Despite the ambition to visit as much of Spain as possible this was the first visit to the peninsular in nearly two years since the previous trip to Extremadura in May 2011. Our destination this time was Castilla-La Mancha and the medieval town of Sigüenza in the Province of Guadalajara halfway between Madrid and the capital city of the Autonomous Community of Aragon – Zaragoza.
As the Easyjet plane flew south across France I wondered what changes there might be. Since our last visit the economic crisis had after all become more severe with a collapse in the property market, dangerously high levels of unemployment and Government imposed austerity measures to tackle the problem of previous over spending. There had been mass demonstrations in the major cities and the ever present threat of public sector strikes that might possibly affect airline travel. On the positive side there was the promise of cheaper prices in hotels, bars and restaurants but this happy prospect had been partly snatched away by a suddenly weak Pound against the Euro which had surprised me because I thought that it was the Euro that was in trouble?
There was also the weather. In the UK we were in the grip of an Arctic winter that had stretched uninvited into March and all this Russian weather had pushed the Gulf Stream south so whilst it should have been over Northern Europe delivering wind and rain this was much further south and smothering Iberia with unseasonal cold, wet weather so that even Spain was struggling to find some blue sky Spring weather.
There was thick impenetrable cloud for the entire journey but closer to Madrid there were occasional breaks with welcome puddles of sunshine like searchlights in reverse scanning the green and copper countryside and chasing the gloomy shadows away from the ground below and when we landed there was predominantly blue sky and a respectable temperature.
After completing the arrival formalities the first job was to find the Firefly car hire office which being a budget operation didn’t have a desk in the main terminal. It was in the car park outside and there was only a short queue which should have made it a speedy process.
Unfortunately in front of me was a German customer who was extremely distrustful about the whole car hire process and he had a barrage of prepared questions to get through – “How many kilometres were on the clock? Was it unlimited mileage? When was the car last serviced? Summer or Winter tyres? Any bodywork damage? Fully insured or not?” so the process began to drag out and the needle on my patience tank began to drop towards low!
To be fair I could understand his concerns because of all the places I have hired a rental car it is in Germany where they have the biggest tricks and extra charges for unsuspecting customers. I was once seriously ripped off at Kahlrsrue-Baden for the cost of Winter tyres when really they should have been included in the basic price.
The clerk dealt with him patiently and was careful to explain that it really didn’t matter about damage because he was hiring an old car and had purchased top-up insurance which covered him for absolutely anything from a stone chip to a direct hit from a cruise missile. Eventually he rather reluctantly signed the paperwork, took the keys and left the office and at last it was my turn.
I had barely started the process when he was back. He had found some scratches on the car and he wanted the clerk to inspect the vehicle and absolve him from responsibility. She explained again that it didn’t matter because he was fully insured but he ignored the reassurances and almost man-handled her out of the office and through the window I could see him going through the whole unnecessary procedure of pointing out every little mark and my patience needle hovered close to the red zone!
Fortunately she was back in the office before it reached empty and not being as distrustful as the German I completed the formalities in just a few minutes and had the keys to a Ford Fiesta in bay 60. Well, if the German had been allocated this one then it would have taken the rest of the day to identify and agree all the marks and scratches because this poor old thing had some serious parking injuries front and back but trusting the hire car company and confident that I was fully insured we just loaded up and drove away.
For a few kilometres the Satnav refused to acknowledge the fact that it was in Spain but it was easy enough even without satellite assistance because all we needed to find was the A2 Autovia to Zaragoza and Barcelona and the entry slip-road was directly outside the exit from the Barajas Airport.
Despite the optimistic weather on arrival the prospects were suddenly plunged into reverse and ahead of us were massive banks of slate grey cloud towering up in giant layers like the inside of a medieval cathedral.
We drove for several kilometres as far as Guadalajara along a perfect motorway surface, probably financed by cheap loans that the country cannot now easily repay, through a ribbon of industrial units, shopping outlets and roadside diners to the left hand side and to the right nothing but the breath-taking vastness of La Mancha and then, once past the high rise domestic suburbs of the Provincial capital we left the urban landscape behind and drove into open countryside with high hills, jagged rocky outcrops, holm oak forests and green meadows all liberally decorated with dainty Spring flowers and as we drove the weather improved and eventually we began to see road signs for Sigüenza.