Bilbao is dominated by the green slopes of the surrounding mountains, even beyond the high-rise buildings. The city’s busy reinventing itself, its steel mills and shipyards being transformed into conference centres and luxury flats, and of course there’s the famous Guggenheim Museum (opened in 1997 and featured in the Bond movie The World is Not Enough) which has generated a tourism boom. The city celebrated its 700th anniversary and is worthy of an article in its own right. We drove round the edge of sprawling Bilbao as the dark receded.
It’s strange how quickly you adapt to driving on the other side of the road – even with a right-hand drive car. Reading the smaller numbers on the speedometer’s kph dial soon became second-nature. We had no intention of falling foul of speed restrictions here – though there were very few speed cameras in evidence.
It was overcast and dull. Not surprising, really, as the north of Spain gets more than its fair share of rain and is green most of the year as a result. One motorway sign we came across was of a raining cloud and a ‘100’ kph limit – warning motorists to reduce speed from the standard 120 on this section when it rains. As we climbed into the surrounding mountains it did start to rain. Another motorway sign showed a huge snowflake, warning of possible snow. We saw two snow-ploughs driving up an adjacent road. (Less than four days later this journey would have been through heavy snow, these selfsame ploughs working overtime to keep roads clear).
We turned onto the A68 or E80 – many roads have a European number as well as a national one.
The only toll booth we encountered in our 530-mile drive south was at Junction 3 where we picked up an entry ticket and would be charged further south. We now met mist and low-lying cloud. Our daughter Hannah rang on the mobile so we gave her a weather report as we drove through fog. A ten minute stop at a service area exotically named Area de Quintanapalla where we enjoyed tortilla and coffee.
A few years ago some Eurocrat busybodies tried to get the enormous black Osborne bull-silhouette advertisements taken down; a sensible compromise was arrived at whereby the company name would be removed but the bulls could stay since they were synonymous with the image of Spain. We passed the first of five of these bulls on the Burgos southern bypass signposted Valladolid, Madrid and the second on the approach to the N1, the end of the motorway, and paid the toll.
Burgos was the home of El Cid in the eleventh century and was the base two centuries later for Fernando el Santo to reconquer Murcia, Cordoba and Seville. Fernando started the building of Burgos’s cathedral, one of the greatest in all Spain.
Still keen to find the sunshine we’d promised it, our trusty car climbed to one of the highest points in the Puerto de Somosierra area – 1440 metres - and met sleet and snow. One of the tapes we played was Placido Domingo, singing the American Hymn from East of Eden, and the words held a little significance for us both: ‘I dreamed of Eden all my life and now … where ever I go across the land I stand so proudly in the sun and say “I am home”’ – though the sun still had to make an appearance!
Now we joined the toll-free motorway M40, the Madrid western bypass and followed the signs for the Aeropuerto – not that we were considering flying out through lack of sun or anything, just following directions … Essentially, this ring-road round Madrid was clear for us though vehicles travelling in the other direction were at a standstill, echoing our beloved M25 no doubt.
Eventually we turned onto the A3 for Valencia – the Avenida Mediterraneo - for a short while, joining the A31 and stayed with this road for some 176 kilometres following the signs to Albacete. From a psychological standpoint, you feel you’re covering a lot of ground as the kilometres rather than miles count down on the road-signs.
Now – at last! - the land was filled with sunshine, the ploughed fields a deep russet colour contrasting with the green trees and cultivated hills. Rise after rise displayed modern wind turbines, graceful against the blue skyline, like small armies frozen in time while on the march. Here you could imagine a modern-day Don Quixote tilting at these windmills.
After 275 miles we filled up with CEPSA petrol and soon afterwards sighted two more bulls.
We passed under the hill-top fortress of Chinchilla de Monte Aragon but didn’t linger for the view as we still had over 150 kilometers to go. A short run down the N430 then onto the N330 for seventy-five km and we were in familiar territory, the Alicante region and arrived at 6:30pm as dusk turned into night. We’d covered some 815km in ten hours, with stops. It was a lot easier unloading than loading the car. We’d arrived at our temporary residence, a base from where we would seek a permanent home under Spanish skies.
And just a week later on Christmas Day we were sitting with friends on the roof under those clear blue skies eating a traditional turkey meal with all the trimmings.
[Note: Not every Christmas lunch can be eaten out, sometimes it's just a bit too cold; the nights are cold too. But the skies are usually gloriously clear blue! Then, petrol was about 81 cents a litre, now it's 1 euro 41 cents!]