I’m writing from a corner café in the city of Gijón, Spain. I’ve ordered a beer (Affligem), and the barista showed me to the best spot for recharging electronics, gave me the wifi password, and returned in about 2 minutes with an artsy little plate sporting a bowl of crisps and a tortilla chip draped with a salty anchovy. Any place they give you free anchovies is a place that I can thrive.
The Euro-chic café I’m currently patronizing is a bit of a departure from the trip so far, but it’s a nice change of pace. I flew into the city of Bilbao on the afternoon of July 1st with no way to get about 3 ½ hours up the coast to where my friends, Rolf and Erin, were camping. The theme that you’ll undoubtedly find running throughout this trip is how incredibly unprepared I was. However, I’ve always relied on the kindness of strangers. Within a half an hour of landing in Spain, I was picked up in a rental car by a guy from Chicago named John, who gave me a ride to the campground. Isn’t it great when things work out like that?
John is actually an old friend of Erin’s, in Spain to visit his brother in Barcelona. His decision to go visit Erin on the coast corresponded perfectly with my flight landing in between the two destinations. There was some actual planning involved in the situation, but you can be sure that I had little to no role in it. In fact, I think I’ve done more planning for weekend road trips than I did for this two-week international vacation.
But I digress. Rolf and Erin have claimed a corner of a parking lot in Entrago, a tiny town in Asturias. The camping is free (apparently a rarity here – one of the few similarities between Spain and the United States Midwest), and it’s a hotspot for climbers and van-campers, two groups with a large overlap in Europe. The mornings in Entrago reveal two gorgeous peaks that frame the area, over which the nighttime clouds spill until they’re driven before the late-breaking sunrise.
The afternoons are often characterized by spectacularly bright and cloudless skies, which is not ideal for climbing (sun = heat = sweat = moisture, which is the enemy of friction, and friction is what keeps you on the rock), so siestas are often spent in the next town down the road, San Martin, at a bar, drinking sidra and charging phones. It was in one of these bars that I was introduced to the concept of tapas. Basically, you order a drink at a bar (which costs next to nothing), and at semi-regular intervals (approximately whenever the cook feels like it, from what I’ve gathered) the bartender walks around with a plate of snacks for whoever happens to be there. The plate usually sits on the bar until the next round comes along. These snacks seem often to be a chunk of pan topped with one or two of the following: thin-sliced aged cheese, soft cheese, chorizo, jamón, lean cured meat, fried fish, or roasted peppers. We’ve also been served croquettes, olives, and the aforementioned anchovy nacho. Tapas are the best.
After climbing near camp for most of the week (there’s world-class climbing 5 minutes away from where we wake up), we decided to fire up the car and leave our little slice of heaven for the weekend. The 4th of July was spent climbing at a gorgeous mountain crag in the morning, near the city of Sobrevilla, and Playa del Silencio in the afternoon. After dipping into the Atlantic and burying Rolf in the beautiful smooth stones that cover the beach, we meandered over to Cudillero to eat some magnificent seafood. Easily the best prawns I’ve ever had.
Sunday morning, we woke up to a drizzly day. Climbing was out of the question (moisture, remember?), so we drove into Oviedo, the nearest bigger city. Getting out of the parking lot that we had called home proved to be the most difficult part. Rolf and Erin’s rented Fiat Panda had a mysteriously dead battery. First, we tried a rolling start by pushing it around the lot. When the entertainment value of this wore off for the Spaniards, they helped us out by providing a set of jumper cables. Finding the proper terminals and jumping the car was a familiar experience. It turns out that no matter the country, whenever there’s a car problem, every man in the area is pulled by some primal magnetism to stand around and peer into the engine, scratching their heads and disagreeing about the best course of action. Once the car started (after two sets of jumper cables), there was much back-slapping and celebration.
We spent the evening in Oviedo. It’s a beautiful city, and if it’s any reflection of what European cities look like, then I understand why people hold them in such high esteem. Over the course of the day, we ingested enough calories to fuel an entire weekend of climbing by a group twice our size. The majority of those calories came from seafood – which I cannot get enough of. I had my first paella, which absolutely lived up to the hype.
On Tuesday, we rented mountain bikes and rode a relatively tame 40 kilometer route through the valley that we’ve made our home. Winding through the canyon, crossing rivers, and cutting through 200 meter tunnels in the mountains, it was like all the other places we’ve been and seen here: disarmingly beautiful. The scenery in this country (or at least this part of the country) can be overwhelming. If you take the time to take in what’s around you, you can easily get lost in the jaw-dropping landscape. Sweeping hills dotted with tile-roofed towns, no bigger than a dozen buildings or so, unruly limestone mountains erupting from the peaceful valley, their mammoth size strangely understated by their proximity. Amazing.
Today is Thursday. Our plan was initially to climb hard in the morning, and head to Gijón in the afternoon. However, due to throbbing fingers and general ennui, we decided to skip the rock-jockeying and hit the city. I’m usually loathe to take rest days on climbing trips, but it’s hard to complain when your contingency plan is what most people call an ideal vacation.
This beer is starting to make it hard to focus on writing, so I’m going to go find myself something to eat. Tapas are great, but lunch doesn’t quite seem complete without bread, chorizo, and a chunk of good cheese (trust me, I've been living in Wisconsin for the last 7 years - the cheese here is good). Life is good.