While Javi’s family’s vineyards spread out for miles in the province of Toledo, his family actually lives in a town over the border in Cuenca called La Fuente de Pedro Naharrro, the Fountain of Pedro Naharro, a curious and elegant name for an otherwise very ordinary town. To get there, you simply get on the 2-lane nacional, head for Corral de Almaguer, take a left, race off into the night down another straightaway towards Horcajo de Santiago, take another left and speed away to La Fuente, as they call it affectionately. 25 minutes of driving all said and told. At nighttime, when the traffic is light, it’s pretty much a breeze and it invites you to step on the accelerator a little more. The road knows few curves, the view is clear, and the driving is easy. Taking the back roads of Spain can sometimes be one of the most pleasurable and entertaining forms of getting around the country and the only true way of getting to know the nuances of the land. The nacionales, as they are called, are generally in excellent shape, but the regional and local roads can be a little more dicey. Still, I can’t think of a better way to experience the country.
Spain’s highway system as a whole, I should point out, has surely come a long since the days I first came to live back in the early 90s. A simple look at statistics should help illustrate the point: in 1970 there were a meager 203kms of highway in the entire country. That’s about the distance between New York City and Hartford, Connecticut. By the time I had settled down here in 1991, the figure had shot up to 3,793kms, but even then not one of the six major motorways that radiated from Madrid like bicycle spokes was completed. Any long-distance trip required at least one section of knuckle-whitening circulating along a two-lane road while trying to overtake a truck full of wooden planks before getting slammed head-on by another hauling cement blocks. My premature greying, in addition to genetics, is due to this harrowing experience over the years.
By 2014, drivers could enjoy over 15,000kms of highway to help them sail around Spain and reach most major destinations in a fraction of the time it once took. And in one piece. You see, one of the most profound consequences of this improvement in the nation’s infrastructure has been a gradual reduction in the fatalities on the road. Obviously there were several factors that have led to this decline, such as an increase in the average age of the average driver, more effective speed traps, greater awareness of the dangers of driving while under the influence, buckling up on a regular basis, and better built vehicles, but it’s hard to deny the importance of this continuous upgrade of the road network.
As in many countries, years ago the numbers were frightening. In 1960, there were a paltry 1 million vehicles on the road, and the poor conditions led to a staggering 1,300 deaths. By 1989, the number of deceased peaked to record numbers, though a little research suggested no one really knows how many people died on the road that year. One source indicated 3,086 victims, another put the figure at an astronomical 9,344, but I am inclined to believe the DGT (the equivalent of the DMV) statistics which reported 5,940. While that might sound stunning, consider the fact the last year the United States saw those numbers was in 1914.
Now, with more than 31 million cars purring around, a mere 1,126 people lost their lives. Yes, that’s lower than the 1960 figure when there were 30 million fewer vehicles. Still too high, say some, but the 3.6 victims per 100,000 is one of the lowest rates in Europe, and it looks impressive when compared to 10.1/100,000 in the U.S.
Where are these lethal run-ins bound to happen? On the secondary roads. Annually, between 75-90% of all deaths by vehicle occurred in these otherwise pristine, bucolic, peaceful lanes. Such violence amid such serene scenery boggles the mind, and nobody better than Javi knew that. His father was picked off by an oncoming car at an intersection in Horcajo some twenty years before and was killed in the act.
A grim reminder as we approached that there is never really any need to hurry home.