Low budget travel in present Spain
A person will contemplate a lot of things when faced with the prospect of going from low budget to no budget while on the road. The unexpected cost of an onward flight ticket from Spain leaving only enough money, outside of bus fare to Hungary, to either eat or buy a night at a hostel (one that provides a bed, a shower, and access to the internet) is one of those sorts of situations that inspire unusual actions.
A bus ticket from Madrid to Romania actually costs less than a ticket from Madrid to the closer city of Budapest. This seemed some sort of market logic that defied easy explanation, where a bus will get you to your destination for 20 percent more than the cost to overshoot your destination. But the alternative to choosing between these two options, with only 100 Euros and 22 US dollars in my pocket, was to try the impossible, to hitchhike in Spain.
Whatever the reason, Spain has become a country where it is almost taboo to feel compassion for anyone who can’t pay bus fare to get from point A to point B. As the pop-New Wave group Missing Persons would point out back in 1984 about walking in Los Angeles, “Only a nobody walks in Spain.” The only observable exceptions to this rule about the lack of Spanish compassion that I experienced on the road to Guadalajara (the Spanish town for which the Mexican city is named) was a soon-to-be-unemployed air traffic controller, a female piano teacher, and two elderly gentlemen. I gave up after nearly 24 hours of baking in the Spanish sun. A 5 Euro train ticket took me back to Atocha station, walking distance of the bus terminal. The hope of getting a ride to Venice, and saving half my remaining funds in the process, were dashed.
Some of the parameters of my travel were set long before I passed through passport control in Madrid. I had 300 Euros awaiting me at a Western Union office, but only once I reached Hungary. These were to help with arrangements in getting a farm sold, after which I would receive enough money from my “commission” on the sale that I could finish my travel to Montenegro, start up a publication, and bring my wife and child to live with me there from Belarus at long last.
But there were other considerations emerging as well. The direct bus to Hungary arrived in Budapest on Sunday morning, more than 24 hours before any Western Union office would be open. That would leave a day and a night of sitting around in a situation of unknown security with a computer in my bags and no food in a country where I didn’t speak a word of the language. Romania, at least, would provide a cheaper hostel (freeing up money to get something to eat on Sunday) and a safer means of spending a Sunday night.
Such are the mundanities of travel, how to pay for tickets, places of stay, food, etc. But the real reason anyone really travels isn’t so much to solve puzzles on how to get from point A to point B without getting robbed. The real reason is to experience the world. Admittedly, this wasn’t going to be as pleasant an experience as I’d hope, but travel by bus would give me at least something worth sharing, something more than bitter hitchhiker’s thoughts of “Spain, austerity’s too good for them.”
Travel in Roman Spain
The Diocese of Hispania was the westernmost reach of the Roman Empire. Beyond the peninsula stretched the Ocean Sea, clear to perhaps the end of the world. By the year 400 AD, this diocese contained seven provinces. These included two that sat off the peninsula – Baleares that consisted of today’s Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean, and Mauretania Tingetana, a portion of present Morocco that was administered from the Roman city of Tingis. The five provinces on the peninsula included Baetica (roughly equivalent to today’s Andalucia), Lusitania (with Hispania’s biggest city, Emirita Augusta, or present Merida, in the west), Gallaecia (roughly equipvalent to today’s Galicia), Hispania Tarraconensis (formerly Hispania Citerior, a vast province stretching across much of the north of Spain), and Hispania Carthaginensis, a smaller province administered from Carthago Nova (present Cartagena) that includes today’s Madrid.
Madrid itself, as we know it today, was nothing more than a future thought. Other than a small settlement called Matrice on the Manzanares River located on a stretch of road generally known for its bear sightings, the city was little more than empty land along the Roman road that passed northeast of Toletum, the ancient town that would eventually become the cathedral city of Toledo. The dusty hills past the northeast of the site of the future city perhaps were visited by livestock herders or bandits. Of course they were also visited by travelers coming up from the capital of Lusitania toward the capital of Hispania Tarraconensis, the city of Caesaraugusta located at present Zaragoza, following much of the same route as today’s motorway.
In the day, the sun of Hispania would beat down harshly upon any exposed skin, encouraging travelers to adopt any manner of clothing to protect their faces and arms from the sun: hats with wide brims, loose flowing garments that cover the arms, etc. At night, the late spring skies showed the Scorpion in the south, the direction that in future centuries would mark that of the enemy, the Moors from Africa. But in Roman times, this was merely the location of the ecliptic, that band where the planets wandered among the constellations to foretell the fates of men. The warm evening became the cold morning, and the sun ever rose beyond the eastern hills, reached a fiery apex, and then set off in the distant west, back in the direction of Lusitania. The frequent traveler on the road between Emirita and Caesaraugusta would know this pattern well.
One night in Madrid
The L-shaped Estacion de Autobuses del Sur terminal of Madrid is divided into a section where you can buy tickets, and a section where you can buy everything else, from sandwiches to souvenir key chains with dubious heraldry coats of arms assigned to your last name. (The explanation for my last name read; “Catalan, de la villa de Puebla de Seguir. Seguin Florez Ocariz, este linaje descende de los Duques de Suecia.” No mention of an emancipated slave-turned-cowboy in New Mexico at all, but the coat-of-arms looked cool.)
The section in which travelers buy tickets is divided into subsections for domestic Spanish travel, and for international travel. Among the international travel desks, only one is geared toward the Eurolines consortium, a group of buses from various European countries that agreed to pool resources to create a bus option for trans-European travel. The rest of the desks are for various eastern European carriers taking passengers to and from Ukraine, Poland, Bulgaria, and most prominently from Romania.
The one I chose was called Saiz Tour. Obviously Spanish-based, the bus nonetheless offered a fairly inexpensive run to Timisoara, what I figured to be the town nearest the Hungarian frontier. It couldn’t cost much to get back into Hungary from there.
After purchasing the ticket, I sat down and spent the evening writing up a procedures manual for the publication I would be starting once all these trials and tribulations would be over. I was still at it at 2 a.m. when security asked to see my bus ticket. Even though the ticket was for the morning, I and my bags and laptop computer were told to leave the building. This wasn’t going to be good.
Travel on Roman roads
There might be a number of reasons for a traveler to cross the Roman Empire. Among the most common, of course, was that you were part of a military unit being deployed to a distant reach where manpower was needed. By the year 400, there were many such frontiers that needed such protection.
Trade also provided travelers with a reason to go from city to city. Those with wealth and an official passport led a much better existence on their way to their destination, with mansiones or official way stations set every 30 kilometers along most Roman roads. For those traveling low budget and without official permission to do so, there were the cauponae, run down private inns where a meager fee might buy a space on the floor and a fitful night of sleep among thieves and prostitutes. Eventually, the market developed a middle option, where for a little more than the cost of a night’s stay at a caupona, a traveler without an official passport could spend a much safer night at a tauberna, the equivalent of today’s hostel.
Travel along the Roman road system was typically not a low cost means of travel. To use the via munitae, the regularly constructed Roman highways, tolls were frequently levied, particularly at bridges and city gates. Often, such highway would be the only practical means of getting between points, but on occasions a via terrena (unimproved road) option would exist that allowed low budget travelers to pass, usually with some added risk of banditry or natural hazard.
Of course most low budget travelers went by foot. For those with access to horses, however, travel was quick enough that a journey across the Roman Empire from Toletum to Dacia could take as little as 80 days. Coach travel aboard a reda transport likewise could take a traveler up to 30 Roman miles or 50 kilometers in a day. Costs to ride in a reda, however, were usually in addition to those tolls charged for simple use of the road.
Of course, use of the roads often required some knowledge of geography, particularly for long distances. Maps were not really in common use as they are today. Instead, Roman travelers navigated through the use of “itineraries,” lists of cities or towns along the Roman road system as inscribed on mileposts. The Alaska Milepost publication would be a modern version of this system, albeit a version with considerably more detail than would be seen on a typical Roman itinerary.
Often itineraries were copied and sold by itinerary sellers for use by travelers trying to reach a specific destination. Eventually a master list was created covering the existing roads of the Roman Empire, from which itinerary sellers were keen to make copies. An itinerary from Hispania to Dacia might have been available from itinerary sellers in Emirita Augusta, even in the year 400 when the Daciae were no longer part of the Empire, but in Toletum, such expectations would probably have resulted in disappointment.
Cheerfully boarding the bus from Madrid
Obvious criminals looking for obvious prey made the night obviously not so tranquil. An old man settled on cardboard nearby in what clearly wasn’t his first night at the station. At one point, he ran off across the street in pursuit of someone apparently more important than the value of the things in his suitcase. Perhaps this was a case of commerce waiting for no man.
A couple sat next to the doors in anticipation that they would open in the pre-dawn, a guy holding a girl, one or the other preparing to depart Madrid in the morning. Settling near them was a man who almost appeared eastern European, with a face that tried to appear disinterested despite his obvious interest in everything around him. Finding nothing he liked among the crowd, the quiet predator settled on the other side of the couple from my vantage point, as the louder kings of the roost harassed an older man in what was probably a nightly ritual.
Shortly before 5, buses started to arrive and discharge passengers into the waiting hall. The doors, however, remained closed until the minute hand reached 12, and the opening hour started. Once again safe and inside, and under the watchful eye of guards, I plugged my computer into a wall socket and typed away my notes on my laptop from the evening before, anything to feel as if I hadn’t drifted to the bottom of life.
A few final Euro coins scraped together in my pocket, and in response to my growling stomach, I sampled a vending machine’s offering of an empanada de atun. I also filled water bottles in preparation for the next 40 hours. The empanada would be the last food I’d eat until reaching Romania.
After the sun rose, around 8:30 a.m., I put in the last half-Euro piece into the coin-operated computer at an internet vendor in the commercial side of the station, and sent off some final emails to parents, wife, and the real estate agent I would eventually be dealing with in Hungary. Then I went searching for my bus. Going through the main row of loading stalls, I finally found my loading area in an isolated bay, apparently where all the eastern Europeans arrive and leave Madrid. Already there were trade-tourists with rows of “Soviet Samsonite” bags fully taped and ready to load for the trip back across Europe. A newlywed couple heading home, seeing me arrive and determining that I wasn’t Romanian, decided I was worthy of trust and asked that I watch their bags while they went off to breakfast. Quietly, my memory of the empanada de atun begged for the company of a similar empanada.
The birds were chirping from nearby trees as the gauze of clouds blended with the emptiness above to form an eggshell blue as the Spanish capital enjoyed yet another springtime morning. As opposed to the southern hemisphere, where I had come from, this time of the year was not the dying time that precedes cold rains and descending snow elevations. Meanwhile, another harbinger of change made itself known with the slight change of language from Spanish to another completely different. As I climbed aboard the green bus, a model that was probably state of the art back in the early 1980s, people loaded their things aboard as well, yelling at each other for reasons only they could know as a movie played on the television subtitled in Romanian, the English sound having been turned off to allow the loud conversations to continue unimpeded.
I had never really gotten along with Spanish while in South America, but now that language was going away. As the genie in the lamp would say, be careful of what you wish for, you might just get it.
A History of Madrid
Madrid began as a settlement that developed along the Manzanares River, most likely alongside the Roman road between Emirita Augusta and Caesaraugusta (present Merida and Zaragoza, respectively). It was apparently named for the river ford, where likely tolls were collected. With the woods renowned for bear sightings, it was unlikely that many travelers sought out an alternative river crossing here.
Shortly after the barbarian invasion of the year 409, the Vandals came to occupy the area, displacing Roman authority until after the Romanized Visigoth legions crossed the Pyrenees to restore order to Hispania in the year 415. For two centuries, the village, which eventually became the site of a small Arian basilica that later became the Catholic Iglesia de Santa Maria de la Almudena, remained little more than a peaceful river crossing as the Roman Empire fell and the Visigoth Kingdom was established on the peninsula.
When the Arabs invaded from the south, conquering the Visigoth Kingdom, the main change that Madrid saw was that of its name going from Matrice to Mayrit, a derivative of the Arab term for trees, referencing the nearby forests. Eventually, under the Moors, this mutated to Matrit, which eventually softened to the modern pronunciation of Madrid.
By the late 800s, Emir Muhammad I of Cordoba ordered a fortress built on a headland near the river crossing to protect Al-Andalus, more specifically, Toledo, from the Christian kingdoms of the north. After the Taifa of Toledo fell in 1085, the fortress of Madrid, already the center of a thriving city, became a part of the Kingdom of Castile. Arabs and Jews were allowed to settle only on the outskirts of the new Christianized villa. Its importance grew fast from there until by 1309, Ferdinand IV of Castile convened his court there. After Spain unified, the city became the capital.
Today, Madrid boasts a population of 3.3 million in the city alone, with 6.3 million in its metropolitan area, the third largest city in the European Union after London and Berlin, and third largest metropolitan area after London and Paris. It also has the 3rd largest gross domestic product of all urban centers in the EU, despite its present economic troubles, and remains one of the most influential cultural centers of Europe, as well as the financial center for the continent’s Mediterranean countries and headquarters for the World Trade Organization (WTO). It has the fourth largest tourist sector on the continent, is described as the 10th most livable city in the world, and was considered among the 12 greenest European cities in 2010. It is trying for the honor of hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics, an effort that might be jeopardized by its EU-imposed austerity program and the predicted failure of the bailout plan currently being tried.
The road to Zaragoza
The Saiz Tour run leaving Madrid pulled out of the terminal at 11:15 a.m., about an hour and 15 minutes late, and perhaps a half-hour after the Eurolines run to Budapest left. The bus wound its way through a maze of underground passageways designed to prevent it and other departures from impeding traffic in nearby streets, and eventually emerged onto the M-30, the ring road around the city that leads to the A-2 motorway, the one that runs along the ancient Emirita to Caesaraugusta Roman road.
For me, this was the start of Day 16 on the road from Valparaiso, Chile. The people on the bus were of course quite different from Chileans, who tend to be reserved, business-like. These were spirited people, spirited like the bulls that fight in the 1929-dated Plaza de Toros that the bus passed on the way toward Alcala de Henares, the town in which Cervantes wrote Don Quixote and later died.
At noon, the bus flew past the spot where I had given up on Spanish compassion, the petrol station in which I had spent a night and much of the previous day trying to hitch my way from. A few kilometers after, the bus turned off at Guadalajara and made a stop before continuing onward on the A-2.
A short nap later, we passed the ghost of Ayyub Castle guarding the city of Calatayud, a Moorish fortress built above the valley it was designed to protect. A road sign registered that we were 50 kilometers from Zaragoza. As the film Assassination Games played silently with Romanian subtitles, the bus passed a cluster of windmills the likes of which Cervantes could only dream about. A wind farm collected its energy from the high planes of Aragon as the driver announced a routine police check approaching at Zaragoza bus station.
The road to Caesaraugusta
The Roman road, having crossed the Tagus River around ancient Toletum, passed through the ford at Matrice (present Madrid) as the highway climbed upward through valleys on the way to the ancient city of Segontia (near present Sigüenza), the frontier between Hispania Carthaginensis and Hispania Tarraconensis. From Segontia, the road descended past the Roman showcase city of Augusta Bilbilis (near present Calatayud), set upon the ancient Cerro de Bambola above the Jalon River. This was the one-time capital of the Lusones tribe, one of the Celtic people established on the Iberian Peninsula. (Today’s Calatayud is in fact 4 kilometers south of the original city site, a relocation that took place when the Moors built the Ayyub Castle that dominates the hill above the present town.)
The countryside in Hispania had been mostly Roman Pagan in belief until the official adoption of Christianity as the state religion in the 300s. After the religious revolution that was the advent of monotheism, the villagers and townsfolk slowly followed those in the cities who belonged to sects of that eastern cult that based itself on the story of Jesus Christ that took place two centuries earlier. By the time that the Visigoths took Hispania, their Roman gods were relegated to the lesser level of sainthood after “the one true God” took hold across the Empire. More important, the infrastructure of the new religion, with priests answerable to deans, deans to bishops, and bishops answerable to the Pope in Rome, held together the very Empire itself when civil order would break down in its last century.
As a result, the Roman order was still very much alive in the year 400. It fell apart only when in the spring of 409, the barbarian Buri, Suevi, Vandals, and Alans crossed the Rhine River, seizing the Germania frontier. In a desperate appeal, the Romans called on the Visigoths to clear these raiders from Gaul, but the western Goths only managed to push the raiders further westward still. The raiders were cleared of Gaul by the end of the year, but only because these invaders were pushed all the way across the Diocese of Gallia Viennensis in present Southern France and further still across the Pyrenees Mountains into Hispania.
By the spring of 410, the entire province of Hispania Tarraconensis must have been in a state of war or siege. The Visigoths, still serving Rome, held the mountain passes, preventing the barbarians from returning into Gaul, much less to return to the Germania frontier. The Suevi, Vandals, and Alans, seeing the writing on the wall, moved further into Hispania, where they established minor kingdoms away from Hispania Tarraconensis and the Romanized Visigoth legions waiting on the north side of the Pyrenees. Five years later, the Buri and other barbarians remaining in that province were overwhelmed when the Visigoths, under the short-lived King Ataulf, brother-in-law of Emperor Honorius, were called to restore order in the peninsula.
This set off near two centuries of war in Hispania, the likes of which had never been seen in that area of Europe. After 14 years of campaigning following the peaceful restoration of Roman order in Caesaraugusta under Ataulf and his successor Wallia, the Visigoths drove the Vandals in the south and their Alan allies in Lusitania across the Mediterranean into Africa, where they spent years raiding the coasts before finally reaching ancient Carthage. The Vandal attack on Rome that took place after the fall of Carthage to them would forever leave their name embedded in European languages for senseless acts of property destruction – vandalism. But eventually, the Visigoths would subjugate even the remote Suevic Kingdom of Galleacia, creating a new universal Visigoth state to replace the Roman one in Hispania by 585. Over a century would pass before the next great war would come to the Iberian peninsula, when the Arabs would eventually attack and attempt to take Europe from the west in the early part of the 8th century.
The road from Zaragoza to Barcelona
The police check at Zaragoza station was routine, and basically ensured that no one aboard was wanted for questioning by the Guardia Civil back in Madrid. When the last of us checked clean, we boarded the bus again and headed back to the A-2 motorway on the way to Barcelona.
The countryside turned very green, much greener than the areas nearer to Madrid. The towns appeared to be sited in a very medieval manner, set on raised ground above fields of quietly growing grain. In among the clouds, the Pyrenees stood tall off to the north, a natural boundary set between Spain and France. To North American eyes, as Madrid appeared to be much like New Mexico near to Santa Fe, Catalunya appeared to be much like the Pecos region just across Glorieta Pass from that same city, while Zaragoza was a completely different continent.
Following the motorway, the railroad wound its way eastward, following the valley past jagged rock monuments as the sun descended to the rear.
When finally the bus pulled off the motorway, it passed into an industrial part of Barcelona, an area where each district seemed to have its own patron saint. Perhaps because of that, the nearby regular bus and train terminal here is called Sants.
But Saiz Tour doesn’t operate out of the Sants terminal. Instead, it operates from its own terminal. This is probably a good thing because it is here that all Romania-bound buses from across Spain are gathered, made to disgorge their passengers, who then board other buses for their actual destinations in that Eastern European country. It was here that a rider would find out the bus that is actually to take them to Romania. In the case of the run that passed through Timisoara, this was a bus that was already mostly full, utterly lacking in ventilation, and a little older than the green bus that took off from Madrid’s southern bus terminal.
The road from Caesaraugusta to Barcino
The original capital of Hispania Tarraconensis, for which the province was named, was the port city of Tarraco, present Tarragona. At one point, it included not only the Basque country and present Catalonia, it also included Gallaecia. Eventually, that province was separated off, and under the barbarians would be subject to the Suevi tribe until the Visigoths succeeded in taking all of Hispania.
Barcino, on the ancient Roman road Via Augustus, was as old as Tarraco, but had the misfortune of being founded by the Carthaginians instead of the Romans. Its origin myths are certainly inspirational – one suggests that the city was founded after Hercules joined up with Jason and the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece (a legend that in itself was probably little more historically than the aggrandizement of a bunch of rowdy Greek sailors stealing the “poke” from a poor Circassian prospector – lamb’s wool was used in ancient times to collect gold dust from streams in today’s Republic of Georgia), during which the Greek fleet lost its ninth ship in a storm off the Catalunya coast. The sailors were eventually found to be safe by the Greek hero, but they were said to be so taken by the beauty of the place that they elected to remain, and called their settlement “Barca Nona” or Ninth Boat, later Barcino.
Through much of its Roman history, the settlement played second fiddle to Tarraco. However, it gained in importance after the first Germanic raids reached Hispania in the middle of the third century. In response to the new threat, a new double-walled fortress was built at Barcino, with no fewer than 78 towers to watch over its ramparts. As these were going up, the ancient Roman religion was likewise fighting for its survival against the monotheistic Christians that established a church in the city shortly after. The reactionary Diocletian persecution of Christians produced two martyrs specifically from Barcino, Sant Cugat and Santa Eulalia.
By 350, the church had gained acceptance in the Empire and was well established in Barcino under Bishop Pretextat. His successors built the Basilica de la Santa Cruz in the walled city before the arrival of the barbarians in 409.
Barcino was the closing scene of one of the earliest known dramas of the Visigoths, that of Ataulf and his wife Galla Placidia.
This story began before the barbarian invasion of the Germania frontier, during the aftermath of the northern Italian rebellion of Stilicho. His foederati followers (barbarians who swore allegiance to Rome), who turned on the Empire in support of their rebel leader, were suffering the fate that many defeated warriors suffered, the death of their wives and children. Fleeing Italy, the survivors sought the leadership of Alaric I, King of the Visigoths, who had been encamped north of the Alps. The year before the great barbarian invasion of 409, he agreed to march south against Rome and by September laid siege to the city. During the siege, Placidia, daughter of Emperor Theodosius I, was captured and taken to Alaric, who finally raised the siege after the Visigoths were hired on to chase away the barbarians that had invaded Gaul.
By 412, Alaric had died and Ataulf had succeeded him. While still holding Honorius’ sister, Placidia, Ataulf made an alliance with the Roman Emperor’s son to defeat the usurpers Jovinus and Sebastianus in Gaul, which the Visigoth leader easily did by the following year. As a result, Ataulf received Honorius’ blessing to marry Placidia (still in her mid-20s) at Narbo on the first day of 414.
Unfortunately, the marriage’s only child, Theodosius, died while an infant shortly after being born in Barcino. But the death of the child was not the only tragedy to strike Ataulf that year. Accepting the servitude of a man named Dubius, the Visigoth king had unknowingly let in to his camp a former follower of one of the Germanic warrior leaders he had killed in his Gaul campaign in 413. While in the baths of Barcino, this former follower of Sarus brought Ataulf to a violent end near the end of the summer of 415. In the political upheaval that followed, the Amali faction of the Visigoths proclaimed Sarus’ brother Sigeric as the next King of the Visigoths, and ordered the death of all of Ataulf’s children, born from a former marriage. Placidia was ordered to walk as a conquest among other captives ahead of Sigeric in a procession of victory. However, it was this procession that inspired rival Wallia, one of Ataulf’s relatives, to rise up and kill Sigeric before the Amali could finalize their hold on power. As a result, Placidia was returned to Rome as part of a peace offering that brought foederati status to the Visigoths in their seizure of Hispania. She continued to live a noble life, eventually becoming the consort of Constantine III, the usurper, and regent for her son Valentian III, before finally dying of old age in Rome in 450.
Meanwhile, two years after coming to power, Wallia would establish his capital at Tolosa, present Toulouse, north of the Pyrenees. Barcino would again become important as a Visigoth capital only after the Battle of Vouille between the Visigoths and the Franks removed the former from present France. The city would eventually fall to the Muslims in 717, and remain “Barsheluna” until Louis the Pious, Charlemagne’s son, would liberate the city, renamed Barcelona, in 801.