IR INTERRAIL 2003 > Day 9 > San Sebastián/Donostia - Salamanca

San Sebastián/Donostia - Salamanca

I was awoken Saturday morning by the sound of the cathedral bells, which tolled directly opposite the family apartment where I was staying. I would have flung open the shutters and sung to the world joyously Julie Andrews-style, had it not been for the mild after-effects of the previous night's alcoholic intake. Breakfast was served, and having watched the child playing with Luis's many Renault 4 models on the carpet, satisfying myself that appreciation of this car was set to continue with the next generation, we headed out to meet Asier for coffee.

Again we took in some delicious tapas as it was close to lunch, and I had started to regain my appetite. I had to act the bore for a little while as I did my routine scouring of my rail timetables, maps and hostel directories to find out when and where I would be travelling next.

Luis with his red Renault 4

We passed Luis's car parked in a nearby street (left), another red Renault 4 to rival Asier's. He had been a star in putting me up for the night, but I couldn't stay any longer as I was already running a day behind my original schedule. Although I had no absolute plan for my travels, I had a rough idea of where I wanted to go, working my way across northern Spain and into Portugal, eventually reaching Lisbon where I would meet the two other R4 enthusiasts.

From there I would travel to the southern tip of Spain and hop across to Morocco, before doing a U-turn and riding back up the east side of Spain. It was even a possibility to make a diversion to Corsica, but this was unlikely unless I was well ahead of schedule. The final instalment would take me from the French Riviera back up the east side of the country into Luxembourg, Holland, Belgium and back to Dieppe for the return ferry to Britain, a sort of anti-clockwise round trip - quite an ordeal but just about manageable within one month. Well that was the intention, but I was beginning to realize that the large distances involved in each section of the journey might be too much to bear, and some short cuts may have to be implemented.

We visited the station to verify the departures for the day, and I discovered that I would now have to take the first of these short cuts, forgoing my voyage through northern Spain altogether. João and Fernando, the colleagues I was due to meet in Lisbon, were going to be leaving midweek to meet up with Asier and Luis for one of their Renault 4 get-togethers. I was invited to join them, but with the meeting being located in Soria, northern Spain, it would be too far away from where I expected to be at that stage, and an awkward detour. It could jeopardize my visit to Morocco altogether, and whichever way I tried to work things out, it just didn't add up. I'd end up criss-crossing Spain like a convict on the run with a faulty compass, or I'd miss out half of my plans entirely. So I had to reach Lisbon and my other friends as soon as possible before they went away, after which I could settle back into the original routine.

Outside the station we paused in front of a pretty fountain in the gardens. It seemed a fitting spot in which to capture some photographic memories of our gathering, and whilst I tried to outdo Asier with my crowd-pleasing miniature camera tripod, he seemed satisfied in the knowledge that he was outclassing me with his superior digital camera. Alas, equipment could only provide half the equation, since all the resulting images featured the three of us unwittingly arranging ourselves in some rather strange homo-erotic poses. I guess I had rarely been completely happy with any photos that featured myself, but there was one picture taken on this occasion which was particularly unforgiven because I looked like Clint Eastwood's long lost gay offspring (below).

Asier, Luis and I posing by a fountain near San Sebastián station

Two trains were travelling in the general direction of Portugal, one leaving after lunch for Salamanca in western Spain, the other a direct overnight service all the way to Lisbon. It may have seemed ideal, but I shunned this obvious latter choice, primarily because I would have to wait until late evening to board. I would also see nothing of the countryside on the way, the sleeper car could be pricey, and it would be nice to take in at least one other destination somewhere en route. I was eager to avoid a journey via Madrid, as I expected to have to pass through there on my return trip northwards through Spain from Morocco. I consulted my rail map, and figured that there must be various services onwards from Salamanca, so this seemed a suitable halfway house destination in which to while away an extra day. Had I indulged myself further in my timetables I would have realized what a mistake this was. After escaping the misery of the French rail strikes, I had assumed Spain would be an Interrailer's godsend, but I was set to discover that all I had achieved was to leap from a French frying pan into a Spanish inferno.

It was time to say our goodbyes, and although I had been in San Sebastián for less than twenty-four hours, with all the places I'd been whisked around to and the many things I had seen, it seemed like I'd spent a short holiday there. Asier and Luis had given me a comprehensive tour of not just the city but the whole region, and had been perfect hosts. Some last snaps were taken at the railway station (below), before my train rolled in and I bid farewell to two new long-distance friends.

Asier, Luis and I at the station before I departed for Salamanca
images adapted from original photos sent by and the property of Luis Artola

The train was unexpectedly small considering so few services connected the cities at either end of the journey. Just a heavy old diesel pulling two carriages, which were easily filled with passengers. I was satisfied as I had my window seat, and the route south towards Vitoria was very picturesque, diving in and out of dozens and dozens of tunnels through the mountains - I had never been through so many tunnels in one trip. The six-hour ride took me through the cities of Burgos and Valladolid, and after emerging from the mountain ranges which hugged the northern coast, we coasted west along vast flat plains stretching to each horizon, where miles would sometimes be covered before witnessing a house, a road or any other distinctive feature. Virtually nothing existed out here, and the daily scorching of the sun was evident in the parched golden fields which became redder.

The heat was present as it had been since the beginning of my trip, but for one afternoon sitting on the south side of the train, I was lucky to escape the sun which was hidden behind a blanket of cloud stretching across the country. Nearing the end of the journey, I could see a different texture of sky approaching. An endless, perfectly straight and absolute dividing line from north to south separated the cloud which swallowed almost all of Spain, from clear blue sky to the west where I was heading, and on approach to Salamanca the atmosphere lit up as the sun beat down once more.

It was a peculiar place to arrive at. After so much nothing for so many miles, I spotted what looked like a small settlement down in a shallow valley, and a short moment later the platforms of the station rolled past the window. I wondered if I had picked a rather lifeless little town in which to spend another day, but I knew there was a cathedral somewhere, and Luis had advised me that it was a beautiful city in which he had once studied. Exiting the other side of the station was a baffling surprise, as I was suddenly standing in a large built up city, a fully developed urban environment which had seemingly sprung up from nowhere. Traffic jams lay ahead and people bustled around shops below multi-storey apartment blocks. I couldn't understand where this seething congestion had begun and the empty fields only seconds away on the train had ended. The railway station had acted as some kind of spacewarp into another dimension; a portal to a secret land.

It had also provided me with some unwanted information on its departure boards. I was perplexed to find that this well-populated city was served by such spartan train services, of which just one travelled west into Portugal each day, and it was that same overnight train from San Sebastián to Lisbon which I had unwisely shunned earlier on. Worse still, it arrived here in Salamanca at 4.50am, meaning I would either have to stay awake somewhere all night and sleepily board a train on which everybody else was beginning to wake up, or pay to sleep in a hostel for a few hours and struggle half-conscious in the middle of the night to trudge to the station. Unless I took a bus, costing me extra money and destroying the object of my buying a rail pass, there was no other way to reach Portugal. I decided that following the rather long journey I had just completed, I wasn't going to worry about it until the following day, and I would spend a proper full night in this new city first.

It was a fair walk to the Albergue Juvenil, and having no map I managed to become lost several times, which gave me ample opportunity to try out some of my basic Spanish. Of course I coincidentally selected stunningly attractive Spanish girls every time when asking for directions, although it was a seedy little man in a newspaper kiosk who finally gave me the useful information I required. That would teach me to put beauty before brains - I'd make a hopeless boss.

Upon reaching the youth hostel, the receptionist asked me if I wanted to have a room for myself (at extra charge) or to stay in 'the dormitory'. I always opted for the communal experience, since it was not only cheaper but presented opportunities to meet people. However, I was a bit suspicious when she confirmed twice more if this was really my preference. She then asked me to follow her, leading me into a hot, dark room which had ten bunks, and twenty beds stuffed into it, almost pushed up against each other. People's belongings were strewn everywhere, and various exhausted residents lay snoring and trying to sleep amidst the stifling evening heat inside the room. There was a bathroom adjoining, containing just one toilet, sink and shower, and clearly they were squeezing every penny they could from the budget. There were few empty beds left, but I found the one that wasn't adjacent to a pair of somebody's intruding feet. I didn't expect hotel luxuries when I stayed in hostels, but for the moderate price the deal here wasn't great. I did have some fortune though, when a pair of friendly travellers returned to the room and we began chatting.

A Japanese guy and a French girl had met there earlier, and after we had each consumed our bargain buys from the supermarket, they invited me out with them to have a look around the city. Being a warm, summer Saturday night, the centre was very busy with both locals and tourists, and the central Plaza Mayor was heaving. It was a spectacular square, one of the finest examples of its type, being unspoilt, uniform and complete on all four sides, but the public hubbub all around was rather too abrasive for tired travellers like us who wanted a more soothing atmosphere to soak up. We strolled around the streets and explored some of the sights, before the Japanese guy decided to call it a day and headed back to the hostel, leaving the French girl and I to overcome our language differences and enjoy each other's company.

Violaine was beautiful. She was young, intelligent and wore a pretty dress, speaking with a sweet French accent. From the Normandy region originally, she was living and working in Madrid for a year, and had taken a weekend away here to Salamanca for a break from her hard work. And I fell for her, it was as simple as that. I think most men would have done, but I worried that I would find it difficult to woo her with my wobbly French. Once more my sometimes questionable language skills were called into action, as Violaine spoke very little English, but we managed to converse for several hours lasting until three o'clock in the morning, by which time my side of the conversation had become evermore incoherent following the drink.

I started considering my lot in life. Until only a couple of years earlier I'd spent many years living in an inner city district of Manchester, struggling to earn any money, never having opportunities to do anything very exciting, and looking out through bleak English weather from my dingy block of flats at the vandals trying to break into my car down below. But now, here I was sitting in a Spanish town on a warm summer night, with a gorgeous French girl and not a care in the world. It was nice to be able to actually realize the good times as they were happening, rather than only appreciating them in retrospect, which with me was so often the case.

We did have to experience one sour side of the city when we returned to the hostel. Gangs of drunk lads and brash rowdy girls, many of them tourists but a surprising number of Spaniards also, staggered out of clubs onto the streets leaving heaps of rubbish from take-aways and bars behind them. Shouting, picking fights and being sick in front of traffic, much of which was cars driven by idiots with tacky music blasting out, it was all a charming conclusion to the night. I couldn't vouch for young Violaine, who was cultured enough to be easily distinguished from such rabble, but for once I felt glad to have just passed thirty, so as to have one further way to disassociate myself from such immature morons. Back at the snoring clinic, I was fortunate to have picked the bunk bed occupied by the most attractive girl in town, and I slept pleasantly whilst eighteen other residents battled with their breathing passages.

HOSTEL REPORT: Albergue Juvenil Salamanca, C/ Escoto 13-15, 37008 Salamanca
Anybody staying here on a budget would be likely to end up in the same big dormitory as myself, which wasn't particularly big but had enough beds crammed into it. It wasn't the most desirable hostel to stay in, with increased chances of lack of sleep due to the number of other people in the room. There was an eating area downstairs with some kitchen facilities, and breakfast was a little better than at many other places. For the average price it was acceptable but perhaps not somewhere one would want to stop for very long. The building was clean and well decorated but the dormitory was stuffy and seemed to have no air conditioning, or at least any that worked satisfactorily for such a hot climate and density of people. Extra bathroom facilities were found downstairs, and the location, although a fair walk from the rail station, was ideal in being right next to the cathedral and other attractions. Score: 5/10

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