When we got on our bikes the following morning it was with the intention of heading east and exploring the nearby WWF nature reserve. But first of all we had to cross a river. At one point we crossed a canal, thick with reeds and noisy with the burbling of frogs. We thought it was the river but a check of the map revealed we hadn’t gone far enough.
When we found the river we followed it’s bank northwards on a farm track, hoping to find a bridge used by one of the many farms in the area The only thing we found was a railway bridge until we got to the main road. As the main road was the equivalent of a motorway I wasn’t happy to cycle on it – and besides it probably wasn’t allowed.
A quick look at google showed the nearest bridge that was suitable was 14k upstream, of course there was always the possibility we might find that elusive farm bridge but we decided it was time to change our plans. So we set course for the inland town of Nova Siri. At this point I managed to get another puncture which needed a roadside repair, my inner tubes look like they have measles.
We cycled under the main road and got onto the Strada Provincial that heads to Nova Siri. The road inland was quiet, a gentle but consistent uphill along the side of a ridge. The landscape was mostly farms, cherry trees thick with blossom and pear trees starting to bud but vines still looking bare. The verges of the roads were colourful with spring flowers, reds, oranges, yellows and purples. Farm dogs grew excited as we passed, chasing us down their fence lines but well trained to stay inside their territory.
As we approached Nova Siri we branched off to the right on a closed road and past a small church. Then finally we went up into the pretty little hill top town. In the distance the higher town of Rotondella looked inviting but we fought off the temptation to go that far, instead we rode downhill out of Nova Siri and this time followed the valley south. We took the Contrada Grotte del Carmine along the valley next to a river still singing with the frog chorus. We had to cycle up switchbacks out of the other side of the valley for a while before we re-joined our outward route where the underpass took us below the main road.
Once back closer to Bertie we spent a while pottering on our bikes around Nova Siri Scalo trying to find a shop that might be open so we could buy some bread. Nothing was open over the extended lunch period so we changed our plans for dinner. Italy, similar to Spain, is wedded to an extended lunch break (sometimes as long as 12:30 – 16:00) when only cafes and restaurants and large supermarkets seem to be open, down in this sleepy holiday resort it was eerily quiet. Later that afternoon everyone was back out for their early evening passegiata down the seafront.
That evening we decided to stay put for a second night, serenaded for the evening by the strangely mechanical car alarm hooting of Scops Owls in the pine forests behind us.
It might seem like we’re doing the Hokey-Cokey with our regular alternation between coast and inland. It was time to put our left leg in and move inland again. Our destination this time was the Sila mountains. The landscape here is a densely forested high plateau with several lake reservoirs. We were attracted by the well marked and maintained forest trails, unusually for Italy we could find the routes online which gave us lots of opportunity to prepare.
La Sila has several ski areas as well as walking, mountain biking and plenty of interesting flora and fauna. While we were there the ski resorts were in their last throes, but events were being held for Easter and snow conditions still looked ok for a bit of morning skiing in Lorica. Other resorts had lots of brown patches. We weren’t here for the skiing though, tempting as it was. We were here for the walking and biking.
Our first night was spent on the shores of Lago Ampolino, parked on a small spit of land that extends into the lake. The motorhome service point, owned by the nearby café, was shut when we arrived; winter covers were over the water supply and the waste disposal, but the owners must have spotted us and it was uncovered by the following morning.
Our drive up had been slow and winding but nothing too adventurous, the highlight being just a few meters away from our parking spot when a black squirrel darted across the road in front of us. We saw several other black squirrels while we were in the area, but this was the only one we managed to capture a grainy photo of. The black squirrels here are assumed to be a genetic variant of the red squirrel, although a bit of web trawling reveals an opinion that they are a separate species.
The weather was good when we arrived at the lakeside so we spent the afternoon lazily pottering around, strolling around the village and very low key ski resort (just a hotel and a lift really), watching the wildlife and getting excited (Paul) about a sea plane that skimmed back and forth over the lake a few times. That evening it was pleasant enough to sit outside and watch bats skim over the lake hunting insects. In Italy we have spent a lot of time in car parks with lighting, so it was nice to get a bit of darkness and see the stars for a change.
The following morning we got on our mountain bikes and headed west along the main road, the SS179. Only a couple of cars passed us, the area seemed very quiet considering that it was the Easter weekend. We took a right hand turn off the road towards the village of Zimmaro and followed random tracks northwards through the forest to try to connect up with the SP216. As we ascended over the small ridge between the two valley roads we encountered more snow between the trees, but also signs of spring starting to emerge. Crocuses were blooming and small bluebell like flowers dotted the verges. When we finally reached the other road we headed east between farmsteads where sheep and cattle grazed. We followed the opposite shore of the lake whose banks were high and tributaries swollen with snow melt. Eventually we had made a full circuit of the lake and arrived back at Bertie.
That evening we decided to move northwards into the heart of the mountains. There was a forecast for snow so we fancied a campsite where we could use our electric heater. Camping Lago Arvo is just outside Lorica and was €8 per person per night in winter. This huge campsite has a lot of very attractive grass pitches by the lake, but we wanted to avoid getting bogged down so stayed near the entrance where the pitches were firmer.
After being on the coast for a while we decided to head inland. The town of Gerace was chosen mostly because of it’s location rather than any particular aim to see the place. Our drive inland was slightly confused by some signs that indicated that the main road, the SP1, was closed. We chose an alternative route along single track roads that took us through the valley of olive groves to the south of Gerace and eventually bought us out on the north side of the town. It was a nice drive, but seemingly completely unnecessary. The closed road was actually not the SP1, but one of it’s subsidiary roads. Oh well, we made it safely and Bertie was congratulated for coping well with the steep and winding roads.
We drove south through the Gerace to reach the parking area, a huge car park that had motorhome parking at the top of the hill. The motorhome spaces had free electricity and water, but there was no evidence of waste disposal (we eventually found a sewer manhole behind one of the buildings near the entrance to the car park). Buildings in the car park hinted that further facilities had been planned, but they were empty and shut. The views were stupendous, looking towards the coast at Locri, inland to the Aspromonte mountains and up to the medieval village on it’s sandstone cliff. I expect that there is a charge in the height of the tourist season (there was a little booth for someone to sell parking tickets) but for now this was a lovely spacious car park that was free of charge.
The town had looked lovely as we drove through it, so we decided to spend the afternoon exploring. The medieval centre sitting on the rocky ridge has picturesque alleys for wandering around, the ruins of a castle guard the end of the ridge and in the centre of the town (or maybe it should be a city) is the largest cathedral in Calabria. Everything was pristine, the golden sandstone of the buildings shone in the sunshine and the smooth flagstones of the streets added their lustre, creating a sense of warmth. The views from the top of the town were worth the walk, but there is also a small land train that can transport you around – today it was busy ferrying a school trip of loudly chattering and singing teenagers around the village. We popped into the cathedral, a couple of euros each gained us access to the small museum in the crypt as well as the cathedral proper, a very austere Norman style building with a highly ornate alter as counterpoint.
While we stood on the belvedere by the castle, looking out over the view, we spied a path winding up over a hill opposite. Simultaneously we said that it looked like an interesting cycle route. So the following morning we set out to cycle out of Gerace to the north, through Prestarona and then do a loop through Santa Caterina, Agnana Calabria and the hills behind. We had underestimated the terrain for this ride, there was a steep drop off to Prestarona which we whizzed down, and then a hearty climb up the other side. Even with switchbacks it was hard work and needed several pauses to regain our strength. Of course then we needed to reverse the process, but luckily there we found a relatively gently sloping road in Prestarona which allowed us to climb back out of the valley with our pride still intact. The circular part of the ride covered ‘roads’ that were shown on google but were barely tracks, alternating grassy sward with deep ruts in the sandy soil. At one point as we zigzagged down the slope I spotted Paul going head first over his handlebars, his front wheel caught in a deep hole. Fortunately it was a slow-mo fail and he wasn’t hurt. Despite the difficulties it was a great bike ride, but very slow over the rough and steep terrain. We got back to Bertie aching and exhausted, and decided to spend another night on this sosta, taking in the views and relaxing our muscles.
This has to be one of our favourite parking spots in Italy so far for the views. We always seem to find something special when we make a foray inland and this was no exception.
We had ended up here – near the village of Canalello and Ferruzzano station – unexpectedly so we had no plans and knew nothing about the area. It seems a little ungrateful to just move on when an area has made motorhome parking available and besides we still hadn’t managed to blow the cobwebs from our hair after our lethargic campsite days. What to do? A little research was called for so we explored on google maps and wikiloc to see what was recommended in the area.
Google maps came up trumps with an interesting looking abandoned village inland. Abandoned villages are not unusual in Italy, we’ve already visited a few, but each has it’s own character and history.
The abandoned village gave us a destination to build a bike ride around and wikiloc gave us a few options for routes, and although none would take us quite where we wanted to be we could knit together bits of the off road routes with roads on google maps and end up with a good day out.
After we’d found a local bakery for our lunches we set off inland, an initial very steep climb (i.e. I had to get off and push) up via Puglia took us onto a rough track over farmland before we hit a crossroads where we went straight onto the SP170. It looked like a main road, but there were signs forbidding any large vehicles, we could see why when we found part of the road collapsed. There didn’t seem to be any rock supporting it, just dirt that had been washed away. Apparently landslides are very common in the Aspromonte mountains, and although we were only in the very beginning of the foothills it was no different here.
It is quite common for Italian railway stations to be named for a town inland, miles from the railway line. So Ferruzzano station is by the sea, but Ferruzzano was 10k inland. We had a number of false starts as we tried to make our way up the smaller roads to Ferruzzano. Some ended in fences proclaiming private property and one had been completely washed away, leaving only a stream and some exposed pipes and cables, so in the end we followed direction from google maps.
From Ferruzzano we followed the road to Bruzzano Vecchio. The mediaeval village was finally abandoned due to an earthquake in 1906 (or possibly 1905 or 1908 – each article I’ve read gives a different date). At the highest point of the village are the ruins of the castle of Bruzzano Zeffirio, built on and around one of the natural sandstone outcrops of the area. To one side there is a ‘triumphal arch’, it’s not clear what the arch commemorates but it was erected in the 17th century by the Carafa family, the local ruling family.
We wandered around the buildings, alone apart from the ravens croaking rebukes as we invaded their privacy. We indulged in speculation about the buildings and their purpose as no information was available. Someone has made an effort to provide parking, seating and a water fountain, but no one had gone as far as to place any placards or notices. With very little tourist infrastructure in the area it must be difficult to attract enough people to make maintenance worthwhile.
Once we’d had our fill of mysterious history and had eaten our lunch, we cycled down through the new village of Bruzzano, laid out grid style a couple of kilometres away, and finally down to the river. Yet again our proposed route, a minor road on the south side of the river, had been washed away. Instead we took the ‘main’ road on the north side of the river and followed it to the sea, only a couple of cars passed us on the way. The signs of spring were in the air, orange groves were being tidied up after the harvest, roadside verges were gaining colour, small birds were flitting between the trees and buzzards hunted above.
A short but rather tedious ride along the busy main road back to Bertie finished off the ride. Only about 30k in total, but with an interesting destination and some beautiful scenery.
About 2k from Bertie it was obvious that I had a puncture. I was getting slower and slower and eventually I could hear the frustrating rumble that comes from cycling without any air in the tyres. Luckily I was close enough to Bertie to push the bike rather than attempt a roadside repair on a busy road. Once back the tyres came off and an examination of the inner tubes shower I had two punctures in the rear tyre and one in the front. The ability of thorns to penetrate the rubber of my tyres is a sign I need a new pair, but that will probably wait until I get back to the UK.
We stayed another two nights here, it was easy and convenient and after a little bit of an explore we found the manhole that is used for waste disposal so we knew we have sufficient services. We exchanged pleasantries with the German couple next to us who were very interested to know why we were carrying our kayak the wrong way up for aerodynamics (the roof bars are too low to carry it upside down). We had a longer conversation with an English couple who turned up later, they were on their way back from Sicily and in a desperate search for some good weather. No luck for them as the forecast for the next day was rain all day. We sat in Bertie and watched a thunderstorm roll in, turning the sky a murky brown before the rain and hail hit us.
As we drove into Tropea, passing a number of vegetable selling stalls on the side of the road, I finally remembered why I recognised the name. We had recently watched the Hairy Bikers Mediterranean Adventures and in the first episode they had featured the ‘famous’ Tropea onion. It may be famous in Italy but I hadn’t heard of it until watching the programme, of course now we were here I had to try some.
The red skinned onions are sweet and mild with very little of the acridity of the cooking onions that we might buy in the supermarket. Given that the taste of uncooked onion can linger in my mouth for 24 hours they were the ideal salad onion for me. The onions are sold all year round in various guises, right now the onions on sale are slim, with very little bulb and can be eaten raw in salads like a spring onion as well as being cooked. We particularly like it in a stir fry although I imagine Italians would think that was sacrilege.
Tropea is an attractive town set on top of a cliff with an area of seafront below the cliff where we found a few carparks to choose from. At the moment the parking is free, with the parking meters removed from the car parks. Our sat nav had fun on our journey into Tropea as it tried to entice us into a dive onto a road 5 meters below, but we managed to find a route we were actually capable of and work our way down to the one way system on the seafront. Getting out was equally tricky, as the route south goes under an impassably low bridge (there are signs saying no motorhomes and vans, so it’s worth paying attention to them, guess who didn’t!). You have to head out north, AND the road was closed AND there is a ZTL! In retrospect it would have been easier to go the wrong way back along the seafront, we had seen a number of people doing this but thought that we would be good for a change.
Once in the carpark we were accosted by a ‘fisherman’ who wanted to sell us some fish. At €10 euros a kilo it wasn’t bad value, but they were small fish that would definitely not meet any regs for minimum size. Nevertheless we decided to buy some for dinner, after all they were dead already. Then he then tried to double the price. For some reason being ripped off always makes me feel embarrassed, I blame it on my Britishness. My only defence is what Paul calls my ‘Paddington stare’, I think it makes the recipient think I’m a little simple. Anyway I handed over the previously agreed €10 with a bland look and he wandered off without any further attempt to inveigle more money from us.
We cycled from Tropea to Capo Vaticano, following the smaller roads where we could (a lot of them were dead ends) past endless fields of onions in the red soil. The smell of onion was always faintly in the air, especially where they were being harvested. There were views out to Stromboli and the Aeolian Islands, a little hazy but we could just about make them out. It bought back memories of our trip to Stromboli a couple of years ago. If you ever get the opportunity then do go, it’s an amazing experience to sit and watch the firework display of a live volcano as the sun goes down.
The day had started bright but breezy and the increasingly gusty winds drove us back from the headland and views of Cabo Vaticano to Bertie where we spent the evening watching the sky turn a dark purple, delivering thunder, lightening and hail. With a mixed forecast for the next few days we decided to head to a campsite to do some washing and chores.
After our detour inland we drove back to the coast, picking up on our original intended route. This time we were heading for a long stretch of sandy beach south of the splendid rockiness of Maratea and the blocked roads at Castrocucco.
Praia a Mare is one of those bland Italian resort towns that you seem to find wherever there are long featureless sandy shores. We battled with the railway line, trying to find a route to the seafront that wasn’t height restricted. Eventually we turned off the sat nav and used google, backtracking to the SP1 which bridged the railway.
The ‘lungomare’ (sea front promenade) was pretty uninspiring so we got onto our bikes and cycled around to see if we could find a better spot for parking up. We enjoyed a reasonably long but flat cycle along the length of the seafront and then inland through the town. Towards the south end of the beach an island sits off shore, barely separated from the land. A parking spot here would be more scenic, but needed another drive under the railway. We couldn’t see any indication of the height of the bridge, but it looked ok, and the parking spot was on one of the motorhome parking apps so hopefully we’d fit. There was the back-up of a nice big turning area in case we needed to back out. We drove Bertie down, held our breath (because that will make a difference) and managed to get underneath with ease.
We didn’t do much that afternoon, just wandered about on the shore and clambered over the rocks that formed the broken isthmus to the island. The resort was in maintenance mode with many people cleaning, tidying and re-erecting their beachside cafes.
The following morning we moved on to find somewhere with wifi so we could watch the last day of the six nations. On our way south tried to visit Arco Magno, this is a beach inside a collapsed cave which forms an almost fully enclosed circle of limestone cliffs. The only way to get there is to walk over the headland, either from Praia a Mare or from the resort just outside San Nicola Arcella. We chose to drive to the resort and intended to walk from there, but sadly the stairs over the headland were gated and padlocked.
We didn’t go much further south, stopping at a private sosta – Zio Tom – at €10 it was perfectly adequate for our needs, nice and quiet with good wifi. We hunkered down and watched a very disappointing final day of the six nations (unless you’re Irish of course, in which case well done).
One thing we have learned from our time in Italy is that free motorhome facilities are generally found inland. So when our toilet light came on (it indicates that we only have 7 litres of toilet space remaining) during a middle-of-the-night wee we thought we’d better head for the hills.
We did look for something closer to the coast but in the end we made an inland journey to a sosta in Latronico, we fancied a bit of mountain time as well as needing to empty.
Latronico is not far from the A3, the toll free major road that runs down to the toe of Italy, so it was easy to reach, with only the last section causing any problems; the sat nav tried to direct us down cobbled alleys and we also declined to take the direction indicated in the centre of town (a tight right turn that we weren’t sure we would make). In the end it was quite easy to drive straight up through the lower village (as opposed to the older village which perches on the hill above) and then turn right to get to the sosta.
Here we emptied our toilet and waste water but found that there was no fresh water. A short walk around the village turned up a working water fountain that we used to top up a little before we left. Also we had free electricity at 16 WHOLE AMPS, this was a complete shock to us and we immediately plugged in everything that needed charging. Even on campsites the usual supply is somewhere between 3 and 6 amps which doesn’t usually allow us to do more than run the heater. The website for the village shows that it is keen to attract tourists and new residents and I assume that having a motorhome sosta is part of this (it also says they reserve the right to charge €5 per night, which is fair enough,but no one was collecting at this time of year) . I suppose that attracting ex pats and second home owners is one way of replenishing the population and fortunes of these inland towns even if you don’t attract year round residents.
By the time we got here we didn’t feel like doing much, the sun was shining on us and we were feeling lethargic so we decided to chill out, bumble around doing some chores and watch some more rugby. Above us the broad fin of Monte Alpi looked down with disapproval, making us feel guilty for our laziness. As the afternoon progressed the cloud started to gather over the summit of the mountain and we realised that we were unlikely to be walking the ridge the following day.
Next morning we woke to sunshine and scattered cloud, but above the mountain we could see more cloud gathering. Our energy levels were back up and I took a walk into the village to pick up some lunch. There was a nice ‘Forno’ in town selling bread, but also different types of pizza and focaccia by the slice. For a bit of a change I picked us up a couple of slices each of an anchovy studded focaccia, a potato topped pizza and a roasted pepper and courgette pizza. With lunch taken care of I wandered back through the village. It was a very friendly place, in Italy I have found some places can be wary of strangers, but here the members of the village ‘old boys club’ (the older men who seem to spend a lot of time sitting around chatting) gave me a cheery buongiorno and a chap delivering wood seemed very interesting in why we were visiting but took the conversation beyond the very meagre limits of my Italian, later Paul teased me about being ‘picked up’. It seemed that everyone was ‘on message’ with Latronico’s marketing objectives.
We had decided on a bike ride rather than a mountain climb, so headed up from the sosta into the foothills meandering roughly westwards along roads and tracks and then diving down through a forest to meet the main road. The forest track started out looking pretty good but was heavily boggy in places, particularly at the hairpin ends. We ended up cutting off the corners and taking a more direct route downhill between primrose studded banks and deep drifts of fallen leaves. We saw multiple deer hoof prints but must have been too loud and colourful to catch sight of them.
When we reached the road the weather was still good and we decided to make our way to the reservoir Lago di Cogliandrino as a place that might be a little more scenic for lunch. Needless to say, as soon as we got there the heavens opened and thunder, lightening and hail surrounded us. Luckily there were some little roofed structures near the dam that gave us some shelter as we sat and chewed on our tasty breads. We thought we’d wait until the showers passed, but it was looking more and more dark and gloomy so it was a case of moving on as quickly as possible. Cycling in hail is painful. It manages to get through the vents in your cycle helmet to hit your head and if one doesn’t have the thickest of hair (Paul) it can be quite ouchy.
We took the quickest route back to Bertie – the main road. This may have been a mistake, it wasn’t that busy but the roads were running with water and every car that went past created a bow wave. It didn’t stop raining all the way back, our bikes were clean but our clothes were sopping wet. It was a case of stripping off as quickly as possible and getting into something dry. For Paul this was his dressing gown (the second time I’ve been jealous that he’s had it).
Once back in the warm and dry, with the heater running thanks to our free electricity, we agreed that it had been a great and exciting bike ride. The fact that I may have wanted to cry each time a car went past has been consigned to memory.
We drove down the road to Agropoli, the same road we had driven the day before in the other direction. A parking spot close to the coast was going to be a starting point for a bike ride. Paul knew he had a job to do as the rear tyre on his bike was completely flat, but when he took the bike down off the rack the wheel was buckled so badly that it was rubbing on the fork. We racked our brains trying to work out when we would have picked up this damage, but it didn’t really matter, we weren’t going to be riding the bikes today.
A quick google search found a nearby bike shop just north of Paestum, so we drove up the fateful road again to find it. Despite the language barrier it was pretty obvious what we needed and the staff in the shop had a go at straightening out the wheel before agreeing that yes, we needed a new one. The bike was left with them till the following morning and we needed to make a decision about how to spend the rest of the day.
Along that road we were getting to know so well we had spotted a number of ‘caseificio’. These are the dairies of southern Campania, an area known for it’s herds of buffalo which produce super creamy mozzarella and other buffalo milk products. A quick internet trawl took us to Caseficio Tenuta Vannulo which promised organic mozzarella and more. We had missed the guided tour, but we could still take a look at the buffalo in their winter lodgings and mooch around the dairy buildings. In the dairy itself a small sales area was rammed with people queuing to buy products. Paul decided to wait outside as I took a ticket and got in line. People were leaving with polystyrene cool boxes full of items and I was glad there was a bit of a queue so I could peruse the list on the wall that showed the small range of possibilities. I decided that not only would i pick up some mozzerella but also I would try some buffalo butter. I felt a bit miserly placing my tiny order in light of the large quantities being bought by other people but no one batted an eyelid except at my pronunciation of ‘burro’ (I’ve never been able to roll my ‘r’s). Following the scrum of the dairy we popped next door into the ‘Yogurteria’, a café selling yohgurt, ice-cream, desserts, drinks and sandwiches. An ice cream each – pistachio and chocolate flavours because we’re predictable – for a couple of euros each and we were both relaxed and happy.
We needed to stay in the area to pick up the bike, and we needed to use some services, so decided to drop into Camping Villagio Pini; an ACSI campsite shaded by many pines which I’m sure create welcome shade in the summer, but just created annoyingly heavy water droplets in the rain that evening. The site was nearly empty, apart from some long term tenants who had nabbed the beachfront pitches, we picked an easy access pitch (some looked quite difficult to navigate into) close to the wifi and settled in for the rest of the day. Our indication of money well spent on a campsite, the showers were hot and powerful.
The following morning we popped back up the road to pick up the bike with it’s new straight wheel. Good service and a reasonable price made us very happy. We also popped back into the Caseficio, where there was no mozzarella, but we didn’t care because we wanted more butter. At €1.50 for 250g it was cheaper than supermarket butter and amazingly creamy, tasting almost like clotted cream.
Having picked up the bike you might think we would go for the bike ride we had missed out on. But no, for whatever reason we decided that we would push a little further south and go for a walk. We proceeded through the edges of the Cilento national park down to Ogliastro Marina. We couldn’t make it to our anticipated parking spot – the car park we thought we had spotted on Google Maps was actually part of a large camping village that was closed – but we could park on the side of the road as it was the low season.
From here we walked along the coast path westwards. Initially we thought we were going to be thwarted, having to go through a gate that proclaimed itself private property and encountering fencing where we thought the path should be. But we persevered, by going through the gates and past the fencing we managed to find a cut through to the coastpath. Other walkers and cyclists were using the path and nearby road so we didn’t think we would be in too much trouble. This walk took us along a low cliff, never more than a couple of meters above the water and interrupted frequently by streams and small shingle beaches. Behind the coast was an open pine wood with gnarly trees and lots of green spring growth. Lizards basked on trees and rocks and birds were singing. Waves provided a rhythmic backdrop of noise. It was hard to believe, but this was our first coastal walk in Italy. Our previous attempts to enjoy the coast had been thwarted by the weather, and much of the coastline had been unappealing. Now we were freshly inspired.
We decided that we would move on from our roadside parking, so headed down to the archeological site of Elea/Velia where we parked up in the spacious coach parking ready to visit the following morning.
It was a mystery. We were on our way to the mountains and stopped at a fuel station to fill up with Diesel only to find that we had no petrol (or should it be diesel) cap.
Paul swears that he didn’t forget to replace it when we last filled up. So has someone taken it? We have never had the key, so it would have been possible for someone to filch it, but why would they? There didn’t appear to be any fuel missing so we hadn’t been siphoned.
Anyway, to avoid any conflict I’ve given Paul the benefit of the doubt. We picked up a universal spare so that we at least have something over the hole, but a search for a proper replacement would have to wait until we get somewhere with some auto or camper spares shops.
In the mean time we made it up into the mountains, stopping at a free sosta near Civitella Alfedena (we couldn’t work out how to dispose of our toilet waste here but there was water). We had intended to investigate the ski resort nearby but the area was incredibly busy and we couldn’t find a reasonable parking spot near to the skiing. We later found out that it was the Italian Under 16s ski championships, typically we only found this out as we left the area.
The sosta here is on the shore of a lake and we decided to take a quick trip around the lake on our mountain bikes before heading off again. This was our first ever cycle over snow, a much more strenuous experience than I’d expected with the tyres skidding over the snow and ice and requiring a lot more effort and careful handling to gain any traction. Where the snow had started to melt the ground was very slushy and the mud was deep. Thankfully it was an easy route so it gave us an opportunity to practise, I had even more respect for the guys who had cycled up Vesuvius over snow.
Without the option of skiing there wasn’t much to keep us here – the walking trails were deep with snow and we don’t have snowshoes (maybe something for the future). More snow was forecast for the coming days, so we made our way back down from the mountains before we got stuck. We’ve seen how beautiful the area is and will be back again.
After Rome Paul decreed that he couldn’t cope with any more ‘Old Sh*t’ and needed to detox. So it was time to find somewhere we could walk or cycle and get out into the natural environment. We headed inland to Campodimele, chosen because it gave us access to the hills of the Aurunci Natural Park. What we didn’t realise was that Campodimele is a longevity hotspot. A place where the fabled Mediterranean lifestyle allows residents to live to a ripe old age, in fact they expect the average age of death of the current residents to be 95 years, which – when you think about it – is quite astounding.
Campodimele was yet another Italian hill town and we can’t get enough of them. Even if they are not in tourist guide books there is always something to explore, in fact as we drive past any hill town we end up worrying that we’re missing out on a nugget of interest.
The name of the town literally means field of honey, but sadly I didn’t find any honey to take away with me (I like honey with my favourite breakfasts, yoghurt, porridge or sometimes ‘overnight oats’ a combination of the two – oh ok, my favourite breakfast is a bacon buttie, but I like to pretend to be healthy). It perches on a perfectly conical hill, not in the natural park itself, but surrounded by the park on all sides. It’s only a small town and still has it’s walls and towers incorporated into the buildings that lean up against them. The sosta here sits just below the town and at the start of the walk up Mount Faggeto which was our first outing. There are many trails here and the details can be picked up from tourist information, plus there was a good map board at the Sosta.
We left the sosta to wander up the marked path through the river valley. The markings on the path were the white and red of the Club Alpino Italiano which meant they were well maintained, unlike the locally maintained route markings in some areas which were funded by the EU and have been left to their own devices since funding dried up. The route was not too taxing as it took us on a gentle uphill through the valley criss-crossing the barely existent water. The sound of cow bells could be heard above us on the sides of the valley but the trees were too thick to see through even though most of their leaves had dropped. Along the watercourse were multiple stone dams, we wondered what they were for; they weren’t in use anymore and the pools behind them had mostly silted up. As we got higher we started to see snow on the ground and snowdrops growing around the path, a heartening first sign of spring. When we finally emerged from the woodland we were nearly at the top of the mountain, just a small climb up the slope to the summit cross, made slightly harder work than it needed to be by the thin layer of snow that slipped under our feet.
The wind was strong at the top and we could see clouds starting to roll up the far slopes towards us, we took shelter by the mouth of a cave where warm air (well warmer than outside) was being expelled and creating a tiny microclimate of frost free ferns and grass. Here we ate our lunch quickly so that we could get moving before the clouds reached us. We didn’t want to get stuck in fog.
We struck off the main path for our return route, following barely visible red marks on the rocks that led along a lovely rocky limestone ridge. The views were pretty good and would have been amazing on a clear day. As we reached the end of the ridge, marked by a post, we encountered a solitary bull guarding a small area of pasture, we edged around him carefully before descending steeply down slopes of ankle breaking shattered rock. There was no discernible path now so it was a case of taking a bearing and heading in the right direction, picking our way over rocks, down muddy banks and between mossy trees. Finally we reached the main track back down to the parking spot, as is always the case we could see the pale red path markers when we looked back.
A long walk in beautiful surroundings with no one else for company had been the perfect antidote to the hustle and bustle of Rome. We liked it here so decided to stay another night, this time joined by an Austrian couple in their campervan.
The following morning we took a cycle ride to the village of Pico. We started out following the tiny road between the parking spot and the mountains. This took us past several small farms where the farm dogs enjoyed chasing us, before bounding across the fields to intercept us again later. They knew what they were doing.
We passed a restored but empty monastery before eventually left the road to join a footpath that took us up and down over the side of the hill. It was hard going on the bikes, but the views were amazing and it seemed over too soon as we finally made it to a farm track on the outskirts of Pico where we zoomed down the steep gradient to the main road.
The way back was along the main road , a long slightly uphill stretch of road, we passed Camopdimele before doubling back on ourselves. As we gazed up at the village on the hill above us we decided that we would take the longer more gentle route back, rather than tackling the steep paths back up to the sosta.
Part of the appeal of Tuscany, we decided, was the amount of green growth we could see. Even in winter when the trees were mostly bare, the hills and pastures, riverbanks and gardens all had a verdant glow. And of course that reminded us of home, the ‘green and pleasant land’ of the UK. No wonder so many British people gravitate here, there is enough similarity to the UK to make it comforting but at the same time there are enough differences to make it feel like a foreign land. The exclamation points of cypress trees, the olive groves with their silvered leaves and the endless vineyards all tell you that you are somewhere else.
We started our voyage through the Tuscan countryside in Greve-in-Chianti, the main town in the area. We arrived on the Saturday afternoon with the market starting to pack up, but still it was a busy town with mainly Italian visitors making the most of a fine weekend. The sosta was free, set in a circle with waste disposal under a cover in the centre (which took us a while to find); if it was busy it could make toilet emptying a spectator sport, but it was fairly quiet today with just a handful of Italian vans.
Because it was a nice day and we still had about three hours of daylight left I persuaded Paul that we should go for a ‘short’ bike ride. This started by cycling through the town and then heading uphill on a road that quickly became a track. Up and up and up we went, past fields and vineyards and those beautiful Tuscan farmhouses of golden stone with glossy dark green shutters. Further up, through wood and moorland now, we were feeling the burn in our calves! The hills of Tuscany may look pleasingly rounded but they are bigger than you think.
Finally we reached the point where we would turn off the main track and descend through the woods on some singletrack, in the distance we could hear the sound of dirt bikes revving. We later met these bikes who were using the same tracks as us, fortunately we heard them coming and quickly got out of the way. The downhill had been described as easy but fun, it was definitely fun, but the rocky drops were occasionally too much for me and I ended up getting off a number of times to push my bike down. I expect in summer when the paths are dry it is slightly easier, but in winter the fallen leaves hid tricky sections and the mud was deep and churned by the bikes.
By the time we finally reached the end of the wood and dropped onto a track through a vineyard we were properly mud splattered, just the way it should be. Already knackered we didn’t realise that the next section was back uphill again, steep enough that an elderly couple in their car stopped to cheer us on and provide encouragement (I think). We made it to the village of Lamole where we stopped for some snacks to provide a bit of energy, looked at the map and decided that we should cut the ride short and only go downhill from now on. So we retraced our steps for a short way and then picked up the road leading back to Greve-In-Chianti. Along the way we managed to pick up a fellow mountain biker heading back the same way, so we followed him back until he turned off for home just a few yards from the Sosta.
That evening we were well and truly shattered. and I felt I’d earned a glass or two of Chianti.
We had spent a few days discussing a possible visit to the Verdon Gorge. Would we go? It was ‘sort of’ en-route, but ideally we would want to spend a week in the area, not just a day. Would it spoil it for us if we went for such a short time? Sometimes I think we just drag these decisions out in order to have something to talk about, after all it was never really in doubt. Unless the weather was atrocious we were going.
And the weather was going to be perfect. The forecast was for sun and very little wind. We had a slight hiccough when we arrived at our overnight parking in Trigance. The forecast of light winds seemed like a mickey take as strong gusts rocked Bertie and trees bowed down to scrape the roof with their branches. We checked the forecast, it was still saying light winds, but now there was a warning of strong gusts until 11pm. We crossed our fingers and fortunately the gusts really did stop as forecast leaving us in an eerie but welcome silence.
So with good conditions we had to decide how to make the most of the day. I really fancied the Sentier Martel, but it’s a walk that takes 7 hours one way and the buses that run in the summer to shuttle people back to their cars were not in service on a mid week day in January. Having looked at various options, and agreeing that we had to do something energetic that included views of the gorge, we eventually decided that we would cycle the Route des Crêtes. This is a 23km round trip on the D23 road, offering good views of the gorge and a nice climb and descent all on tarmac. It’s a popular route with drivers, bikers and cyclists, so we weren’t breaking new ground, but we hoped it would be quiet on this winter midweek day.
We tackled the route in the conventional way, clockwise, from La Palud-sur-Verdon. From our overnight parking spot at Trigance we drove to Palud, where we easily found parking in the small car park at the eastern end of the village. Not something that would happen in high season, but there are various parking spots along the road and a big campsite by the start of the D23.
Setting off we had a nice stretch of downhill as we cruised down the D952 towards the junction with the D23. We turned off here and before the climb started we came to a big red sign saying FERME. We chose to believe that this only applied to cars, and as there was no chance of snow or ice on the route we felt confident about our safety. The ascent started, it was energetic but not too much so. As we pushed uphill we met another cyclist who was coming downhill on his road bike, apart from that cyclist and one car we had no other human company, what a joy.
The route has the advantage of many belvederes (view points), but our solitude meant we could stop at any opportunity for views of the gorge in front of us or the valley behind, taking all the sting out of the uphill. The viewpoints give opportunities to get a bit closer to the edge on foot, and we peered over the railings with awe to see the sheer sided cliffs and the thread of green river below. Griffon Vultures, re-introduced in the 90’s, flew so close we could hear their wings beat. Attempts to capture this on camera were thwarted by our desire to watch them.
As we approached the highest point we watched a car drive past us and around the ‘road closed’ barrier. We stopped just after the highest point for our lunch and to watch the vultures again. The car was parked just ahead of us, the driver standing and staring at the sight above him. The reintroduction program must have been a great success as there are at least 20 birds wheeling overhead and more gliding through the gorge.
After lunch we let ourselves freewheel downhill, around the hairpin bends and through the short tunnels. It almost seemed a waste to take it so fast but at the same time it was exhilarating. Our only caution was for the fist sized rocks that had fallen from the cliffs, otherwise we had plenty of room to swing around the turns. At the bottom we were full of high spirits. The adrenaline powered us up the slight incline of the next section as we turned right and entered a lesser gorge, wooded and attractive but without the spectacle of the main gorge. It felt too soon to be getting back to the beginning, but as we rounded a bend we could see the village in front of us.
A brief visit to the gorge, but one well spent. We look forward to returning, we want to kayak on the lakes, hike the Sentier Martel and take other walks around the mountains. That’s at least a couple of weeks enjoying all the area has to offer. But right now we’re on a deadline and cant hang around.
Out thoughts on driving the route in a motorhome.
Firstly, yes we would do it, once you have driven to La Palud you have driven along mountain roads anyway. There is nothing worse ahead. Having said that, Bertie is over 3.5 tonnes (see below) and actually we think this is much more enjoyable under pedal power.
We have no idea what this is like in summer, visions of conveyer belts and nose to tail vehicles come to mind. I think I would avoid July and August if possible.
Take the opportunity to stop wherever possible, the belvederes just before and after the top were our favourite spots. You are here for the spectacle and, if possible, that means getting out of the van and wandering off the road and down the steps to see the gorge at it’s finest.
The route is one-way for the downhill section and so should be tackled in a clockwise direction.
There are two short tunnels on the downhill section. The lowest of these is over 4m in the centre and 3.6 meters at the sides. They are wide enough for large vehicles with room to spare (no width is given but I would estimate just over 3.5m).
The road width is generous for single track, there are no points where you would need to be really close to the edge even in a motorhome. We’ve been on similar sized mountain roads where traffic has flowed in both directions. If you’re comfortable with mountain roads and hairpin bends then this will be a straight forward drive.
The road is closed each year between Nov and April, exact dates vary but can be found on the tourist office website here. The closed section is along the downhill stretch from the highest point, down to the Chalet de la Maline. You can still access the uphill section of the route in motorised vehicles which gives access to good viewpoints over the gorge, and there is a reasonable sized turning spot at the top. The barrier is pretty half hearted (just a low barrier across one side of the road) and while we were cycling the route one car drove past us.
There are signs limiting the route to vehicles 3.5 tonnes or under. I know people have done it in heavier vehicles. It feels as though this limitation is very cautious rather than being driven by the structural capacity of the road. But I don’t know that, and, well…insurance companies and breakdown recovery…I wouldn’t risk it.
And the Routes des Cretes is not the only road that gives great views of the gorge, you can do a circuit around the north and south side of the gorge, these roads have traffic in both directions but are a bit wider. The D71 gives good views, as does the D952 where it runs along the edge of the gorge with fantastic overhanging rocks providing a bit of atmosphere. The Point Sublime is a good spot to stop and take pictures. It is also at one end of the Sentier Martel if you fancy a walk.
We stayed at Portbou harbour for our last night in Spain. We hadn’t intended to stay there but had been frightened off our intended parking spot – Platja de Garbet – by signs indicating that motorhomes weren’t welcome and threatening tow trucks. We would have happily stayed the night, but we wanted somewhere we could leave Bertie while we went for a bike ride and Garbet wasn’t going to be it. A shame as the beach was lovely and empty apart from a few walkers who were taking the coast path at the bottom of the cliffs. We had a quick nosey at the path which looked interestingly rocky and close to the sea, but only wandered as far as the Port de Joan before turning back.
Portbou harbour had it’s attractions, yes it was €10 so more than we had hoped to pay, but it had facilities, was close to town and we knew that we could head up into the hills on our bikes from here. We wondered if we were going the right way, the route to the harbour goes into the town, through a small parking spot and then around a concrete road that skirts the bottom of the cliffs. You cant see the harbour till the last minute.
We arrived to find another British van parked up, but (in typical British style) as it was dark we kept ourselves to ourselves until the following morning. When we had a chat the following morning they informed us that the parking had only been opened up when they arrived, the approach road to the harbour is prone to flooding when it’s windy. With high winds forecast for the following few days it looked like we had arrived at a sweet spot. It was no surprise that by the time we had got back from our bike ride the sign was back up saying that the motorhome parking was closed.
One of Portbou’s features is the huge railway station. This border station is where French trains have to change gauge to proceed into Spain, there is an equivalent border station in France which does the same job for Spanish trains going on into France. As we cycled into the hills we could see the buildings and tracks crammed into a rare section of flat land before disappearing into tunnels.
Our bike ride took us up the switchbacks of the N260a above the harbour until we left the asphalt to follow a track inland from the Coll de Frare. This track continued upwards inland, just below the ridgeline, and eventually led to the border with France. There was nothing here save for a water tank and we poked a toe over the border before continuing up to the end of the track at the Font de Tarabaus (I assume this feeds the water tank below). From here we could see spectacular views of the Pyrenees with their snowy tops as well as the equally beautiful coast of the Costa Brava. I think this is another place we will be coming back to explore in more detail.
We started back down the way we had come, turning left onto a reasonable looking track (there had been some quite steep paths we briefly considered descending before deciding that it would be foolish) which took us down into the valley where we made a speedy return to Portbou, past farms and small holdings that nestled into the steep valley. This took us into Portbou via a tunnel under the railway before we got back to the harbour.
Once back it was time to get Bertie sorted and cross the border to France ‘properly’. We had to ask in the harbour office to get the facilities unlocked so we could empty our waste and fill up with water. I feel a bit shy emptying our toilet in front of strangers, but the chap who had unlocked everything for us politely wandered off so he didn’t have to look at the gunk that is ejected from our toilet cassette. I don’t blame him, it’s not pretty, we don’t use the blue stuff that turns effluent into something a smurf would produce so instead it’s a sludgy green/brown colour. Anyway, that’s enough – I hope no one’s eating while they read this.
The roads from here to the border were incredibly wriggly and hilly so Bertie was put through his paces, even when we left the coast there was no respite as we were heading inland to the hills of the Corbiéres region.
It was going to be a whistle stop tour through the Alpujarras as the inclement weather had delayed our start. We only had three days before we were due to meet our friends in Malaga and so many things to do.
Our last trip to this area had been fourteen years previously when we had stayed in Trevelez for a few days between Granada and Nerja. Then it had been August and blisteringly hot, so it was interesting to get a taste of the Alpujarras in winter. We had never been to the eastern end of the range either, and that was where we started this time.
We had driven up to Canjáyar on the night of the 8th, feeling a thrill of excitement to be in the mountains again. Between us we love the mountains and the sea, but it’s definitely me that loves the mountains more and Paul who prefers the sea. That’s why we love areas like the west coast of Scotland so much; the mountains meet the sea with not a cigarette paper between and neither of us can feel short changed. Spain has more than it’s fair share of mountains, but the distance from mountains to sea is a little further. Not too far though, and it had only taken just over an hour to get from one to the other.
A walk in the Eastern Alpujarras
The parking in Canjáyar was next to the fire station and when we arrived there we volunteers tidying the area keeping it all spick and span. The eastern Alpujarras are less popular than the west, and we didn’t have any overnight company although half a dozen vans came and went making use of the water and waste facilities, rare commodities in these hills. The town was very quiet, but as always there was a panadaria open for people to get their daily bread. It has to be this way because Spanish bread goes from being chewy and satisfying to rock hard overnight like an inverse miracle.
From Canjayar we took a walk up a steep sided valley. We wanted to be on the other side of the A348, so we had to drop down from the town which sits like an island between ridges, and pass under the main road. There are a number of possible routes under the road, most of which are drainage of some kind, but some are just narrow tunnels and some are wider, higher underpasses. We descended from the Calle Animas down a steep concrete track wondering if we were going the right way. The path was overgrown with bamboo and seemed to be someone’s small holding. It was only when we came across another concrete track/drainage ditch that we found some trail markings that took us under the road and gave us confidence we were heading in the right direction.
The path took us steeply uphill to the top of the ridge along the marked trail until one hairpin where we missed the markers. Here we took a route straight ahead along a terrace between vineyards beside an acequia (an aqueduct used to irrigate the terraces). It’s funny how we were complaining about agricultural landscapes only a couple of weeks previously but now were talking animatedly about them. The hard work involved in farming on terraces means that fewer and fewer people are doing it. Children move away and leave family plots untended. Some terraces are beautifully kept, some pragmatically kept (a lot of use of old bed frames for fencing) and some unkempt and slowly disintegrating. We wondered where the responsibility sits for maintaining the terraces, if you were working on the land you would want to know that the terraces above and below you were not going to slip slowly down the mountainside.
When we reached the trail again, after our detour, we decided to follow it back downhill until we could take another deviation to drop into the river valley. Here the path had been washed downhill in a couple of places, leaving eroded channels that required some edging around. It made me nervous but Paul just stepped across them with a wide stride that I seem incapable of when faced with steep downhill slopes. From the river, where a trickle of water was running between more bamboo, we could see that lower terraces had been washed away by floods.
We followed the river valley back to Canjayar, it hadn’t been a long walk but had introduced us to the arid mountain landscape of the Almerian Alpujarras
A Walk in the Western Alpujarras
We hadn’t intended to drive as far as Pampaneira, but as we caught site of the snow covered mountains of the Sierra Nevada, shining brightly behind the more demure Alpujarras we just couldn’t help ourselves and we wanted to get closer to the snow line. We ended up driving as far as Capileira, initially through some dense patches of fog but mostly with clear views and blue skies. We stopped a couple of times along the route – once for a cuppa, and a second time because my sinuses were misbehaving and my head was threatening to explode. Disaster was averted and my head is still in one piece, it must have been a combination of altitude and hairpin bends.
From Capileira we did another walk up another steep sided valley, the Poqueira gorge. This time we took a circular marked route out of the village to take us up to La Cebadilla, an abandoned village which used to house workers on the hydroelectric power station. The landscape here looks greener and more fertile than the east, but is less developed for arable farming, it seems to be used more for sheep and goats than for the vines, olives and almonds of the east.
The path was well marked, a sign of the popularity of walking in this area. There was no chance of missing the trail this time as we ascended steeply out of the village and walked along a path near the top of the eastern ridge of the gorge. Every now and again we would come across a patch of snow and sometimes the path was icy. The snow capped mountains were a constant background presence.
The abandoned village was interesting to walk around. The chapel sadly covered in graffiti and full of empty food containers, the buildings boarded up. One building was being used as a kennels and we could hear the dogs whining and barking inside. It feels odd to have such a beautiful place untenanted.
The route down took us closer to the river, we stopped on the descent as a herd of sheep and goats crossed the path in front of us, under the watchful eyes of a handful of dogs and a shepherd. We passed multiple ruined farm houses, their layout roughly the same as traditional farm houses everywhere – animals and people under one roof to share warmth – and eventually dropped right down to a beautiful shaded spot by the river. Shortly afterwards we got back to Capileira’s tourist oriented streets passing a few bars and shops.
The howling winds later that evening forced us back down to Pampaneira to sleep in relative peace.
A Bike rider in the Western Alpujarras
The following day we drove back uphill to park near the junction to Capileira. From here our mission was to cycle to the snowline. We’d picked a midway spot to start from in case the snowline was particularly low and our ride was cut short.
There is a tarmac road that runs through Capileira up to a mirador, but we decided to save that for the descent. On the ascent we turned right in Bubion village to access one of the tracks that zig-zag up the side of the valley. Almost immediately I had to get off the bike and push, we hadn’t realised how steep the paths out of Bubion would be, and each hairpin was too much for me, as soon as I hit a rock I lost all momentum.
After a couple of kilometres of alternate pushing a cycling the path levelled out a bit to take us along the side of the valley. There was a chain across the track, but we chose to believe it was for cars rather than us. Eventually we joined the tarmac road and continued uphill. The smooth surface was a blessed relief, and I was even able to smile (maybe it came out as a grimace, but I felt like I was smiling) when someone started filming me. When the road became a track again we started to encounter patches of snow and it wasn’t long before there was snow on the road. At first it was easy to follow the bare tyre tracks left by cars, but soon we were trying to cycle on snow and ice.
We felt our objective had been achieved, it was almost impossible to cycle any further, an exceptional sense of balance would be need to avoid our bikes slipping sideways from under us. We turned around and whizzed back down the hill in about a quarter of the time it had taken to ascend.
It had been three days of short excursions and sublime views. We left feeling short changed but looking forward to meeting up with our friends. We know we’ll be back here many times in the future.
We were looking forward to visiting the Natural Park of Cabo de Gata, somewhere that we had seen on blogs and forums and imagined we would enjoy.
We started at the western end of the park, driving (via supermarkets) to the town of San Miguel de Cabo de Gata where there is a large area of hard standing behind the beach. Motorhomes were parked in neat rows looking out to sea and we started a third row, peering through the ranks in front of us to see a sea that was still wild and foamy from the winds of the days before.
There was a tap here, which was lucky as the water we had taken on board at the campsite in Balerma had a very strong chemical taste that was really unpleasant. A lot of people prefer to drink bottled water and use their water tank for cleaning and washing, but because we’re in the motorhome full time we are flushing water through the tank quickly so feel quite happy using it for drinking too, usually, but with the horrid taste of the water from the campsite we decided to fill our emergency water containers up here for drinking until the water in the tank had been flushed out.
On the way to the parking spot we had passed the end of the salt pans that run behind the coast here. We had spotted a hide for viewing the birds and wildlife of the area so took a short walk alongside the road back to the hide so that we could do a bit of flamingo watching. This is the third place we have seen flamingos and they have not lost their appeal, with their bizarrely rubbery necks, great scooping beaks and the intense flash of dark pink as they raise their wings.
The following day we got the bikes out and cycled along the road eastwards in front of the salt flats. Here we got the answer to one of our questions from the previous day – what were all the lorries doing going past the carpark? At the eastern end of the salt flats was a salt production operation with great mounds of salt and lorries going to and fro all day.
Soon after this the road started to go uphill and we huffed and puffed from the shock of steep roads after our days of lethargy at Christmas. Luckily the uphill was rewarded with a downhill section towards the lighthouse, where we were able to take a few offroad paths. Then more uphill, steeper and higher this time as we went past a barrier (the coast road is not a through road, unless you are the type of person who will drive their family hatchback anywhere – and there are a few of them round here!), we climbed up this road, up and up the tarmac to the Torre de la Vela Blanca.
Then down the other side, this time the tarmac had disappeared and we were on rough dirt track. Paul whizzed down over rocks as I picked my way more carefully, using my brakes nearly the whole way.
Down on this side we went past several possible motorhome parking spots and beaches until we got to the beautiful Playa de los Genoveses where we stopped for some lunch. This looked ideal for overnighting in Bertie and we agreed we would head here for the night.
On the way back we pretty much retraced our steps until we got to the salt flats where we went a bit further inland to follow a sandy track which ran closer to the lakes, there were three further hides along here which we visited in succession, watching yet more flamingos and other wading birds.
As an introduction to Gabo de Gata it rated pretty well and the rollercoaster ride had been a good re-introduction to exercise after our Christmas relaxation. With the beautiful surroundings of the coast and volcanic hills, and with improving weather, we looked set for a good few days.
From Seville we travelled south east to the Sierra de Grazalema natural park where we hoped to get our mountain fix. Our first stop was El Bosque, a town on the outskirts of the natural park with a tourist information centre and motorhome services.
Our arrival in El Bosque was complicated by a trail running event a sport I half wish I was capable of, and half think is completely nuts. The start and finish point was on the road with the motorhome services so it was closed and barriers were up. We did a slow drive by before turning round and finding some temporary parking up near the petrol station. I went in to the town to find out when it would be over and to get some information about walks. It was just before two so tourist information was just about to close, they did provide a map of walks (free this time), told me I would have no problem getting permits for the walks that need them and said that the trail running festival was finishing at 2 and so we should be able to get into the motorhome service point by 2:30. They did all of this without letting me fully through the door while jangling their keys – a sure sign it was lunch time – but I couldn’t fault the information they’d provided. True to their prediction the barriers were down and the tape removed in short order and we could park near the services.
As it was still pretty early we took a short bike ride out of El Bosque to the village of Prado del Rey, we had found a really good booklet of mountain biking routes online here. This was another rural circuit, but we could see bare topped mountains in the distance as we traversed muddy, rutted, farm tracks. When we stopped on one track for a quick snack I heard a slurping sound in my ear that definitely wasn’t Paul – a huge dog had come up behind me (it’s head was about level with the bottom of my ribcage when I stood up). Luckily it was a big softie and just wanted some fuss, with the size of it’s jaws it could have taken my throat out!
We stayed at El Bosque that evening and researched a few walks. As well as the information from the tourist office we found a very good website here. We wanted to do the Salto de Cabrero walk, but when we got to the car park (at the Mirador ‘Puerto del Boyar’) we found that the walk was closed. Instead we took the walking route from the same car park that went over a pass in the mountains to Grazalema village – the ‘Puerto del las Presillas’. It was a frosty morning and the route started on the north side of the hills, the limestone rocks were slippery underfoot with the frost and even more slippery when the frost had started to melt. We climbed through woodland and past a spring before the trees started to disappear and we were on open mountainside. This was more like it and the strong sun in cloudless skies quickly warmed us up as we strode across the grass.
The pass took us between a ridge and hills before descending down the other side where the melting frost had left the path mushy underfoot. On the way down we passed a large group coming up from Grazalema, one boy of 10 or so was particularly excited but my Spanish and his English didn’t extend beyond exchanging greetings and names before he gave me a hug – much to my surprise as I’m not really the most cuddly person. On the way back as we retraced our steps we saw the whole group taking mass on the mountainside against a backdrop of rocky slopes. A table had been laid out as the altar and two priests must have carried their pristine surplices up with them – I couldn’t see any mud on the hems. We could only conjecture what was happening, but wondered if the young lad was being confirmed.
When we got back to Bertie we decided to move onto Grazalema village to park for the night. This would allow us to pick up some lunch items from the shops and was closer to the start of the walk. We tried a couple of spots on our side (south) of the village but they were pretty sloping, so ended up moving onto the other side of the village where some level parking had good views across rooftops to the mountains beyond. The only downside were the rumble strips on the road which were our early morning alarm.
We crossed the border between Portugal and Spain, passing into the province of Huelva, an area of Spain I had never heard of before. There is a lot of industry here with mines inland and a large port at Huelva city, but there is also a long stretch of coastline with coastal resorts backed by pine trees and cork oak forests and a huge national park that encompasses the wetlands around the Guadalquivir and Odiel rivers.
We had fancied spending a night by the coast but we couldn’t find anywhere we felt comfortable, the parking in the forests was on soft ground made softer by the overnight rain and other parking was too close to the road. We settled for having lunch in a parking spot alongside the road and taking a short walk along the beach.
We proceeded onto Huelva city and drove around the outskirts to the large area of parking next to La Rabida monastery. On the way we passed through the wetlands; the ‘Marismas del Odiel’ where we saw flamingos, we didn’t stop here as we were on the main road but it looked good for a bit of bird watching.
Huelva has strong ties with Christopher Columbus, La Rabida monastery was where he approached the Franciscan order for aid in securing royal funding for his first expedition west to find the Indies, and the town of Palos de la Frontera was the point that the first expedition set sail from.
While we were here we cycled into Palos de la Frontera, and attractive town with the church where the sailors on Columbus’s first voyage received a blessing before setting off. We also found the point that the three ships set sail from, although the river is silted up and there is no port any more. On the way we passed through fields of polytunnels where strawberries were being grown – apparently the area is famous for them – and saw more birds on the wetlands this side of the city including several glossy ibis.
We visited La Rabida monastery, it was based on a Moorish site and had some Mudéjar architectural elements which made it feel cool and tranquil. There were audio guides in English which explained the history and Columbus related artefacts. We wandered around with the guides glued to our ears, the only people in the building apart from cleaners.
We also visited the replica ships from Columbus’s first voyage. These ships were constructed in the late eighties to be part of the celebrations of the fifth centenary of the discover of the Americas. They sailed to America before returning to Spain where they now sit in a dock with an accompanying small museum. It’s quite astounding how small the ships are, the ‘Pinta’ and ‘Niña’ were caravels and the bigger ‘Santa Maria’ was a carrack but is still under 19 meters long. When walking round the vessels we imagined what it must have been like on the heavy swells of the Atlantic, with water rushing down the curve of the deck, trying to manage the sails and the climb the rigging. Some of the reviews of the museum had been less than complementary but we found it really interesting, although some of the waxwork dummies of sailors and natives were unnecessary.
That afternoon we moved on into the mountains, heading to the town of Aracena. On the way we passed huge mine workings and at one point a large rodent ran out across the road in front of us. We thought it might be a marmot, but after a bit of investigation it’s more like to be an Egyptian mongoose.
Our planning day had been fruitful and we knew what we wanted to do before meeting up with Aaron. So we were off on the way to Spain.
On the way we drove along the N125 with it’s many new roundabouts, we came across at least a dozen roundabouts that were either new or in the process of being built and wondered what the motivation was; safety, road budget surplus, or pushing people onto the toll roads? With the quiet out-of-season traffic they didnt hold us up much and we got used to the sounds of our belongings shifting in Bertie with each one we traversed.
We stopped off for the night at a large paid aire in Manta Rota. This was a different insight into long term motorhoming. Not the large pitches of the campsite with their extended dwellings, this was a car park with spaces big enough for a motorhome and maybe a couple of chairs but not much else. Despite this it had a more pleasant feel, being much busier than the campsite (maybe half a dozen spaces available), next to the village and right in front of the beach.
We went for a bike ride while here, following a path that took us out of the western end of the campsite and along walking trails behind the lagoon formed by the Rio Formosa. Eventually we picked up the cycle route that runs on roads and tracks all the way along this stretch of coast. On the way we found a Christmas market in the pretty village of Cacela Velha as well as dipping into the village of Fabrica and the town of Cabanas and finally ending up on the outskirts of Tavira. We cycled through many orange groves and past pomegranate trees with ripe fruits hanging on the leafless branches.
We stayed at Manta Rota for a second night because strong winds were forecast and we had a nice sheltered spot. The rain and wind battered the motorhomes in the campsite and in the night we could hear the leaves of palm trees brushing against Bertie as they bent over in the face of the storm. We hadn’t experienced such strong winds since the UK.
The next couple of days were spent around the Setubal area, birthplace of Jose Mourinho, the Special One. Setubal is just south of Lisbon and we skirted the capital to get to our first parking spot which was Figueirinha beach, a wide expanse of white sand and enticingly turquoise sea. Sadly, despite the sunshine, the wind was whipping along the coast and put paid to any thoughts of going for a swim. Instead we got on our bikes and headed up to the Forte de Sao Fillipe. The ride took us along the coast road, past the large cement factory where the air tasted of fine cement dust and left our skin feeling dried out. Then up through cobbled country lanes and dirt tracks before joining the tarmac road that leads to the fortress.
The fortress is a hotel, part of a chain of Pousada hotels, similar to the Paradors of Spain this chain specialises in hotels in historic buildings, but this doesn’t stop people from looking around.
Recently extensive renovations have been carried out and the hotel only reopened earlier this year. We explored the walls of this ‘star’ fort, with it’s battlements pointing out towards the surrounding countryside; views of windmills on hilltops inland, views across the city of Setubal and views out to sea. It would be a lovely place to have a meal or a drink with it’s rooftop bar and restaurant but too windy today.
The following day we moved onto Comporta, not far as the crow flies, but the road has to bypass the estuary of the Sado river. As we drove through Setúbal we traversed Av. Jose Mourinho, of course, there don’t seem to be any statues yet!
We stopped in Comporta at a dusty aire on the village market square with several other vans and took another bike ride along the spit of land that points back towards Setubal. This time we were cycling on flat easy roads past rice fields, we were aiming for the roman ruins but these were closed for the season; we peeked through the fences. The whole area at the end of the spit is a holiday resort and was a bit of a ghost town, empty for the low season. You got the impression they really didn’t want anyone going there out of season with lots of barriers and security. We tried to get a bit of variety to our route on the way back by heading off road, but each time we did we ended up wallowing in deep sand. It was one of those places we felt we could have lived without, but the number of cans in the parking left us wondering if we had missed something. Maybe we should have gone into the Rice Museum.
Time to move on, so we set sights for the coast south of here. I had seen good things about Vila Nova de Milfontes, but the amount of ‘no motorhome’ signs put us off (it didn’t put everyone off, we saw one French van parks across four spaces in front of the ‘no autocaravannas’ sign) and so we moved onto Praia de Almograve where we were the only motorhome parked on a large concrete parking area above the beach, but still felt more welcome.
We were staying at a large paid aire at Foz do Arelho. This area of parking nestled between the coast and the Óbidos lagoon and was very busy with motorhomes. Because we didn’t want electricity we managed to nab a spot on the front looking out over the lagoon, an unforeseen advantage of solar panels.
After all the rain the previous day the weather had improved and we decided to go on a bike ride. We thought we would try to cycle around the lagoon. We knew we couldn’t make it a circular route as the lagoon is not completely separated from the ocean, but we could do a horseshoe there and back again. There are cycle routes down each side of the lagoon and it didn’t seem like it would be too difficult to join them together.
Joining them together was a bit of an adventure as we tried to head down tracks rather than roads. We didn’t manage it on the way out but on the way back we found it easier to track the edge of the lagoon most of the way, including one narrow path that we followed along the lagoon shore. At one point we encountered a herd of goats and sheep; the herder whistled and they moved aside and let us through – very well trained!
The lagoon was very attractive, we saw loads of wetland birds as we cycled around including pale pink flamingos sitting on a sand bar. Having to join the different cycle routes together meant we cycled through a village, crossed farmlands and navigated through a vineyard giving us a bit of variety of terrain. The previous day’s rain left us mud spattered with the claggy white clay of the tracks.
We liked our outlook enough to cough up for another night at this aire before moving on. We spent the late afternoon watching the goings on on the lagoon. As well as the usual fishermen on the shore or out on boats there were a number of people who were snorkelling. We didn’t know what they were collecting but they towed buckets buoyed up by rubber rings and obviously were collecting something edible. One of them swam up to the shore in front of us with his haul but we couldn’t work out what it was.