A road trip is always a good idea. Anyone who's ever glimpsed the filaments of the Milky Way beyond glowing dashboard lights and felt the freedom contained therein would understand why. In a car, you're the master of your own destiny. The land sprawls out in front of you offering a million miles of possibility. Where will you go? What will you do?
So it seems only right that TransWorld's trip to Spain this past winter became TransWorld's road trip to Spain (or road trip through Spain, actually--because you can't really drive across the Atlantic). Zac Marben, Laura Hadar, Eiki Helgason, Remi Lamazouere, photographer Eric Bergeri, filmer Pierre Minhondo, and I flew into Barcelona from destinations all over the world, and we turned our faces toward the road. Sitting on a sunny curb awaiting our rental cars, everyone was delirious with jetlag and Laura was sick as a dog with the flu. Nevertheless, we had the whole of Spain before us--rugged mountain ranges, grand festive cities, and countless bowls of paella. The month was February. The time was 4:00 p.m. A storm was brewing to the northwest. We got in the cars and split that way toward the Spain/France border, the Pyrenees Mountains, and of course, snow.
Part I: Baquiera-Beret Bound The roads of Spain don't look any different than American roads. They're made of cracked asphalt with white lines painted down the sides. To our surprise, though, the Spanish countryside looked exactly like Spain. Outside our windows, Barcelona's balmy palm trees gave way to rolling, dusty grasslands and eventually the deep shadowy canyons that preceded the Pyrenees. The moon rose at dusk over old brick barns and orchards lay barren for winter. In the darkness we wound our way up a steep chasm with sheer cliffs falling away to the right. Finally, about five hours of tired-eyed driving later, we reached our mountain destination--an ancient stone village called Vielha (vee-ay-ha) just down the road from one of Spain's biggest ski resorts, Baqueira-Beret.
Although relatively unexplored by North American travelers, the Pyrenees is a mighty mountain range that spans three countries (Spain, France, and Andorra), forming a massive cresting divider between the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) and the rest of central Europe. We had no idea what to expect, but as we pulled into the parking lot of Baqueira the next morning we were impressed by the raw majesty of the peaks all around us.
Photographer Antxon Epelde and Spanish pro-snowboarding legend Iker Fernandez were waiting for us at the resort. It was around noon, and no one was in a hurry. On the itinerary were coffee and sandwiches. Such is the pace of life in Spain--it's easy style. People sleep late and eat meals even later. As a testament to the local vibe, we never once arrived at the mountain before eleven a.m. We were also turned away from restaurants on several occasions when we arrived at seven or eight p.m., only to find that it was still "too early for dinner."
"Keet–chin closed until nine," the proprietor would say kindly, pointing to the clock and ushering us back out the door.
Anyway, we could see from the sundeck where noontime baguettes were being crunched that there was plenty for the taking on the slopes of Baqueira. Slightly reminiscent of Jackson Hole, the place was full of steep, wooded gullies and rocky outcroppings. Not even bothering to get on the chairlift, we spend the afternoon hiking right off the roadside around a little winter playground sprinkled with cornice drops and kicker spots.
"That's the highest mountain in the Pyrenees," said Antxon proudly, pointing to the 11,000-foot Pico Del Aneto, part of the dramatic mountain-scape that was the backdrop to the jump we'd built.
"Spanish people are so proud of their Pyrenees," Eric whispered to me a few minutes later. "They're always acting like they're as good as the Alps." Of course, as a Frenchman, Bergeri's heart belongs to that great mountain range of central Europe--the Alps. It was a rivalry of mountain ranges, and as an outsider, I couldn't help but laugh about it.
The Pyrenees are actually lower in elevation than the Alps (the highest Alpine peak being Mont Blanc at 16,000 feet). Thus, Spain's great range does get the huge coastal snowfalls, but it warms up fast and isn't always blessed with that ultralight powder found in the French Alps. However, while a trip to the Alps entails forking over fistfuls of euros and elbowing German tourists for a spot in the liftline, visiting the Pyrenees means fairly empty slopes and dramatically cheaper prices.
Back at the hotel, Laura was still in the throes of a nasty sickness. Her face was bed-sheet white and she was sleeping about 23 hours per day--only waking long enough to hack up a lung and pop some pills. I was her roommate, and in an effort to not contract her plague, I became a compulsive hand-washer. Thankfully, by day three she was finally feeling better.
Unfortunately for Laura, our most glorious powder day occurred while she was down and out. One afternoon it started snowing and didn't stop, probably dumping four feet in 24 hours. We awoke the next morning to total chaos. The road was a rally track, tiny European cars went missing in unplowed parking lots, and up at the resort, things were shoulder deep. It was too wet and chaotic for cameras, so we left them behind and had an undocumented all-time afternoon. It was all rooster tails and powder poppers--plus plenty of nosedives and cartwheels.
The thing about a road trip is that when it's time to go--you know. You can feel it like a pressure drop deep in your chest cavity. The storm started breaking up, leaving behind a massive sketchy snowpack and treacherous avalanche conditions. It seemed like a prime time to split for the city and let things settle down. Madrid was calling, so we packed up and made a hasty exit east.
Part II: Madrid--A Trip Through The Night
We roared our rental wagons down out of the mountains and out onto the windswept Castilian plain. Madrid is the highest European capital at nearly 2,200 feet, and our path there was marked by sandstone mesas cut deeply with gorges, dusk-washed fields overlooked by distant snowy peaks, and then the gleaming metropolis itself--still a bustle despite the post-midnight hour of our arrival.
"Are we going out?" asked Eric. It was one a.m. and we'd been driving forever. Where I live, going out at such an hour would mean squeezing in one drink before last call, but one a.m. was almost too early to party in Madrid. We were tired as hell, though, and lured by the promise of riding a new resort the next day, we forewent the bars for a good night's sleep.
The resort of Navacerrada sits less than an hour outside Madrid in rocky, arid mountains--a lot like Bear Mountain in Southern California, actually. It's the day-trip destination for the city snow lovers. As we rounded the final bend in the road, all we could see was a couple slushy lanes packed with skiers ... but hey, anything is fun in the sunshine. It was a bright shiny day, so we made like we were in SoCal, hiked up into the pine trees, and got busy jibbing.
That evening it was finally time for some Spanish nightlife. However, instead of the wild discos and flamenco dancing of our imagination, we got stuck on a busy street of frat-party beer bars. The night was obviously cursed, because on our way back to the hotel, none of the discos would even allow us inside their doors. Why? Dress code. You see, Madrid is the financial center of the Iberian Peninsula. Money counts there, and compared to the Gucci-clad slicks strutting the city's boulevards, we looked like a bunch of slobs. Oh well.
The next morning we hopped on the subway and cruised the sunny streets.
"I can't believe I haven't even found a Spanish girlfriend yet!" said Zac in disbelief as he posted up on a street corner asking beautiful señoritas if they'd take a picture with him.
I'm not sure how successful he was because suddenly I realized that my camera was gone. I reminisced back to when that greasy guy bumped into me a little too hard on the subway earlier in the morning. F--k, I'd been pickpocketed! Ah, well, I had to count my blessings that I still had my cash and passport. Still, there was one precious photo on there that I'd snapped during last night's wanderings. Camera-be-damned, I'll never again see that sweet snapshot of the grand Palacio de Comunicaciones blooming all pink in the streetlights under a deep black sky split by the full moon. Too bad. It seemed like a good time to exit Madrid, and that's what we swiftly did.
Part III: The High Aragon
With cars tightly packed, we set our crosshairs on the High Aragon--a central Pyrenees region just southwest of Basque Country. It was a beautiful drive through the lazy Spanish afternoon, meandering past rolling river valleys bedecked with distant castles and fortresses. Camp was made in a town called Jaca (ha-ka), where the attraction of note was a primeval stone citadel--complete with drawbridge and empty moat.
The next morning we visited Iker's home stomping grounds, the resort of Astun. As we stood blinking in the blazing sun, we took in the buffet of wind-carved confections spreading out before us--at least a dozen perfect windlips within a stone's throw, and as many send-able rollers with endless landings. Apparently, the area's windy winter storms turn a series of treeless ridges into these naturally perfect jumps. A few days later, we stopped by the nearby resort of Formigal and found a similar phenomenon.
"I love this place," said Iker, following our gaze out over Astun's bounty of natural airtime. "I learned so many tricks here." Then, pointing out a particularly prime lip with a never-ending landing, "Actually, that's where I did my first backside seven."
According to Iker and Antxon, there aren't really any legitimate terrain parks in Spain. And halfpipes? Nah. But we soon realized that with terrain like this, who needs parks? Throw a snowball in any direction and you'd hit a knob or wind-carved cornice that, with only a few minutes' build time, becomes an immaculate lip sending you into the sweet eternity of a powder landing. Tempt me with all the park jumps in California and I'd still choose the former.
And choose we did--for the next several days working through windlips like bluebirds hopping from branch to branch. Laura was feeling better, Zac was feeling worse (whiplash, I think), and the ever-mellow Eiki and Remi were just about even. Bergeri's trigger finger was gunning. The sun was shining. We were in Spain!
Part IV: Barcelona, Baby
I'm not qualified to say that Barcelona is one of the most badass cities in Europe simply because I haven't actually been to every city in Europe. With that said, Barcelona is one of the most badass cities in Europe. It's a cobblestone labyrinth, where ancient chapels and renown surrealist museums are tucked in so tightly amongst the butcher shops and postcard vendors that you might miss them altogether, instead getting sucked into a sprawling vegetable market to buy ice-cold coconut milk that tastes just like heaven.
So there we were in this famous city, a mere two days from the end of the trip. We were all crazy to do something crazy. We'd worked so hard over the past two weeks and now it was time to blow it off. Spanish style, we sat down in an old stone square for a feast of fragrant paella (Spain's luscious garble of rice, sausage, seafood, and spices), followed by hours of wandering around the old town. Every time you started to feel a little parched, a street vendor carrying a six-pack emerged from the shadows to quench your thirst. Creatures of the night would fall into step with us and whisper secretive offers in our ear ... "Hashish, lady, you like to smoke marijuana?" and so on and so forth. Not until all hours of the early morning did we straggle back into our hotel rooms to sleep the sleep of the dead.
The great thing about Barcelona is how accessible everything is. Whatever you want to do or see is within walking distance--modern art museums, skate spots, the beach, Gaudi's art nouveau architectural explosions, and outdoor cafes. Just ramble around and soak it all in alongside about a thousand other people doing the same thing. We did exactly that, and then hopped on our respective planes to fly thousands of miles back to wherever we came from. That was it.
So as you sit watching the fresh snow fall down on the Rocky Mountains or scrape your car after a great New England nor'easter, know that just over the Atlantic there's another set of mountains, another storm. Remember that the "terrain parks" in Spain are sculpted by the hand of the wind, and that snow falls by the truckload when the heavens so dictate. The locals are proud and friendly, and they're just taking it easy. That's life in Spain. If you want to be part of it, just hop on a plane and then get in a car. It's that simple, and this story is proof.