23 September 2008

Chicos de Europa

At 3 we headed back to the buses and went on our merry way. It was something like 3 or 4 hours to our final stop for the day, but I didn't sleep for any of it because after about an hour or two, things started to get really, really beautiful.
I think it started with a dam. We were driving around this man-made lake, and mountains just sort of sprang up around it. There were peaks gradually stretching up towards the sky, some of them white and barren, others covered with pines and other plants, all of it reflected in the blue waters of the lake.
We wound our way around the mountains, and then sometimes we just went through them. As we began to climb higher, however, our route became more and more arduous, and less direct. Some of the students started to get a little carsick, but there was nowhere to stop. A few times we had to stop abruptly when another vehicle approached at a place where the road was too narrow for us both. Then one of us (well, always the car) would back up, or drive to the side of the road. Sometimes there was a forest on one side of us, and a ravine on the other. Sometimes you couldn't see the bottom through the trees clinging to the cliffside.
I thought we might just drive right on through the mountainous region (those mountains are called the Picos de Europa by the way, hence the title), but we were fortunate enough to stop right in the middle of it, in a tiny town called Valdeón.
To say that Valdeón was picturesque doesn't even begin to describe it. Ángel told us (in one of many announcements of his that began with the word chicos) that this town had only 20 residents. I'm not sure if that was true, because I think there were at least twenty buildings in town, but it was definitely smaller than Spring Hill. Maybe even smaller than Jaudin (that's a town along the state line that takes 7 seconds to drive through. . . my dad should know what I'm talking about).
Our inn, the Fonda Begoña, was extremely tiny. Only girls were staying there, and we had to sleep two to a little double bed, in an itsy bitsy, sparsely furnished room. We had a wardrobe, a chair, and nighstand, the little bed, and a charming goat pelt on the floor, to add that rustic touch. Honestly, I don't know how they even fit that much into the room- see for yourself.
The quiet atmosphere of the town and the tinyness of the hotel reminded me of somewhere else I'd stayed a few years ago- a tiny beach town in France called (if I remember correctly, and I probably don't) St. Cast le Guildo. That hotel was most memorable for the fact that our group was the only one staying there, and when we all started plugging in hair dryers and camcorders and PSP's, we blew a fuse or shorted something or whatever- whatever happened, we had no power. So I was immediately worried about that.
The boys and some of the girls were staying at a different hotel. When we heard the boys got beds to themselves, we were a little upset, but the woman who ran our inn did not see the injustice in it at all. It was totally unheard of for boys to share beds apparently. I didn't mind; I wasn't expecting a bed to myself.
We all went out to explore the town and surrounding countryside, and all of us found different things to fall in love with. There were the flowers, the adorable homes, the tiny streets, the local pets, the people- everything. Everyone was out for evening strolls, and most were more than willing to chat with us. One woman told us about her adventures up on the mountains. We asked her how long she'd lived in the town, and she basically told us she'd come up for vacation and never left.
The people who weren't out walking were in town, gathered around a little plaza area. They have a pasttime in this town, a game sort of like ten pins and bocce ball, with maybe a little horseshoes thrown in, and they play it in the evenings, or maybe all day, I don't know. They were hospitable enough to let some of our boys play, but even the most athletic IES kids were no match for the older men of Valdeón. I was really impressed with the way they used backspin to get the ball to stay near the pins so they could try and knock down a few more on their second toss, and I kind of felt like playing softball might have given me a little bit of an advantage at the game, but I was more content to stand back and take pictures of the pros.
The sun began to set, and as it did, the temperature dropped. We went into the hotel for dinner as the mist from the mountains began to close in around us.
I know I've mentioned this partially already, but dinner here is very late, and very big. They prepared seperate vegetarian dishes, and I had conveniently seated myself next to the other vegetarian at the table without realizing it. They started us off with bread (it was pretty great bread, too), and then we got a cream of vegetable soup (really rich, and really garlicky). The next dish to come out was something like macaroni noodles in a tomato sauce with mushrooms- it reminded all of us of Rice-a-Roni or Hamburger Helper or something like that, and I probably ate too many of the mushrooms. They burned my tongue.
That sounds like a complete and delicious meal, right? Well you are WRONG (about the complete part, not the delicious part). There was more to come. At this point, everyone else got chicken filets with fries, and we got tortilla (basically an omelet) with asparagus and fries. It was very, very good, but I'm not crazy about asparagus (and don't worry, I've tried it; we used to grow it at home), so I sort of picked around it. And after that was dessert. I played it safe and ordered ice cream, but some of the more intrepid diners opted for 'crema de queso'- the regional specialty, a blue cheese which is traditionally cured (or whatever it is you do to cheese) in the local caves. This, inevitably, led to dares and bets and even 5 euro prizes for its consumption. You couldn't have paid me enough to try it- I could smell it down the table, and it brought back unpleasant memories of 'special' cheeses the last time I came to Europe.
As soon as I was done and saw that we were excused, I dashed upstairs to grab a shower. Oh, did I forget to mention that there were only two for twenty or thirty girls? That's right! I jumped in right away. There was another girl in the other shower, so that made me the second girl to use a shower there in probably a while. Anyone familiar with my luck will not be surprised to hear that the shower had turned ice cold before I'd even rinsed the shampoo from my hair, let alone conditioned my hair or shaved my legs. [In hindsight, I should have seen this coming, as the same thing happened at that tiny French hotel I keep mentioning in St. Cast le Guildo.] I eventually finished rinsing my head in the sink, but had to content myself with unconditioned hair and stubbly legs before squeezing into our tiny bed.
I awoke bright and early the next day. I faced a daunting task- a 9 km marcha, or hike, and wanted to prepare accordingly. Copious amounts of sunscreen were in order, as well as a durable hairstyle and versatile clothing. After a big breakfast (which was basically like being at a family get-together or something, with the hotel owner bringing around platter after platter of fried dough, cakes, bread and butter, and repeating, "Calm down! I'll bring more!" whenever we ran out of something) we got going.
Ángel had told us during our prep for the hike that everyone would have a different pace ("¡Chicos. . .!"), and that was okay. At the time, it seemed like reassurance, but looking back, I realized it was probably more of a warning. That man walks at a blistering pace.
We passed a few cows on the road. I mean they were literally in the middle of the road. One of the girls I was with expressed a little concern at this, but I told her not to worry because I am a cow whisperer. She thought I was joking, but the cows here are nothing. Like they about the Watusi, the back end is way more dangerous than the front. [That adage was even more true with these cattle- I have no idea what they ate, but it clearly did not agree with them. I would give more detail but that would just be so, so gross.]
I was surrounded by people who clearly knew nothing about cattle. One girl behind me was like, "Oh, that's a bull, it has horns," to which I replied, "No, it's a cow," because it clearly wasn't a bull or a steer, and the girl said, "Yeah, it's a boy cow," and then I was like, "No, it's a cow- cow means female," and another girl asked, "Then why do they call all of them cows?" and I tried to explain that the plural 'cows' to refer to males and females is a colloquialism, and the proper plural is cattle, but then the first girl said, "Oh, you mean it's a heifer," and I said, "Actually, a cow is heifer that hasn't calved yet. . ." but then I just sort of gave up because no one was following, and I'm sure I've lost you too. But one thing that I did really like about the cattle up in the mountains- they actually wear cowbells! How cute is that?
I took so many pictures along the way, and as a result, I kept falling behind. But everything in the mountains is so beautiful! I can definitely say that it was a spiritual experience for me. I mean, how many Liz's would fit inside one of those mountains? How do things so big get made? I roughly understand the scientific explanations, but I'm not satisfied with that. Scientific explanations make too much sense- the mountains are way too stunning, too confusing, to be explained away so easily.
My camera has about a billion different settings on it. There are settings for fireworks, things behind glass, food, sunsets- but, strangely, no Picos de Europa setting. Resultingly, the lighting is off in a lot of my pictures. I hope you'll enjoy them anyway.
I took a lot of pictures- I'll tell you just how many later- but I'm pretty sure some of the boys took more. At one point a few of them climbed up a hill off the road and just started walking that way. I was expecting someone to break into 'The Sound of Music,' [that's right, it's the next song on the European soundtrack] and I would have paid good money to hear some yodeling as well.
We never actually left the road to hike through the woods, as I had expected. Basically we just walked down the middle of the road. Some cars passed us, and there was actually one stoplight on the way, to manage traffic going through a treacherous single-lane area (we saw three cars lined up at the light and joked that it was rush hour in Valdeón). It was really disheartening when other IES hikers passed us in taxis headed back to Valdeón while we were still 45 minutes out of Caín, our hiking destination (it sounds confusing and a little pointless, but we had to take taxis back because our buses would never have made it and we sure as heck were not planning on walking back).
We did end up getting getting to Caín, though, and were met by the sight of Ángel attempting to school everyone in foosball at the restaurant. We ate our bocadillos (well, some of us did; some of us fed them to the little perrito that was following us around) and took taxis back.
Then it was goodbye to Valdeón, and back on the bus.

I'll wrap up this little saga sometime tomorrow probably, so stay tuned.

1 comment:

Dave Lundgren said...

Keep the stories and the pictures coming! I know where Leon is but couldn't find the tiny town you stayed in. Must find my National Geographic map of Spain!