Spain Day 2: The Road to San Sebastian

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I first had the harebrained idea to rent a car and drive around Spain when our airline sent me a 50% off rentals discount a month after we spontaneously booked our flights. At the time, we had grand ideas of driving as far south as Cordoba to see the famous mosque (Erin’s suggestion) or east to Bordeaux, France for the experience of driving across the border (with the added bonus of my favorite region of French wine, clearly my idea.) However, after only one day of rest - and a busy one at that - between our 30 hour travel epic and our excursion day, we decided to stick a little closer to “home.” I had read nothing but good things about San Sebastian and as it was merely a three hour drive away, we chose that as our next adventure.

And my was it ever an adventure to get there. Neither of us predisposed to get frustrated with each other, we nonetheless almost came to blows a few times when theoretical navigation and the actual road in front of me did not line up. My only other experience driving in a foreign country was in Iceland, which was so devoid of traffic outside of Reykjavik that we were often the only souls for miles. However, the highways and even backroads of Spain were much, much different. We almost threw the GPS out the window several times for leading us on what appeared to be the longest route possible; somehow we managed to get on a toll road and had to figure out their fare system before rerouting. At one point we considered driving due west to towards the ocean and simply hugging the coastline until we reached San Sebastian, although we had no idea how long that would take. All of this while navigating through several lanes of speeding traffic using road signs that were readable only to one of us.

And yet, we made it.

Never fear, the three uppermost photos of the scenery are Erin’s. I had to resign myself to taking only mental images of the incredible rolling hills languidly covered in the grey mist, reminding me so much of my favorite Scottish Highlands.

Upon finding parking, our first task was obviously to find food. Jaded from our navigational debacles, we decided just to walk until we found a cafe. Luckily, we walked up from the garage and the very first thing I saw was a shop sign advertising “cafe y pinchos.” Sweeter words I could not have read at that present time.

Finally sated, and our moods subsequently much improved, we set off for the one destination we had on the list for the day: Monte Urgull. From our cafe, we needed only to take one right turn and then stay on the same road for a mile. Since the destination in question was a mountain, we didn’t think we’d have too much trouble locating it. So, we ambled along photographing as we went, even popping into the Cathedral of the Good Sheppard along the way. Though I love visiting a historic cathedral such as this for its beauty and reverence, certainly, it’s the history that I’m always most interested in. As this particular church had actual chants playing presumably over a speaker system, all I had to do was close my eyes and I could immediately imagine what a service must have sounded like centuries ago, the echoes still ringing on those highest of ceilings. It wasn’t until later that I discovered that this particular cathedral was actually built in the 1890s, but I was no less enchanted with the structure.

Over the last year or so that I’ve dedicated my film practice to improving my street photography, I’ve had to work a lot on my shyness. Sometimes, I’ll see the perfect shot yet will be too nervous of what this stranger will think of me capturing the moment: will they be uncomfortable with the invasion of privacy, will they get mad, will they say something to me? No one has ever actually approached me so, as of yet, these fears are unfounded. In fact, one of my very favorite photographic moments from the day came about as we walked through the quiet, cobbled streets of Parte Vieja (Old Town.) At the other end of the alley we were walking through, I saw a group of men congregating, which always immediately sets me on my guard. However, when we got close and they saw my camera, they grinned and made a clicking motion while pointing to themselves. They must have heard us speaking English because they didn’t try to make conversation, yet “can you take our photo?” seems to be universally understood. Looking back, I wish I’d taken even more photos of them, perhaps a close-up portrait of each, but I’m still happy with the experience which will hopefully embolden me further.

In every site we choose, there must always be either an element of ancient history, of art, or of photo opportunity and the peak certainly provided all three. As we trekked upwards, between catching our breath we envisioned what Castillo de la Motad - the 12th century fortress atop the mountain - must have looked like centuries ago. In fact, so giddy were we that we did our own reenactments of what soldier life within the walls might have looked like, each trying to make the other laugh from absurdity.

The weather was far from pleasant. It had rained for a large portion of our drive and our stroll along the boardwalk had been a “one step forward and two steps back” sort of affair because of the wind. But atop the peak everything seemed to quiet, as if we’d entered another world. The view from what was no double a sentry point was spectacular, so we gazed out over the city and the waves for quite some time. I love the three different looks that the black and white film, expired color film and digital images all captured. While the digital may be more true to what we actually saw, the film much better captured what we felt - the cinematic qualities of the scene - particularly in its antiquity.

I have never seen more successive rainy days than this winter, and the dreariness seemed to follow us to Spain. As we walked back down from the fortress through the old town, the pleasant drizzle launched into a full on aquatic assault. I enjoyed photographing this for a few minutes, the moodiness playing perfectly into the strengths of my black and white film, but very quickly soured as my jacket soaked through.

One of my GLT friends - one of the ladies who took the day trip to Cannon Beach with me last I was in Portland - had suggested we visit La Gintoneria Donostiarra where their house-made gin and unique cocktail flavors make for a perfect pre-dinner drink. Cherise was spot on! We sipped from our enormous chalices until at last the rain stopped and we could go to dinner.

I had been on a quest for a cheese board, as here I was finally satisfied. I was slowly becoming more comfortable reading Spanish menus again, so I picked out a few dishes which I thought we would enjoy as we savored a glass of red. Perhaps steak tartare and bacalao are not the most universally loved dishes, but Erin is always amenable to my choices and they were certainly delicious!

As we walked back to the car we realized we never actually noted a landmark near the garage, nor did we know the name of the garage itself. All we knew was that it was “somewhere over there.” Clearly, we were no longer worried about directions. And yet somehow we walked there with no trouble.

The drive back was a completely different story. The most memorable point was as we were descending the cliff. It was pitch dark and the road had no street lights. It was pouring. Not only that, but because of our elevation we were also in dense fog. For the first few hairpin bends we were behind a van so I could at least see their lights, but apparently they did not share the same fears of careening off the mountain so they quickly lost us and I was all but guessing where the road might lead next. Halfway down, as I was white knuckling the steering wheel I exclaimed, “well, this is fun.” We both giggled, shakily, not sure whether we were laughing out of irony, anxiety or tiredness.

Right around midnight, we took a few wrong turns back into Santander and jumped out of the car happy to be done driving. For the third night in a row, I walked down to the beach and gazed out over the water, decompressing from the day as I listened to the waves.