Deserts and the tales of the wild west

Leaving the giant state of Texas was a bit overwhelming. We had barely scratched the surface on this giant state, and we were sadly moving on. We drove through El Paso in exactly the same way we had bypassed Houston with its multi lane highway and overpasses galore. The historic markers allude to the old times when this was New Spain and the route between Mexico City and Santa Fe. Flat long highways that were lined with acres and acres of pecan and pistachio groves.

Shacks along the way advertised their availability. We stopped at the at the Don José bakery just outside of Big Bend Ranch State Park at Presidio on our way north to the I-10. It was the first of a few Mexican bakeries that we visited. Not a word of English was spoken but a few of the patrons were able to translate to the Mexican baker and his wife what we were looking for. We were looking for anything fresh and tasty and these clients had us buy their favourites; the rolls that were like brioche with anise seeds in it. OMG. These were fresh, still warm, and we could have eaten 6 of them in one go. The other buns we bought were a simple oblong white roll that were a bit of a staple. We found a plastic tub of rustic (homemade) pork stew in a cooler and bought fresh tortillas from them to have with it. Delish! We really just wanted a loaf of bread. Usually I bake bread but… this was way better.

We were headed for Las Cruces as we had heard from another full time RV family that the Organ Mountains right outside of town were gorgeous and there was a fantastic BLM (Bureau of Land Management) camping area on the edge of the mountains. Las Cruces was also a good jumping off point to visit the White Sands National Monument and do some biking. We arrived before sunset and were set up in time for a phenomenal, warm, glowing sundown with a cold craft beer in hand. We were in a secluded, sheltered dip at the end of a windy road that was lined with campers. We had a gorgeous view of the mountains and no view of the campers. Behind us was the orange and red sunset with increasing glow of the lights from Las Cruces.

The highways were far enough away that road-noise was minimal, and the setting was quite peaceful. We felt so lucky. We BBQ’d steaks and veggies and settled in to plan the next couple of days. While we were eating, coyotes came close with their high-pitched yelps and whistles that we thought they were after the BBQ. Opening the door of the trailer we could see them 30 feet away then they vanished. We never heard them again close up like that. Next morning, a poopy present had been deposited beside the BBQ. We realized this was a symbolic marker of their territory and their tolerance of us in it. 

Next day we drove over the mountain pass and on the other side in the valley was the White Sands National Monument. The dunes that are the “white sands” are made of gypsum deposited into the base of the old seabed basin over 10 million years ago. They stretch for over 250 square miles and are part of a buried lakebed that is below the gypsum deposits. This gypsum sand is blown into a huge dune garden that changes with the wind. Much of it is preserved as a national monument (park) and the rest is part of a military testing range. As we approached the dunes in this stretch of Chihuahua desert, they were a messy white with patches of grasses, yuccas and other indigenous plants that survive there. We stopped at the visitor center, got all the info we needed, and headed into the park. As we drove in the plant life changed then became sparser until it completely disappeared, and we were on a snowy white plain with drifts of white sand completely surrounding us. The similarities to snow were quite striking, as far as its ability to blow around and become drifts requiring plows to regularly clear the roadways through the park area. The changing, monotonous landscape confuses some visitors that venture too far from their cars and become lost in the similarities of the landscape around them.

Signs regularly posted along our route reminded visitors to not stray too far from parking areas or marked trails. It was not sand (or snow). Sand is rock and silica. This white sand was gypsum. Drywall. It was in a low area in the desert and as with all lowest areas, water pooled at the bottom. Like a bathtub. Water cools as it evaporates so the gypsum was cool, hard and wet. WIERD!!!!

The park rangers suggested we take off our shoes and walk on it. The “sand” was cold. Because it was wet! In the desert! As we climbed above the parking area, it became “sandy” and warmer. WEIRD!! And our feet were pure white which continued into the truck and anywhere we had touched these dunes. It was like walking on wet drywall and smearing around the drywall mud. We stayed for about an hour, took the photos that said we had seen it and left. It was kind of neat but didn’t draw us to staying for a long time or returning. “Been there done that”.

The next couple of days were spent mountain biking up into the Organ mountains and visiting Las Cruces and Mesilla which is a historical part of greater Las Cruces. Mesilla once held the distinction of being the capitol of Arizona and New Mexico. It was here that we began to really feel the calamity that was the “Old West”. Mesilla and it’s old Capitol Building is also famous for being the location for the legal trial and conviction of Billy the Kid for murder. Cattle rustlers, Stagecoach robbers and gunfights colour the past of the area and mysterious disappearances of lawmen that chased them down are legend. On such lawman and Mesilla icon was Albert J. Fountain who, with his eight-year-old son, mysteriously disappeared from their blood covered wagon near White Sands NM. The culprits were never found but the suspects were members of a cattle rustling gang that Fountain had tried and had convicted. This area was where romantic Hollywood clichés meet gritty gunslinging survival. 

While Mesilla was cute and decorated for Christmas with evergreens and Chili wreathes, it had many reminders of difficult days gone by. While bike riding, the harshness of the desert was paramount. There is an exotic beauty to the gardenlike flora, but nothing you would want to touch or even fall into.  Desert riding through gravelly washes are slippery, the Barrel Cactus, Prickly Pear, Ocotillo, Yuccas, Creosote bushes, and countless other unforgiving plants give fare warning not to get to close or be harmed. Unforgiving enough to puncture Al’s tire! The rocky routes that we took through washes and ATV chewed roads managed to plunge me into some road rash and bloody knees. No pain; no gain! Right!?!?! Our BLM site at Las Cruces was one of the more beautiful sites to camp that we had experienced and we may come back another time if we are out this way. 

After Las Cruces, we were headed to the Kartchner Caverns State Park. En route we drove through so many different passes that were all different from each other. The most amazing one was a bunch of boulders piled up that made us feel we were in the Flintstone cartoon. The boulders were formed while underground when rains would drain down and rinse away the edges. Over time these carved monuments were pushed out of the ground with the shifting tectonic plates. The most impressive boulder formations along the road were in the rugged fortress called the Dragoon Mountains. This is where the tough and brilliant strategist, Apache Chief Cochise and about 1000 of his followers evaded the blundering US army for more than ten years during the Apache Wars. The “Stronghold” is yet another story of Arizona/New Mexico cowboy Indian army history.

We had heard there was some weather on the way and decided to find a hook up and plant for a couple of days and day trip out from there. The Kartchner Cavern caves are also very famous, but, for shame, we decided not to go below ground. We were feeling like the Carlsbad Caverns were so amazing we had “been there done that”. There was plenty to do and see if we didn’t want to head into these caverns. We went on a beautiful 5-mile desert hike above and behind the campground just before the rains came. We could see as far as the Dragoon Mountains, Tombstone, the mountains surrounding Tucson and far down the valley to Mexico.

The next day we headed for Tombstone and the Boothill Graveyard. This area of New Mexico boasted its fair share of bloodshed. From warring with the Apache, to staking claims on gold, silver and copper, to ranching, to outlaws robbing stagecoaches while rustling cattle from Mexico to the US, and just desert survival, the hardships of the area were paramount. It also bordered the famously dangerous Mexican Sierra Madre where before drug cartels and borders, it was a renowned as a dangerous lawless piece of the world. After reading the book “God’s Middle Finger”, the Sierra Madre didn’t improve with the drug cartels! Tombstone was a town that was a ranching and mining town ravaged by drunken tough guys and ladies of the evening.

The gold seeking pioneer that founded the mine, and ultimately the town, was told “All you are going to find out there is your Tombstone”. Hence the name. The shootout at the OK Corral happened in Tombstone. The town was preserved as a mini museum with actors in period dress, gunslinging cowboys, stagecoach tours, and multiple daily shootouts at the OK Corral, which was really entertaining. Over the years all but one building were destroyed by fires but you wouldn’t know it. As you wander the few streets that portray the old west with saloons, brothel boutiques, and candy stores, you have to commend the locals who have turned what could have been one of the area ghost towns into a viable busy tourist destination. There is a local craft brewery, a historical society, multiple restaurants, museums, and the Boothill graveyard where all the “bad guys” are, including the McLaury brothers and Billy Clanton, killed October 26, 1881 at the OK Corral.  The memorable “good guys” that shot them were the Earp brothers Virgil, Morgan and Wyatt plus Doc Holiday. It is hard to know who the good or bad guys were, but the re-enactment had the sheriff running the saloon and the Doc visiting his consort….

The graveyard was a fantastic visit. The grave markers were maintained in a rickety fashion and the map of the graveyard told the story of pain and peril. Not sure where the uppity class were buried but we heard there was another cemetery that held the upper crust folks. 

Kartchner Caverns campground was about an hour south of Tucson Arizona and we hadn’t yet been to Tucson. We decided to drive via the southern entry and visit the Spanish Mission San Xavier del Bac, one of the first Spanish Catholic missions built in North America by the Jesuits in the late 17th century.  After that, they were run out by an Apache raid the Franciscans took over about 100 years later. The building is the oldest European building in Arizona.

There was a very active historical and restoration society that was working on restoring the buildings to their traditional mud plaster architecture. The Spanish architecture with Indigenous folk-art was indeed novel as the paintings and carvings depicted the style of the local people rather than the white Jesus of most churches. Overall the religious tone felt laid back and cozy with the folk-art influence from generations of mixed race cultures  – Spanish, Native American, Mexican and British. We found a delicious Mexican restaurant for lunch in South Tucson and headed back to the trailer. 

Next day we headed out of the Chihuahua Desert and into the Sonora Desert. The Sonora desert had the iconic Saguaro Cactus popping into view often in numbers we considered a forest. We found a BLM site just south of the highway, but we also realized our gas tank was close to empty. Google sent us to a gas station along the highway, but it wasn’t a gas station yet or anymore. There was a pony tailed, elderly hippy, “kind soul”, supervising some others working on a car. He limped over and advised us to go 20 miles up the road. He had a friend in Canada! We got the sense that he was just as happy killing folks as meeting new folks. We made our way and passed hundreds of thousands of cattle that were destined for American dinner plates.

Gassed up, we headed for the BLM and our friendly saguaro cacti. While camped there we hiked over land to a rocky outcrop and caught the last of the day’s sunshine. 

Next day we headed to desert number three, the Colorado Desert, and the town of Yuma in the heart of the Colorado desert with the famous Colorado river sliding through the town as it nears its exit into the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. At the tourist information stop, there was a train display immortalizing the fact that Yuma became a destination because there was a relatively easy pass to build a railroad to get over the Colorado River and to the Pacific Coast. Yuma, in Arizona, sits on the US / Mexico and California, so it was warm, cheap and full of delicious Mexican food. Yuma’s topography included a maze of dykes and rerouted Colorado river channels surrounded by mountains that were old volcano cones and farmland.

There was dry barren desert contrasted by hundreds of acres of rich agricultural land composed of citrus groves, broccoli, spinach, cauliflower, kale and lettuce fields. All this agriculture was made possible by irrigation from the diverted Colorado river. While driving along the highway it was obvious that the main source of housing was similar to ours and that the people are only here for a few months. RV parks were everywhere. We barely saw any houses. We found a BLM site above the farmlands and the irrigation ditches and stayed a few nights. Our neighbours in the BLM were all snowbirds enjoying the free camping and many of them had OHV (Off Highway Vehicles) quads and dune buggies. All of these quads had 70 something year-olds and licence plates on them so they could also take them on the roads. The trails through the badlands behind the BLM was double track that had all been chewed up by OHVs and made mountain biking on them challenging. Imagine a solid sandbar being stirred up and mixed with rocks on a steep incline. I tried riding it but mostly pushed my bike up and down the trailways. I was so demoralized. From a distance it didn’t look difficult but when you balanced yourself on a two wheeled bike after the quads had taken the blender to the surface, it was really unstable. Even Albert had to renegotiate a few of the hills. Nothing but hard surfaces and cacti to land on if you bailed. I wept.

So, we headed to the lower terrain and decided on a margarita instead of killing ourselves. When the sun went down the UFO’s arrived. Not really but in the dark the airplanes with large strips of floodlights were buzzing the fields below us. These crop dusters were a marvel in aviation skill. The hazards around the fields were not just the mountains but there were electrical wires flanking every field. Reading about them later we learned that many of these pilots had perished from plane crashes and the effects of toxic chemicals they were distributing in their back draft. These occupational hazards had been reduced now that computer and GPS systems were so precise. Electrical power line locations are now programed into their flight plans and sensors measuring moisture, insect infestation and weather conditions in the fields are all considerations in the administration of pesticides or nutrients. These efficient programming tools make mapping the planes route over the fields more effective using fewer toxic chemicals also making it cheaper and healthier for pilots, farmers and consumers. In addition, only fields with a problem were dusted. These amazing pilots were pretty fun to watch. Like dragonflies over a pond.  

After Yuma we were nearing our planned Christmas destination; Palm Desert for three weeks. Last year we booked the last of the time left on our inherited timeshare at the Desert Breezes resort on the border of Palm Desert and Indian Wells. Across the street from the resort was the huge Indian Wells Tennis Garden where the US open and countless other tennis tournaments are held. Marnie and Jim (my sister and her husband) were joining us. And for the one Christmas week, we had their daughter Quin, and our Mum and Don. The rest of our children were not able to join us. 

Greater Palm Springs aka the Coachella Valley, is a large valley oasis with deep aquifers, 9 towns and more smaller communities. There are many manmade lakes, golf courses, and most of the streets are walled, gated and closed to non-residents or non-members. It is very clean, tidy and antiseptic. We are not golfers and to be honest we were concerned that the area may not be “our thing”, although Christmas in a warm desert environment seemed like a great idea. But WOW, did we find lots to do!! Surrounded by the San Jacinto Mountains, Joshua Tree National Monument, the dead Salton Sea, the Mid-Century Modern architecture, artsy walks, movie star homes and the hillsides and oases that were the result of the San Andreas fault tripping through the area, there was hiking and discovery everywhere. 

We hiked up a trail overlooking the unique and impressive previous home of Bob Hope. Although it is someone else’s home now, it is still known as Bob Hope’s house. One day no one will know who Bob Hope is and they may call it something else. We hiked the Cactus canyon up near the Pignon tree line in the San Jacinto mountains. We hiked into a canyon wash along the Palms to Pine highway that narrowed as we ascended and saw, above us, a flock of bighorn sheep.

We drove through Joshua Tree National Park from south to north seeing the transition from Colorado desert to Mohave desert where the unique Joshua trees grow. We stopped and hiked to a palm oasis at Cottonwood Visitors center. We looked out over the whole Coachella Valley that encompasses greater Palm Springs all the way to the Salton Sea. We returned again after a snowfall in Joshua Tree and took sunset shots on the gorgeous rocky outcrops with snowy fields of these Dr. Seussesque cartoon trees.  

We hiked the “Ladder Canyon” driving around a sandy, washed-out road. Then parking beside all the fancy cars (weirdly including a Jag, Bentley and many Mercedes) in the sand and gravel up the canyon. It was a hike up the canyon wash, to a ridgeline overlooking the Salton Sea and the San Jacinto mountains, then down through a slot canyon in the Mecca hills which are on the San Andreas fault. This is the same fault line that hugs Vancouver Island. We hiked along the trails beside the Thousand Palms and through a creek running between them. These huge California palms occur when there is a water source up to twenty feet below the surface. The San Andreas fault has many fissures underground that form wells where these trees grow. Sometimes they were even growing out of the sides of the hills rather than at the valley floor which seemed out of place when we saw them. They were messy and so foreign to the orderliness of the greater Palm Springs cities.

Our cousin, Mike Everett, is the meteorologist for NBC Palm Springs and one evening we were invited to tour and watch the newscast in studio. 

Christmas this year was a completely different with no presents, a Mexican feast on Christmas Eve and another drive through Joshua Tree on Christmas day with our extended families. Quin’s partner Liam, lives in LA and his family visiting from Portland. They were staying in the town of Joshua Tree and joined us for Christmas Eve dinner. They were staying at the iconic Joshua Tree Inn where influential country-rock musician, Gram Parsons took his life with morphine and alcohol. We stopped to visit on our way past on Christmas day. There was a memorial at the motel, thus making our foray into dead musician memorials a thing. 

Jim returned to Calgary on December 29 and Marnie stayed on until after the first week of January. Our timeshare finished up on January 3rd so we took Marn camping in the desert. We headed to the Anza Borrego Desert State Park and with one trip back to send Marn home, we have been there ever since. What a park!!! With Marnie, we stayed at the Borrego Springs State Park Campground with full hookup for three nights. There was a beautiful 3 mile hike into the valley behind the park with a waterfall and more California Palms with their natural hula skirts draping to the valley floor.  The town of Borrego Springs originally had a development plan similar to Palm Springs and it is dotted with a few golf communities, mid century modern neighbourhoods, farming and a lack of water to sustain growth let alone to support the community as it stands. We tootled around the few streets and round-about that make up the town of Borrego Springs, went to an art opening and a drive through the Montezuma highway to the Old Stage Coach road and the town of Julian for pie. Julian is famous for apples and pie. It is on the highway to San Diego and we were there on a holiday Sunday so it was an absolute zoo. We didn’t stop and kept driving a further three miles to quiet Wynola where we found a bakery with DELICIOUS APPLE PIE!! Topping it with cinnamon ice cream, we had the perfect lunch and returned to the campground.

Here are some of our favourite hikes and places in and around Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Our journey north begins next post.

Salut France, Hola Espagne!!

While Bordeaux left butter and Cabernet taste in our bellies, we were on our way to Spain.

Biarritz surf beach called “Plage de la Petite Chamber D’Amour”

Ahhh, BUTTER…I forgot to mention that when we were on “le Boat” we had a delicious seafood risotto dinner with the Seaweed Bordier Butter stirre, (monté) into it at the end. This touch added the necessary umami of not having a rich stock to use. The butter was sweet, salty and full of oceany meroir. I knew you were wondering, “What about the butter?”…

Lori and Mike and all our gear fit nicely in the Sporty 6 speed Ford Focus we rented and we were off to the mountains. That little car purred in 5th gear at 130kph so we hung there without feeling the need to find, and use, 6th. We started out on the toll free roads but it was going to be the same view with tons of roundabouts so we splurged and threw it in 6th gear and cruised at 140kph with every car imaginable booting past us. At one point we passed a truck carrying about 6 sports cars, then another and another. We lost count at 8 of them. Lamborghinis, McLarens, Maseratis, Porsche Carrera GTs, Ferraris, Jaguars, Bentleys, Gull Wing Mercedes. We saw about 50 cars. Albert and Mike were drooling, then the convoy turned off and were gone. Gut wrenched. Sad men in the car. We continued. Weird they weren’t in a covered truck or covered at all; millions of dollars of Super Cars off on a traveling tour called Miles of Mystery 2019 edition. Our traveling roadside attraction of the day!

Just before we got to St Jean du Luz, the Pyrenees mountains appeared. Thankfully; because one minute we were ogling cars and the next minute mountains. You have to understand that Albert and I hadn’t seen large rocky outcrop mountains since the end of July when we left Alberta. The Canadian shield has mountains but they are old and rounded. The hills in Brittany and Normandy are lovely but the Pyrenees were MouNtAiNs.

MouNtAiNs

St Jean de Luz, France is very close to the border of Spain. The west side of the Pyrenees is Basque Country and the East is Catalan. They have their own languages and are neither French or Spanish. So the blend of culture with the influx of tourism was welcoming yet always reminded us that civil unrest could be a conversation away. Alberts leg was still tweaking and there was a “p’tit train” tour parked right beside us so we hopped on.

During the tour only the Basque were mentioned. Not France. Not Spain. The most famous building in town was the cathedral where Louis XIV married the Princess Maria Theresa (age 14 and related to him as his second cousin) of Spain. He, of course, went on to become famous as the Sun King (also King Louis the Great) of France and built Versailles. She went on to be famous as the Queen Consort of France, putting up with Louis’s many affairs, enduring the death of  five of six children and dying in Palace Versailles at a young age of 30 due to a festering sore on her arm. Ahhh, the aristocracy and it’s wealthy soap opera-esque chess games! It was a very cute city with a large wall that skirts the shoreline protecting the old city that was built below sea level.

Our hopeful destination was San Sebastian of the northern western Spanish coast. This destination is very popular as the rocky outcrops hang out over two sheltered sandy beaches that flank the old city. There was a film festival in town on our dates so the affordable accommodations were gone and we couldn’t stay in San Seb. We chose an Agriturismo in the hills just outside of town. The room was comfortable and the breakfast had fresh squeezed orange juice, fresh baked bread, cheese, charcuiterie and eggs from their chickens.

We stayed two nights with a full day in San Sebastian touring with Lori and Mike. In San Sebastian we walked the beach, took the funicular up to the top of the mountain overlooking the city and sipped cold beverages and ate Pintxos (Basque for Tapas) at the top. We walked back and met Luba and Bill for an early 6pm Pintxo and wine meal. Europe and particularly Spain doesn’t even think about an evening meal until at least 9 pm. Restaurants generally open at 8. Compare that in Parksville where everyone is reclined either in bed or on the couch by 8!!! After eating we toured a bit of the old town, the church, and headed out. Maybe another time we can return when there isn’t a film festival taking all the affordable accommodations and we will spend some time there!! It is worth another visit for sure.

San Sebastian was a beautiful city that lead us to following the coastline for a few hours. Every corner we turned had another spectacular vista. We were at the top of cliffs, bottom of jungle valleys, and on busy roads with Basque cyclists owning the road. West of San Sebastian is a cape that has a church built out on a big rock. If you are a Game of Thrones fan, you will know this place as Dragonstone. Gaztelugatxe was dreamed up by some poor pilgrim that thought “God said put a church on it!” And so it was. This along with many of the otherworldly locations for monasteries and cathedrals was another piece of the pilgrimage puzzle. Albert’s leg wasn’t going to allow him to make the trek to the bottom, or the top on the other side (1000+ pedometer steps), so Lori, Mike and I left him for a couple of hours. We rang the bell at the top of the monastery and headed back.

Once in the car we were headed for our accommodation somewhere just outside of Bilbao. Our GPS couldn’t find it but the Google on Mike’s phone did and we arrived through a very narrow, hedged, laneway to a very modern agriturismo house/pension.

It looked like a bit of a fortress from the outside but inside was trés chic and comfortable

The owner met us and was super charming, a very proud “Basque” who designed his house to last for centuries. The nearby city of Bilbao was once a ship manufacturing centre, iron and steel fabrication was huge for the Basque people. So his house was designed and made with steel, concrete, tile, and featured an outside wall with iron sheeting giving it a rusted patina that was to express the Basque traditions and history. The house was lofty with a suite that he and his family lived in. The two story accommodations that we had, featured locking bedrooms upstairs each with a modern ensuite and a glass wall that opened on to a large balcony. I think there were about 6 bedrooms rented. The main floor featured two floor to cieling glass walls with one being an enormous sliding door opening onto a covered deck. This made the indoor room become an open airy covered outdoor room. The inner room was decorated with comfortable couches and two long dining tables and outside had pallet furniture and big pillows. A modern communal kitchen was ours to use as well.

Our farm hosts grew tomatoes and we had a tour of the facility before we left. They produced 80 tons of hydroponic greenhouse tomatoes each year on about 1/4 acre, and managed to go surfing for two months in the Canary Islands in the dead of winter. The dinner that we cooked that night featured tomatoes that they offered, and when we left they loaded us up with more. Good thing we had a car.

The next morning we picked his brain on how to do the town of Bilbao in about an hour because we were headed for Burgos that evening. He looked dismayed, being a proud Basque, and said we should skip Burgos. We didn’t and we aren’t sad about that but Bilbao blew our minds. He told us that Bilbao is undergoing a renovation. He was so proud that in 15 years the ugly part of the city had become modernized from the ruins and pollution of the factory shipbuilding era to a modern, artsy, educated and pretty city. He was proud that the city was still working with the plan, and that it was not corrupt and it had no debt. This was not the “Spanish way”. All this because a visionary mayor who conspired with the architects and planners that brought Bilbao the abstract Frank Gehry designed, landmark Guggenheim museum. As planned, it brought the tourism, which paid for the new buildings, transit, bridges, roads, green spaces, restaurants, etc etc. He said we must see the Guggenheim, but that is just one part of town. He said the subway was made of glass and very beautiful but we would have to return some time because it is a masterpiece on its own. Plus the old town is very nice with old Basque traditions and buildings. So we went and saw the Guggenheim, and were blown away by the museum, the bridges and the beautiful, well designed public spaces. And we left. We will come back to Bilbao area and spend some time there. We only had a taste, and it was good.

When we arrived in Burgos, we were too early to check into our apartment so we went to the Museum of Human Evolution. This museum is a big square box that is very modern in contrast with so much of the Burgos area that we saw that was ancient. In fact, the area is so ancient that the skull (reconstructed from bone fragments) of the “Gran Dolina” boy dating back 850,000 years, is housed in the museum. The Atapuerca dig, where these remains were found, is near Burgos but we were unable to go there. Too little time. Didn’t matter, the museum was full of great stuff. There was a replica of Darwin’s boat “The Beagle” and some readings from his book “On the Origin of Species”. And with all great museums, there were students in class being toured, schooled, immersed and probably assigned their reactions to all that was before them. We were full, we had seen alot that day with two cities in one day. We were off to find our accommodation.

One of the big reasons people travel to Burgos is because it has a huge cathedral, the Santa Maria, that is another stop along the Camino de Santiago. We saw many hikers, young ones with heavy backpacks, and old hikers who had day packs, so they probably had support along the way. We arrived at our apartment and outside the window was this same gorgeous church. We were in the centre of town, surrounded by restaurants, the cathedral, hikers, partiers, and we were about to make our own pilgrimage into the heart of the Ribera del Duero wine region.

This emerging wine region is to Spain as the Vancouver Island wine region is to BC but with alot more potential. If you google Spanish wine, you will more than likely see a Ribera Del Duero wine as one of the top 5 on the list. Spanish wines were not available or promoted for nearly 40 years when the country was run by dictator General Francisco Franco. Sanctions made it impossible to have these wines on the world stage and the knowledge to keep pace with the rapidly changing technology of wine-making was stifled by the autocratic Franco regime. When it did show up, the mainstream quality was usually over-oxidized Rioja wines most commonly from a popular producer by the name of Margues de Riscal. Their wines (and Spanish wine in general) have since benefited from embracing modern production techniques. The Ribera del Duero is quickly gaining popularity (both domestically and internationally) becoming known for its balance in fruit forwardness and dry, food friendly structure. We spent the night in our apartment, listened to the partying into the wee hours of the morning and set off the next day towards Amera del Duero. This city is in the heart of the Duero riverbank (ribero) region and houses many of the big winery’s that make the big full bodied Temperanillos of the region. We drove through the town and saw a sign for one of the vineyards, Martín Berdugo. Unannounced, we arrived and naively asked if we could taste or tour or both? They were very gracious, evidently drop in tours are not routine, but a very pleasant administrative type, took us on a tour of the facility. Harvest was starting the following week and there was a wine festival in the town on the weekend that they were preparing for, that we would sadly miss, so it was very generous of them to take the time. We took pictures, bought 5 bottles of wine between the 4 of us, and headed off.

Lori and Mike were heading back to Canada in two days so we were ultimately headed for the Mediterranean coast near Barcelona. We had a pretty relaxed two days drive so that we could experience some of central Spain’s high plateau. We booked a night at the Hotel des Vino in a small town called Cariñena about 30 minutes from the larger city of Zaragoza (pronounced Thare-a-go-tha – a real tongue twister for me at the time….) that I have since seen spelled Saragossa (English?). We plotted the route which was quite direct, but with my Micheline mapbook in hand, I saw some “scenic route” detours along the way and we hit the jackpot. Spain has its coastlines with the Pyrenees and the hills behind the Barcelona coast but we weren’t mentally prepared for the vast plateau between the west and east coast.

ruin of a castle on a hill… lots of ruins… everywhere

Having travelled in the US and Canadian deserts in Utah, California, Nevada, Alberta and BC, we felt we were repeating some of our North American travels. The white earth of the Spanish plain makes it just a bit different than North American desert. But the red earth made it like southern California, Arizona, Utah and Nevada. There were mesas pushing up and dropping down to winding creeks below. There were carved valleys with hoodoos like in the Badlands of Alberta. There were rolling hills with scrubby sage brush like in Kamloops, BC. and vast prairie like most of North America with corn, sunflowers and harvested white, red and grey dirt fields that grew onions, leeks and grains now shipped or stored elsewhere.

The hills around these flat areas were terraced with fruit orchards, grapes, olives and other vegetable and grain crops. As we got closer to some of the hills, we noticed there were dwellings built into the hillsides as well. Albert had read that with last summers 40+Celsius heat wave, cave owning people in France and Spain were renting their cool caves to families whose children or elderly were comprimised with the heat. Most of these dwellings that we saw looked pretty decrepit, and were possibly just used as storage, or not at all, we didn’t know.

We snaked along the scenic route and found ourselves on a mountain pass that went into the next wine region and our destination. The mountain pass was typically narrow, with tight corners over cliffs, where only one car might pass comfortably and we only met one or two trucks; thankfully. We kept being so incredibly overwhelmed at the vast quilted agriculture. The hills with their terraces were planted in varying ways to capture water, light and the best crops to fill those places. We had to stop. We had to take time to look. We stopped more than once. Then we said, “Enough!! or we will never get there!!”. We proceeded and rounded another bend to find we were on the top of a ridge with the same meticulous agriculture on both valleys below us. We all gasped “WOW, DID YOU SEE THAT?” at the same time. And kept going.

The village of Cariñena was a sleepy little working town that marked itself as the main destination in the Ruta del Vino del Cariñena. Reading about the region, we learned it is another Spanish up and coming region to watch on the world stage. Our hotel was a former wine production house that was more of a warehouse with a hotel now. It was surrounded with vines and harvest equipment. In town, we found a bar that had a restaurant who would feed us a meal, though the bartender looked worried when we asked. It was 8pm, they were open, and “please have a seat” was gestured without any English instruction. Then the chef arrived with a bag of groceries. Ha! The food was like a home cooked meal with local chilled red wine and pretty good. We were the only guests. The “chef”, who was originally from Morocco, came and chatted with us and tried to ply us with firewater. We obliged for one shot. The we got out of there.

We had to drop Lori and Mike at the train station in Zaragoza the next day so they could be near Barcelona in time to get their plane home. I couldn’t sleep so while looking online at accommodations I found some beachfront on the Mediterranean just south of Barcelona. Next day we changed the plan to driving Lori and Mike to Caseldellfels and another day of driving-touring to the coast. Perfect choice!!! With a stop for lunch and a look at the Roman Colosseum ruins in Tarragona, we pressed on to Casteldellfels where they were staying that night.

There was snow on the Calgary forecast for them returning to Canada so we had a lovely hot drive, walk on the sandy Mediterranean beach, beachside mojitos and left them to head to our accommodation.

Lori and Mike came home to this. White sand to white snow. YIKES!! We miss you guys!!

Stay tuned….chilling at the beach…and Barcelona…coming up next post……