If all goes right, you will be reading these three articles tonight; the F1 joint outside Valence purports to have WiFi, and while it’s the overpriced Orange variety and does not actually reach to my room, my information withdrawal is bad enough that I am willing to pay. They’re still twats for not having any English-speaking channels on the TV.
Germany was a merciful blur, and France is a massive improvement – at least in the evening, when we get off the autoroute and make our way through Lyon and beyond. The mountains are beautiful. Even the gas station food is miles better. (Incidentally, best thing I’ve bought at a gas station on this trip was a bottle of vanilla milk at a Polish Statoil.) It’s sunny and warm and the trip is beginning to justify itself.
Coach travel can be wearing, but after three days on the road I am surprisingly unphased. The key seems to be content: music, podcasts, books, and movies on the laptop, which now seems to have mercifully regained its proper 4,5-hour runtime on a single charge. Air travel is perhaps too quick, as you skip the sensation of actually going somewhere, unless you are crossing an ocean. Chalk it up to youthful optimism (if there is such a thing), but watching Europe roll by outside my coach’s panoramic window, I feel like I’m seeing my country. In much the same way that I need to grasp a city to be comfortable in it – to have a mental plan of it – overland travel allows one to grasp the EU, make it more than a heady concept. Everyone should do this at least once, but if you have any choice at all, avoid Poland. While Germany has ridiculously good roads and Lithuania and beyond just doesn’t have that much traffic volume – unless you’re enough of a fool to try getting through downtown Riga – Poland is the bottleneck. It would be far less frustrating to take the party boat to Stockholm, then blast down to Malmö and take the Öresund tunnel to Copenhagen.
Since you are reading this only now, obviously the Orange wifi did not work. Was not present in any discernible form. Still, the gas station food really is quite good: two Agip runs have yielded a passable ham & cheese sandwich, a box of really quite fair salad, and a slice of genuinely spectacular strawberry & coconut cake. That is well beyond the best that I could scrounge up in an enormous German supermarket. I’m sorry if I don’t have any better insights on France, but I only ever saw it from the tarmac.
On the fourth day, we cross the Pyrenees and finally enter Spain, where gas prices instantly drop 40 Eurocents per liter. For my American readers, that translates to about three hundred bucks per gallon, and I cannot describe the joy I feel in being able to make that gag, after suffering a decade of poor currency-exchange humor.
Our first stop is the Dali museum in Figueres. You would need to have either read a lot of the Antyx archive or spent time with me in person to properly appreciate my loathing for what grew out of modernist and particularly surrealist art, and the rest of you will simply have to believe when I say that Salvador Dali was the dude. His museum, an old theater building that he bought and converted, is layed out to subtly block suspicions of postmodernist twattery by starting with Dali’s more conservative pieces. He could, and did, paint both photorealistic images and ones that stun the viewer with their sheer technical prowess; stand there and smell the accomplishment. With an unassailable background like that, he was perfectly justified in dismantling the conventional wisdom. Besides which, he was the compleat rockstar, and still deeply and passionately loved his wife for the entirety of his life. As a sign of respect, I buy a T-shirt.
Our coach winds its way down the Costa Brava until it reaches our staging point: Calella, one of a series of tiny tourist towns on the Catalan coast. The hotel has wifi, mercifully, although only in the lobby – which is unfortunate, as I would have loved to make good use of my room’s balcony, blogging in the breeze. The hotel, like much of the town itself, leaves an odd impression of vague inauthenticity. While there are some ancient bits here and there, Calella mostly seems to be an amalgamation of hotels constructed some time in the last two decades. The age of a hotel can be roughly judged by the availability of power sockets, increasing as people started to carry more electronic gadgets; the Regency Hyatt in Jerusalem, an impressive pyramidal pile from the Seventies, scandalously offers pretty much none, despite claiming a five-star rating. This one is three stars, and doesn’t blow my mind. It is as if its crew had a guidebook to comfort that they studiously implemented, without ever truly understanding its essence. Some aspects, such as the painted concrete walls and naked flagstone floors, may just be a southern peculiarity, a way to keep the inside cool; but I do wonder how come this place, a resort hotel in a resort town, expecting its patrons to stay for a week or more, manages to feel less cozy than the Best Western Grand Hotel in the village of Bollnäs, where I can’t really imagine people staying for more than a day (there is nothing to do in Bollnäs for more than a day, even if a few thousand Swedes somehow manage to spend most of their lives there). My expectation of what a three-star hotel should be like is based on the Baron Hotel in Reykjavik; no three-star hotel in a Western European country should be worse. Hell, my B&B in Rome had in-room wifi.
That evening, we get back on the coach for a brief run down to Barcelona, to watch the fountain. The spectacle involves music (something classical that I recognize and really ought to know the name of) and color-filtered spotlights placed under the surface of an exceedingly elaborate system of pipes; the water dance is something truly to behold, and I say that as a skeptic who is rarely impressed with anything. If you want a more impressive experience of staring at some water, you will need to go to Iceland and look at waterfalls. There should be a picture or two on my Flickr.
The next day, it is overcast and (relatively) cold with a strong suggestion of rain. I grab a coat and go explore the town, walking down to the beach and then taking a progression of stairs and trails to hike the full 118 meter elevation of something called Los Torretes – the remainder of a couple of signaling towers used by some military or other in the mid 19th century. The towers are not intrinsically impressive, but the views are quite nice, although spoiled by the overcast weather. I may not be as extreme as Kristopher when it comes to walking, but I descend with a mild sense of achievement and amble around the town’s shopping district, desperately looking for reading material in English. (I have underestimated my reading speed and am almost done with the books I brought from home – and there is still the way back to Estonia to deal with.) I return to the hotel and kill time until dinner sitting in the lobby with my Mininote.
The hotel package comes with breakfast and dinner. Breakfast is acceptable, although that is too simple to get wrong, but dinner is an ugly smorgasbord of greasy fried meat, unimaginative salad components, and suspect desserts. Since my surgery, I do not eat very much, and therefore prefer to make each meal an experience; the hotel’s policy of emphasizing quantity over quality is directly at odds with that, so in the future I think I’ll skip the hotel dinner altogether and wonder out into town for something more interesting. Maybe a nice seafood paella.
(Incidentally: there is an email in one of my various inboxen dating from July 1st, from undoubtedly one of my most treasured readers, asking for a status report on the surgery and weightloss. The short answer is, it’s fine. An elaboration is in the works.)
A tale of two countries
5 weeks ago