The Palace, Camarasa Spain:
At long last, I've made it to the palace. It's not actually a palace but that's what I am calling it. Because what it is, is a really, really, cool, old, stone-hallway, four floor, multi-balcony, beautiful carpentry, old-hatchets-on-the-wall, house that gives a sweeping view of the village and surrounding valley. Aka?? Palace.
It was no smooth process to get here. We left the airport around 10:00 at night; it was five guys and five gear bags loaded into one small Skoda hatchback following directions in the dark over foreign highways to an address two hours away. Making it to the village was easy enough. Spain is one of the European countries that drives on the right side of the road like the States, so the only adjustment was learning to identify speed limit signs and getting used to reading a speedometer in kilometers, not miles (for a split second, I was blown away when I saw the dial peak out at 240... then the realization hit). Those changes aside, had I not bought the plane ticket I could have just as easily been driving down 1-93 in NH -- a two-lane, rolling highway cutting through endless fields and trees.
The trouble didn't come until we arrived in Camarasa. The village itself is beautiful, even from the first glimpse we got of it at night. Against an imposing, dark ridge line of the surrounding cliffs, the scattered streetlights blended together to become a small but warm glowing sphere that stood out against the darkness. As we drove closer, the light defused into individual orbs that wrap their way up the winding streets as Christmas lights do around a tree, and the perpendicular lines of tall narrow houses stacked together like a game of Tetris came into shape. The problem was, we couldn't really get a perspective for what kind of vertical gain the city has until we turned onto one of its cobblestone streets. As it turned out, the village has serious gain.
The road that Google Maps opted to send us up was probably close to a 35 degree incline that, about 40 meters up, made a hairpin turn to the right and disappeared behind a building. Based on where the address was being shown on the map, no other roads showed direct access to the building. This had to be the way. So, I made the call to go for it. We made it right to the middle of the turn when the car engine decided it had enough and called it quits. There was no way in hell we were making a three-point turn on that slope, so the only way back down was in reverse. Just to reinforce the slope of this road, having the e-brake fully yanked was the only way to check any speed.
In full-disclosure, I will officially state that I was driving. So what happened next is technically my fault. The turn was navigated well enough, but what I had not noticed on our way up was the three foot drop that existed on the left edge of the drive as the original road continued straight and our stairway to heaven rocketed upwards. I definitely noticed it on the way down. There was a WHAM and the back end dropped right over the edge. Everyone went silent. A quick check outside and everyone was able to breathe again -- the middle of the car stood with just an inch of clearance over the stone ledge. Here is a perk of driving small cars: they are easily movable. With the five of us rocking the car in unison, we could pop the tires off the ground and shift it inches at a time to position the back end of the Skoda back onto the incline. No damage done and a little excitement added to the night!
After wandering up and down many side streets and twisting, stone alleyways, we finally found the correct door and stepped into the AirB&B that is home for the next week. I've become convinced that the disorienting, narrow streets was a defensive tactic from the original foundation of the village. If potential invaders got lost in the outlying streets, they could never make it deep into the village center and claim victory. Definitely would have worked. I am dying to know the history of this house and of the town as a whole. It's not every home that you walk into that has what looks to be original stone staircases into the basement with a mantle of medieval-looking weaponry mounted on the wall. I do know that were we here about two thousand years ago, the land was home to one of the many Iberian tribes that controlled this peninsula, at war with other Iberian factions and constantly caught up in grasps for power by the Roman Empire. But how and why this village came to be, I have yet to find out. If you have ever planted a tree, or built up a sand castle, and you have patted a mound of material right up against the steep base you'll have an idea of what Camarasa looks like in comparison to it's rugged surroundings. It's like it was slapped on the side of the steep hills it sits on and molded to be nestled into every square inch of Earth. After two days of driving around, this seems to be a common theme. Villages are all built into hill sides in networks of tightly intertwined streets at the top of which sits a monastery or church, it's tall spire dominating the village skyline. My guess is this comes from a history of Catholicism in the country. The church would have been considered the most valuable building in the village and therefor situated highest up often times backed right up to a cliff-- the hardest to get to and easiest to defend.
The impression from the first 48 hours in the Lleida province is this: an agriculture based, small-village-living area where life seems to move at a calm pace. Two mornings now I have stepped out onto the porch outside my room to see groups of kids running or someone walking from the panadería with a fresh baguette in hand. In the city of Lleida, older couples were out arm in arm for a Sunday morning walk. In the village of Coll de Nargo I watched a farmer herd hundreds of sheep with his dog and spread two massive round bales of hay by wooden pitchfork. I'm sure it has the same downsides as any predominately rural area: lack of infrastructure and alternative industries. But from the outsider's perspective, Catalonians seem to have a nice place to live.
**My apologies for the lack of images!! Internet here is a little sketch and not quite rated for large picture uploads. LOTS will be up when I get back into Barcelona***