Four days in Madrid and I never left the Barrio Malasaña.
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Back in the Black Forest Hostel in Freiburg, I remember a young woman telling me that hitchhiking would be tougher in Spain. “No worries,” I said. “Spanish people love me.”
Then my friend in Granada seconded the idea that hitchhiking Spain is difficult. “No worries,” I said. Etc. But when I hit the side of the road on the north side of Ciudad Real, looking toward Madrid, my spot at a traffic circle was good, but there I stood. Two hours. Four hours. Two cars did stop. The first was going in the opposite direction, into Ciudad Real, but kept trying to explain something. I could not understand his Spanish. Maybe he was saying that he was going to make some stops in Ciudad Real and then turn back toward Madrid. Maybe he was trying to sell me drugs. Who knows. We both gave up and he rumbled off toward the city center.
The second car was going my way but to a small village about 10 miles out. Taking any ride is an emotional boost, and I would have done it in Germany or the US. But I don’t know the ropes in Spain yet. And I had been warned by my two friends. The head won over the heart. Why go 10 miles out, gaining essentially nothing, and lose my spot, from which I could always walk 30 minutes to a train station? I stayed. The sun blazed like an Arizona sun. Except that the last time I hitchhiked Arizona I was in my 20s. Suffice it to say I am not in my 20s now. I walked the 30 minutes and took a train to Madrid.
Next try out, from Pamplona toward Barcelona, I avoided the main route through Zaragosa, a controlled-access toll road where I felt I could get stuck with no easy shoulders. I took the smaller highway, thinking that slow and easy is fine. Another traffic circle with a few options for drivers. An 18-wheeler stopped and brought me about a mile, but he was exactly right that the new spot, a service station with everyone going my way, was better. Really, though, I think he wanted to practice his English. His dad had lived his whole life in very center of Pamplona, in the shadow of the cathedral.
In my new spot, I waited an hour or more. As usual, I bought a coffee and tried to chat up the staff. You want to have those guys on your side if possible. Here, both workers were friendly. Cars pulled in and out occasionally. At least it wasn’t dead.
From the back of the parking lot, I was flagged over by another 18-wheeler. He had a load of ski lift equipment but space in the trailer for my backpack. It felt great to ride with 18-wheelers again. Back in the 1970s, there was a camaraderie between hippie hitchhikers and truckers that was life-affirming, these two groups with very different backgrounds and visions flowing together in a life on the road. Now, though, the bond is broken. Truckers in the US never pick up hitchhikers any more. Insurance companies have banned it and put cameras in the cabs. As usual, insurance companies drain the human element from everything they touch. Human relations are no more than financial scribbles on a balance sheet. When Marx said that under capitalism, human relations take on the fantastic form of relations between things, I think of insurance companies.
My new trucker was definitely not practicing his English. He spoke some combination of Spanish and Portuguese. He said it was Spanish but I know enough Spanish to know better. He seemed to be saying that he was going to Jaca. Then we passed Jaca, and he seemed to say that he was going to Huesca. Then we passed Huesca and he took me into Lleida, stopping at a truck stop where he said we could get a huge buffet for 5 euros. And he was right. Just like the trashy, faux home-cooking, junk food buffets back home. Exactly what I needed before hiking into Lleida to find a dumpy place to stay.
So how hard is it to hitchhike in Spain? Inconclusive. Definitely harder that in Northern Europe. Definitely safer and less weird than in the U.S. But not easy. Pleasant enough, but not easy.
On the road
El Granado hostel is excellent, and the area it sits in (west of the cathedral, e.g. Calle Malago from San Jeronimo to Picon and Puentezuelas) is nice and not quite as tourist-thick as the other side of the Gran Via. The birds in Plaza Trinidad at summer sunset are insane. No, really. Mi amigo thought it was a horrifying, chaotic, apocalyptic chatter of millions of birds in full panic, eerily invisible for the trees and then bursting into pandemonium flights in total disarray. But I thought it was lovely.
Of course, there’s the Alhambra and the Albaicin, etc., but you can read about them in books, so I’ll end with a few pictures.