Monday, June 18, 2007

Spain Part Six: Cervantes Country and Nearing the End

After leaving Gibraltar and finally finding a hotel, we made our way north to Ciudad Real, covering a large part of the central portion of Spain in a day. The drive was unremarkable except for when we got robbed: one of the best stories of the trip.

Spain's roads are great, even by American standards - four-lane, limited-access highways take you pretty much anywhere you want to go. These highways have facilities every few miles, so you're never far from gas, a restaurant or even a hotel. There are only a few places where you have to get off those highways, and the drive north was one of them.

On the way to Ciudad Real, the gas dropped below half a tank on one of these little jaunts off the major highway. We pulled into a gas station twenty miles from nothing in every direction. Aside from being in Spain, it might as well have been from rural Oklahoma: tractors, trucks, the smell of dust and fertilizer. An attendant came up to fill the tank (it's full-service in Spain when you're not on the highway) and started pumping. We told her to fill it up.

And we watched the liters roll, and the Euros along with them. We had no idea how many liters our car held (and, we learned later, such information is not included in the manual) but I figured a liter is close to a quart. So when 40 liters rolled by, I wasn't worried, even though it was more than we'd yet put in the car. When 80 liters rolled by, I started getting concerned. I looked under the car to see if there was a leak. I looked at Liz, and the seemingly nice gas-station attendant. She just grinned. At 100 Euros ($130), we told her to shut it off. That was the most we'd ever paid for a tank of gas and the most I ever hope to pay. It seemed odd, but whatever.

Only later did we learn our car didn't even hold that much gas. They must have had a way to keep the pump rolling even though the tank was full. It wasn't exactly someone pulling a knife on us and demanding our wallet, but it was robbery, plain and simple. I guess some lessons you learn the hard way.

Ciudad Real is your basic non-touristy city in the middle of a rural plain (where the rain, incidentally, does not mainly fall.) At one time, it was the location of the Spanish court (thus the name "royal city,") but now it's just kind of dirty. We'd learned by now to ditch our car near the outside of town, find a map, and find a place to park - we had the driving down to an artform. Eventually we found our hotel, checked in, bought groceries, and kicked back and relaxed and planned the next day.

Ciudad Real is to Spain as Startford-On-Avon is to England: the home of its literary hero. Cervantes penned what is widely considered the first novel: Don Quixote, a fascinating literary metaphor that has become for many a symbol of hope and optimism in the face of sometimes crippling reality. Windmills become giants, and prostitutes become beautiful maidens. In the morning, we found the Quixote Museum, where we were treated to a personal audio-visual presentation about the story of Don Quixote and the life of Cervantes. Even though it was entirely in Spanish, I managed to follow along - language immersion is a funny thing. The sad thing was, it was a personal presentation because we were the only ones there, despite it being a beautiful literary destination. It was nice that the crowds so common to Stratford weren't thronged all over the place, but on the other had I wanted more people to experience something created to celebrate one of the greatest literary works ever penned.

We tried to find another hotel room in Ciudad Real, but couldn't because of "weddings," which apparently happen on one day in the entirely of Spain. We managed to find a room in Madrid, so we took advantage of the car and went places where the trains and buses don't - to Consuegra, a tiny town with a dozen restored windmills and a castle a la Quixote. Driving there was certainly unique, and it was nice to get off the beaten path. The town reminded me more of what I've always imagined Mexico to be like: dirty buildings, blankets draped in doorways, narrow streets, no one around. The windmills and castle were pretty standard "restored old building" fare, but offered an amazing view of the town and surrounding plains. There were several giant windmills from windfarms as well (these were all over the place in Spain - much of their power comes from both a massive solar plant and windmills all over the countryside), and the juxtaposition between the two kinds of windmills added to the surreal nature of everything. We took some pictures, ignored the smell of the landfill on the other side of the hill, and continued our jaunt up to Madrid. Because of our upped schedule, we would now have four days in the capital instead of two - one of which we planned on spending in Toledo by train. On the way out of town, a shepherd crossed on an overpass ahead of us - on foot, leading a herd of sheep, with a donkey carrying his belongings. It completed the feel of rural Spain.

The closer we got to Madrid, the more that feeling diminished. Madrid, from the outside, struck me as very similar to Dallas - ringed by soulless suburbs and outer-belt highways. We found the airport and managed to avoid traffic more through serendipity than anything else, rid ourselves of the car, got ripped off by about 10 Euros on the taxi ride into town, and found our two-star Hostale where we'd spend the first night. The room was tiny and noisy but clean. We stashed our stuff, got our bearings, and set off to explore Spain's capital - the last real stop on our journey.

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