It is hard to describe the quality of what we have seen today. There are not enough superlatives. The scale of the landscape is colossal. We drove from the outskirts of Bilbao into the central part of the Spanish Pyreneean approaches, where there was a dramatic change in the look of the whole land. Not only is it empty of people for the most part, but suddenly it changes from green and woody to barren and dry, burned brown and empty.
At the point of change we saw a huge flock of birds wheeling overhead… I really wish I knew for certain what they were. I see that choughs flock, but they are maritime, and this was inland. They seemed huge - but then again, the air was very clear and had a magnifying quality. Were they buzzards? (In such numbers? No). There were about fifty of them, wheeling and calling - a sort of kyak sound. This was in a valley-pass.
We have driven for hours (about 250 miles) today - both very tired but relaxed. We headed for Sos de Rey Catolico - a hillfort in the middle of the plains - something like Rye, but bigger, or Gerberoy in Picardy which has similar aristocratic concentration. We loved it… the medieval alleys, the stonework, the battlements, the cobbled streets. Lunch was ace - in a café called Mayor25 - totally recommended for the quality of the food and the kindness of the waitress. I particularly liked something called salmorejo which is is a pounded soup of tomatoes, garlic, oil, eggs and then topped with chopped hardboiled eggs and tiny scraps of bacon (like so many Spanish dishes, the bacon is there to prove that the household is not Jewish, a legacy if you can call it that from the days of the Inquisition).
It was quite hot today - nearly 30 - and we were glad of the aircon, but struggled with the contrary information coming from the satnav (our fault for not updating). There is often an irritating conflict of data between the roadmap, the satnav and the roadsigns. However, nothing could take away from the majesty of the mountains as we headed east. The hills - mere hills! - are very high. They are clothed in unadulterated dark green forests (unlike the acne of eucalyptus we have seen all along the road till now). The angles of erosion are steep - with perfect triangles formed by the valleys, and deep ravines, and gorges and canyons as the great rivers begin to eat away at the rocks. The roads are fabulously engineered, with viaducts, tunnels, sweeping curves, balletic cambers and lots of space. And all the time, spiking up in the distance to the north are the great peaks and ridges of the real Pyrenees. Some catch the light. Some are shrouded in cloud. Some are fabulously spiky, some are more like greeters, waiting to usher in someone taller and bigger than themselves. It is glorious, dramatic.
We had the road almost to ourselves, sometimes a new stretch of motorway, sometimes an old bumpy track - but inexorably we pushed on. At last we reached Ainsa. Oh, why has no-one ever told me about this place? It's the last place where Christianity held out against the Moors. It's a medieval city between two huge rivers, and (yet another) fortified medieval hill-top city. It was prosperous in the time of Henry VIII, and then went into decline - its very poverty has kept it almost intact, and now with modern tourism to bring admirers, and all the benefits of new roads a mile or so away, it can flourish as a relic of a lost age - church tower, cloister, castle, steep streets, vaulted cellars, lots of steps, city walls, stone stone stone…. Legends, bars, cafes, families, children, blissful.
I know I am waxing lyrical, but I want you to understand that there are some places which have just got it right. They can be old and new at the same time, faraway and accessible. Inspirational and salutary. And above all, beautiful and ordinary. The Spaniards may have their problems but they know how to be themselves…. They visit their lovely places, take their children, everyone is ok and happy, the food and drink are wonderful and affordable, there is no aggro. And I keep thinking of those birds, wheeling over the valleys. The huge landscape.