Road trip from Léon to Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
For one last time I guided the Skoda Spaceback down the steeply cobbled lane beside the 13th century cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, north-east Spain.
We’d been around the block in the Old City three times so far searching for our hotel. Apparently it was close but reception on our phone gave out just then, rendering Google Maps cactus.
The T-junction at the foot of the lane offered us a simple choice: left or right. We’d already been right, unsuccessfully, having to perform a hurried three-point turn when sturdy looking bollards blocked our route.
So finally, it was left, into the gloaming, between two stone buildings, dodging pedestrians as we crawled along.
Our little hatchback poked its nose into the biggest plaza we’d ever seen, which was alive with pilgrims.
To our left rose the twin towers of the cathedral. In front, a huge municipal-looking medieval monolith.
Immediately to our right: what looked like a lichen-covered, storied museum, complete with a green-suited security guard at the door, hands clasped behind his back, regarding our approaching car with interest.
I parked, turned off the ignition and sat gloomily at the wheel, waiting for the Spanish cops. Surely we had stumbled on to holy – and forbidden – ground.
My partner leaped out and raced towards the green-suited official.
“I’ll just ask,” she said. She disappeared inside the massive glass doors. I raised my hand in protest, or was it defeat. “No, no…” but the words choked in my throat. Why draw extra attention to ourselves?
Giving in to the inevitable, I opened my driver’s door and hoisted myself out of the car. Minutes passed before she returned with the same green-suited gent, now pushing a luggage trolley.
He held out his hand. “Keys, please?” We had arrived at the Paradores Santiago de Compostela, Number 1, Praza do Obradoiro.
And so ended our self-drive sector across the north-eastern top of Spain.
We had left the bustling cathedral city of Léon where we picked up our hired Skoda, stopped for coffee in the one-horse town of Folgoso de la Ribera (population just topping 1000), zoomed along the Autovia del Noroeste N-VI motorway eyeing snow-capped peaks, grabbed fuel and a bocadillo (cured ham roll) at the Gomean Express roadside stop at O Corgo, then headed north, turning right on to the N-640 towards the town of Foz on the Bay of Biscay.
After the N-VI the quiet byways north of the city of Lugo were dreamy, hedges coming down to the road, lining smooth green fields dotted with cattle.
Perhaps it was that… something lulled me into forgetting that when one turns left at a T-junction to cross a busier road in Spain, you have to go all the way over the road.
My first experience driving on the right side, anywhere. Fortunately, we survived with only my pride singed.
Hooning down the N-634 towards Foz meant crossing ever deepening ravines across sailing viaducts, where the helpful highway authorities dutifully noted the drop to the bottom.
Then standing on the quay at Foz, overlooking the white beach and the waves of the Bay of Biscay, allowed us our first glimpse of this former centre of whaling, from where ships crossed the north Atlantic to Canada in search of blubber, baleen and immense wealth.
Now we were racing the clock and the sun disappearing over the Atlantic to reach Santiago de Compostela before nightfall, so it was goodbye to the backroads and straight down the N-634.
We entered the modern city, turned on Google Maps, glimpsed the bars struggling on our Orange prepaid phone, and headed towards the cathedral.
Once around, twice around those back lanes, past that car park again, up against those bollards and unknowingly into Praza do Obradoiro.
It was a wonderful night at this 5-star 16th century former paupers’ hospital and the next morning I wandered out into the plaza to see that, yes indeed I could have been jumped by the cops: their headquarters – including speedy patrol cars – was right next door, one level down in that municipal-looking building I’d noticed across the square.
And wandering down that lane where we had been trapped by the sturdy bollards, I noticed taxies queuing quietly as, one by one, the bollards retracted into the road, let them through and then arose again, ready to trap the next Australian tourist.
STORY & PHOTOS: John Cokley and Phillipa Hanrick.