Away from the amazing flat calm of the Bay of the Basques, with its hidden deeps full of squids and whales, we headed into the land of wonders with only some trepidation about battery-life for the iPhone onto which I had loaded the entire roadmap of Spain on an app which does not need data to work.
These days, all my admiration and pleasure in things Apple is evaporating as they turn the screws. I cannot load my photos from my phone onto my laptop because (due to ignorance and the needs of a moment long ago) I have two Apple IDs which cannot be merged, and while the phone is on one system, the laptop is on another and the computer will not, will NOT, see the phone.
I take a lot of photos, and the uploading to iCloud or Dropbox takes too long. They don’t really want you to have any private archive whatsoever – everything must be on their cloud. Microsoft are doing the same. On my last computer, the MS Office software allowed me to keep it all on land, in my office, on my machine, the same as in my own filing cabinet – but the most recent upgrade insists it must all be stored up there in the sky. I hate it. I don’t really trust it. I have had to find a different kind of document-creator to use, stepping backwards to what I know, rather than joyously leaping into a future where they hold all the cards…..
Anyway, the upshot is that I cannot access all my miraculous images to look at them properly on a bigger screen, and then weed them out.
And the battery on the phone – no change here, but still deeply frustrating and increasingly worrying – gradually loses capacity and we get just half a day, and then a couple of hours, and then an hour, and then half an hour of operation…. Why? So they force us to upgrade and get another one…. It cannot be beyond the wit of man to provide a means of replacing the battery when it wears out. They are just screwing us.
We know that too, because yesterday the news was all about the European Court making a pronouncement that Apple (and the Republic of Ireland) have been quite wrong to allow Apple to pay no tax these last few years and they must now repay £11bn. They squeal that this will prevent new research and development, but I am willing to bet all my knickers that this would not be research into replaceable batteries.
Still, with the aid of a REAL MAP (thank you messieurs Michelin), we navigated west along the northern edge of Spain… looking first of all for lunch. Off the motorway we found a ramshackle place surrounded by lorries, and a little way off, a view out to sea and a man supervising a wide chalky-white parking area. Where lorry drivers eat, there we like to eat also….. He pointed at a place for us to stop, but as we walked towards the restaurant, he came and told us it was more than likely that a driver would smash into our car in that area, and we could go and get lunch at a place just a little further down the hill. He pointed to another car park and nodded vigorously.
Not wanting to see our car wrecked and not absolutely wedded to the idea of the lorrydrivers’ cafe, we set off again, to find the other carpark more or less empty and the second restaurant totally closed, shut, dark, empty and nbg.
‘Rats! Conniving bastard. What lengths will these Spaniards go to to stop honest English tourists eating their bean stew?’
We set off again, still on the old road, and wound down into a funny little town (Moino?) with an old steam engine on display and some very small mining-wagons laid out as flowerbeds. Here we found a little lunch, succumbing to the machine-gun rattle of the waitress’s suggestions and thus confronted with mounds of Russian salad topped with olives, a plate of (delicious) meats and sausage, and then two huge platters of burned meat, the identity of which was impossible. Possibly lamb? Beef?
French female pilgrims settled beside us and took a more combative tone with the waitress and were given pasta instead.
Our trusty map (paper, 3-D, flexible, comprehensive, detailed) led us westwards, giving the ancient and out-of-date satnav which lives in Andrew’s car palpitations as we headed off piste and across bare naked countryside. The sun was replaced by clouds as, two hours later, we started to climb up towards the Picos de Europa. As this mountain range was one of the main reasons for coming here, it was disappointing to see the cloud – as thick as phlegm – utterly blanketing the peaks.
We pressed on, beside clear rushing rivers, winding on and up, with the cliffs and gorges rearing up beside us. The limestone karst rock is grey or white depending on the light, and forms itself into unbelievable points and crags. From time to time an eagle wafts round the tops. The villages huddle down by the rivers. Unlike Crete or Cyprus where goats have been encouraged to pasture, or even Wales with its sheep, here nothing has grazed and so trees lock on wherever they can, fading out to nothing on the tops. The landscape is basically vertical. To our delight the cloud seemed to fade away as we climbed and so we had all the drama of bright sunlight, deep shadows, with distant views softened with a kind of mist, and these colossal unrepentant curtains and walls of hard hard rock to gaze on. The tops are completely spellbinding, they are so craggy and twisted and resilient. Spikes and towers and points and gnarled fingers, forming into towers and castellations and huge clefts and ravines splitting everything apart.
We headed up and up… the last 30 kilometres took us over an hour as we wound round and round. There are a few stopping places – some with cars parked and people staring, some empty. The odd lorry hurtled along. It’s a very long way between villages. There are few if any solitary houses.
Eventually, we arrived at our destination – Sotres – the highest village in the mountains. There were a lot of people about… some tourists like ourselves, quite a lot of old folk, and a few young families. Our hotel is dark and small, made of stone. How old is the building? The girl asked her grandmother. ‘At least 84 years old’. The original part looks mid-19th century, with low ceilings, heavy wooden beams, unplastered stone walls, steep steps. The hotel as such was built on the side in 2002.
We settle in, get a few emails sorted, plug things in to charge up (bloody phone). Go out for a walk, plonking the huge hotel key onto the reception desk.
We meet an old lady knitting beside her house… She indicates we must wait, rushes away, comes back with a pair of horrible bright pale green knitted bedsocks which she wants us to buy. ‘No, no! Thank you!’ She retreats looking very cross. Up a steep alley onto the mountain, where I find a neat bench and sit to make some paintings and Andrew goes for a walk.
We can hear cowbells from far across the valley. The sun is pouring down onto the valley – where (almost inexplicably) a glacier has swiped some of the points and crags away into a delectable smooth green pastured fields, leaving a ring of venomous points all round the edge.
The gorges and deeps out to the west are filled with misty light, the contours of the cliffs quite impossible to trace against the light. As the sun goes down, these great ruffians of rock reveal themselves – cliffs, shoulders, horizons one after another, all hard and scribbled, and indefatigable.
After a couple of hours staring at all these wonders, we come back (avoiding the bedsock centre of the village by picking round lots of dilapidated and picturesque houses) and ask for the key.
It has vanished and this leads to an incessant conversation with the hotelier about whether we left it in the car… He refuses to believe we put it on the counter. All through supper, and then breakfast, he asks us in his dialectical Spanish (which we don’t understand, and he certainly speaks no English, and we all resort to sign-language)…
Did we put the key in the car? Did we put it in the pocket? Did it drop somewhere? Did it slip out of our hand? Where is the key? Have we checked our bags? He is inconsolable, angry, suspicious. Really he harangues us at every possible opportunity.
We say, over and again, we do not have the key. The only possibility is that someone else has picked it up, another guest. He won’t hear of it. He even came to us with a torch in his hand, demanding we search our car to look for the key.
We say – No, we left it on the counter. It was too big to carry anywhere (the hand-carved wooden fob). He comes back again and again, and we also go and look behind the reception – it is nowhere to be seen. A mystery. We have our tapas, water and wine. He comes to ask us again. But we go to bed. We have no key.
Now we have had breakfast - ‘toasted’ bread, sachets of sweet jams and butter, a little dish of serrano ham, some utterly delicious bananas, and bitter coffee, and although the wifi ought to be working, it isn’t. So I have written this now and will post it when we get back down to the next place which might, might have a more reliable signal. We are heading for Cuerres, which Andrew tells me is east of Ribadesella or something. Some Americans we met last night are laughing, having a nice time. They are from Boston. It’s his first time ‘out of the country’ and he is partly enthralled, partly terrified, being in foreign lands. Rather like me.
After breakfast, and maybe harried on by the concierge who was filled with rage and anxiety about the lost key, and for the first time ever in all our travelling, the maids keep knocking on the door for us to leave our room so they can clean it. This is well before 10am, when the departure time is 11am.
Eventually I follow Andrew down, having done my last ablutions…. He is in conversation with Nick, the American.
Now get this.
Our concierge came to Andrew a few minutes ago, shame-faced, apologetic. He dangled the lost key in his hand. ‘Los Americanos’ had the key. It was their fault.
But Nick himself says it was the man, the concierge who gave them the key… He actually handed over two keys – the right one for their room, and another, and they had no idea that two was too many, and one was quite wrong……
The concierge is now all over us, kisses me on each cheek, has given Andrew a bottle of local cider as an apology, gives us two postcards showing the amazing mountaintops…. Is all smiles and friendship.
It really is very funny, a little hotel farce.
Nick’s name is Bryson, but he has never heard of Bill Bryson, as most Americans have not. We feel Bill would appreciate all of this.