Thursday, 8 September 2016

On our way to the most important Playing Card Museum in the World

Driving away from Asturia along the northern motorways, gradually the eucalyptus plantations fade away, and by the time you reach Bilbao the trees along the road are more familiar-looking: ash, birch, oak, chestnut. It’s a subtle change in some ways but a relief. The blue leaves of the paper gums just look wrong somehow. Having so much land dedicated to them must have had a profound effect on the wildlife too, even before you calculate the risk and damage caused by fires.

I have in previous visits to Spain remarked on the excellent choice they’ve made for planting pampas grass along the motorways – the plants look great from a distance, are the right scale for their setting, and seem to do good work holding the earth in place. You can even see the pink ones occasionally. We could incorporate some into our own motorway landscapes, surely?

We spent the night at Comillas, which is celebrated mostly for the folly-tower which Gaudí built in the garden of the marquis’ palace, to help tempt the king of the day to come and visit for a summer holiday. It’s a huge dark green penis of a building, with fantastic tilework and woodwork, still drawing the crowds. Our own hotel was in the grounds of the pontifical university – a stonking great edifice on the brow of a hill, an undiluted statement of power and not very attractive, especially as there are so many really interesting buildings, both domestic and official, all around, such as the sweet Palacio de Sobrellano, finished in 1888 and made of pinkish coloured brick with all kinds of arches and colonnades.

In some ways, the best thing about Comillas was a foodie shop on the way down the hill. On one doorstep was a huge model horse, full size, with a sort of medieval knight aboard. The other doorway had a life-size black and white cow, and both models had stern signs saying we weren’t to touch. However, what really drew the eye was a display of some sort of chocolates or sweets with the brandname ORGASMO. There were piles and piles of these things, so you got Orgasmo, Orgasmo, Orgasmo, Orgasmo, Orgasmo. Cool dude running the place.

The little square in the centre was full of happy families, old, young, ice-cream sellers, pigeons, just a peaceable community. We ate nearby, wandered back to our hostel with all its stairs, and slept.

Then yesterday we headed towards San Sebastien and our campsite. We got lunch (delicious and just 12€ each including a whole bottle of wine to take home), at the tiny Basque ship-building town of Zumeira, where the temperature hit 40 degrees… .hot hot hot (and humid). The shipyard had a natty coaster on show, called Telmo, registered in Limassol, and another of similar size (several thousand tons) on the stocks.

The campsite is pretty big, and must have demanded millions to set up: with drinking water supplies all over the place, terracing, plumbing, electrics, swimming pool, wifi, bar, terraces, resto, roadworks etc. We have been so grateful to Michelin Maps for their accuracy and wondered (before we set out) how reliable the indication of a campsite can be; in England campsites seem so elusive, presumably barely economic. But when you see this place, it’s obvious it’s going to be there for the next 100 years. Pitching camp in the heat was ok, but the temperature began to fall within an hour … from 40 to 21. That was a relief, but heralded a change in the weather…..

We have enjoyed the facilities, but OMG – the noise made by one of the families (Spanish) with papa talking nonstop, at the top of his voice, to his two children. A German couple arrived nearby, she was supervising his reversing into their parking space but his tall van hit a branch of a tree and that led to tears and trouble. Some Aussies arrived from Melbourne (via Barcelona) with a hired camping van and two kids, very cheerful. The shop turned out to be pretty dire… but supplied ice, a tomato and a dried-up courgette, and some grotty bread, from which we made a supper.

The Spaniard kept us (and everyone else) awake. By midnight you could year ‘Shhhh!’ and ‘Shhhhhh!!!!!’ coming from various pitches all around.

At 6 this morning, the weather really arrived – the humidity turning to rain, and although the tent did pretty well (especially considering it’s about 20 years old), quite a few things got wet. So we dried things up as best we could and have headed south away from the coastal rain, and have had a lovely lunch at Vitorio, which has a splendid statue of the Duke of Wellington who defeated the French near here on 21 June 1813. The town is medieval, with lots of shops and those squirty fountains which get you from grids in the pavement. The grafitti hereabouts is quite imaginative. The street sellers are not too persistent. The lunch at Virgen Blanca was scrummy. A little TV crew is on the church steps nearby. In a moment we’ll go and collect the Hand of Artists playing card sets which we’ve brought to donate to the Playing Card Museum.  These two works are the brainchild of Duncan Grant, artist of Kent, who invited 103 others to join him in designing 104 cards, last year. It was a fantastic successful project with the proceeds going to charity. I imagine this donation will form an important new part of the museum's collection. (I myself designed the Queen of Hearts for one set, with a portrait of one of my favourite fishes, the red gurnard, a beautiful creature which can walk along on the bed of the sea).  

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