Saturday, 8 October 2016

Hubble bubble....(into the Asturian black hole)

Playa de Oyambre to Bazárno, 118 miles. 

I was about to write that when you travel long term in a motorhome you have to be prepared for the unexpected. In fact, that's a fairly fatuous thought, because in truth none of us at any point has any idea at all what is going to happen to us in the next minute, so we always live with an impending unknown. We may be innocently trundling our trolley through Tesco's car park wondering why our head has suddenly filled with a high decibel ear-worm of Robbie Williams' 'Angels' when a marble sized meteorite plummets from the heavens, drills through your skull and melts the brain. The point I am attempting to make, I think, is not about the uncertainty of life in general, but that by constantly being on the move you actually court the unexpected, so motorhomers should not be too surprised if the unexpected happens more often than you might reasonably expect. Which today, it did. 

Things began well. It was a lovely sunny day and we managed to exit the Oyambre campsite before 10.30am, which by our slobbish retired standards counts as an early start. The A8 motorway which runs along the coast of Cantabria and Asturias is a spectacular drive. The rolling green hills, punctuated by tidal rias, are reminiscent of Devon. This is Devon with delusions of grandeur however, for out of the left window the scenery is more alpine than Wessex, as the peaks of the Picos de Europa and Cantabrian Massif reach almost 7000 feet just a few miles inland. 

Asturias - like Devon but on an epic scale
 We needed fuel. We could have stopped at a self service place on the motorway, but our quest for value for money led us to seek a smaller garage in a nearby town with better prices. This took much longer than we anticipated. It would seem that Saturday morning is the time that Spaniards re-fuel their cars. The queues were not particularly long, three lines, each with two or three vehicles. The problem was the place was not self service and had only one attendant to manage all the pumps and the till. It took almost twenty minutes to get served, but nobody cared, people sat around chatting, or fiddled with phones; mañana ruled. We're adjusting. 

Our plan was to stop for the night in the small mountain village of Bazárno. It has an aire adjacent to the Senda del Oso cycle way, a via verde which follows the route of a disused railway through the mountains. It is quite a remote spot and there are two ways of reaching it. One route follows the valley of the river Tivia to the west of Oviedo; the alternative is to take the motorway south, then cut across over a mountain pass to Bazárno. The problem, both routes involve 'white roads ' on our Michelin road atlas. These can be either downgraded trunk roads or upgraded goat tracks, and there is no way of telling which until you take them. You can spot check on street view, but that is simply a snapshot. 

The reason why this mattered is we had no plan B. Here's where the 'Asturian Black Hole' comes in. Virtually all campsites in the region close mid-September and motorhome aires are infrequent inland, so overnight options are limited. In the end we chose the motorway and the short hop over the mountains on the basis that 20km on a minor road has to be better than 35km, and if the road was too tricky it would be easy to double back to the motorway and carry on to Leon. 

As it turned out this was exactly the wrong thing to do. We turned off the motorway and edged our way through a street market in the somewhat run down industrial town of Pola de Lena, peering at tiny signs pointing vaguely to the minor road to Bazárno. At this point I should have taken more heed of Gill's observation that the map showed a 1400m spot height on the road. I replied that we had driven over higher passes in the Alps. Perhaps If I had read the 'All The Aires' book a little more carefully I would have also noted that it mentioned a 12% gradient on the western approach to the aire, but this fact had passed me by.

The road climbed up.
and got ever steeper
 It soon transpired that much of the road was a vertiginous ascent with many sections warning of steep gradients. Still I was bullish, "Maisy is built on a builders truck chassis, and she's never faltered," I told myself, so I bombed upwards in 2nd gear the engine straining a bit around 3000rpm. About 2km before the summit the engine lost all power, I glanced at the dashboard and the temperature gauge was well on the way towards the red zone. Fortunately there was a small area of gravel where I could pull off the road. Not that we presented much of a hazard as the road had virtually no traffic on it whatsoever, other than masochistic groups of cyclists, either struggling upwards in grim determination or plummeting downwards suicidally. I raised the bonnet and a blast of hot air wafted from the engine. We might as well have lunch I suggested. I opened the gas locker and turned on the cylinder so we could run the fridge and make a coffee. I knew it was going to take a while before the engine cooled enough to continue the climb, in fact it took well over an hour. 

hubble bubble...
I walked up the hill to see if we were near the top - we weren't.
Meanwhile the occasional car passed by and a very small cattle truck with a very large cow squeezed into it. Two drivers stopped and asked if we needed help, a car belonging to a Spanish family and a lone Belgium woman in a camper van. People are kind. Meanwhile I entertained myself by holding forth on a wide variety of disastrous outcomes ranging from split radiator hoses to blown cylinder head gaskets. 

So, lessons learned - read the map, take note of warnings in the guidebook, listen to Gill and avoid catastrophising, and in hilly country tackle climbs more gently, perhaps using the lower setting on the automatic gearbox. 

By the time we reached Bazárno it was too late for a bike ride and it had become chilly and overcast. We were the only motorhome in the aire. It was situated in the corner of the a sports hall car park. The service point was well maintained. It looked like a good, if somewhat solitary, spot to spend the night. We decided to take a look at the Bazárno to see if we could find the bike trail. The village had chalet style houses with dark wood balconies overhanging the main street. As we paused to take a photo or two a dozen or so horse riders cantered through the village then up a dirt track which led into the mountains. I think it must have been some kind of equestrian club. Its membership seemed exclusively male and considering their skilled horsemanship, I cannot think that it was a kind of vacation activity like pony trekking. 

Barns on legs were a local feature.
There is a strong equestrian culture in Spain, as we discovered where we visited El Rocio, but it differs somewhat from British 'horsey' types with their fancy dress and aristocratic pretensions. Here it seems a more earthy activity, with roots in gypsy and peasant culture. The clattering hooves brought a few villagers onto the pavement, one man enquired where were we from. He seemed very happy that we were using the aire and pleased that we had decided to visit Asturias which he assured us was different to the rest of Spain, by which I think he meant better. 

Before we returned to the van we searched for the bike track which we suspected was somewhere across the river. After a brief unplanned sojourn down a track that led to the electricity sub-station, we eventually spotted the brown signs of the Senda del Oso, and took a short stroll down it past the village cemetery. On the way back we paused to admire some fancy hens and befriended the local donkey who greeted our attention with an outburst of extended high volume braying. It was clear what tomorrow morning's wake-up call would be - extended outbreaks of cockadoodledoo, supplemented by moments of manic donkey honking. 

Eventually we found the bike track.

and an affable, but noisy donkey.
It was late afternoon by the time we returned to the van. The car park had become a little busier, and groups of Bazárno's 'senior citizens' were standing about in gaggles as if waiting for something to happen. Even more intriguing, was the low, but insistent hubbub emanating from the adjacent sports hall sounding just like the quiet audience noise you get between movements in a Radio 3 live broadcast. Gill has a fairly low intrigue threshold and hopped out of the van to investigate what was going on. As we suspected it was a soirée for the local elderly. The hubbub signalled thev were busily tucking into supper, whereas the removal of metal instrument cases from the white van parked next to us by men wearing silly hats and red and gold tabards signalled impending ghastly accordion band moment. Actually, in terms of duration, it was more an epoch than a moment. Centuries of jovial accordion were followed by a couple decades of a capella Asturian traditional song, which achieved the necessary mix of the heartfelt and plaintive appropriate to such outbursts of sentimental tosh about native hills and the motherland. The singing ended, followed by an enthusiastic round of applause and a return to restive hubbub. 

We expected shuffling homewards to commence forthwith. What we had failed to spot was the arrival of a second van, filled, it transpired, with identical instruments of torture differentiated from the first only by a slight variation in the musician's silly hats and tabards. If anything, the accordion playing became even more twiddly and achieved even greater levels of jauntiness than the first lot. Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and silence eventually returned to this remote car park the mountains around 9.00pm, which must have been well past most of the gathered octogenarians' bedtimes. 

To keep our sanity during the epoch of the piano accordion we mulled over our experience of the ghastly instrument over the many years of our European travels. Having witnessed various gathering across Europe featuring accordion bands, incomprehensible singing mixed with a bit of local 'Strictly', we concluded that many places have a vernacular music and dancing culture that simply does not exist in England. I don't mean traditional folk culture, but something more contemporary, a form of local pop music really. In the British Isles, maybe the only things that come close are Burns Supper type Scottish evenings, resplendent with Jimmy Shand style dance bands and execrable singing from local singers with extensive CD collections featuring Moira Anderson and Andy Stewart. Then, course over the water you have the equally tacky Irish showband scene. 

Elsewhere Anglo-American pop reigns supreme, and a gathering of pensioners in the UK is more likely to feature Swing revival or a 50s night than music that has a local or regional flavour. It would be interesting to explore this European accordion based music. Like Muzak or Easy Listening, it is an overlooked genre that exists alongside mainstream pop. The piano accordion is the Strat's pudgy, and slightly older brother who no-one talks about because he is uncool and a tad creepy. I leave you with that most heinous of traditional Scottish curses - "May your ear-worm be forever Jimmy Shand". 

It's been an odd sort of day, full of unexpected minor incident, which as I mentioned at the beginning is what we wanderers must sometimes expect.


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