When I walked out of Spanish class, it wasn't the poster advertising an organised trip to Toledo that caught my eye. It was the Canadian girls standing around the don Quijote message board hollering 'roaaad triiiip!' Although a coach ride from Salamanca to Toledo and back could technically be considered a road trip, I was hoping for something more exciting. So I decided to organise my own.I had no doubt that the good people at don Quijote, my Spanish school here in Salamanca, would organise a well laid out tour, and while I do like my Spanish classes well-organised, I prefer my road trips unforeseen and lawless. Coach trips are just a bit too middle of the road for me. Plus coaches make me nauseous (the tour guide yapping away in the microphone doesn't help much either).
I don't want to pass judgment though. Few people annoy me more than those horribly contemptuous, 'authentic' backpackers telling you how you should travel, belittling you for owning a guidebook or washing your hair. Not me. Nor will I force local delicacies down my fellow travellers' throats when they really feel like eating Chinese food or Burger King. Want to take a picture of you holding up the Tower of Pisa? Be my guest.
We all have our favourite way of travelling but it really isn't necessary to bother other people with it. Nevertheless, I would like to impose my travel mantra on you: road tripping – the real deal. All you need is a car, music and sunglasses…
The quintessential road trip vehicle is obviously a minivan. Preferably one with a big-ass spoiler and a knob on the wheel. Unfortunately, I do not yet own a black 1983 G-series GMC (uhuh, the A-team van). So my friend and I went to a car rental place instead. Alas, no flower-power Volkswagens were available either, so we eventually settled for a less charismatic yet practical new Renault.
Music is at least as important as the car. Do not, and I cannot stress this enough, embark on a road trip in Southern Europe relying on local radio to entertain you. Bring CDs, and plenty of 'em, or you'll go stark raving mad. You'll want to keep the entire car happy so don't be selfish. Think mainstream.
Our playlist went a little something like this. Plenty of guitars and classic rock for on the highway: Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and the like. I always bring some acid jazz or other lounge tunes for serious chilling. Saint-Germain always does the trick. For dead moments it's nice to have a couple of lame sing-alongs that are so bad they actually become funny. I particularly love to hate Yes sir, I can Boogie, Do you really want to hurt me, So lonely, Papa Chico or anything by Vanilla Ice.
Don't forget some cool music for cruising by the beachside. Picture it: one driver's tanned arm out the window, shades on your nose and Don Omar's Dale con dale cranked to the max. By the way, here's a tip to make traffic jams more interesting. When no cars are moving, open all windows. Everybody but the driver get out of the car. Put on some loud party music (my personal favorite in this case: Vitalic's Poney part 2). Get on the roof of your van (what do you care, it's a rental...) and start partying like it's 2999. Try and get the commuters to join you. The look on their faces is priceless.
Now you're good to go. You could make an itinerary first if you want to... I prefer just asking around on where to go. Planning simply creates expectations the actual experience has to live up to. Chance adventures are that much easier to enjoy.
Friday finally arrived and my partner in crime Sebastian and I picked up our fellow trippers (Fabienne from Antwerp, Belgium and Jessica from New Haven, Connecticut) in our brand-new MPV. After the all too obvious multi-purpose-vehicle jokes it was time to decide where we'd go. We didn't have to talk for long about a destination. Clearly we would drive off into the sunset, i.e. in the direction of Portugal. The first couple of days were random but very enjoyable. Good food, mediocre alcohol, uncalled-for dancing etc. During daytime we didn't avoid the cultural sights although we probably spent more time at the beaches to shake off our hangovers. The scenery in Portugal was breathtaking. Ironically, the many forest fires seem to have made the Portuguese landscape even more attractive, at least from a distance. The withered trees ranged in colour from gold red to pitch black, contrasting with the bright green of new growth.
Fall was catching up with us so we turned our back on the beaches and headed inland towards the mountains. We ended up in the strangest of mountain towns: Bragança. Although not at all a tourist hot spot, it does have an awe-inspiring, 13th-century fortress. That's not why I'll remember it, though. Bragança was the spitting image of Royston Vasey, the English village from the comedy series The League of Gentlemen where ugly, inbred locals molest and eventually kill innocent passers-by.
We asked the first local we saw for directions to our hostel. A big smile appeared on his face, he opened the door, squeezed his burly body into the back of the car and insisted on showing us the castle first. Scruffy-looking and reeking of liquor (among other things) he introduced himself as Ramiro, owner of the castle. He promised to give us an amazing tour. He seemed harmless enough; with his placid smile and doglike eyes he almost looked like the village idiot.
He apparently wasn't. When we arrived at the castle Ramiro pulled out a set of keys and opened the gate. 'No problem, maybe he's the janitor', we said to ourselves while we set out on our tour. The guy we had figured for a well-intentioned simpleton was now lecturing us on European history. He momentarily disrupted his discourse to take a colossal sword from the wall. Gazing at the blade as if it were a woman, he told us it was a 15th century bastard-sword and then proceeded to wield it with amazing agility. Maybe it was just the sight of the castle at dusk but suddenly, Ramiro's smile didn't seem so placid anymore ... When our guide, still carrying the huge sword, insisted we'd follow him below to the fortress' dungeons, we simultaneously started muttering protests while backing away from the stairs: 'Desculpe Ramiro, we are all getting really hungry...' 'Besides, we have to arrive at the hostel before eight...' 'Thank you so much for the tour, though.' 'We'll be back tomorrow, for sure!' We practically ran out of the place.
It may have been our heightened self-consciousness but we felt like the entire village was staring and pointing at us. We did our best to ignore the glares and continued to the only hostel in town, where the chills did not cease. By now we were psyched up and seeing ghosts everywhere.
'You are not locals' the clerk stated. Clearly, there was no fooling this guy. We slowly explained him that, not being locals, we had come to this pension looking for a place to stay the night. He nodded understanding. When we offered him our passports, he shook his head and smilingly said: 'Don't worry about it, I'll get them later.' I heard Fabienne break into sobs behind me. 'We are not Americans...' I began in a misguided attempt to fraternise with the clerk. No reaction. 'Can you recommend a good restaurant?' I tried. 'Yes, we have an excellent restaurant right here,' was all he said. Somehow nobody felt like eating at the hostel so Sebastian and I ran for take-out pizza and Porto while the girls barricaded themselves in the rooms. Seb, as always looking at the bright side of life, laid out the game plan for the night. After all, the whole thing had provided us with an excellent excuse to keep the girls company.
We did feel stupid though, waking up the next morning. No one had been poisoned or stabbed to death. Bragança was no Royston Vasey. Like little kids, we had let ourselves be frightened by some eccentric castle owner. And of course the villagers had been staring; they had just seen four flustered tourists dashing out of their castle at nightfall. Word of the weird gringos had probably spread to the pension before we even arrived. You are not locals, indeed.
And so, shamefaced and tired, we got in our car and headed back to Salamanca, contemplating our road trip. On the stereo Lynard Skynyrd were giving their best. Sweet home Salamanca!