Climbing Over the Pyrenees
We leave Albi and drive west toward the Pyrenees. Today is the first day of our entire trip (actually, the only day as it turns out) that we experience serious, lasting rain as opposed to the odd squall. Yes, the day we are heading toward mountains is the day the clouds descend to the valley bottoms. So I can’t say that we really saw the Pyrenees, but we certainly climbed through them.
The road leading up and over the Pyrenees is a white-knuckle series of precipitous switchbacks. I spend a lot of time with my eyes closed. Gregg, fortunately, does not, which is just as well because he is driving, often gearing down to first to roar up the inclines.
At the top of the pass we enter the tunnel that leads us from France to Spain. The sun bursts out of the clouds at just about the same time we emerge blinking from the tunnel and see the Bienvenido a España sign. The rest of the day’s drive (a good 300 kilometers over not great roads) takes us down to the valley and to our first stop in Spain.
We Splurge in Spain
And what a stop! We arrive at the charming town of Boltana and wheel into a renovated monastery—the Barceló Monasterio de Boltaña Spa*. If you’re anywhere in the vicinity—go, just go. It’s a five-star establishment with three-star prices and serious luxury. I wish we could have stayed for a week. In all our travels, I’ve never seen a bigger bed than the Emperor-sized one placed regally in the middle of our cavernous room. At least six monks could have slept there comfortably, maybe seven if they were malnourished.
The monastery also includes a remarkable spa, a large and deliciously refreshing outdoor pool, and a gourmet restaurant. And did I mention the prices? While not exactly hostel-level, the prices are reasonable considering the level of service and the beauty of the surroundings. We’ve been known to pay a lot more for a lot less. Okay—I’ll share the price—$153 CDN for the night. For what we got, that’s a bargain.
I can’t let the spa go unnoticed so I treat myself to a 6 pm massage which also includes access to the spa the next morning. Thoroughly kneaded and relaxed, I float with Gregg into a wonderful and, again, reasonably priced dinner.
Reaching for Rapture in the Spa
My visit to the spa the next morning is magnificent. I’ve experienced a few spas in my time, but never one as fancy and as varied as the spa at the Barcelo Monasterio de Boltana. Here is the list of spa features:
- “Aguas del Ara” Spa Circuit
- Large hydrotherapy pool with hot springs
- Counter-current swimming unit
- Oxygenating bubble beds
- Three different temperature cloverleaf-shaped hot tubs
- Turkish bath
- Roman bath
- Ordesa rain shower room
- Sensory showers with aromatherapy
I have no idea what’s what. I just go with it. Here’s what I write just after emerging from the spa after an hour of pure bliss:
OMG—warm and tingling, every nerve ending pummeled and splashed and rained on. Relaxation beyond relaxation, warmth beyond warmth. The spa experience to the max. Hard to believe water can be so amazing, but then I am a Pisces. Each pool is equipped with numerous buttons for wet fingers to press. I revel in the flash of pleasant terror in the seconds between pressing a button and experiencing the result. Will hot water turn my skin red or will a freezing gush contract every pore? Or maybe an over-pressurized stream will blast me to heaven and back, a monsoon drown me, a warm drizzle kiss my shoulders. I don’t know, and so I trust and wait and then—whoosh. The water jets bubble forth—velvet, massaging fists. I feel like I’m being beaten up by a teddy bear.
I have the place to myself and it is exquisite. Vaguely Spanish music with overtones of Turkish plays softly. I try all the showers. Some gush with take-my-breath-away-frigid water that warms slowly to hot and then back to frigid again. Each shower is also a different color—red, green, blue. The colors mean something, but I have no idea what.
I don’t care. I’m relaxed to the depths of my core, floating on a cloud of delight in water flowing across my skin like the finest silk.
I say! Well, after that experience, it’s back to reality. We pile into our Dacia Duster and hit the highway.
Zooming to Zaragoza
Three hours later—the shortest of our Spain drives—we cross a bridge and enter the low-key but attractive city of Zaragoza. Few guidebooks give it a mention, not even my adored Rick Steves, but for drivers, Zaragoza is the perfect one-night stop along a particularly desolate stretch of a very large country.
As the capital of the province of Zaragoza and of the autonomous community of Aragon, Zaragoza is a good size, but the interesting part is compact enough to stroll around with just one cheap taxi ride out to the Aljafería Palace. We settle into our hotel, the NH Gran Hotel Zaragoza*—a comfortable business hotel with valet parking (a great convenience in any European city). After recovering from the usual, harrowing, GPS-led drive into the city, we set out to see the sights. The streets and shops are prosperous-looking and clean and thronged with local people. We don’t see anyone who looks like a tourist, although we do find an air-conditioned and well-staffed tourist office on the main plaza so there must be some visitors.
Zaragoza borders the Ebro River which we walk to first because it’s also the location of Zaragoza’s main sight—the Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar with its fabulously tile-topped cupolas and turrets. The massive Baroque cathedral (built between 1681 and 1872) is not really my cup of tea. I like my cathedrals built in medieval times. However, we wander dutifully around the vast aisles and check out the highlight—a roomful of paintings by Goya. Zaragoza is Goya’s hometown.
Across from the cathedral is a museum dedicated to his work, but the afternoon heat is descending and we decline. Instead, we visit the tourist office where a friendly young man tells us where to go for cut-price tapas that evening. Apparently, there is a street where all the tapas joints charge just two euros per tapas and glass of vino. Count me in!
We put that plan in our back pocket and grab a cab to the Aljafería Palace, which reportedly dates from Moorish times. Along with just a few dozen tourists, we amble through the various rooms, often alone to admire not very much. It’s no Alhambra, but on the other hand, it’s not even remotely crowded so we can snap photos of the attractive—and empty—courtyard complete with reflecting pond, palm trees and arches.
In the evening, we meander through streets comfortably filled with locals to the place of two-euro tapas. Many of the places aren’t open yet, although it is already past eight—late for Canadians used to eating at six. Now that we are in Spain, we need to adjust our eating habits in a country that considers 10 pm the beginning and not the end of a night’s revels. We spend a relaxing few hours wandering around downtown Zaragoza in search of tapas—two euro or not—because even the regular-priced ones are not at all expensive. Zaragoza is a bargain for food and drink—by far the most reasonable place we’ve visited so far on our trip.
The next morning, the journey continues—onwards to fabled Toledo.
*This blog post contains affiliate links from booking.com to hotels we actually stayed in and recommend. If you click one of the links, I could be rewarded credit or a commission of a booking. You don’t pay any extra. Please know I have my readers’ best interests at heart and only list places I’d recommend to my best friend.
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