We left Castellon to head inland to get bit of variety. Our initial destination was Sagunto. I wanted to visit Sagunto castle, the remains of a Roman fortress topped with Moorish and medieval defences. It’s highly visible from the road as you journey south perched on the top of a hill with the modern town around it’s base.
With no motorhome parking in the modern city we initially tried to find a parking spot at the railway station, but it was far too busy to squeeze us in. We drove around for a bit in a search of some parking but didn’t turn up anything we were happy with. In frustration we popped to Lidl, did a bit of shopping and looked on the map. It was then I remembered that it was Monday and like many tourist attractions the castle is closed on a Monday. Although we could have walked around the outside of the castle by this point we just decided to give it a miss. Maybe we could come back another day.
Onwards we travelled to our next planned spot. Segorbe. The motorhome parking here was on the edge of the road with a service point and multiple motorhome parking spots. The railway line runs parallel to the road but the trains were infrequent and didn’t disturb us overnight. There is a sign that indicates overnight parking is not allowed, but it seems to be ignored. We weren’t the only people here and the police drove past several times.
We spent the remains of the afternoon wandering around the town that rises on the hill behind the parking area. There is enough here to for an interesting stroll, the old city walls and their towers, remains of a medieval castle and more modern buildings. An interesting cathedral and, as you might expect, many churches.
The following morning we set out on a walk around the Pallencia river. Our aim was to reach the Salto de la Novia, an impressive waterfall. We set off from our parking spot around the eastern side of the bulge of Segorbe, taking tracks through orchards of oranges and persimmons to bring us to the Pallencia at the ‘Fuente de los 50 Canos’. Each spout of this fountain has the crest of a different province of Spain.
From here we followed the side of the river for a short while before heading up, past a tennis centre onto a ridge of red rock. Following a well worn trail through scrubby Aleppo pine and holm oak that eventually dropped down and bought us to the waterfall below an elaborately eroded cliff.
At the waterfall there was a large group of students and we were shocked to hear so many people speaking English. The exchange group were making their way along the river but moving very slowly in the way of large groups of teenagers.
We continued on up the river where there was another waterfall, accessed by some steps but barely a trickle. There were a couple more water fountains along the way and goats climbed the rocks on the other side of the river.
After a while we turned around and made our way back, past the waterfall where the students seemed to have made little progress and were still gathered in clumps. Instead of climbing back up onto the ridge we bore right and continued to follow the river for a while, finding evidence of previous man made water courses and aqueducts – now dry and collapsed.
When the path headed away from the river and up to a track we left it and followed a modern irrigation channel. This was full of water and bordered by bamboo but we managed a balancing act along the concrete edge to short cut through olive groves back to our original path. We headed back down to the 50 spouts and to vary the return route a little we wandered through the narrow streets of the town.
If there’s one thing we have realised on our travels so far it’s that beach locations can offer so much and deliver so little. It has, I think, to do with the commercialisation of seaside locations and the resulting over development, often accompanied by the economic deprivation that accompanies such a seasonal and trend dependent economy. We see it in the UK, and even more so we have seen it in Portugal, Italy and Spain. And so our foray to the coast is accompanied by a little nervousness about what we will find.
Our first spot on the coast was at the motorhome parking behind the Castell of St Jordi d’Alfama. A tolerated motorhome parking spot (no services) right on the coast, in the area of the Tres Calas tucked between two of the three pretty sandy coves. It’s surrounded by villa developments of varying quality, many owned by ex-pats trapped in negative equity. It has that odd and peculiarly Spanish situation where one minute the roads will be beautifully newly laid tarmac and the next minute will be old rumbling strips of concrete. The route in took us on what looked like a service road under the railway and motorway before bringing us up in a huge area of parking which was already busy with motorhomes.
Despite it’s oddities it was a peaceful and rather beautiful place. The coastline is conglomerate rock, highly eroded, forming many small coves, caves and overhangs. The GR 92 route runs along the coast and is marked with red and white stripes, sometimes along the coast, sometimes clambering over rockfalls and sometimes back into the streets. We wandered north along this path until just before the power station and then wandered back again, stopping frequently to admire the crystal clear sea and at one point a snorkeler making his way around the rocks.
Our next stop was Peniscola (yes the name does engender a bit of a snigger). Last year we had stopped at Alcossebre, on the southern edge of the Serra d’Irta natural park. We had walked along the coast and seen the promontory of Peniscola in the distance. This year we finally made it there in the motorhome. We had high expectations, many people have talked about how beautiful the place is. Our view? Well the castle on a rock jutting out into the ocean is very scenic and it’s worth a ramble around the walls and the surrounding narrow streets. The views of the Serra d’Irta are beautiful and the way that the more exclusive end of town climbs in whitewashed steps up the side of the hill is attractive. Turn north and look at the beach and it’s high rise backdrop and it’s just another over exploited beauty spot. Perhaps we were in an unusually negative mood, but it just wasn’t somewhere we wanted to stay. We had paid to stay at Parking Els Daus – a fairly standard private motorhome parking spot – otherwise I think we might have just moved on.
Our third coastal location was at El Grao de Castellon. Here in the stretch of coast between resort town Benicassim and the working port of Castellon there are two options for motorhome parking. You can stop by the airfield in a large car park without services, or you can stop on the parking next to the planetarium which has services. Both have their benefits but as we needed services and then there just happened to be a spot available, we stayed by the planetarium.
On first sight this wasn’t for us, lots of motorhomes squished together behind a long and unexciting sandy beach, but there was something about the place that really appealed. Perhaps it was the parks, one park littoral just behind the beach with boardwalks and paths and one park of pine trees with paella barbeques and play areas, both made pleasant places for a wander. Perhaps it was the sight of parachutes descending from the sky on a regular basis, tiny specks of colour against the blue. Perhaps it was the harbour with it’s friendly cafes. We didn’t do much here, we watched birds (lots of hoopoes) and bats, we waded in the sea, we chilled in the van and we sat in the cafes. It was a nice place and we stayed a second night without needing any persuasion. It’s a good place to linger for a day or two even though I cant quite put my finger on why.
When we left the parking area at La Selva there was already someone waiting to take our spot. I really hope the local community gain something from having the motorhome parking there.
Our destination was a parking spot inland, provided by the cooperative Wine and Olive Oil producer Cellar Masroig. I am really quite uneducated about wine, I like drinking the stuff – particularly soft, easy drinking, red wines – but I don’t know much about it. I was looking forward to trying some locally produced wine rather than just picking up a cheap bottle from the supermarket.
The village of El Masroig sits near the border between the Priorat and Montsant DO regions. The main grape grown is Carignan, one I’d never heard of – and it’s not surprising as it’s rarely used to make a single variety wine. The lady in the winery explained that Carignan has high yields but has to be picked by hand, it’s main characteristics are high tannins, strong acidity and a deep colour. Not my sort of wine at all. When we arrived at the parking in the morning we saw people turning up with plastic 5 litre bottles which they were getting filled in the winery. It turned out that the wine they were collecting was pure Carignan wine and I insisted on trying it although I was told I wouldn’t like it. True enough it was too rough for me.
Fortunately for me the blended wines (using Grenache, the other key grape variety in the area) were much more enjoyable and I particularly liked their boxed Vi Negre. So I had to pick up one of those (I think I’ll be returning to pick up some more) along with some of their filtered olive oil and a jar of local honey. We didn’t do a tour of the winery, but the shop is very accommodating and has lots of samples of wine and oil available for people passing by.
We didn’t just come here for the wine, there is also plenty of walking in the area. So when we arrived, and before we even leapt into the winery, we were off on a hike through the vineyards and olive groves of the area.
We decided to do a walk that joined two paths to make a circular route. The only issue being the part where the paths joined, it looked like we’d be able to follow a ridge but we weren’t sure.
So we set out of the Northern side of the village on the Cami del Masroig y Bellmunt following a well marked track used by the local growers to access their crops. Although it was mostly dry, there was still evidence of the recent floods in the scoured clean barrancas.
Lo Serrai is a small peak on the end of a ridge and we turned off the main path towards it (still signposted) and clambered up the friable rock to reach it’s summit. From there the marked path ended but we wanted to follow the ridge to the west and drop down to pick up the Puig Roig track. It took a few false starts before we found the trail along the top of the ridge. And it was good walking once we found it, but we were continually delayed by route finding. We knew that people had walked it – there was a wikiloc route along it (sadly the GPS info was incorrect) and we found small cairns along the way – but the top of the ridge was scrubby and there were multiple routes through, some ending on the edge of the cliff.
Finally we started to drop down and the route became easier to find. We worked our way through a vineyard where the vines were clad in their autumn leaves and around a muddy Olive grove to reach the path to Puig Roig By this time we were too tired (read frustrated) to go and visit the archeological site of Puig Roig itself, so once we reached the track (actually an asphalt road, but we didn’t encounter any motorised vehicles) we followed it back to El Masroig.
We stayed at the Cellar Masroig parking that evening in one of the six (I think) marked out bays for motorhomes and topped up using their free service point the following morning. It was a really peaceful night on the outskirts of the village.
Tarragona is not all about ancient Rome, but the industrial port city on the shores of the Meditteranean was the earliest Roman city founded on the Iberian peninsular, so part of the draw for us were the Roman remains (affectionately known as ‘old sh*t’ by Paul) dotted around the city.
Our first Roman site was slightly outside the city, an impressively intact (and impressively free) aqueduct that hides in a park a few kilometres from Tarragona’s centre. We stopped here on the afternoon of our visit to Poblet, taking a stroll amongst the scrubby pines that are so typical of Spain’s coastal areas and wandering across and under the aqueduct. It’s a fine way to spend a couple of hours and if we both had working bikes we could have cycled from here into Tarragona city itself along a pedestrian/cycle track.
We had looked at some reviews of Tarragona’s motorhome parking spots and had dismissed them on the basis of reports of robberies and people being moved on. In hindsight we probably needn’t have worried at this time of year, but feeling a little cautious we decided to stay outside of Tarragona and use public transport.
Our chosen parking spot was in the town of La Selva del Camp where there is a modern parking area with services and free electricity. Oddly it doesn’t have drinking water, but this is being remedied – a tradesman and a local government employee (or so we judge by their sign written transport) were discussing the best possible site for the tap while we were there, we asked in our broken Spanish when drinking water would be available and the answer was ‘when you next visit’. It was the busiest motorhome spot we had been on to date with multiple nationalities parked up and all of the spaces taken by the time the final van turned up that evening (they doubled up with their friends on one of the generous parking spots). We spent the evening wandering the town and sussing out the time it would take to walk to the train station. It was back to Bertie for tea, after we’d visited a couple of local shops for some fresh veg and bread. We still haven’t got to grips with the late dining arrangements in Spain and so if we eat out it’s usually at lunch time.
The following morning we were down at the station with the commuters, I was a bit nervous as we didn’t have anywhere to purchase tickets, but as soon as we were on board it was evident that it was perfectly normal to buy tickets on the train. The conductor spoke Catalan to us and then switched to English which somewhat undermined my attempt to speak Spanish, but I did try. It’s not the speaking that foxes me so much as understanding the responses.
Tarragona is highly industrialised and our train journey took us past the petrochemical factories that sit behind the port, where smoke belched into the sky and a bright flame burned at the top of a chimney. Starlings queued along the wires and fences in their thousands silhouetted against the dull sky. It all looked a bit post apocalyptic.
The train arrived into Tarragona station without any Mad Max style mishaps and we were ready to start our wandering around the sights of the city. We walked up to the amphitheatre first, not much is left of the ancient Roman site, a few arches and terraced seating – some built and some cut into the natural rock embankment. Although you can see most of it from the outside we had decided we would pick up the MHT (Museu d’Historia de Tarragona) ticket that would provide access to Tarragona’s main Roman sites as well as a few other places. It was only €7.40 each which seemed a small price to pay.
We wandered around, using a tourist map provided by the amphitheatre to help spot bits of Tarragona’s past dotted around the city, a bit of a wall here, some arches and colonnades there. In fact that was one of the most interesting aspects of the city, the way that you can see how the city built up around and on top of it’s historical buildings, using them for building materials (the amphitheatre) and for refuse and drains (the long vaults of the circus). With the ticket we visited the Muralles – the Roman walls, later developed as defences against cannons – the Praetorium – which was repurposed as Medieval castle and has amazing views over the city – the Circus – where chariot races were held by the Romans and now partially hidden under 18th and 19th century houses. There was an excellent short animation in the vaults of the Circus, showing the location of the Roman buildings and the way the layers of the town had built up over the top.
For a bit of something different we visited the free Modern Art museum which had an interesting collection of works by Julio Antonio, of importance to the city because he created a monument to the survivors of the Siege of 1811, a particularly horrific episode in the Peninsular wars. The final sculpture was controversial because of it’s classical nature (ie naked bodies) and it took some time before it was finally installed in the location it was intended for.
As well as the ancient stuff we wandered around the more modern areas where the streets are wide and clean. A statue of a ‘Castell’ stands on one of the main streets. Building human castles is something that Tarragona has taken to such extremes that it has UNESCO recognition. If you visit in the summer you can watch teams practicing in the lead up to the championships in October.
There is obviously a lot of development going on along the seafront to improve the pedestrian access and we wandered out to the Punta del Miracle to take a look at the beaches. This is also where one of the motorhome parking spots is and it looked perfectly safe and pretty busy.
Tarragona was great for a varied day in a small, industrious, city. We were tired but satisfied when we got back on our train to La Selva. The weather had warmed during the afternoon and heavy clouds were building over the hills. By the time we got back to the van it was a muggy moody twilight and before long we started to hear rumbles in the distance. The thunder and lightening storm that followed was pretty impressive, most people in the parking spot were in their vans, but we stood outside, joined by a couple of other Brits and watching the light show. Until the first fat raindrops started to fall and then we all raced inside again.
We woke up to a dreary morning at La Pobla de Segur and decided to move on rather than stay and look around the area. As the motorhome area is next to a park we had a quick leg stretcher before we left, joining local dog walkers taking in views over the large lake and across to the hills beyond. Although we had left the main mountain ranges of the Pyrenees the terrain is still mostly hills and ridges and quite dramatic.
While we had breakfast we triggered the free electricity again to give all of our devices a final charge. There are two electricity points on the service tower and they are free, but they have to be triggered every hour as they are still on the same timer that would normally be triggered by a coin or jeton.
Our drive took us south east, we were heading towards Tarragona, our first touch on the coast. With the weather so dull we thought we might get there in one journey, but I took the opportunity of a long easily navigated drive to do some research and decided we should stop at Poblet monastery on the way. Before we got there though we passed through the Serra del Montsec and were taken aback by the dramatic limestone cliffs and the gorge of the Noguera Palleresa river. We stopped for another leg stretch and a gawp at the rock strata, caves and cliffs. The highest mountain here is 1676m, higher than anything in the UK, and yet I had never heard of it until we got here. Spain has got so many mountains and I feel a little guilty that I only know about the Pyrenees and the Sierra Nevada. As a comparison the average height above sea level of Spain is 660m, compared to the UK at 162m so it’s a pretty hilly country. We made a note to come back here some time in the future and do a tour of Spain’s less well known mountain areas.
After our stop we continued following the river towards Lleida, the views were great and it wasn’t a difficult drive. Lleida was a point where we could fill up with fuel and pick up some supermarket goods before we continued to Poblet. It was also the point where we suddenly found ourselves out of the mountains and into agricultural Spain, surrounded by olive groves and almond orchards.
Poblet monastery has a large car park down some good but not overly wide roads in a very peaceful location amongst vineyards. Peaceful so long as you are immune to the sound of the bells regular chiming. They allow overnighting and we decided to spend the night and visit in the morning. If we had thought it through we would have gone to the ticket office that evening, but we didn’t realise that entry was on a timed basis and ended up having to wait nearly an hour. You have to go in and leave (they lock the gates) with a tour group, although you don’t have to actually follow the tour leader once you are inside. They didn’t have any English tours running while we were there so we payed our 8 euros (it’s 10 euros with a tour guide) and were let in with the Catalan tour. We had a handy booklet in English so that we could work out what we were looking at. Although we didn’t stay with the guide, he was a very proficient English speaker and was quite happy to answer questions when we were let out at the end of our visit.
The monastery itself is a UNESCO world heritage site. A large complex of austere stone buildings around a large church and beautiful cloisters. Alongside the original 12th century buildings and later medieval additions there are a number of modern buildings including a guesthouse. Despite being very obviously modern they blend quite well with the ancient complex.
There was a gardener in the cloisters while we were there, creating beautiful herby scents as he weeded and pruned.
The church may be best known as the resting place for a number of medieval kings and queens of Spain and the tombs are quite splendid.
Possibly more interesting is it’s history. It was originally founded by Cistercian monks after the Moors were conquered in this part of Spain. It is said, although it was almost certainly propaganda from the supporters of the confiscation of monastic property, that the monastery became highly corrupt, only interested in increasing it’s wealth and luxury. Whatever the truth, after the Spanish dissolution of the monasteries it was abandoned, ransacked, fell into disrepair and plundered for stone by local people. It was only in 1940 that a group of Cistercian monks from Italy returned to Poblet and began the process of restoring the monastery, reversing the decline of the buildings and extending it to provide modern services. The work continues and a small community of monks live here, seen in occasional glimpses as we took our tour.
We wandered around the inner areas, taking in the calm beauty of the spaces until the tour group were finished, the gates were unlocked and we were allowed back out.
As I’m writing this blog post I am sitting in Bertie at a parking spot on the meditteranean coast and the outside temperature is 21°C. It’s a far cry from the single figure days and frigid nights in the Pyrenees. The one common thread is sunshine. We have been really, really lucky; our time in the Pyrenees has been sunny more often than not and now we’re down at the coast in the sunshine too. While we were in the mountains we had seen news of flooding in France and more latterly reports of heavy rain and flooding on the Catalan coast of Spain but we’ve managed to avoid the worst of it. Fingers crossed that luck will continue.
These two days were to be our last in the Pyrenees for now. We had finally decided that we would allow ourselves some beach time, a treat for being so active for the past eight and a bit weeks. Before we left we had two more walks planned in the Vall de Boi. Originally we were going to base ourselves in the car park by the hotel at Caldes de Boi. But there is no phone reception there and so we decided we would backtrack down to a parking area by the side of the road. Not that we absolutely MUST have data, but …
So we moved back downhill , the only downside of this parking area was the noise of the trucks going past as went back and forth to the Mineral Water bottling plant up the road. Luckily they didn’t work overnight, but they made an earlier start than we usually do. Oh and it was a little bit sloping, we ended up using our levelling blocks which doesn’t happen very often.
Our first walk left from this parking spot, following the Ribera de Sant Nicolau, mostly a there-and-back journey, but with a couple of options to add a bit of variety. We weren’t going any higher than about 1900m so we didn’t have to worry about snow and there was nothing demanding about the path that rose steadily at an easy gradient. This was going to be a leisure walk for the joy of the scenery and it turned out to be a favourite.
From our parking spot there was a short walk up to the next car park, somewhere we couldn’t drive Bertie but smaller, thinner (ie under 2m wide), vans would be able to access. It didn’t really matter because it was only a short walk and on the way we had nice views of the river and came across an old lime kiln.
A little way further up the path and we came across our first challenge. The Pyrenean cow is a cute looking creature with fluffy ears and long lashed eyes, but they make a heavily muscled and obstinate barrier in a small space. They had congregated on the path, crowding together for warmth. Of course cows are inquisitive creatures so they wanted to get closer to us rather than back away. With the electric fence behind us there was no chance of us being able to back off and let them pass us, we were going to have to push past them. Paul did his best cow-herd impression and chivvied them backwards (not a cows favourite direction) until we got to a spot where we could get off the path and go around them. It was only about 5 meters but it took a good twenty minutes.
The path continued to a bridge across the river. Here it is possible to walk along both sides of the river, so we crossed the bridge on the way up and came back down using the other path, it’s definitely worth doing both. The path on our side of the river is called the Otter path, but we weren’t lucky enough to see any. There were squirrels though, red squirrels and their black cousins scampered between the trees industriously preparing for winter. Along this path we also passed the chapel and partially ruined hermitage of Sant Nicolau, only opened for the annual pilgrimage on the 1st of July.
The Estany de Llebreta is the point where the two paths meet again, we dropped down to it’s shores where the calm water reflected the autumnal trees on the far side of the lake. On the way back we followed the lake-side path to it’s western end where we crossed a bridge to take us onto our return route.
At the far end of the lake is a beautiful waterfall, a series of stone cascades and pools with a path that climbs easily by it’s side. We clambered up the rocks and finally emerged onto the Aigüestortes plateau.
On the Aigüestortes plateau is where you can see where the name – the tortuous waters – derives from. The river twists and turns in slow but tight meanders through the valley, flowing under broad leafed trees and across meadow grass, crossing between erratic boulders and shaded marshes. It’s a beautiful place for a picnic and we sat here in the warming sun just taking it all in, watching the vultures taking to the thermals in the blue sky above us.
If you cant walk this far the national park taxis will bring you all the way to the plateau, where there is a wheelchair accessible route that explores the river for a couple of kilometres. We followed this route with it’s shaded views of the water, but in these winter conditions the shade had left the boardwalk icy and treacherous, rivalling the cows as the most challenging part of the walk.
You could also take a taxi to this point if you wanted to walk deeper into the park. This path eventually links up with the Estany Sant Maurici, where we’d been a few days before. It’s a long walk but with the help of the summer bus service that goes between the two ends of the walk you could do it in a day, or stay in the refuge at Estany Llong to make it two more comfortable days. It feels like a challenge for the future, linking the two places that give the national park it’s name.
We stayed in the same parking spot overnight and then drove back up to the Caldes de Boi the following morning. We had a couple of possible walks to do from here and we chose to do something a little more strenuous today, walking up the steep slopes on the western side of the valley to reach the two lakes Gémena de Baix and Gémena de Dalt.
This path starts on the road north that leads to the reservoir, but soon turns off to the left past a couple of large erratic boulders. It climbs steeply through the forest amongst mossy boulders and silver barked trees.
After a while you start to hear the sound of the river, but only ever catch glimpses of it between the trees to the left until the steep slopes level off and the path crosses the intertwining streams.
More steep slopes then took us up to the plateau below the lakes where once again we had to cross the river, here it was snowy but passable and we could see our route onwards would take us up the rocky cliffs to the north. A waterfall teased us with distant views but we never reached it. The signpost told us it would be an hour and a half to reach the topmost lake that was only about a kilometre on the map, sure enough it was a steep and strenuous walk.
When we emerged by the lower lake we were in a beautiful cirque with snow all around and the water partially frozen. Our route took us around the lake and then up a step in the valley to the next lake where we ascended the side of the valley to get a seat with a view. From here we could see mountain peaks for miles, a beautiful view between the clouds, we are really going to miss this.
We followed the same route back to Bertie. Only just over 10k, but we had climbed nearly 900m and it had taken us 5 hours. A tough walk but worth it for the views over the park.
That evening we left, driving southwards out of the park and out of the Pyrenees. Our parking spot for the evening was at La Pobla de Segur, a nice parking spot with services and electricity. But it wasn’t the mountains.