From El Toro to Le Mooooooooo

Trip Start Apr 02, 2007
Trip End Apr 28, 2007

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

After killing a bit of time in Madrid on Monday, we headed back to the sparkling new airport and flew back to Barcelona. The plan? Spend one night near the airport, then pick up a car and head towards the Pyrenees.

We had used some visa rewards to get a room at a fancy hotel near the Barcelona airport - a pool, a gym, air conditioning that WORKED, and most importantly, a big bed with 5000 pillows. The odd thing was - the room had this very swanky looking bathroom with a cool semi-open shower..... which leaked everywhere on the bathroom floor. Luckily, we had 50 towels to dry the floor off.

The next day, we caught the shuttle to the airport, picked up our rental car and plugged in our new TomTom GPS. The TomTom allows you to pick your language and gender of the voice instructions - so for the next 5 days, "Barbara" would be helping us find our way in Spain, Andorra and the Pyrenees.

Barbara didn't get off to a good start - there was a confusing exit with two ramps and we were on the wrong one... then for about 15 minutes, Barbara kept insisting we take exits that didn't exist. Perhaps she thought we had an off-road vehicle, but our Seat Altea hatchback just wasn't up to jumping concrete barriers or guardrails. Eventually, we were able to get onto the right road, pointed the right way. And after that initial bumpy start, navigation went pretty smoothly - but some of those complicated exits you had to watch very carefully for which lane you needed to be in.

Our first stop? Just a half hour away at Montserrat ("serrated mountain") - a very striking mountain with a Benedictine monastery that's nearly a 1000 years old. You can take a train or a cable car up, or you can drive. Hans was looking forward to torturing me with a twisty turny road on a cliff.... so up, up, up we went. There's a lot of tourbuses up there - everyone seems to either be a student or a retiree, but the inner courtyard and inside of the church was stunning. There's also an insanely steep ?train? track further up the mountain to some hiking trails. It was getting pretty warm in the day, so we pointed our car back down the hill and towards the mountains.

The drive to the Pyrenees was mostly uneventful, but very relaxing. Hans noticed one castle/fort up on a hill... and I started to scan hilltops after that - I spotted more than one crumbling tower or turret.

Around cappuccino-o-clock (3pm), we wandered into the city of Solsona - the inner part of the city is still walled and very striking. We drove around to a plaza just outside the walls and had one of the best cappuccinos I've ever had (sorry Kafebrenneriet!). Then it was back on the road. The road started to wind though the foothills, and then followed along a river through the mountains. I was expecting to see a cute alpine village just around the corner. Sadly, instead, we saw Andorra.

The two western towns along the main road through Andorra are Sant Julia de Loria and Andorra la Velle. They are frankly not my kind of towns. Sant Julia is a bit more of a working town... Andorra la Velle is all about shopping - Andorra is tax-free, so it's a good place to buy electronics, perfumes or alcohol. Unfortunately, it also causes ridiculous traffic along the main road, and it feels like one big ugly outdoor mall. I bet if you get away from the busy part of town, into the mountains, it's probably MUCH better.

Looking for a place for the night, we spotted Hotel Pol in Sant Julia de Loria. The price was right, and it didn't look so bad. We may have been the only people in the hotel, frankly. This place seemed like it had once been a very nice hotel, maybe even a happening place. But man, the rooms really showed their age - the carpet seems worn down to fibers. And Hans noticed a card in the room assuring us "Our completely automatic telephone system enables you to make calls inside or outside the hotel without operator's intervention. This will save you time."

Yes, you guessed it, no internet here!

We headed into the larger town of Andorra La Velle after dropping our bags. It's about 6km down the road, but at least a half hour by car since the main road is completely stop and go the whole way. Seriously - if you have to drive through this town, do it very early, very late or be prepared to sit. We finally parked and wandered the streets a bit. Our suspicion that this was not a great place was confirmed by the fact that it was hard to find a place to have a beer. And since we didn't need perfume, furs or big bottles of vodka (9 euros for a liter!), we just weren't the audience to appreciate this place. While sitting in traffic getting back to our hotel we came up with two better names for this place - An-DULL-a or An-DUMP-a.

Now, with our expectations set so low, we headed out to find dinner. And you won't believe it, we found a blues bar - this great little place, very down to earth - just what we needed. We snacked on olives and ham, and slurped Sangria and beer. The proprietor showed us how to make our own mixtas - take some toasted bread, rub a clove of garlic on it (kinda like lightly "grating" it), then pour a little bit of olive oil, a shake of salt and pepper, and some thinly sliced tomato. Sounds simple, and it's soooo good.

After dinner, the guys behind the bar poured us some bright yellow mystery liquor (a few places gave this to us, it might be a tradition, though I have no idea what it is). Bottoms up, and it was back to Hotel Pol.

The next morning, we had a very odd breakfast - we were the only ones in hotel's breakfast room. Our server didn't look at us once, just brought out the standard items - croissants, jam, cheese...and some perfectly undrinkable coffee. Seriously, the 'coffee' was this dark thick syrupy liquid - maybe it was actually coffee stock - steadily reducing since the last guests left in the 80's.

Well, we were off. And we were relieved to see that the cities east of Andorra La Velle were much more scenic. We were winding higher into the mountains, and now we were into the ski towns. Ah, if only we had driven just an hour more.

Then it was back down, crossing the border into France. Some very cute towns along the way, as Barbara helped point us to Toulouse. We saw our first cows, and shouted "le Moooooo", but they snubbed us. The drive went very well, Barbara only tried to get us to jump one curb; before we knew it, we were at our hotel.

We had found the Hotel Riquet from, and I really thought it was charming and well-located. Our room had a bit of an odd semi-shower tub arrangement, but was very cute and comfortable. And this cute little charming hotel HAD FREE WIRELESS INTERNET - a first for our trip!!! It was hard to get Hans away from the keyboard, but we did just a bit of exploring before meeting Hans nephew Bjornar, and his girlfriend Guro at a nearby restaurant. Very interesting to hear how university is for them, coming from outside the country, and what they think of living in Toulouse.

We wandered out for one more drink and then headed back for a good night's sleep (watching our step along the way, there's dog doo everywhere in this city). Next up - drive to the coast and perhaps dip our toes in the Mediterranean.
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