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Turista On Board
The Terrain in Spain Can Make Driving a Pain... but It's Worth It

By Jerry Haines
The Washington Post
Sunday, March 28, 1999; Page E01

It could turn the Cleavers into the Costanzas. Is there is anything quite like a family car trip in a foreign country to demonstrate your respective talents--and expose your incompatibilities? Consider: You are driving in Spain, during rush hour, into a city that you do not know, on a road that does not appear on your map, looking for an address written in a language that none of you reads. It's starting to rain, and you haven't yet learned how to close the electric windows of your rented car. You have just passed a sign that may or may not mean "detour," and up ahead is one of those damnable traffic circles where you have to make a split-second choice among equally unpromising avenues--or you can just spin around it until you run out of gas, which, judging from the fuel gauge, will be any second now. Oh, and one of you has to use the little caballeros' room. Real bad.

Is it any wonder that so many of your divorced friends' stories begin, "It all started to fall apart on that motor trip through . . ."?

When my wife, Janice, and I decided to tour southern Spain with our son, Paul, all of the cities seemed so attractive that we couldn't choose just one or two. So how to travel between them all? Well, what could be more appropriate for an auto trip than (Ford) Granada, (Chrysler) Cordoba and (Cadillac) Seville?

We did not pick up our car until it was time to leave Madrid, our first stop. We assumed that we would have little use for a car in such a large city, and we were right--not only for Madrid but for most of our other stops as well. Our hotels were in each city's historical district, and we could walk to everything we wanted to see. Or if we couldn't, we saved it for the days we entered or exited the city. (Of course, this entails leaving all of your luggage locked in the car as you tour some suburban cathedral, garden or bodega, and while the guide is lecturing, you're fretting about the motivations of the people you saw hanging around your parking spot.)

So on a rainy Monday morning we took possession of the small, white Nissan Primera sedan (no, I'd never heard of the Primera before, either) that would carry us through the Spanish countryside during the next 10 days. (If you rent a car in Spain, immediately memorize the license number: Your car and about 80 percent of the other cars in any given parking lot will be small, white sedans.) Our trip was a nine-day tour to Toledo, Cordoba, Seville, Jerez de la Frontera, Ronda, Granada and Malaga. We logged about 650 miles, but that included some doubling back to accommodate schedules of certain tourist sites. Your mileage may vary (i.e., you may not get lost as much).

Our hour-long trip to Toledo was uneventful--exactly how you want it when you're getting used to a new car on a strange road in a foreign country. The autovia (think I-95 without the wackos) is wide, well maintained and well marked. Most of the signs have international symbols or are easily decipherable. On the open road, the speed limit may be as high as 120. That's kilometers, not miles, per hour, but it's plenty fast in any language. They really mean "keep right except to pass," too. That blur in your rear-view mirror is an overtaking Mercedes, which two seconds from now will be half a kilometer ahead of you, leaving you wobbling in its wake.

We overshot our Toledo hotel twice--once driving completely out of town before realizing our error, once turning down a succession of ever narrower streets into the historical district until I was ready to park it, lock it and hire a helicopter. Paul, having spent time in Mexico, was often dispatched to get directions. Each time, though, we had to jump out like a chauffeur and let him out of the car, because we couldn't figure out how to defeat the childproof locks. The owner's manual was detailed and comprehensive but entirely in Spanish. That evening we found a possibly relevant diagram in it accompanied by the word "ninos." We didn't feel irresponsible disabling this safety feature, inasmuch as the "nino" in question is 27.

The next day we were on the autovia almost continuously for about five hours, traveling from Toledo southwest to Cordoba. If you have only one driver (it's cheaper that way), all the other people get to nap during the long trip, and the driver gets to feel sorry for himself. For fun, of course, he can startle the passengers by muttering, "Uh-oh--no guard rail." If he's feeling particularly put upon, he also can decide not to wake them and to keep the dramatic mountain vistas to himself. Except for a few scenic miles in the Sierra Morena, however, our views were mostly of pleasant but unremarkable farmland.

Our entry into Cordoba demonstrated one major shortcoming in our resources. Michelin makes a) an excellent Spanish road atlas and b) the famous Green Guide, the paragon of tour books, with marvelous city maps. What each of these lacks, however, are directions from a) to b). Imagine entering Washington aided only by a map of the eastern United States and a street map of the mall.

Then, even after we made the leap onto the city map, we discovered streets so tiny with walls so close that I began to question whether we inadvertently had turned into the downstairs hallway of someone's house. Further, although the city fathers wisely place directional signs for local hotels at strategic points, street signs are positioned up at the second-floor level. They may be helpful to passing pigeons, but they don't do much for a guy in a sedan. And don't think you can "just go around the block" if you miss your turn. There is no such concept.

Even though our car was not equipped with a Saint Christopher statue, it was at junctures such as this that miracles would happen. A Good Samaritan would appear, listen for the name of our hotel and, notwithstanding our gross mispronunciation of it, walk us perhaps several blocks to its front door. These angels sometimes materialized in parking garages, too, and helped me maneuver into parking spaces the size of a bath mat.

We filled much of our only day in Cordoba with a visit to a 1,200-year-old mosque, La Mezquita. Then, our spirits at peace, we returned to the autovia for the 87-mile trip west to Seville. Once again I became complacent. The highway was as nonthreatening as a familiar road at home; the bucolic scenery made me think more of Illinois than of Iberia. What could go wrong?

Traffic circles, that's what. There are people who will patiently explain to you why traffic circles are ever so much superior to other types of intersections. You need only follow simple roundabout etiquette, they insist: "Go to the inside of the circle and ease to the right when you get to your exit." But they never show you the footnote to the rule: " * Nobody really does this." Because you must go through a delivery truck to get to the center, and you must go back through a city bus to get to your exit.

Finally, after playing dodge-'em cars on Seville's traffic circles, we crossed something that was recognizable on our city map, and Janice navigated us toward our hotel, in the city's old Jewish quarter. It also is located near the cathedral, however, and the streets that day were full of meandering tourists and horse-drawn carriages. People stared at us as though there never before had been an internal combustion engine in this historic neighborhood. The streets got narrower and narrower, and I was starting to regret declining the collision insurance, when I noticed that the uniformed man standing at the entrance to an alley was wearing a name tag from our hotel. He was the doorman!

"Would you like me to park your car for you, sir?"

"Oh, please!" I got out and watched as he folded in the side mirrors, skillfully maneuvered the car into the alley and eased the car away. I was so grateful, I entrusted him with our car, our passports and all of our luggage.

I love Seville. I love its churches and plazas and boulevards, but mainly I love its old neighborhoods and completely irrational street plan. The streets are so narrow and the corners so sharp that you couldn't walk a dachshund there unless you installed a hinge in his middle. There are no sidewalks (or if there are, they are full of parked Vespas). People walk instead in the streets--talking, courting, holding family conferences, transacting major land deals. They seem to have built-in proximity detectors and know instinctively to step aside when approaching automobiles come within 10 centimeters.

Tapas-eating can be a matter mostly of "What kinds of fried salty fat would you like tonight?," but in Seville it is snacking raised to high art. The olives are plumper, the ham zestier, the calamari, um, squid-ier. It reminded me of eating at a sushi bar--there's a lot of pointing, questioning, sampling and sharing. It also illustrates the importance of selecting your traveling companions carefully. Try to find someone who not only will navigate when you drive, but will eat anchovies when you misinterpret a Spanish menu.

After a stop at Jerez, 55 miles south, where we toured a sherry bodega, we headed for Ronda. The 70-mile route east from Jerez takes you near some Pueblos Blancos--whitewashed, hilltop villages, each with a church in the middle. They are so cute you just want to hug them. We tried to get a closer look at one, and discovered a new talent: We can get lost even in a small town. My navigator and I had a minor difference of opinion (translation: no gunshots actually were exchanged) over which road was the advertised scenic drive, and soon we were inching through a neighborhood street. One more coat of whitewash on those houses and we wouldn't have made it. At the first opportunity, Janice got out and walked ahead, checking our clearance and trying to find an exit.

As the car crept along, little children stood giggling in the doorways of their houses, reaching out to pat the car as it passed. The street got steeper, and I had to speed up to maintain forward motion, or I would drift backward into the river valley below. It probably looked as if I were trying to run Janice down.

Ronda is at the top of a cliff and has views that go for miles. Walk out the back door of the Hotel Reina Victoria on a foggy evening, and you'll be able to test the practicality of that frequent Warner Bros. sequence in which a character stands confidently in midair until he realizes where he is. Or, if you prefer, you can stand on the cliff on a still, sunny Sunday morning and listen to the mooing of cows and barking of dogs on the farms hundreds of feet below. It all seems very pleasant until you remember that during the Spanish Civil War they used to throw uncooperative villagers off these cliffs.

We observed in Ronda a road hazard that I've never seen in metropolitan Washington. The street suddenly was filled with goats--dozens and dozens of them. The drivers who had the misfortune to be on the street at the time could only remain there helpless as a river of goats rushed around them like floodwaters down a spillway. The herders guided the goats around a corner, then they were gone as abruptly as they had appeared, leaving random goat byproducts behind them to annoy the unwary pedestrian.

Then it was eastward again--125 miles--to Granada. You'd think that by this time we would have learned something, but we got lost more profoundly there than in any other city. We found our hotel's neighborhood near the Alhambra, but the network of tiny one-way streets in that quarter mystifies even the locals. Paul got out to confer with a hotel doorman, who in turn called over some of his colleagues, and it took all of them to mark a route for us.

As we followed their directions, sometimes Paul had to get out of the car and would disappear for several minutes as he tried to match the streets with their position on the map, because (jaw starts to clench here) Granada . . . doesn't . . . have . . . any . . . street signs! Not even on the second floor! After a few wrong guesses, and with the intervention of some Not Merely Good but Great Samaritans, we found our hotel. Paul was given a battlefield promotion to senior navigator.

We spent nearly all the next day at the Alhambra, but you easily could spend a week there. There are room after exquisitely ornamented room in its 14th-century Moorish palace, and there are battlements, towers and gardens, many with inspirational vistas of the city. Given that it was Columbus Day back home, we also made a visit to Ferdinand and Isabella, who are entombed in Granada's Capilla Real. (It seemed ungrateful not to say thanks.)

Departing Granada was bittersweet, as it was our last real stop in Spain. We were compensated, though, first by dramatic mountain scenery on the hour-long southbound leg between Granada and Motril, then by gorgeous views of the Mediterranean on the Costa del Sol between Motril and Nerja as we motored westward for another hour toward Malaga. But I felt that there should have been more ceremony as we turned in the Primera at the Malaga airport. We were leaving behind our faithful automotive friend. After a perfunctory check for dings, however, we simply cabbed away without even a look back. I think I heard it whimpering.

If you're considering a European driving trip of your own, here's a final observation about family dynamics within a small, confined space that is moving at 60 kph counterclockwise around a traffic circle: Yes, there will be stress, raised voices and the occasional "fine." "Fine" as in "Fine, why don't you just drive/parallel park/look at the map/ask for directions yourself, then?" The thing is to leave it in the car, where, because it has a short half-life, by the next morning it will have broken down chemically into something harmless while you snoozed together in the hotel you finally found. It's just road stress, and it has nothing to do with your basic worth or whether you are loved. (Although, if you, just once in your life, had listened to your spouse and asked for directions . . .) And you end up with great memories and things you can laugh about together.

So now when I hear people complain about Washington's confusing streets and the difficulties of its many traffic circles, I just smile patiently. But I'm thinking, "And when was the last time you got delayed by a herd of goats on Connecticut Avenue?"

Jerry Haines last wrote for Travel about the Caribbean island of Saba.

DETAILS: Overseas Rentals

WHERE TO RENT: You can save money if you rent a car while still in the United States, from such companies as Auto Europe, Avis, Budget, Hertz, Kemwell and National. We rented our Nissan Primera from Auto Europe (1-800-223-5555). For our nine-day, seven-city road trip we paid $393 for the car, an additional $40 for gas and $90 for parking. You may be able to save money by hiring a car with manual transmission. (We saved $25 a day that way.) You can save more money by having only one of your group drive. (We saved $50.)

The more people you have in your group, the comparatively cheaper it will be to rent a car. Three rail passes would have cost us $1,200 to $1,650, and we also would have needed cabs between the train stations and the hotels.

Then there is the question of insurance. The costly collision-damage waiver typically can add $11.30 per day to the cost. Your credit card company may provide automatic CDW coverage, but don't be surprised if you are asked to put the entire value of the car on your card, "just in case." (Gulp.)

LOGISTICS: You will need a valid U.S. drivers license. Whether you also need an International Drivers License is debatable. If nothing else, it constitutes a translation of your American license, and it can be obtained for a mere $20 at the AAA. (You can pick up a handy pack of pesetas while you're there.) IDLs are valid for only one year.

Gas stations are plentiful along the autovias, and many of them are adjacent to bountiful delis where you can buy sandwiches and snacks for your trip. (Tip: Avoid embarrassment--find out where your gas cap release lever is before attempting to fill your tank. Particularly if you don't speak Spanish.)

Driving the autovias is easier than driving the typical U.S. interstate, even though speed limits may be higher. Smaller roads can be scenic but frustrating, particularly winding two-lane roads in hill country. City driving requires patience, planning and live-in psychiatric staff.

--Jerry Haines

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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