillarde throughout France! And, of course, every place in France has something named after Georges Brassens. Rightly so!

So that was another Peace Corps volunteer experience with Spain. The following summer I got a postcard from Jean, who was then touring the Middle East in his car, but we never stayed in touch, which I regret because I enjoyed his good company, and he really did me a big favor. The train ride home to Sefrou was far less interesting and totally uneventful. But Sefrou was home, then, and it felt good to be back.

Author: Dave

Retired. Formerly school librarian, social studies teacher, and urban planner.

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