I do apologise for any overlaps or repeats with this blog. Getting a good space of time to think about it and then write it is not always easy or plannable... Ideas come to mine and I just hope I can get them down. But I know it's all a bit rough! Anyway... here goes with the next bulletin.
It’s not all that far, but the journey from San Sebastian down to Vitoria takes you into a completely different world. In the north near the coast are steep v-shaped valleys, with forests and greenery, and ingeniously constructed roads curving through the hills and tunnels. And being in the Basque country, there are masses and masses and masses of apartment blocks as soon as you get to any sort of community. I mean, thousands. However, once you get through the mountains (and a wonderful long tunnel) you emerge into a hot flat dry parched-looking plain. Sand coloured. Hardly any dwellings, at all, anywhere. Distant vistas. No rain.
Vitoria Gasteiz is where Wellington helped beat the French out of the Peninsula, and the locals showed their gratitude by making a truly splendid statue in his honour, in the middle of the square, the Iron Duke on a fine horse, and abject locals almost genuflecting in his direction. This war, which was in 1813, by the way, has had other repercussions. If you go by train from, say, Paris into Spain, at some point near the border, they have to change the wheels to a special Spanish gauge. They've made this awkward arrangement to prevent the French coming back to try again, sweeping into Spain by Interrail, and it gives you an interesting experience in the middle of the night if you have paid for a bunk on the sleeper service.
One of our reasons for coming here was to visit yet another weird-and-wonderful place, the Museo Fournier Naipes – or Playing Card Museum. We had brought with us the two sets of the Hand of Artists playing cards, a marvellous project which was created by Kent artist Duncan Grant last year. It started as one set of cards, and rapidly developed into two sets – each card designed by a different artist, and each artist randomly allocated a card to design. The mix of styles, subjects, materials, colours, messages and gravity was tremendous. There were shows of the completed originals, and sales of the two packs, and then sales of the original art works. Once costs were covered, all profits went to a charity for children. Most if not all the artists were from Kent, but the idea took hold and has been replicated elsewhere in the world. There is a Facebook page about it all. Anyway, we wanted to give to the Museum a pair of sets, one blue and one red, which we did.
It was a shame that the director was not working that afternoon, but the staff on the reception desk seemed utterly enthralled with the whole idea. They looked at the cards, took details, posed for a photo, and gave us free entry to the museum. Although I had no expectations of the museum itself, I was then enthralled myself
with the exhibits. Going back to Italy in the 14 th century, the designs and printing methods for various kinds of playing cards give a fantastic insight into life both at court and in the taverns. Some cards on display – hundreds of years old – show how much they were used, others are hand-coloured, some still in sheets before being cut. The designers drew on royalty, dance, animals, maps, different races of the world, satire, low life, theatre, botany, puzzles and more, and you can see how the different parts of Europe developed their own styles. There are also some early printing presses on display, which are themselves very varied and interesting. And the building itself is stunning – a medieval palace with highly decorated stone balconies one above another, once left in decay and near-ruin, but now rescued and readapted to its new purpose, with beautifully inserted wooden floors and glass walls, modern lift, walkways, signage and lighting. It is exemplary, and leads through to the local archaeology museum which is also a temple of modern design. How much money has been spent on all this is anyone’s business, but the investment in pure culture is stunning.
Driving back north over that parched plain we could see tumultous clouds and curtains of mist and moisture draping the mountains ahead of us. And indeed, coming back to our drenched campsite, with so much of our stuff really wet, we decided to rearrange everything to bring it away from the walls, and see how much we could dry out even in the damp air. We reinflated the airbed. Everything was damp. And slowly, during the night, the airbed went to nothing. We did not have to endure the loud Spanish dad on the neighbouring pitch as he had gone, gone, gone… but by morning, our bottoms were on the ground.
Abandoning plans to get into San Sebastian by bus (the stop is right outside the gates of the campsite) we drove down, armed with a list of camping supply shops. Eventually we found the Tourist Information office, took a ticket, queued up to be told a) the rain is finished, sun only from now on, and b) as it’s a bank holiday (feria) in the whole of the San Sebastian region, no shops at all are open. We had a coffee, tried and failed to log onto the attractive sounding free wifi-for-five-days app, got some cash, decided to go back and pack up and find a hotel further east. Then – bingo! - a little Chinese supermarket gleamed at us with – guess what? An airbed in the window! €25. Seemed ok. We thought maybe we’d give it a try…… and as we left, with our new bed, the drops of rain started to plummet down. By the time we were in the car and heading back to the camp, the heavens had opened again in a true deluge….
Vast puddles across the road, rivers running down the gutters, not a soul to be seen but all sheltering under anything they could find, even standing on the seats in bus shelters to make more room for the crowds. We thought of all our towels and bedding, left to dry this morning. We thought of the lady in the Tourist Office, blithely reassuring us about the sun, and how it was impossible to buy an airbed (or anything) today.
None of this really matters. But (as if we were pilgrims) we are asked every day to consider our reactions to all these events, good news and bad, luck or misfortune, wet or dry, planned or spontaneous. So far, we seem to be facing it all with a certain amount of merriment (and occasional harrumphs). Camping means setting out with a much smaller ‘batterie de vie’ than you have aggregated at home. If the towels are wet, how will you get dry? If you have a scarf, will that be ok. You slowly reduce the number of ‘things’ you need, and of course all the time you remember there are refugees living with bugger all in horrible camps dotted around the place….. This game we are playing, with the landscape, the weather, with history and with ourselves, is really nothing more than a game. How very very lucky we are. Wet or not.