Sunday, March 23, 2014

Crossing the Border

Back in the 1970s when we took road trips for summer vacations, we'd often come back with cases of Coors beer hidden under blankets and stashed under our feet - the kids' feet, that is. Later the beer was replaced by large rocks, but at first it was beer, because that's what Mom and Dad drank at the time, specifically the Coors brand, which was illegal to sell in Oregon, I think? Something about the water. I could look it up, but it's more fun to remember a maybe-past where my parents were bootleggers. There's always something for sale on the other side of a border, isn't there? Maybe the cigarette taxes are lower, or they sell alcohol on Sundays (Indiana residents will relate to this one), or the fireworks are better. I hear that the Colorado borders are where it's happening these days. In my family, we've been preparing for parties - whether in Portland or in Carpenterville - by making a quick dash into California and the liquor stores a mile or two past the border checkpoint. The guards aren't looking for bootleg liquor there, just fruit. You can't take citrus fruit into California, or apples or pears or cherries or any of a long list of other fruits, vegetables, and plant matter. I remember one road trip where we'd packed a pound or two of cherries for lunches and snacks while traveling and camping, and we had to sit there at the border and eat them all before they'd let us cross the state line. That must have been an early trip, right after we'd moved to Oregon, otherwise my parents would have left the cherries at home. Or put them under a blanket under our feet.

[UPDATE: My parents WERE bootleggers! It was even earlier than I remembered, when we were living in Colorado and smuggling Coors - which, says Mom, was not allowed in certain states because it wasn't pasteurized - into Indiana for my aunt and uncle, when we'd go back for family visits in the summer.]

Although the price differential isn't as large as it was a few years ago, here it's Spain's goods that get people on the roads heading south. The N134 goes straight down from Oloron-Sainte-Marie (or as straight as you can get, when traveling in the foothills and mountains) to the ski resort at Candanchú and the town of Canfranc, and that's where Florence and her niece Lilou and I went a few weeks ago, driving past the towns of Bedous and Accous, and up to the top of the pass and the 8.6 kilometers underground through the Somport tunnel. When we emerged on the other side, there wasn't much of a difference, except that all the signs were in Spanish. I remember riding behind Lilian on his motorcycle back in 1989 when we did a quick overnight trip from Annecy to Turin, through the 11 kilometers of the Mont Blanc tunnel, and noticing how much drier and rockier it was on the Italian side than on the French side. At Somport, it was snow and rocks in either direction.

When in Spain, do as the French do. I bought a packet of lomo, or cured pork loin, which is the same thing as the coppa we make, only I think in Spain they might use the filet mignon, or their pork loins are smaller. And they rub it with paprika first, and slice it much more thinly, and it's not cured as long. It's very good. On the French side of the border, lomo (the Spanish word is used on menus) just means cooked sliced pork loin, usually in a tomato sauce. I bought a bag of potato chips fried in olive oil, and I wish I'd bought more, because they were amazing. I bought a round of pressed dates, and a bottle of red wine, and paid with euros as usual, but found myself stumbling over words at the checkout counter because suddenly I didn't speak the language, and it kind of freaked me out. Maybe I'll learn Spanish next, or at least enough to get by. Italian would be useful, too. And of course there's the Japanese issue, if I want to go back there and work as a cheesemaking consultant for a while ... or maybe I'll just concentrate on the school program I'm in, and completing the degree requirements. I haven't done a thing on either of my projects this week. I've the use of the family car to get back and forth to the store, and on my free day on Monday, and was contemplating a small road trip, but the forecast is for thunderstorms on Monday here, and I think I'll stay home and be responsible instead.

There used to be a railway line that ran from France to Canfranc and down further into Spain. Passengers had to get off the French trains and into the Spanish ones, because the gauge of the lines was different. Well, there still is a railway line, technically, but no one arrives there from France any more. A bridge that collapsed in the 1970s on the French side was never rebuilt, and although people have lobbied occasionally to get the line repaired, it hasn't picked up much support in this age of automobiles. However, the Spanish trains still run down to Zarazoga and beyond. You can see pictures of the station on many websites, usually titled something like "mysterious abandoned places" or "forbidden relics of the past" or something like that, but actually it's still up and running, if on a limited basis, and you can even get guided tours of the station. But you need to make a reservation for the tour, and it was getting late in the afternoon and we had a six-year-old with us, so that's on the possibly-to-do list for me in the future.

That list is getting longer every day. And it's frustrating to be so close to things and without the resources (or time) to see them. I've a day trip to propose to Florence down into Spain - further down, to Pamplona (but before the running of the bulls because I'm not crazy that way, just other ways) - and if she's not interested I may just go ahead and rent a car for that.

We could have also made an appointment to visit the Laboratorio Subterráneo de Canfranc, the underground laboratory that studies neutrinos and background radiation and things like that, in the tunnel where the trains used to run towards France. But instead we drove back on a narrow winding road, the alternative to the long sleek tunnel used by modern travelers, and followed the ancient footpaths used by soldiers and pilgrims. For centuries, Somport Pass has been one of the ways through the Pyrénées for travelers on the road to Compostela, although the Roncevaux Pass to the west is easier - or at least it's easier now; people used this steeper way because the other pass was a hotbed of Basque bandits up until the 12th century.

We drove by the Fort du Portalet, built in the 19th century to guard against invading troops from Spain, and used during World War II by the Germans and the Vichy regime to house political prisoners. We couldn't have visited there, because it's only open in the summer.

I thought of Mom as we drove by outcrops of probably not too interesting rock, in general, but I was intrigued by the way the rock changed from mostly-red to mostly-grey as we headed north.

Perched on the side of a mostly-grey cliff, the town of Lescun overlooks a cirque valley that's a popular place for camping and hiking in the summer and fall. We drove through the town and down into the valley, on an increasingly bumpy and potholed road that Florence remembered led to the valley floor and a few waterfalls, where she had visited as a child with her parents. It was getting darker as the clouds thickened, and I wasn't reassured by the quality of the road or Florence's occasional comments of "I thought it was this way" and "It seems farther than I recall," but then I remembered that we had a trunk full of discount Spanish snacks and alcohol, so even if we got stuck overnight we wouldn't starve.

The road definitively ends at a clear stream running through the center of the valley, at least in the winter months, though apparently this stream dries up and you can keep driving a little more to the other cliff wall. There were no campers getting ready to brave the chilly February evening with the help of Spanish alcohol, and after stretching legs and breathing the cold mountain air and looking up towards the Pic d'Anie hidden in the clouds, we got back in the car and set off towards the main road and home.

The fields were hazy with smoke, more of the fern-burning done by the herdsmen to prepare the high meadows for the sheep and goats and cows and the summer grazing. Thin waterfalls sparkled down the mountainsides from the melting snow above.

À la saint Mathias, le corbeau s'en va, six semaines passent et le coucou reviendra.

The setting sun lit a fire of its own in a reflection bounced off the clouds and onto the hillsides, and provided a blinding backdrop to the last few kilometres of the road into Agnos. I'm glad that the new schedule at the pig farm lets us take both Sunday and Monday off now, so there's time for road trips like this, and grateful that Florence is willing to show me some of the many beautiful (and duty-free) places on both sides of the border in the Pyrénées.

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