If you’ve followed any of my previous blogs you’ve probably noticed our inclinations for accommodations on our travels. We eschew the big, sterile international chains (like the Hiltons, Hyatts) and prefer small scale hotels with, hopefully, historical and/ or cultural significance. We’re not seeking the plush places with all the bells and whistles but friendly hotels with comfortable rooms, private bathrooms and, yes, a bar.
But….and so the story begins.
In the summer of 1993 we planned a trip along the 10th century pilgrimage route –some 600 miles–of the Camino de Santiago. The route is well known in Spain and many parts of Europe but not so in the U. S. at the time of our trip (this changed with the 2010 film The Way starring Martin Sheen). We crossed over the Pyrenees from France via the Somport Pass in our trusty rental Renault.
Most pilgrims walk the way (or parts of it)–we, lazy Americans, drove. Mike did his homework and found our first night stay–the Monasterio de Leyre -a 11th century Romanesque monastery with its adjoining 18th century inn. The structure is set high up a mountain side over looking a beautiful lake, as seen in the last photo. The interior cathedral was magnificent and it would have been nice to attend a mass there.
Perfect–historic, cultural, a great restaurant and relaxing–ah! Of course being pre-email days we had made no reservations–as in previous travels in Spain we just showed up. Onward–as we pushed our car up the circuitous path we noticed and dismissed several black SUVs with blackened windows parked facing down hill along the road. At the top we were met by a flock of black suited policemen–all with serious automatic weapons. Wow! I chided Mike to just continue–to the vocal and loud consternation of the security folks. Push on we did–Mike sweating profusely. I jumped out of the car and made a dash to the monastery with the aide of a priest at my side pulling me along and out of the way. He was speaking rapidly and in a frenzy, as was I, expect the conversation was nothing more than loud emotionally-charged sounds since neither of us understood the others language. But we both understood we weren’t suppose to be there. While Mike stayed in the car and tried to ignore the glaring police and their guns but finally chickened-out and safely parked the car.
Fifteen minutes later I returned to the car. No rooms at the inn! What’s up? Well–it turned out that the Spanish King was visiting and staying overnight in the monastery. At this time the Basque separatist group, ETA, was raising havoc in this region–consequently the heavy security for the King and of course no rooms for the public.
We slowly left–wiping our brows–but alive!
On to Plan B–but we had no Plan B. We decided not to move on and to seek local accommodations in the small village of Yesa because the next day we planned a “must visit ” to the nearby stunning 11th century Monasterio de la Pena. (What makes this monastery so unusual–mind boggling in reality–is that the cloister is covered like a dome with a massive boulder. Ah, those playful monks!)
The second picture gives a good idea of how massive the rock face it was built under is. They definitely had protection and secrecy in mind.
Driving on the outskirts of Yesa we spied a low-slung 2 story building of 1940 vintage ,with a unusually large parking lot, set back from the tree lined main road–ah! A hotel. With a smidgen of Spanish, bits of English, hand gestures and timely grunts we secured a room. We dragged our luggage upstairs and entered our room–Spartan but clean–2 single beds, no carpeting, no chairs, no TV nor phone, no chocolates on the pillows–and no private or shared bathroom! What?! (There was a small pot that I assumed was a bed pan, and if not it became one.) Down the hall we found the huge communal bathroom for the entire floor of 30 rooms. The single open room housed multiple open shower heads, toilets and wash stands–just like a high school gym locker room–and this one for men only. There seemed to be no one on the top floor in the late afternoon, but to be safe Mike guarded the “bathroom” door as I went about my ablutions. Mike was next–no guard necessary. Well, it turned out that the “hotel” was in reality designed as a dormitory for long haul truckers– hence the mammoth parking lot.
Clean and relaxed we skipped the hotel/dorm restaurant and went into town for dinner at a very local tavern. A bottle of good Spanish wine and a excellent meal–great–except–when we got the bill Mike handed over a credit card. No cards accepted. We had no Spanish pesetas (pre-Euro days) since the currency office at the border was closed when we entered Spain. The French francs, the U.S. dollars and our travelers checks were all refused. Washing dishes at at a small out of the way Spanish restaurant? Good for our resumes?
Much to our relief a woman diner approached our table. As an English woman living in Spain with her Spanish husband she, of course, spoke fluent Spanish and was able to convince the restaurant owners to accept our traveler’s checks. Saved. Interestingly, we encountered this woman and her husband several more times in the following days since they, too, were traversing the Camino de Santiago by car–lazy folks!
Do memories of travel always align with times when plans go off just right? Well, twenty-seven years later the travel’s of our first day in Spain in 1993 are engraved fondly in our memory. The serendipity of travel.