So, I am off the fat loop now and have been hanging down south for the past few weeks. Life is different here on the West Loop (Paris-Lauterbrunnen-Nice-Barcelona-Madrid-San Sebastian) – the days are longer, the sun is stronger and sleep is a luxury.
Spain is my favourite country in the world, I’ve said this many times. I love the fact that they turn their body clocks back about three hours compared to their neighbours – it means the streets are livelier and actually feel lived in – driving through villages in France, in comparison, you hardly see a soul.
The longest drives are here on the West Loop. And, as it’s the height of the high season, we get minimal days off, and the sun streaming through the front windows makes you very sleepy indeed. Driving through Spain, often it feels like you’re in the middle of the Australian outback. Red dirt, rocky cliffs and small watering holes feel more Territorian than Iberian. Of course, giant black bull billboards dotted through the landscape put you firmly back in Mediterranean Europe.
Passengers are also just as laidback. They want to sleep as they’ve fiesta-d through the night, they’ve figured out most of their plans by this stage too, so I end up being that pesky guide who keeps disrupting them because I want to gasbag. We pull into cities just before their inhabitants start to think about dinner, but all I want to do at this stage is fall into a heap in my non-air conditioned room.
This often keeps me going on these drives; the idea of sleep. But every time like clockwork, as soon as I get into the cities, I kick myself. It’s seven o’clock, the perfect time in Spain; there is no way in hell that I can disappear off into the land of nod. Pulling into Barcelona the other night, I threw my bags down and headed straight for La Ramblas, camera around my neck, snapping away happily down the famous strip and then deep into the Gothic Quarter.
I had never seen Europe in July – it is a sight to behold. People are everywhere. Hostels are booked out for weeks (which passengers find out the hard way), La Ramblas is a sea of people and my favourite restaurant in the Gothic Quarter had a line out the door stretching for a good one hundred metres across Plaza Mayor.
But the boutique shops are open late at this time of the year, and this can be ultra-dangerous. Barcelona’s boutiques rival anywhere else in the world; after all, it is the home of Zara and Mango. I try on amazingly affordable dresses but buy the usual earrings instead – the Beast, despite the fact that you hardly need many layers of clothing on the West Loop, is permanently obese. Many of the drivers won’t let me carry it.
In San Sebastian, which can often rival Barcelona as my favourite spot in Spain (also fighting it out with Sevilla, Granada and Valencia… oh, Spain) we take passengers out every night on a pintxos crawl. Pintxos may possibly be my favourite food in the world (well, when I’m not scoffing dim sum in Asia); they’re basically a smaller version of tapas, with even more flavour. San Sebastian is the world capital of pintxos, also boasting the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants per capita on the planet. This is a place where most people don’t even come for the food – it’s all about the beach, baby – so the food is a welcome surprise.
This pintxos crawl is completely to our own tastes. Each time you come through you shake it up a bit – trying different places and their specialties to create the best pintxos crawl possible. I have been blown away by cow’s cheek, duck liver and cheese risotto, just to name a few. At only a couple of euro a pop, you can eat like a king for well under a twenty. It’s all washed down by sangria, or, my new favourite; kalimotxos. This is perhaps the most bogan drink ever, but a Basque specialty – red wine mixed with Coke.
So does that mean the West Loop is another fat loop too? Not quite. There’s no sausages, pork knuckle or goulash to keep the kilos piled on. Instead, the cities – in Spain particularly – drag you out in the dark, once the sun has gone down, overwhelming you with shopping, food and people-watching. The only problem with the night loop is that it’s still an eight o’clock departure the next morning, you have to drag yourself out of bed and do it all again, what a tough life!