Peneda-Gerês, Perfect

15/11/17-16/11/17

The national park of Peneda-Gerês was a place we fell in love with during our short visit. The first place since we crossed the channel that makes it into our ‘visit again’ list (as opposed to our ‘must visit next time’ list for the sights and places we have passed by).  

The park is largely forested but above the tree line you’re in a landscape of granite tors and lumpy bumpy ridges. We were lucky with the weather for our visit, at this time of year we should have expected significant rainfall and low cloud, but northern Portugal was getting unusually clear and dry weather for the time of year. Not great for the farmers, especially after the hot summer and awful forest fires, but fantastic for us visitors.

Views of granite ridges across a landscape subjected to forest fires in the national park

We had chosen to base ourselves in the main village, known as Vila do Geres or Caldas do Geres or just Geres, a spa ‘town’ with a string of small hotels and an outdoor pool complex. While we were there most of the hotels were shut and the pools were empty. A few cafes and shops were open but it was very quiet. Our parking place was also the bus stop and the school bus came through a few times each day dropping off a scant handful of children, this area is not heavily populated anyway and according to the internet the population tends to be female and elderly rather than families. To our surprise we weren’t the only motorhome in the car park, another motorhome was already there when we arrived and one British van turned up while we were on our walk, so obviously a few people were thinking the same way as us and enjoying the good weather while it lasted.

With clear days came cool nights and we were in double duvet territory (we have a 4.5 tog and a 7 tog duvet, plus blankets and brushed cotton (ok, flannelette) bedding for a bit of extra comfort – if it gets really cold we might wear pyjamas but generally we prefer to sleep in the buff) but the heating didn’t need to come on yet.

For our first day in the mountains we followed one of the marked paths on the east side of the village, we picked it up by walking up the first switchback on the road above the car park until we found the red and yellow markers which led us steeply up a track through the forest – our legs complained at this unusual activity, we haven’t done any serious mountain walking since Scotland. Eventually the forest started to clear and we found ourselves in a mountain meadow where people had created many stacks of balanced rocks on top of the granite. From here the path followed the contours of the ridge heading south. We looked at the ridges above us and hankered to climb them, but without maps we didn’t want to head off the route.

Mountain meadow of stones

As we started to descend we found the source of the horse droppings we’d encountered on the trail, a few of the semi-wild Garrano horses in the park were munching on the autumn bracken. They weren’t disposed to pay us any attention or pose for photos. The path headed past an area that was fenced off (we don’t know why) and another mystery area with a cistern of water and large bare patches – we wondered if it was in some way linked to fire fighting.

Pine Processionary nest – the caterpillars of this moth have fine hairs which cause allergic reactions 

Further downhill at the Miradouro Pedra Bela we surprised a herd of goats off the viewpoints and sent them leaping with bells clanging further down into the valley. There were roads up to the Miradouro but, just like the rest of the walk, we didn’t see anyone as we followed the path, crisscrossing the road heading downhill.

Horse grazing above the tree line

The path bought us steeply down to the bottom end of the village and then through the cobbled back street past homes and smallholdings and yapping dogs until it dropped us back down to the car park.

On the way we had talked about our plans and decided we should stay another day and make the most of the beautiful scenery and ideal outdoor activity climate – clear and sunny but not too warm – so we had a quick walk down to the bakery to pick up some rolls for the next day’s packed lunch.

The following day we got our bikes out to cycle up the other side of the valley – this was the route that the sat nav had tried to bring us down and we were intrigued to find out whether we had made the right decision to turn around. It was a steady climb up the road past the football pitch, we put our bikes into a low gear and chugged along, sometimes it’s easier to keep climbing steadily than it is to cycle through undulating territory where the uphill stretches take your legs by surprise.

Smoke from chimneys hanging in the valley after a cold night

After 500m and 7 km (I am trying to retrain my brain to using the decimal system only) we had reached the highest point of the road, past a couple of picnic spots and viewpoints. We had seen the first evidence of Portugal’s forest fires as well as a herd of attractive cattle with very sharp horns.

Portuguese highland cattle with their sharp horns

The road was actually in good condition and would have been ok to drive in Bertie so long as we hadn’t encountered something coming in the other direction. It wasn’t empty, a dozen or so cars and small vans drove past us as we cycled. Driving in Scotland has spoiled us, we are used to well signposted passing places on single track roads and here the opportunities to avoid oncoming vehicles were few, we were still happy that we’d turned around.

Invigorated by our uphill ride we then decided to go further up and take the off road track to the Miradouro da Boneca.  This was a different experience as we slogged – generally uphill but with many ups and downs along the way – over rutted tracks to the viewpoint. At the end we had a spectacular view down into the valley and Bertie’s car park, and had the company of other people! We were a stone’s throw from our starting point and had nearly closed the circle, but I knew there was no way I would cycle the steep path straight down – it would have been suicidal.

The view down the valley to Bertie’s parking spot

We retraced our uphill bike ride, this time downhill and freewheeling most of the way, the switchbacks were particularly thrilling as we cycled downhill towards what looked like a sheer drop off before turning onto the next downhill.

Long mountain roads, perfect for cycling

When we got back we were exhausted but the adrenaline was pumping and so we used the energy to set off away from the hills and back down to the coast. I’m still regretting leaving, when will we ever get such a good period of weather for exploring such a wonderful place? We’ll be back one day for at least a couple of weeks to give us plenty of time to explore and enjoy.

Rio Lima

14/11/17

Portugal has a number of national bike routes – Ecovias, Ecopistas and Ciclovias. Ponte de Lima was on the route of one of them and we followed it upstream and along it’s south bank to Ponte de Barca where there was another bridge over the river.

The morning view of the Ponte de Lima, a medieval bridge built on Roman foundations
The Ecovia signposts.

We found the route markers by cycling under the bridge, but almost immediately had to deviate from the pedestrian route because it had steps down to the river bank. Our deviation took us along tracks through allotments and small vineyards before we rejoined the river.

Cycling through an avenue of vines

Disused mills and empty millstreams dotted the sides of the wide and placid river and at one point the main road bridged the valley high above us.

Vineyards overlooked by the modern bridge of the main road

We enjoyed the blue skies, bird song and clear reflections of autumn colours in the calm waters.

Ruins of mill buildings

At Ponte de Barca we considered crossing the river and trying to find a route back along the other side, but it seemed to mean a deviation away from the river along roads before it rejoined the river bank, and as the river bank was the main feature of this ride it looked more enjoyable to just retrace our route back to Bertie.

The Ponte de Barca

It had only been a relatively easy 20 mile ride, leaving us plenty of time to move on to our next destination, which was lucky for us as we had a trip into the mountains of the Parque Nacional Peneda-Geres, Portugal’s only National Park.

We followed roads up into the hills, winding higher and higher up switchback roads as we approached the village of Vila do Geres. The roads were in good condition with no single track lanes so everyone was happy until we realised that the sat nav was not taking us the direct route that we’d looked at on the map. For some reason it wanted to take us to Campo do Geres and then across the hills on a windy single track road, I think because the sat nav was set to fastest route and this was the way with least speed restrictions. We started gamely up the single track road until we got an odd look from a shepherd, at that point Paul decided that we should stop and check out our alternatives. In the end we turned round and went back down to the large lake created by the hydro dam on the Cavado river where we could take the direct route to the village, although the sat nav insisted all the way that we should turn around. Turning around on the single track mountain road was interesting, especially as Bertie doesn’t have a big nose – the view from the cab at the edge of the road was buttock clenching.

Finally we made it to the village where we parked up in a good sized parking area and were able to indulge in a stiff drink. The sun was just starting to set and we were glad we hadn’t been forced to make any of our navigation decisions in the dark, although it may have made turning round less nerve-wracking.       

Toll Roads and Ponte de Lima

13/11/17

Through France and Spain we had avoided toll roads. When we reflected back we decided that it hadn’t necessarily been the most sensible decision; it had been fine to avoid tolls when bumbling slowly through an area, but when we wanted to travel long distances we ended up travelling inefficiently. In Portugal we decided that we would consider toll roads if they made our journey easier or more efficient, we would still avoid them for shorter distances but if we found ourselves in a situation, for example, where we wanted to travel south quickly to avoid bad weather then we would consider them.

Portugal has two toll systems. The first is the usual ticket booth system where you collect a ticket when you enter the main road and then hand in the ticket and payment to a machine or person as you exit the road. There is an automated solution for these toll roads (called Via Verde) but we didn’t investigate it as we didn’t think we’d use them enough to warrant it. The second set of toll roads levy charges through automatic number plate recognition (known as EASYTOLL) and you need to be registered. Having read numerous forum posts on the subject we knew that many people didn’t bother to register, and that the Portuguese authorities didn’t tend to follow up or fine them, but we didn’t want to be a potential example case so we wanted to either register or to avoid those roads. As luck would have it we were close to one of the four on-road registration areas (you can find them here) , so we were able to drive up to an automated machine, get our number plate read and register a credit card for payment. Now we know we are legal for the next 30 days and have the receipt to prove it.

We drove to Viana do Castelo and parked up at an official motorhome parking behind the beach. Unexpectedly there was a motorhome service point here, not that we needed it having just left a campsite. We went for a walk along the boardwalks through the dunes and sat and watched surfers playing in the waves. It was a pleasant enough place but we weren’t in the mood for roaming through the town and decided that we should head inland that evening rather than wait till the following morning.

Glorious sunshine on the beach at Viana do Castelo

So we took off for Ponte de Lima. This town is known for it’s bridge over the river Lima and an apocryphal story about Roman legions crossing the river; apparently the foot soldiers were superstitious about crossing the river as they thought it was the river Lethe and they would lose their memories, so the officer crossed the river first (on horseback of course) and then called each soldier over by name in order to prove that he still remembered them, I think the soldiers just didn’t want to slog through a wet and muddy river on foot and the officer called their bluff rather expertly). The town was very attractive with cobbled streets in the centre, medieval towers and views of the bridge and riverbanks. When we arrived on the Monday it happened to be having it’s fortnightly market in the large parking area by the river, so we had to find somewhere else to park until the market had packed up. It wasn’t too difficult to find some on-road parking slightly out of town and we were able to wander around for a couple of hours as darkness fell and the market stalls were dismantled.

The medieval bridge at Ponte de Lima lit up at night

Finally we were able to drive along the cobbled street along the riverside and descend the ramp onto the rough ground of the parking area where we could settle down for the evening. We took another turn around town, this time crossing the bridge amongst the evening joggers and getting a closer look at the chapel on the other side of the river.

Lazy Days on Portugal’s Border

11/11/17 – 12/11/17

Every now and again there comes a time when we need a break. Although constant travelling can seem like a stream of new and exciting experiences, just like anything else it has it’s own routine; a cycle of getting up, making breakfast, packing a lunch, going out and doing stuff, returning to the van, moving on, deciding what to do on the following day, cleaning (us and the van), making and eating dinner, blogging. It’s not a difficult life and is very rewarding and fun but sometimes it’s nice and necessary to step out of the routine for a while.

We realised we’d got to that point when we crossed the border into Portugal. We found a campsite at Caminha and suddenly found we didn’t have the motivation to do anything but sit by the van and chill. Of course we did end up doing some bits and pieces, but we didn’t leave the campsite for 48 hours. The chairs went outside and we sat in the sun, we did laundry, we called Aaron to wish him happy birthday, facetimed friends, downloaded TV and had a little holiday from our travels. Paul felt so lazy that he couldn’t even be bothered to go and buy tobacco, so 48 hours without smoking, we’ll see how long that lasts but fingers crossed.

What else did we do in our down-time? We made mint sauce. Paul is using our whizzy gadget, a manual food processor, to chop some mint we gathered which was added to a hot mixture of vinegar and sugar before decanting into a sterilised jar. The mint sauce seems to pass inspection.

One Mackerel, Two One-Way Streets and Three Lighthouses

08/11/17 – 10/11/17

We had a bit of a lazy day on 8th November. For some reason we just couldn’t get moving and our plans for a bike ride ended up with us driving around the hills and coast near Pontevedra and stopping to take in views or short strolls without doing very much at all. We spent the night at the Memorial Park aire near Poio where we walked around the bay and encountered eucalyptus trees in abundance. These trees, native to Australia, have been planted in Spain and Portugal to provide quick growing timber for the paper industry and this was the first time we had come across them in quantity; their alien charm, with their constantly peeling bark, silvery leaves, and odd flowers, quickly becomes wearing when you realise they are on their way to becoming a monoculture and ousting the native flora.

We saw these grain stores in gardens and smallholdings all round Galicia, well ventilated and up on stilts to protect from vermin.

The following morning we decided to go into Pontevedra in search of a large supermarket as we needed to do a proper stock up. There were two Carrefore supermarkets, the first only had a tiny outdoor parking space that was completely full. The second had an empty outdoor parking area but we didn’t spot the sign on the way in that told us the only way out was through the underground parking. Bertie wasn’t getting through there! Given that we were already in trouble we decided we might as well do our shopping anyway and so, with full fridge and cupboards, we tackled our predicament. I donned my hi-vis vest and went up to the top of the entrance to stop the traffic in a semi-official way while Paul drove the wrong way up the one way ramps. Apart from a case of mild embarrassment it was remarkably easy.

From Pontevedra we drove south west out to the end of the next peninsular. Galicia’s coast is indented with a number of ‘rias’, these sloping sided inlets are like gentle fjords and between each ria is a peninsular, more populated inland, and wilder and more rugged as you reach the seaward end. The Dunas de Corrubedo had been at the end of one of these peninsulas and we were now heading for the Praia de Melide where there was a large parking area south of the village of Donon. We had another falling out with the sat nav which took us through smaller and smaller streets in tiny villages until Paul said quite firmly ‘I’m not driving down there’. We knew there was an easy way there because we had seen it on google maps, but the sat nav just couldn’t direct us and by the time we knew we were going wrong we didn’t have great signal. We retraced our steps back to a ‘main’ road and a point where we had signal so that we could pick up the route on google maps and ignore the sat nav. We finally made it to the village of Donon where we stopped for restorative tea and cake before tackling the remaining couple of miles off road to the car park. Bertie did admirably avoiding ruts and potholes and finally parked up in the sunshine. We spent the next hour or so doing a few chores before exploring the beach and cliffs near the carpark. The low cliffs were ideal for fishing and so I read and sunbathed while Paul fished for mackerel – he managed to catch one, but it wouldn’t make a meal so I gutted it and put it in the fridge, hopefully to be joined by a second one the following day.

Paul sorting out his fishing gear after we had finally made it to the parking spot at Praia de Melide
We saw many autumn crocuses flowering between the trees.

The next morning we decided to walk around the headland, we started by walking out to the first of three lighthouses Faro de Punta Subrido before heading back across the beach to lighthouses two and three – the particularly attractive squat red Faro de Punta Robaleira and the more standard Faro de Cabo. From here we followed rough tracks north as far as possible along the Atlantic side of the headland with large waves crashing against the rocky cliffs, at one point we descended by an awkward and steep fisherman’s path to a tiny beach where the incoming tide quickly chased us back up again.

Looking across the Praia de Melide
The most attractive of the three lighthouses was this one, you can see the islands ‘Illas Cies’ out to sea
Waves crashing into rocks on the more exposed Atlantic side of the peninsula

Eventually the steep cliffs forced us back onto the main track we had driven down the previous day and we walked into Donon. From Donon we dropped down to the Praia de Barra, a large and deserted beach where we gathered large mussels from the rocks before taking cliff-side paths back towards our parking spot.

Empty beach at Praia de Barra, we collected mussels from rocks that were at the end of the beach we took this photo from.

Paul decided to do some more fishing from the same spot as before, but no luck this time. We did see dolphins in the bay though, which made up for (and probably explained) the lack of fish. The large pod, including some mother and calf pairs took their time as they swam past us on their way out to sea.

Dolphins swimming past, look closely for a dolphin tail on the left as well as fins on the right of the picture

That evening I cooked the mussels and solitary mackerel in a rice dish that I hesitated to call a paella after hearing some very sarcastic comments on Spanish radio earlier that week (not that I’m fluent in Spanish but when you hear the words Jamie Oliver, Chorizo and Paella alongside derisive laughter you know that something negative is being said). Whatever the dish was, it was very tasty and the mussels in particular were luscious and juicy. It’s always a bit of a gamble to eat shellfish gathered from the shore and we do take some care, but you never know. No side effects this time though so good news.

The ‘not’ Paella with mussels and mackerel

The following morning we left the carpark. There was a one way system for car park access, so we had to drive up a different track than we had come in…at first…until we got to the point that the road was rippled with foot deep undulations. I don’t think I’ve every seen anything like it, they weren’t potholes or ruts, but were running across the road and there was no way we would get across them without ripping something out from Bertie’s undercarriage. Paul reversed us back to the car park and for the second time in a couple of days we were driving the wrong way up a one way street. Luckily we had made an early start and we didn’t encounter anyone coming the other way.

Dunas de Corrubedo

07/11/17

We moved on from Boiro first thing in the morning, leaving the yappy dog behind us. Our destination was the Dunas de Corrubedo, a nature reserve on the west coast with a large dune system and (found via wikiloc) some coastal walking. We turned up to a large car park and drove down to the bottom corner to park alongside a few surfers vans. I popped up to the café at the top of the car park and through some poor Spanish on my part managed to work out that yes, we could stay overnight, and that maps and more information could be found at the next carpark up the road where there was an interpretation centre for the nature reserve.

After a look on google maps we decided that it would have to be pretty foggy for us to lose our way along the coast path, the hardest part was going to be finding the coast path without crossing the protected dunes, and as luck would have it there was a signposted walk from this car park to one of the lagoons that would take us in the right direction. We didn’t bother going up to the interpretation centre.

The sun was shining again as we set off to the lagoon across sandy heathland. Once we reached the corner of the lagoon we turned right towards the beach where we could then pick up the coastal route. We soon left the dune system and moved onto the rocky shore passing on the coastal side of fish processing plants that had an aroma that must have been particularly pleasant to seagulls and fish. At one of the outflow pipes we saw hordes of fish sitting near the surface with their mouths agape waiting to siphon whatever delicacies were being pumped back into the sea, it took us a while to work out what they were as they looked like bubbles on the top of the water. Further out to sea were more active fishes diving into the outflow current with their tails in the air.

It was easy to follow the paths along the coast, clambering up amongst the oddly shaped granite boulders when we felt like it and dropping down to cross small sandy coves. We saw numerous seagulls, particularly common gulls (not actually that common in the UK) and black headed gulls in their winter plumage, in winter they have white heads with a black spot making it look as though they have two pairs of eyes.

Odd shaped granite outcrops – what can you see?

We had originally intended to do a circular walk cutting back inland but, despite the industrial fish processing facilities, we enjoyed the coast so much that we decided to retrace our steps. The tide was lower on the way back and we found some large rock pools with healthy populations of shrimp, crabs and baby fish to keep us interested. Once particularly large pool had us so riveted that we didn’t notice the tide turning until a particularly large wave washed water into the rockpool. The tide rushed in quickly after that and we hopped backwards from rock to rock marveling at it’s speed.

Watching sea creatures in the rock pools

The incoming tide changed the nature of the sea and we started to see more big surf, we stopped several times on the way back to watch the waves crashing and spraying over the rocks. When we got back to the sandy beach by the car park the surf was impressive, but the surfers had moved on. A couple of cars drove down to watch the sunset but with the cloud there was just a warm glow on the horizon.

Incoming tide

                 

Following the River from Guitiriz

06/11/17

After a cool night the morning was foggy and we took a little while to warm up. While waiting for a little motivation we took a look on Wikiloc – a useful resource for sharing walks, bike rides and routes for other activities – to see whether anyone had recorded this walk and how long it had taken. We saw that someone had followed the route by mountain bike and decided that it would be preferable to walking as we would easily be able to do the whole 14 miles by bike but probably wouldn’t manage to walk it, especially as we weren’t starting very early.

To try and get us in the mood we wandered back into the village to pick up some bread and biscuits for our packed lunch, by the time we got back the sun was showing signs that it might burn off the fog but we were still feeling a bit sluggish and it was with reluctance that we donned our cycling gear and set off following the yellow and white trail markers.

Italianate Chutch in Guitiriz

The trail followed the river out of the village, through woodland and past allotments on fairly wide tracks taking us over roots and stones. Most of it was relatively flat and easy enough if a little bumpy on the saddle but the timber bridges over streams were very slick with the moisture of the morning’s fog and caused us to skid a couple of times. We only lost the trail markers once where we followed a wide and obvious track where we should have shifted onto a narrower path that was closer to the river, but generally it was an easy path to follow. We feel the lack of ordnance survey maps keenly, an ordnance survey map provides so much more confidence of the route and terrain than any maps we have found on the continent.

Route description

After the town of Parga the nature of the river bank started to change from earthy paths and tracks and we began to encounter large rocky outcrops of granite and a few more gradients which made the riding a bit trickier. A couple of times we had to get off and push/carry the bikes up over rocky obstacles. At some point while we’d been in the woods the sun had finally broken through the clouds, we didn’t feel it much until Parga when the woods started to thin out.

Bridge at Parga

Finally we reached a point where we felt that it was going to be too much hard work to continue, we were only a few hundred yards from the end of the route but decided we should turn around and retrace our steps back to Bertie. It had been a pleasant, if short, ride.

Sunshine through trees on the banks of the river

That afternoon we moved on towards the coast. We picked a parking spot near Boiro it had a long narrow beach and attractive outlook but not much opportunity for walking or cycling. The local dog barked pretty much all night, which was a source of amusement and frustration. We have no idea what triggered the barking as it was quite placid the following morning – maybe it had worn itself out!

View from the parking spot near Boiro

Roaming Roman Walls

04/11/17 – 05/11/17

We had been watching the weather forecast for a couple of days, tracking a low pressure system that looked like it would hit Portugal and Spain. It had got to the point where the forecasters were pretty convinced that it was going to cause heavy rain and thunderstorms along the northern coast of Spain, and unfortunately for us it looked like it was going to linger over the Picos de Europa.

The cloud approaching at Islares that morning

It was 1995 when I first went to the Picos de Europa  on a trip with my ex-university friends from LUSS – the Lancaster University Speleological Society. My memory of the couple of weeks we were there includes long lazy days in mountain meadows in the sunshine in between stints at the bottom of caves unsuccessfully (particularly in my case as I am a bit of a wimp when it comes to hitting anything) wielding a lump hammer trying to break through constrictions to the chasms beyond. The aim was to find new entrances to the substantial cave systems in the Picos, an activity that continues to this day, see http://www.tresvisocaves.info/.

I was very keen to go back for an above ground visit, but the weather forecast was looking pretty wet and we decided that we’d rather wait and put in on the itinerary for next year. Instead we spent the day driving west and south of the Picos, bypassing the Asturias region and the rain to bring us to Galicia. The drive really bought home the major engineering efforts that are required to navigate through such a large country, tunnels, bridges and viaducts on a scale that we don’t see in the UK. Of course the advantage here is that there is elbow room to build roads, often leaving the ‘old roads’ in situ and giving us tightwads an alternative to paying tolls.

Our drive eventually bought us to Lugo, a hill-top town inland in Galicia; it seemed unprepossessing when we arrived in the twilight, the parking area was part way up the hill with views of roads and more industrial areas of the town and any views upwards obscured by a park. The following morning we climbed up through the park to get to the center of town where we finally managed to get a look at Lugo’s most famous, and unique, feature –Roman walls that form an intact and unbroken ring around the city. We joined many people on a Sunday morning stroll around the top of the walls, looking down and across to the rooftops of buildings of all different ages, some modern or renovated and some looking to be on the brink of collapse. It didn’t take long to walk a complete circuit so we followed it up by meandering through the streets seeing if we could match building to roof.

There wasn’t enough to keep us in Lugo for another evening and so in the afternoon we moved on to Guitiriz with the aim of finding a walk or bike ride in the area. There is a small motorhome parking here which was free AND included working electricity, I think that’s a first for us. We turned up and parked alongside a German motorhome on the limited hardstanding and took ourselves off to explore the small town to see where we might pick up some vittles for our packed lunch the next day. As it was Sunday most things were closed but we spotted a couple of Panaderia/Pastellarias. We also found a notice board for a walk which we agreed would keep us entertained the following day.

That night we felt the first real onset of autumn with a cool, almost cold, evening. Luckily we had electricity and so we could have our little oil fired radiator on for a bit of additional warmth.             

The Stairs to Dragonstone

03/11/17

The reason for our slight back-track was to visit San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a small islet with a chapel on the top, linked to the mainland with a man made bridge. This islet is particularly famous at the moment because it (or more accurately the stair that leads to the top) have featured in Game of Thrones as the steps to Dragonstone.

The bridge and steps to the top of the island

We drove from Bakio car park to park alongside the road at the Mirador Merendero – a parking spot we had looked for the evening before and had been unable to find due to a road being closed and the sat nav not being aware of the new road. From here it was an easy couple of miles walking  to our destination along the old road. The old road had obviously not been closed for long but was suffering from imminent collapse with large sections cracked and broken away, slipping down the hill. The evidence of activity to shore up the road was everywhere but presumably they had decided that the easiest thing to do was to start again. On this road was a memorial to members of the Basque Auxilliary Navy who had served in the Spanish Civil War; a shame to think it will be visited less now that the road is closed.

The island was very picturesque with it’s steep and winding staircase looking far more difficult to climb than it actually was.

 

At the top we wandered around the outside of the chapel (it was closed to the public) and took in the views. There is a shelter here, but we didn’t need it as the sun was shining so we sat on the wall and watched other people arriving and ringing the chapel bell three times for luck.

The chapel in the summit has been rebuilt many times due to storm damage

From the top of the island we could see down into the clear bluegreen water where there were many fishes swimming. Later that day we went back to Bakio and I went for a snorkel from the beach where I saw more fish swimming around the rocks in the bay – it put Paul in the mood for a bit of fishing so we decided to move on to a parking spot which looked like it had potential for fishing.

We parked by the coast at Islares, just under the main A-8. The village had the feeling of a previously popular tourist resort that had lost it’s charm due to the proximity of the main road, but down at the parking area it was easy to ignore the road and just enjoy  the backdrop of sharp limestone cliffs and crystal clear waters. Again we could see fish – in fact the helpful Spanish fishermen kept pointing them out to us, much to Paul’s frustration – but they just weren’t biting and Paul came away empty handed.   

The view across the artificial lagoon at Islares

A Quick Trip to Bilbao

02/11/17

The following morning we set off for Bilbao, the Dutch couple next to us tried to persuade us that the journey was easier and more enjoyable by bus and we might as well remain parked in the aire, but as we were moving further west anyway it seemed an unnecessary duplication of travel. I got the luxury of being a passenger and it was a beautiful journey along the coast road through villages, past farms and up and down wooded hillsides. For countryside so close to an urban centre it was remarkably unspoilt and very beautiful, the timber framed Basque estancias lending it an alpine character. Paul, of course, was focused on the driving and unable to enjoy the views unless they were in his line of sight.

We had decided to park near to the funicular station in Bilbao, on the North East side of the city. There is plenty of free parking here and the funicular is €0.95 per person each way. It was far easier than trying to navigate through the city and less expensive than the Bilbao aires. We didn’t end up staying here overnight but it felt peaceful and safe so I wouldn’t have had any issues.

Heading down to Bilbao in the funicular

Our focus for the day was a trip to the Guggenheim museum. We had been to the Guggenheim in New York and wanted to see how it compared to Bilbao, personally I found the New York space more cohesive inside; the complexity of the Bilbao space seemed to create too many odd shaped corridors and corners. The Bilbao building was certainly impressive from the outside though, not better, but different. Neither of us are really art enthusiasts, being more inclined to admiring architecture and engineering, and few of the exhibits really engaged us; we ended up feeling that we would have been better off just appreciating the external structure.

A selection of photos from the Guggenheim

Following our visit to the Guggenheim we walked along the river, crossing bridges backwards and forwards as we moved towards the older parts of the city. Eventually we ended up at the La Ribera market, an indoor market with various kiosks selling fresh fish, meat and vegetables as well as cured meats and cheeses. It wasn’t the biggest market I’ve been to, but it had a nice little area of bars serving pintxos (the Basque region’s version of tapas) and we decided to eat our lunch here, sampling various options; octopus and elvers, meat and cheese croquettes, stuffed peppers and other tasty portions.

We had been in the wider Basque country since the south west of France, but here in Spain it was more obvious with Euskara, the language of the Basque people, appearing on road signs and on information boards with equal prominence to Castilian Spanish. The origins of the Euskaran language – which is unrelated to any other Indo European language – and the genetic origins of the people of the Basque region make interesting reading and provide context for cultural differentiation and more recent political activity. 

The Art Deco frontage of Bilbao’s station

Once we had eaten our late lunch – typically Spanish timing – we headed to the tourist office to see if they could provide any information about the surrounding countryside, but they were very focused on the city and didn’t have much to offer apart from their free wifi. We sat in their cool air conditioned building for a few minutes updating some apps and information on our phones before heading back towards Bertie. Once back we decided that we would move on to spend the night by the coast rather than in the suburbs, and after saying that we would be heading west…we went east, just a short distance to the seaside town of Bakio where we parked up in the car park and took a stroll down the beach in the fresh air.

 

Dia de Todos los Santos

01/11/17

November 1st is a national holiday in Spain. Dia de Todos Los Santos – All Saints Day to us – is traditionally a day when families get together to remember their dearly departed. This morning it seemed like a new tradition had taken hold, a day to dress in top to toe lycra and indulge in some serious cycling. Not us, I hope you understand (I haven’t been able to entice Paul into lycra yet – as soon as I do I will share a photo), but the roads as we travelled from San Sebastien to Lekeitio were strung with individuals and packs of cyclists. These were not roads for the casual cyclist, these were hilly coastal roads that swooped down and climbed up and occasionally entered long tunnels. There were some calories being burned this morning, maybe in preparation for a serious family meal later. 

It was hard to believe it was now November with the hot sunshine blazing down. Our journey had been early in the morning and had taken us along steep sided roads where we’d been able to avoid the direct sun, but by the time we got to Lekeitio we were getting that trapped-in-a-greenhouse feeling. The aire here was another busy and multi-national parking spot and police drove around regularly to check that people were obeying the parking rules. One large German motorhome (a modern, double axle version of Bertie) was parked across the grassy area at the top of the car park and the police stopped to take the owner to task. It got to the stage of writing out a parking ticket before the driver backed down and agreed to move (to the only parking space left – the unpopular spot next to the services). A group of Dutch and English spectators were commenting on the scene of the German being taken down a peg with great relish – using their jealousy of his big rig as an excuse to indulge in the dubious camaraderie of racism.

We cycled down to the center of the village where the church nestled into the lowest point, behind a busy square and opposite the harbor. The village was busy with families, most promenading in the square or along the harbor and some taking boat trips to lay flowers on the water. The acoustics of the town amplified the voices of the people and added to the busy atmosphere.

After a stroll around town, Paul and I found a spot on the beach and we both went for a swim in the cool and refreshing sea. Not many people joined us, a couple of hardy older men and a number of children were swimming but most people seemed to have their winter wardrobes on.

A lovely cooling dip at Lekeitio

Border Crossings

31/10/17

Crossing the border into Spain was barely noticed, no large signs declaiming the point at which we moved from one country to another, just a gradual dawning of realization that the road signs were now of the Spanish variety and a succession of cheap petrol stations being visited by queues of French cars. It’s rarely that we’ve crossed European land borders before as holidays have usually involved leaving the UK by air and landing in our destination country, the Schengen agreement’s easing of travel across borders is a huge benefit to us, but it’s missing the theatre of border control generated by the anticipation of a holiday and the slight apprehension that something might go wrong.

Our first stop was not far from the border, just a step down the coast to San Sebastien where the small city sits behind a large crescent beach. We parked up in an aire in the university district where motorhomes were tightly packed together to make the best use of the space. Motorhomes came and went all day and evening, often arriving to find there was no room. It was a busy place. It was also very cosmopolitan compared to the French aires we had been on recently where the majority of vans were French; this aire had a good mixture of German, Dutch, English, French and Spanish vans.

Looking west along the beach at San Sebastien

The weather turned from grey skies to blue and we ventured the ten minutes or so from the aire to the beach where we took a walk along to the Peini Del Viento (the Comb of the Winds, in case you’re wondering) – a combined architectural and sculptural installation at the eastern end of the beach. Possibly the most engaging part was the way that the sea was used to push air through vents in the floor, producing sounds and blasts of air. The potential for a Marilyn Monroe incident stymied by the fact that everyone was wearing trousers. We headed down to the old town but our walk was cut short when Paul decided his sore toe from the previous day’s walk was probably a blister. We never did make it into the old city, we debated whether to stay for another day specifically to take a longer look around, but not being city fans we decided to give it a miss as we knew we were going to Bilbao in a couple of days.

The Comb of the Winds

The aire was quiet that evening, it may have been the university district but the students obviously ventured further afield for their social lives.   

St Jean de Luz and the Sentier Littoral

29/10/17-30/10/17

Our guidebook to France had recommended the coastal path from Hendaye to Bidart as being a not-to-be-missed walking route in southwest France. We looked for somewhere to park south of Biarritz, but this part of France is atypically lacking in motorhome facilities and most of the parking clearly signposted as being not for motorhomes (apparently this can be ignored in low season but we weren’t keen on having that discussion with local police). The only aire was in St-Jean-de-Luz which wasn’t recommended and in any case was at the mid point of the walk so pretty impractical – we did see the aire on our walk and were glad we hadn’t decided to go for it as it was on the side of a main road and very tight, at the point we went past there was a motorhome trying to reverse into a space and seemingly wedged in a position where it was impossible to move in any direction, surrounded by ‘helpers’.

In the end we decided on a campsite and picked one of the very few that were still open; Camping Le Tamaris is just south of Bidart and right on the coast. The campsite had small pitches but made up for this with excellent facilities. A very nice unheated swimming pool, sauna, steam room and hot tub plus lovely hot showers. The only downside, no toilet seats, why? Not only is it uncomfortable but toilets look naked without them.

As we drove south past Bayonne and Biarritz the scenery changed from the flat pine forests that had dominated the silver coast to a more undulating landscape with the added glamour of the Pyrenees in the background. It lifted our spirits to see something different and this made up for the roads becoming more congested as we entered this ‘well developed’ section of coast.

The morning after we arrived at the campsite we set out on this much touted walk. South from the campsite the ‘Sentier Littoral’ was mostly signposted with yellow daubed steel markers although in St Jean de Luz these were replaced by circular markers embedded in the pavements. The coast nearest to the campsite was a string of small coves characterized by cliffs of friable folded schist rocks. Sometimes the route was along narrow paths skirting these beaches, with slippery wooden steps climbing and descending between shore and cliff. At other times we shared the cycle route. Although it was attractive it didn’t have the same glorious wildness as our favourite British coast path routes and we were very conscious that we were just a few yards away from significant conurbations.

Sinuous rock formations on Centiz beach

It didn’t seem like any time at all before we reached the outskirts of St Jean de Luz and joined the path around the large bay. From the small park on the Pointe de Sainte Barbe with it’s chapel and signs warning people to stay away from the cliffs we took steps down to the long promenade. This took us all the way along the seafront to the large harbor.

Seafront properties with their front doorsteps stretching out to the promenade

From the south side of the harbor we followed the coast road around to the Fort de Socoa past old quays and fortifications which were slowly slipping into the sea. By the time we reached the fort (unfortunately boarded up) we had done just over six miles and it was time to check the bus timetable to see if we would carry on to Hendaye or turn around and walk back. With the bus timings likely to give us a long wait we decided that turning around would be the best choice.

Fort de Socoa

To try and provide a bit of variety we took a different route through the back streets of town to the Pointe de Saint Barbe before rejoining the coast path and stopping off for a bit of rock pooling when we reached the beach closest to the campsite.

Watching paragliders above the beaches north of St Jean de Luz

As a walk it wasn’t the not-to-be-missed route that had been hyped, but it was a pleasant and easy day out. Perhaps the section to Hendaye would have provided some additional excitement but we hadn’t got our timing right. We were slightly disappointed but pleasantly tired when we got back to the campsite. I put a load of laundry on and while I waited for it to finish I took advantage of the facilities with a quick swim before relaxing in the steam room. Paul was going to join me but the pool area was quite busy and he only had swimming shorts and not the obligatory pair of budgie smugglers.

 

Calm Waters

28/10/17

Further south, still enveloped by the pine forests of the Landes region of France, is a purpose built resort with the rather long name of Vieux-Boucau-Les-Bains. Part of it’s attraction is an artificially created lagoon which lets in sea water at high tide and has sluice gates to control the exit of water; this gives people the option of the surf beaches of the Atlantic or the calmer waters of the lagoon. Even though we had set off early we still found it incredibly busy when we arrived, it was Saturday and very sunny after all. The two aires were near to capacity and there was a constant flow of people arriving, we queued up behind a couple of other vans to get in and I went to look for possible parking spots while Paul helped them to get through the airlock style barriers (the trick was to get close to the ticket machine as the front barrier wouldn’t lift unless your van was close enough to the sensor). We wedged ourselves into a spot in the sun on the southern side of the lagoon and hooked up to the electricity, at €7 a night for a pitch plus electricity within a stone’s throw of the lagoon, it didn’t seem like bad value.

Looking over the Vieux-Boucau-des-Bains lagoon

We had a quick stroll around the end of the lagoon watching the fisherman who were lined along the outflow from the lagoon. We decided that the calm waters were too good an opportunity to miss and we should get the Kayak out and enjoy a spot of paddling and fishing. It was easy to launch the kayak from the shore close to the aire and we started with a gentle paddle around the lagoon gliding over long strands of green weed waving in the gentle currents of the lagoon. We could see fish jumping as we approached, darting out from their shelter in the weed, but despite best endeavours weed was all we caught.

Looking down the channel that leads from the lagoon to the sea

We circled the lagoon again, closer to the island in it’s centre this time, and pulled up a couple of times to explore it’s beaches. Here we paddled in the shallower waters looking at all of the life, hordes of hermit crabs in their stolen shells crawled across the sands, starfish nestled in the weed and small fish were well camouflaged against the sand. The waters of the lagoon were too weedy, and the bottom too muddy to tempt us in for a proper swim. We gathered a few clams from under the sand to make ourselves a starter for dinner, but they were too gritty even after a few hours being purged and the juices in the pan were grey with silt. Luckily we had cooked up some pork and roasted veg for a main course which kept hunger at bay.