Saturday, July 3, 2010

A two hour drive to a completely different country

With the warm season in full swing, you would think I would have a summer full of vacation plans, but I don't. I figured I live in San Sebastian all winter, through rain, snow and very cold temperatures, so why shouldn't I stay in my beach town for the summer and soak up the rays and tan myself on our gorgeous beaches?!

While I do dedicate myself to the beach quite religiously, I managed to take a small weekend getaway a bit inland to the wine region of Spain to a small town called Arnedo. My friend Theresa, along with two Finnish girlfriends of mine and our two Basque guy friends all piled into a car and headed out of the Basque Country (GASP). The drive was only two hours, but the climate and landscape changed dramatically in those 120 minutes. We left a breezy and lush coast and through the car windows the view quickly changed to arid and various shades of tan.

Our Basque guy friend, Lander, has a house in Arnedo because his family is originally from this small town of about 14,000 people, so we stayed there. If I had known what Arnedo originally meant, I would have expected the dry and brown landscape. Although the city has been inhabited since Neolithic times, the Latin name (Arenetum) appeared later and actually translates to 'place of sand'. Who would have thought?!

The three-story house felt like a rustic getaway, with a large dining room on the first floor with a huge fireplace for barbecues, a second floor with large tiled kitchen and a living room with comfy leather couches, and then 3 bedrooms on the top floor, each with two small beds and cupboards full of well-worn sheets and blankets. After driving through the narrow streets, we finally made it to the house and made ourselves at home while we cooked the pizzas we had brought from Donostia.

With our tummies full we headed to the neighboring town of Arnedillo, which is famous for 'Las Pozas', which are outdoor hot springs that are so big they are like the size of swimming pools. In the dark, with the warm air, we stepped into what seemed like an impossibly hot 'poza' and started the process of going from hot pool to the super cold Río Cidacos. After a few trips back and forth, we headed back home. Along the road home stood huge hills with lights shining on the numerous caves situated high in the mountains. Before Roman rule, these caves were carved and used as homes and places of worship and somehow still remain intact from the 5th century. Called the Cuevas de los Cien Pilares (Caves of 100 Pillars), they were light up and in the night sky, creating a stark contrast from the pure black sky and the yellowish brown of the hollowed caves.

Back at home we relaxed, happy to walk on the cool tiles in the hot air. After watching JAWS the movie in Spanish (it's just called Tiburón in Spanish - which means shark) we headed to bed. The next morning I woke up and looked out our small window that overlooked the city, which was dotted with red tiled roofs as far as you could see, with a church steeple cutting through the skyline from time to time. After a simple breakfast we set out to see the city.

The narrow and steep roads wound around the center and were full of houses that looked as if they were crumbling right in front of our eyes. While it was odd to see miss-matched stone houses, it was quite charming and definitely a change from rich and extravagant San Sebastian. When I thought of moving to Spain, these rustic colors, the stone streets and hate to say it, but Spanish-style architecture were what I expected to see. It surprised me so much that after only driving a bit it seemed like by leaving the Basque Country part of Spain we had arrived in a different world.
The walking tour, in the dead heat, ended with a short hike to the castle that looks over the entire village. In the 8th century, when the Arabs ruled the Iberian Peninsula, Arnedo was the capital of the 26 Arab provinces of Spain. During this rule, the castle was constructed atop the clay hill and the majority of it still stands today. Inside, it was decorated with Muslim symbols but most was destroyed by the conquering Christians. Although it is not open to the public we climbed up the hill to get a King's view of the stretching landscape.

A breeze finally picked up and we headed back to the house to open the windows and let some fresh air in before our heavy lunch - Spanish barbecue. With the fireplace in the downstairs kitchen, we cooked up a delicious array of meat - lamb chops, pancetta and morcilla (remember me writing about that blood with rice sausage??) While the boys were busy with the grill us girls made a tasty salad, some fried potatoes and got the table set. With more meat than you can imagine, we stuffed ourselves and then took the required Spanish siesta.

It had rained a bit when we woke up and what better way to enjoy the fresh and cooler air than by returning to Las Pozas to jump from hot and cold water in the daylight? This time around we didn't go exactly to the same spot, but instead Lander guided us down a trail to some more secret pools where we were actually alone! If I lived in Arnedo I'd go to the Pozas every weekend for sure!

The night ended with a few beers in the city center at a terrace on the street next to an outdoor terrace (where a lady actually sang a Tina Turner song quite well). The next day, before returning back to San Sebastian we met with Lander's family for a nice lunch. As you know Grandmas do, his abuela (grandma in Spanish) made enough food for an army! A salad starter, a huge plate of pasta with her homemade sauce, three plates of meat, dessert and fruit! I was stuffed. During dinner, the grandpa (abuelo) told stories of his time in the Spanish civil war and his aunt and uncle talked with us about travelling around Europe. It was great to have a true Spanish meal with such a sweet family before leaving, and of course they insisted that sometime during the summer we come back with Lander again to visit and that they would have us for lunch another day.

In a mere two hours yet again, we were back to the coast and back to reality. I don't think I ever appreciated a breeze more!


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