Back from vacation

I more or less executed the plan listed in my previous post to the letter. I flew to Spain, spent a few days at Christian del Rosso’s place in Madrid and took the opportunity to benefit from the relatively mild weather (32 degrees or so) to see most of Madrid’s major touristic attractions.

After that, I went back to the airport to pick up the car from the rental agency and then drove around 3500 km in the next few weeks. Main goal of this post is to document the places I visited since I am otherwise likely to forget where I’ve been in a matter of weeks. Been there before. Secondary goal is to serve as a nice itinerary for west side of Spain if anyone plans to go there.  Which is of course highly recommended if you can handle the lack of beaches and the associated mob of beach tourism and associated bad food, service, and prices.

So, I first drove to Zamora. Zamora is a little town in Castilla y Leon and I stayed here two nights. A bit disappointing after the good things I read about it. Worth a visit but not worth staying there, which I did. Nevertheless, I enjoyed myself there. I did a day trip to Valladolid. On the way there, I stopped for a drink in Tordessilas. A small unremarkable place with a nice Plaza Mayor on which a wacky event was going on involving a lot of Seat 600’s (the Spanish version of the Fiat 500). The whole square was full of them.

From Zamora, I drove to Plascencia in the Extremadura. I deliberately skipped Salamanca to save it for later and decided not to go up North to Leon, mainly due to the weather. Plascencia is nice but my usual strategy of walk into a hotel and get a room broke down, hopelessly. For some reason all of the good places were fully booked. This is the first time this has happened to me in Spain. After five hotels I gave up and drove a few more kilometers to Caceres. Here I got lucky on the second attempt. I stayed here for three nights. I did some daytrips to Badajoz (nice drive over an empty stretch of road through very beautiful and very empty Extramadura landscape). On the second day I drove around Caceres a bit and visited the Wolf Vostell museum in Malpartida de Caceres. Considering I was the only visitor, the museum was a bit overstaffed with at least five people monitoring my every move around the place. Entrance was free and the museum mildly interesting and absurdistic.

Next stop: Trujillo. I walked onto the plaza mayor, spotted the hotel that the Lonely Planet recommends on that square whilst sipping a coke and booked for three nights. The hotel was excellent and so was Trujillo. From here I visited nearby Guadelupe and Merida.

From there I drove on to Zafra, booked a room in a hotel for two days and then sat down to have lunch on the inevitable Plaza Mayor. As I was eating it occurred to me that the place looked familiar. Then it occured to me that I had been here in 2003 and after that remembered that I actually stayed in the same hotel as well and quite possibly even the same room. Talk about deja vu. Must have been the heat, normally I’m not that slow. From Zafra I went to do some sight seeing in some small villages around it: Jerez de los Caballeros which has a nice Moorish castle and Frenegal de la Sierra which has a nice bullring/church/castle combined into one multi functional building.

From Zafra I drove to next place of interest which is Cordoba, almost 180 kilometer down the road. This is a very empty country. Cordoba was nice and I booked myself a room in Hotel Boston for two days on the Plaza de las Tendillas. From Cordoba I visited a nice castle in Almodovar del Rio and the extensive ruins of some Moorish attempt to create a new city next to Cordoba.

By now it was getting time to move in the direction of Madrid to pick up Christian. So I drove back the way I came and followed the road to Badajoz where I ended up staying three nights, despit the heat (35-40 degrees). Main feature in Badajoz besides hotels with air conditioning is that it is nearby Elvas across the border in Portugal, which is quite nice. I ended up making two trips there to visit no less than three museums. Combined with the modern art museum in Badajoz, that made four museums in two days. I was the only visitor in each. But they had air conditioning. Badajoz itself is a pretty large but isolated community but worth a visit nevertheless.

From Badajoz I drove north to Avila. On the way I was tempted by the Sierra de Gredos but decided that it was a bit too much off the beaten track for me. Only small villages to stay in and not much to do at night. I did have a nice lunch in some restaurant. Avila is touristic since it is close to Madrid. The hotel had a room but only for one night. Since I was planning to visit Segovia on the second day anyway I stayed there for the night as well. Again a nice town to see. The nice thing about both places was that there is plenty of wind which makes being outside tolerable even during the hottest moments of the day.

Then I drove to Madrid to pick up Christian. We spend a night bar hopping in Salamanca. Had lunch in Avila on the way back and the endured 37 degrees of heat in Madrid by going to the pool and then having some tapas in the La Latinas neighborhood. A NSN colleague joined to show us the good places.

Then back home :-(.

I’ve pretty much seen most cities of interest in Spain now except for Valencia, Bilbao and places in the north west coastal area. The latter three due to the weather which is usually not so good there and Valencia is in the middle of nowhere with nothing of interest worth mentioning in the Lonely planet for hundreds of kilometers around it. Unless you love beach tourism (hint, I don’t). Some day probably.

I also have about 600 photos that need to be sorted through, edited and in some cases stitched together with Hugin. So that is going to take some time but they will eventually be posted.

Off to Spain

Next few weeks I’m going to get some sun light and heat in Spain. I’m first going to stay for a few days at Christian del Rosso’s place in Madrid. Christian’s my neighbour here in Helsinki and he is currently in Madrid together with his wife and little son Emilio doing an MBA. Last time I was in Madrid, I didn’t have much time for sightseeing so this time I will take some time to do that.

From Saturday, I’m renting a car and will be doing my usual neurotic routine of driving too much and seeing too little. The record still stands at around 4000 km in 3 weeks. That was on a trip to Spain where I visited Castilla y Leon and Extremadura. The goal of this trip is to go there again and this time visit all the stuff I somehow missed the last time, which is quite a lot.

I’ve spent the morning packing and (mostly) doing a bit of reconnaisance on Google. A few weeks ago I was considering to buy a travel guide when it occured to me that the lonely planet I have for Spain is mostly fluffy text and really thin on things like what are good places to see and stay. Sure it will cover the big attractions but the interesting stuff where I’m going is small villages and towns. I actually prefer staying in medium sized towns where parking is doable. My requirements are very simple: decent place to sleep, stuff to see, and lots of places to eat & drink. The average Spanish town has a plaza mayor, with a few bars and hotels around it and usually a parking garage nearby.

So that’s easy. So the algorithm is roughly: select town, drive to it, park on or near Plaza Mayor and try a few hostels/hotels. Never takes more than two or three attempts to find a decent place to sleep. Anyway, Google is good to that stuff so I spend the morning copy pasting together my own travelguide. I’ve a top five list of towns I’m probably going to stay in: Zamora, Segovia, Trujillo, Badajoz, Salamanca and maybe Leon again (depending on weather). I also have a few backup options and a long list of stuff to see and do. In the unlikely event I get bored with the area, I have Portugal and Andalucia within a few hours drive.

Italian roads

OK, I’m back again. I spent the last three weeks driving around in France and Italy with a rental car. The first week was nice and relaxing. I stayed at my parents’ new summer home in Saint Quentin la Poterie, about 50 km from Avignon in the Gard departement in the south of France. Nice place to visit my parents and there’s a pool too! During the mornings I visited such nice places as Arles, Avignon and Nimes and I spent the afternoons swimming, reading and drinking beer.
The two weeks after that I drove off to see more of the Provence east of the Rohne (i.e. Aix en Provence; Marseille, Toulon and Cannes). Then I drove into Italy where I spent a few days in Cremona (near Milan) where I also visited Parma. Then I moved south to Pistoia (close to Florence) and visited Florence, Pisa and Lucca. Then I moved back north Asti and visited Turin. Yesterday I drove back to Aix en Provence and stopped for coffee and a piss at the casino in Monte Carlo. I flew back to Helsinki today.
Up until entering Italy, driving had been straightforward. France is a civilized country with slightly better roads than Spain and Portugal where I’ve spent my previous holidays. Italy is more challenging. A few factors contribute to the fact that driving in Italy is considerably more dangerous than in the rest of southern europe:

  • The roads are bad. There’s holes, missing markings, etc. Evidently, the EU has not financed road maintenance in Italy to the extent that it has in Portugal and Spain where the highways and main roads are generally excellent.
  • The roads are narrow and winding. At least on the coastal road along the Italian riviera and the many country roads I drove on.
  • The roads are weird. The must be some psychotic people in charge at the Italian trafic ministry. First of all the signing is verbose, misleading and sometimes incorrect. Secondly, there are large amount of weird crossings, roundabouts, exits etc. Roads just split into two without much warning. You will likely end up on the wrong one the first time.
  • Italian drivers transform into suicidal & homicidal maniacs when put behind the wheel of a car.

So here’s some of my observed unofficial trafic rules in Italy:

  1. Your driving speed is the maximum allowed speed on the given road type + 30 + X. Where X is essentially constrained by your manlyness.
  2. An exception to the above rule is when turns, road maintenance etc leads to signs stating reduced maximum speeds. Ignore such signs under all circumstances. 60 really means 140+ on a two lane 110 km/h road.
  3. Use the brake to adjust speed. When not braking apply full throttle.
  4. Always drive on the left most lane (if more than two).
  5. When driving on the left most lane keep your left indicator light blinking so trafic in front of you know they must move to the right to make room for you.
  6. When they don’t do that promptly flash your lights, honk and wave your fist at the sissy in the other car.
  7. If they still don’t move over, rapidly move to approximately 20cm from the bumper of the guy in front of you whilst adjusting your speed with the break at the last possible moment. Stay there until the guy moves over.
  8. On two lane roads drive with one wheel in the lane with oncoming trafic and move right at the last possible moment if the other guy does not move right first.
  9. Ignore the uninterrupted line on two lane roads, you must overtake any trafic in front of you. Especially in case of queues resulting from slow trafic you must move to the front of the queue by overtaking the cars in the queueu one at the time and squezing back in when on coming trafic forces you to do so.
  10. Ignore stop signs. If the trafic has room enough to stop in time: go ahead and move onto the road.
  11. If you drive a truck, it is ok to overtake trucks in front of you. There is no need to check mirrors or use indicator light as you are likely much bigger than the traffic coming from behind.

Sadly the above is not a joke. Italians really drive this way. Adjusting to this style of driving is quite easy but requires some discipline. Doing the same as they is definately dangerous but so is sticking to the official rules. Adjusting speed upwards in combination with keeping distance and not occupying the left lane too long seems to be a good strategy. Pay attention when overtaking trucks because they may move left for no reason whatsoever.

Anyway, Italy is a great country otherwise. Great food and nice cities. I have about 400 photos to edit which will be due in a couple of weeks probably.