‘Don’t even try,’ said the man on the car deck as Brittany Ferries’ Finistère tied up on the dock in Santander, late because of the winter storm. ‘You’d be lucky tonight to get through the snow to Valladolid. Find a hotel here and try tomorrow morning.’
He was one of those confident Englishmen you meet who seem to know. Working across northern Spain, his business took him always on the road. Passengers had been warned that roads were closed by the snow, and winter tyres and snow chains were a must. ‘The Guardia Civil will stop you and those guys don’t mess about. They’ll check you have neumaticos de invierno.’ Which I didn’t. Or snow chains. And my 20-year-old Vauxhall pickup truck, heavily loaded with furniture and radiators for our cave house in Andalucia, was anything but equipped for the mountain passes by which the motorway from Santander reaches the plains of central Spain.
Plainly my advice came from an expert. But there’s something irritating about expertise, don’t you think? So I thought I would give it a go. It was only 8 p.m. and I had a nice parador hotel booked beyond Valladolid. Off I roared (a hole was developing in the Vauxhall’s exhaust) across the docks; and we hit the road. ‘We’ means the truck and me. My co-drivers had had to pull out of this trip. But I love lonely adventures.
Adventure? Really? There was no snow as we climbed out of Santander towards the mountains; just wind and light rain. In my mind I began a column about not trusting experts. Other British cars were on the motorway, travelling, like me, in hope.
As we climbed, rain turn to sleet, to light snow, but it wasn’t settling. Then it was, but both lanes of the motorway were clear. I slowed down a bit. We’d left the busy, populated coast and all around was dark.
Then came a big illuminated warning sign above the carriageway. Only vehicles with snow tyres, it said. I smiled. Gradually the two open lanes reduced to one. I noticed a couple of British cars peel off. We slowed again. And carried on. Black mountains rose to either side, and heavy snow flurries came in bursts at the windscreen. Speed was down to about 30.
After about half an hour something caught my eye. Flashing blue lights and yellow-green illuminated baton-sticks — presumably in the hands of police officers — were waving around by a roundabout below us. A barrier now blocked the motorway and we were funnelled down a slip road to the roundabout. Officers were checking tyres with inspection lights. Cars were being refused access back on to the motorway.
‘Do you have winter tyres?’ asked the officer, in Spanish, as I wound down my window. My Spanish comprehension seemed to fail me and I said yes, which was untrue, adding ‘y doble-tracción’, which was only technically true, because my four-wheel-drive doesn’t work. The officer poked at my (non-winter) tyres. Then waved me on. ‘Con mucho precaución!’ he warned. My spirits leapt.
And then there were three. Just a lorry, a big, sporty 4×4, and me. Nobody seemed to be coming from the other direction. Only one lane was drivable and the tyres hummed over dry, fresh snow. There was a blizzard now: you have to force your eyes to focus on the road surface, not the snowflakes dancing in your headlights. We were down to 25 mph.
After about an hour I saw those heart-sinking flashing blue lights on a roundabout below. Police had closed the motorway. I drove into a little town nearby: the streets were empty, bars closed, doors shut tight against the storm. If I’d seen a decent–looking hotel then, I’d have thrown in the towel. But I didn’t. Instead I saw a sign pointing to the ‘N’ (national) road to Valladolid. N-roads are rather like our A-roads. Should I give that a try? Why not!
I was almost alone on this road and it was treacherous, not least because I’d pumped my tyres up super-hard in England, to reduce fuel consumption, and hard tyres slip easier. But at 15 mph I tooled along through the continuing blizzard, slithering up hills and sliding down. It would take hours to get to my hotel but at least I was moving. The motorway running almost alongside appeared unused in both directions.
Then another roundabout, one exit back to the N-road, one on to the motorway, and one into a service area. I tried the N-road but came to a halt, wheels spinning on the first incline. A Spanish 4×4 had slid off the road and was stuck. Its passengers came over to me and recommended I reverse back to the roundabout. The N-road was dreadful, they said: ‘Es criminal.’ Infinitely carefully I backed down the hill to the roundabout. There was a hotel in the service area, but… ‘What the hell,’ I thought, ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish.’ The motorway slip road was unguarded.
And then there was one. For an hour I drove along a huge, totally deserted carriageway at 20 mph, crunching through the snow, straining my eyes to see where the edges and barriers were, all signs and features shrouded by the blowing snow. It was like being the last man on earth in a nuclear winter after humans had quit the planet. A wonderful, wonderful feeling.
The blizzard slackened and stopped. Stars came out. It was bitterly cold outside. Snow on the carriageway grew thinner. Patches of black tarmac appeared. I speeded up: to 30, 40, 50 … and finally 60 mph. I was the only vehicle coming from the mountains, though now there were headlights of a few oncoming cars — unsuspecting of what lay ahead.
It was after one in the morning when we reached the parador. I honestly believe mine was the only car to get through from the coast that night. I patted my old Vauxhall a grateful goodnight and slept, alone in a four-poster bed, like a baby. Eat your heart out, Ernest Shackleton.