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.
We had a moment of deja vu as we approached our next destination of Sao Pedro do Moel. This is Portugal’s Silver Coast and had some striking similarities to France’s Cote d’Argent; long sandy beaches, big waves for surfing and dunes backed by pine forest. We drove to a parking spot on the coast just north of Sao Pedro where we had a view from the cliffs with the lighthouse to the south and a long golden beach to the north.
This area had seen significant forest fires this year and we drove through large swathes of burned forest where the sand and ash and dead trees created a starkly monochrome scene of desolation.
We took a walk along the cliffs and then down onto the beach, watching fishermen casting into the surf and exploring the lagoon created where the river pooled behind a sandbank. The wind was blowing strongly although the skies were blue and people were wrapped up against the chill.
The following morning we got on our bikes and followed the bike track north. The road was long and straight, passing coastal resorts that had shut down for the winter, few people seemed to live in these towns where most of the shops and cafes were boarded up waiting for next years tourist season. We sat on the beach in one location watching the sea and were alerted to a pod of dolphins by large numbers of gannets, cormorants and gulls swirling around and diving for the fish that were being driven to the surface. There was life here, but not much human activity.
The national park of Peneda-Gerês was a place we fell in love with during our short visit. The first place since we crossed the channel that makes it into our ‘visit again’ list (as opposed to our ‘must visit next time’ list for the sights and places we have passed by).
The park is largely forested but above the tree line you’re in a landscape of granite tors and lumpy bumpy ridges. We were lucky with the weather for our visit, at this time of year we should have expected significant rainfall and low cloud, but northern Portugal was getting unusually clear and dry weather for the time of year. Not great for the farmers, especially after the hot summer and awful forest fires, but fantastic for us visitors.
We had chosen to base ourselves in the main village, known as Vila do Geres or Caldas do Geres or just Geres, a spa ‘town’ with a string of small hotels and an outdoor pool complex. While we were there most of the hotels were shut and the pools were empty. A few cafes and shops were open but it was very quiet. Our parking place was also the bus stop and the school bus came through a few times each day dropping off a scant handful of children, this area is not heavily populated anyway and according to the internet the population tends to be female and elderly rather than families. To our surprise we weren’t the only motorhome in the car park, another motorhome was already there when we arrived and one British van turned up while we were on our walk, so obviously a few people were thinking the same way as us and enjoying the good weather while it lasted.
With clear days came cool nights and we were in double duvet territory (we have a 4.5 tog and a 7 tog duvet, plus blankets and brushed cotton (ok, flannelette) bedding for a bit of extra comfort – if it gets really cold we might wear pyjamas but generally we prefer to sleep in the buff) but the heating didn’t need to come on yet.
For our first day in the mountains we followed one of the marked paths on the east side of the village, we picked it up by walking up the first switchback on the road above the car park until we found the red and yellow markers which led us steeply up a track through the forest – our legs complained at this unusual activity, we haven’t done any serious mountain walking since Scotland. Eventually the forest started to clear and we found ourselves in a mountain meadow where people had created many stacks of balanced rocks on top of the granite. From here the path followed the contours of the ridge heading south. We looked at the ridges above us and hankered to climb them, but without maps we didn’t want to head off the route.
As we started to descend we found the source of the horse droppings we’d encountered on the trail, a few of the semi-wild Garrano horses in the park were munching on the autumn bracken. They weren’t disposed to pay us any attention or pose for photos. The path headed past an area that was fenced off (we don’t know why) and another mystery area with a cistern of water and large bare patches – we wondered if it was in some way linked to fire fighting.
Further downhill at the Miradouro Pedra Bela we surprised a herd of goats off the viewpoints and sent them leaping with bells clanging further down into the valley. There were roads up to the Miradouro but, just like the rest of the walk, we didn’t see anyone as we followed the path, crisscrossing the road heading downhill.
The path bought us steeply down to the bottom end of the village and then through the cobbled back street past homes and smallholdings and yapping dogs until it dropped us back down to the car park.
On the way we had talked about our plans and decided we should stay another day and make the most of the beautiful scenery and ideal outdoor activity climate – clear and sunny but not too warm – so we had a quick walk down to the bakery to pick up some rolls for the next day’s packed lunch.
The following day we got our bikes out to cycle up the other side of the valley – this was the route that the sat nav had tried to bring us down and we were intrigued to find out whether we had made the right decision to turn around. It was a steady climb up the road past the football pitch, we put our bikes into a low gear and chugged along, sometimes it’s easier to keep climbing steadily than it is to cycle through undulating territory where the uphill stretches take your legs by surprise.
After 500m and 7 km (I am trying to retrain my brain to using the decimal system only) we had reached the highest point of the road, past a couple of picnic spots and viewpoints. We had seen the first evidence of Portugal’s forest fires as well as a herd of attractive cattle with very sharp horns.
The road was actually in good condition and would have been ok to drive in Bertie so long as we hadn’t encountered something coming in the other direction. It wasn’t empty, a dozen or so cars and small vans drove past us as we cycled. Driving in Scotland has spoiled us, we are used to well signposted passing places on single track roads and here the opportunities to avoid oncoming vehicles were few, we were still happy that we’d turned around.
Invigorated by our uphill ride we then decided to go further up and take the off road track to the Miradouro da Boneca. This was a different experience as we slogged – generally uphill but with many ups and downs along the way – over rutted tracks to the viewpoint. At the end we had a spectacular view down into the valley and Bertie’s car park, and had the company of other people! We were a stone’s throw from our starting point and had nearly closed the circle, but I knew there was no way I would cycle the steep path straight down – it would have been suicidal.
We retraced our uphill bike ride, this time downhill and freewheeling most of the way, the switchbacks were particularly thrilling as we cycled downhill towards what looked like a sheer drop off before turning onto the next downhill.
When we got back we were exhausted but the adrenaline was pumping and so we used the energy to set off away from the hills and back down to the coast. I’m still regretting leaving, when will we ever get such a good period of weather for exploring such a wonderful place? We’ll be back one day for at least a couple of weeks to give us plenty of time to explore and enjoy.
Portugal has a number of national bike routes – Ecovias, Ecopistas and Ciclovias. Ponte de Lima was on the route of one of them and we followed it upstream and along it’s south bank to Ponte de Barca where there was another bridge over the river.
We found the route markers by cycling under the bridge, but almost immediately had to deviate from the pedestrian route because it had steps down to the river bank. Our deviation took us along tracks through allotments and small vineyards before we rejoined the river.
Disused mills and empty millstreams dotted the sides of the wide and placid river and at one point the main road bridged the valley high above us.
We enjoyed the blue skies, bird song and clear reflections of autumn colours in the calm waters.
At Ponte de Barca we considered crossing the river and trying to find a route back along the other side, but it seemed to mean a deviation away from the river along roads before it rejoined the river bank, and as the river bank was the main feature of this ride it looked more enjoyable to just retrace our route back to Bertie.
It had only been a relatively easy 20 mile ride, leaving us plenty of time to move on to our next destination, which was lucky for us as we had a trip into the mountains of the Parque Nacional Peneda-Geres, Portugal’s only National Park.
We followed roads up into the hills, winding higher and higher up switchback roads as we approached the village of Vila do Geres. The roads were in good condition with no single track lanes so everyone was happy until we realised that the sat nav was not taking us the direct route that we’d looked at on the map. For some reason it wanted to take us to Campo do Geres and then across the hills on a windy single track road, I think because the sat nav was set to fastest route and this was the way with least speed restrictions. We started gamely up the single track road until we got an odd look from a shepherd, at that point Paul decided that we should stop and check out our alternatives. In the end we turned round and went back down to the large lake created by the hydro dam on the Cavado river where we could take the direct route to the village, although the sat nav insisted all the way that we should turn around. Turning around on the single track mountain road was interesting, especially as Bertie doesn’t have a big nose – the view from the cab at the edge of the road was buttock clenching.
Finally we made it to the village where we parked up in a good sized parking area and were able to indulge in a stiff drink. The sun was just starting to set and we were glad we hadn’t been forced to make any of our navigation decisions in the dark, although it may have made turning round less nerve-wracking.
After a cool night the morning was foggy and we took a little while to warm up. While waiting for a little motivation we took a look on Wikiloc – a useful resource for sharing walks, bike rides and routes for other activities – to see whether anyone had recorded this walk and how long it had taken. We saw that someone had followed the route by mountain bike and decided that it would be preferable to walking as we would easily be able to do the whole 14 miles by bike but probably wouldn’t manage to walk it, especially as we weren’t starting very early.
To try and get us in the mood we wandered back into the village to pick up some bread and biscuits for our packed lunch, by the time we got back the sun was showing signs that it might burn off the fog but we were still feeling a bit sluggish and it was with reluctance that we donned our cycling gear and set off following the yellow and white trail markers.
The trail followed the river out of the village, through woodland and past allotments on fairly wide tracks taking us over roots and stones. Most of it was relatively flat and easy enough if a little bumpy on the saddle but the timber bridges over streams were very slick with the moisture of the morning’s fog and caused us to skid a couple of times. We only lost the trail markers once where we followed a wide and obvious track where we should have shifted onto a narrower path that was closer to the river, but generally it was an easy path to follow. We feel the lack of ordnance survey maps keenly, an ordnance survey map provides so much more confidence of the route and terrain than any maps we have found on the continent.
After the town of Parga the nature of the river bank started to change from earthy paths and tracks and we began to encounter large rocky outcrops of granite and a few more gradients which made the riding a bit trickier. A couple of times we had to get off and push/carry the bikes up over rocky obstacles. At some point while we’d been in the woods the sun had finally broken through the clouds, we didn’t feel it much until Parga when the woods started to thin out.
Finally we reached a point where we felt that it was going to be too much hard work to continue, we were only a few hundred yards from the end of the route but decided we should turn around and retrace our steps back to Bertie. It had been a pleasant, if short, ride.
That afternoon we moved on towards the coast. We picked a parking spot near Boiro it had a long narrow beach and attractive outlook but not much opportunity for walking or cycling. The local dog barked pretty much all night, which was a source of amusement and frustration. We have no idea what triggered the barking as it was quite placid the following morning – maybe it had worn itself out!
As we drove south of Archachon the landscape became an unending monotony of pine forests on sandy soil. This huge forest was man made, turning sandy heath into serried ranks of resin producing pine trees, added to this the roads are very straight, almost hypnotic. In search of a little relief from trees we headed towards the three lakes near Biscarrosse, once coastal inlets but now separated from the sea they are now hubs for tourism and we found ourselves on a large and pleasant aire in Gastes, close to the shore of the middle lake with a large number of other motorhomes of various nationalities.
It was still really rather warm and once we were parked up we felt pretty comfortable doing nothing much, we copied everyone else and wound out the awning, erected the table and settled in our chairs. This camping behaviour might be frowned on in the height of summer, but in the off season when there are wide spaces between motorhomes it seems to be the norm. Lunch was baguette, ham and cheese, eaten outside along with a sneaky lunchtime beer. A couple of hours lounging was enough though and so Paul spent a couple of hours installing the additional locks to Bertie’s garage and habitation doors and adding a blind spot mirror on the passenger side. With nothing much to do I took myself off for a wander, finding the local shops, café, campsite (closed), beach and park and watching a sea plane landing on the water.
It clouded over that evening as we took another walk before dinner walking around the small harbour eyeing up fishing boats and finding the oil pipeline that takes the oil from the rigs in the middle of the lake and transports it who-knows-where. At some point on this walk I was attached by a vampiric insect that decided to bite me multiple times on the neck, that’s the downside of warm weather and fresh water.
The following morning we needed to do something more energetic so we cycled to Mimizan Plage along one of the many cycle paths that cover the area. The forest smelled of autumn with strong wafts of pine and dying bracken and we crunched fat acorns under our tyres. The view may have been repetitive but it was restful rather than tiresome and we settled into a cycling reverie eating up the miles quickly on the largely flat terrain. The weather was still cloudy and the wind had strengthened by the time we got to the beach so I wasn’t tempted to swim, instead we watched the surfers catching the waves as we ate our lunch. This is the Cote d’Argent and is well known for it’s Atlantic surf. By the time we got back to Bertie the sun was back out again so we put our chairs in Bertie’s wind shadow and soaked up a couple of hours of sun before dinner.
We still hadn’t got used to the size of France and this was in evidence when we moved on from Ile d’Oléron; Arcachon was the target for our next stop, but at slightly over 100 miles away it was a lot further than we’d envisaged when we looked at the map. The route included a massive inland detour to navigate past the Gironde estuary – the largest estuary in western Europe – and Bordeaux – a city that’s on our to-do list for another time.
We arrived in Arcachon in mid afternoon and navigated through villa lined roads and over the golf course to find our parking spot on the road between the main town and the suburb of Le Moulleau. Both sides of the road were backed by pine trees and our view from the front of the van included glimpses of sea and sand between their trunks. The sun was shining fiercely in the sky and we were experiencing temperatures we hadn’t felt since we were in Wales in June, it felt as though we had finally found summer.
Any major exertion was off the cards due to the long drive and the sunny weather but we got the bikes out for a short cycle into Arcachon resort. There were plenty of people promenading along the long seafront and around the harbour, we relaxed in the holiday atmosphere – slightly less frenetic than at the height of summer – and treated ourselves to an ice-cream before cycling back to Bertie.
The following morning we cycled south to visit the main tourist attraction in the area. The Dune du Pilat (or Pila, or Pyla) is the tallest sand dune in Europe at over 100 meters (it’s height varies) and nearly 3km long. It’s obviously a major draw with large car and coach parks and an avenue of tat stalls and fast food booths to snare the tourist. There is even a set of steps that can be used to climb to the top of the dune if you find slogging through the sand too much effort. In fact Paul took one look at the dune and decided it was too much effort to even start the walk and sat at the bottom while I made my way up (not using the stairs), feeling like I was on the ski slopes with the sand shifting and sliding underfoot.
From the top the views were incredible, out to sea was the Banc d’Arguin nature reserve and beyond it the Atlantic surf made bright sliver lines across the horizon, along the ridge of the dune there was a string of tourists, thinning out at the furthest extent of the ridge, to the north you could see the sheltered Bassin d’Arcachon with the peninsular of Cap Ferret protecting the bay. I spent a little time taking in the views and walking across the wind-firmed sand on the crest of the dune before cutting back down the side of the dune where the sand was softer.
By the time I was back with Paul my trainers were full of sand and I felt a good inch taller. Apparently the sand dune is moving inland and swallowing up trees and infrastructure as it goes – it must be a slow process but it cant be helped by hundreds of people emptying sand from their shoes in the car park.
From the Dune we cycled further south along well marked cycle paths and past closed camp sites until we reached the first spot where it seemed possible to access the beach without climbing over the massive sand dune. At Le Petit Nice there was a large forestry parking area with picnic benches and other closed facilities. Large areas of dune were fenced off to protect the fragile habitat leaving a causeway for access to the beach. Down on the beach the water was calm as were still sheltered by the Banc d’Arguin off-shore but we could see and hear the pounding surf on the other side of the sand bank. I took advantage of the calm waters to have a swim while Paul paddled and we watched large groups of small children being herded by barely older supervisors obviously on a day out with their school holiday club.
Once we’d had enough of lounging on the beach we returned to our bikes and cycled back to Bertie. We’d noticed on our bike ride that we seemed to be bridging a gap between two main types of cyclists in France – we’re not the lycra clad, tour-de-france emulating ‘serious’ cyclists, but neither are we the basket wielding, upright sitting ‘everyday’ cyclists wearing their smart clothes and using their bikes to get from A to B. Compared to the first group we felt heavy and slow, compared the the second we were scruffy and sweaty. Oh well – we had enjoyed a lovely summers day out and were ready for a shower, a couple of drinks and a lazy dinner in Bertie watching the sun go down through the trees.
I am going to apologise now for my lackadaisical approach to accents, acute, grave or circumflex. I will try to remember them, but I couldn’t honestly say that I will try my best.
Our next stop on our route south was a short drive away on the Ile d’Oléron, a large island well known for it’s oysters and other seafood. We drove across the long bridge that connects the island to the mainland and turned right, heading for the aire at Le Chateau d’Oléron. This isn’t really an aire, it was once a campsite and really still is a campsite, just one that is limited to motorhomes. It costs €11 for 24 hours including all services, toilets, showers and electricity. It was very busy, we estimated over 100 motorhomes scattered over the large site.
There were no sat nav issues this time, we found the site easily enough and got settled in, waiting our turn to fill up with water and having the usual struggle to decide on a parking spot when there is too much choice.
Once settled in we pootled off on our bikes to see what the area had to offer. Whether we just started from the wrong location or chose the wrong way to go I don’t know but we were feeling uninspired. Despite the busy campsite everything felt closed down and the landscape was devoted to oyster farming, which was interesting to a certain degree but not captivating. The rectangular lagoons for seed oysters covered the flat landscape creating mazes of pathways and roads to navigate. Small huts for artisans and cafes lined the streets but were empty and lifeless.
The following morning we decided against staying and exploring other parts of the island in favour of moving elsewhere. We haven’t done justice to the area but couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to stay. I didn’t even get any oysters!
Aaron’s Graduation was a punctuation mark in our journey, the event that would free us up to travel overseas. But it wasn’t really a full stop, more of a semi colon as we had a few more people to see before we left.
Given we were in Lincolnshire for Aaron, it made sense to continue our journey down the eastern side of the UK and see the members of my family who were in the general direction of the Channel Tunnel – our chosen crossing to France mostly due to the fact that Tesco Clubcard vouchers could be used to pay for the crossing.
My Godmother, Auntie Margaret, lives in Norfolk, which was certainly on the way for us. She is Mum’s best friend from their school days and timing had worked out perfectly, it was my Birthday and Mum and Dad just happened to be visiting. Divine providence or Mum’s planning (the two are pretty much the same thing)?
We made our way down to Thetford forest, with a very frustrating stop off in Ely that came to nothing as parking seems was at a premium on a Saturday, and spent a night in the car park at Two Mile Bottom. Who knows what was going on that night, we closed our blinds and speculated, we have no idea whether our imaginations dreamt up anything close to reality.
We spent the next two nights at the Caravan and Motorhome Club site in Thetford Forest, a very reasonably priced club site as it doesn’t have any toilets, showers etc, just water and waste disposal and the facilities in one’s motorhome or caravan. It gave us a base to meet up with Mum, Dad and Auntie Margaret for a walk, a hefty birthday lunch at the Elveden Inn and then a birthday cream tea provided by Auntie Margaret. I was too stuffed to drink my birthday prosecco which has been saved for another day.
Around all of this we gave Bertie a wash, inside and out, which left Paul aching from the continual stretch and squat of washing Bertie’s outsides. I was less achy, so when we went for a mountain biking session on the morning after my birthday Paul only managed the blue circuit but I felt the need to do the red circuit as well. Luckily there is not a mountain in sight in Thetford Forest so the red mountain biking route didn’t involve staring down an endless set of steep slopes which took away a lot of the fear factor for me. Paul’s achy legs also meant we stumped up for the parking at High Lodge in Thetford Forest – at £8 for a few hours parking it’s certainly the most expensive we’ve paid, but we have taken advantage of the Forestry Commission free car parks often enough that we didn’t feel too upset at the cost.
We had toyed with lots of different options for the next couple of days but decided to stick to Suffolk, so our overnight stop after mountain biking was at Westleton Heath near the Suffolk coast.
I would never have thought about visiting Falkirk if it wasn’t for Facebook.
I will admit I have a bit of a Facebook addiction, accessing it far more than is healthy and habitually swiping and refreshing every time I pick up my phone. In an attempt to channel that addiction in a useful direction I have joined a number of forums, including several devoted to motorhoming. The Scottish Motorhome Wildcampers forum has been a great help on our travels round Scotland and I kept seeing pictures of the Kelpies coming up on the feed. As I’m a sucker for anything that is illuminated I immediately wanted to go and visit them, and as luck would have it that fitted in nicely with our plans to finish our tour of Scotland down it’s south eastern side. Also in it’s favour, there are two car parks and both will allow motorhomes to stay overnight.
The Kelpies are two huge steel sculptures of horses heads which were installed as part of the Helix project, a regeneration project based around the Forth and Clyde canal. We turned up in the afternoon and popped down to visit them which it was still daylight, and then we went down after sunset to view them in all of their illuminated glory. Through their Wikipedia entry I found an article from the Guardian’s art critic that scathingly referred to the Kelpie’s as misbegotten, bland and stale; obviously not a fan of popular municipal art then! I thought they were fantastic, maybe not thought provoking or ground breaking but definitely awe inspiring and such a great success story for the local tourism economy.
The Kelpies slowly change colour during the evening
And Falkirk is about more than just the Kelpies. The following day we took a bike ride along the canal to the Falkirk Wheel, this was built as part of the millemium project to re-connect the Forth and Clyde Canal with the Union Canal. Back in the days when the canals were being used in anger the 35 meter height difference was managed through a series of locks that took the best part of a day to navigate. These locks were dismantled and the two canals have been separate since the 1930s. The project to re-link the canals was looking for an imaginative way to allow traffic to pass through and so the Falkirk Wheel was born – a huge rotating lift that will transport boats up or down between the canals. We sat and watched in fascination as the tourist boat and some other canal boats used the lift.
When we could finally tear ourselves away from the wheel we moved on into Callendar Park and the mountain biking centre at Craigburn Woods. This is one of three mountain biking areas in the park and had a short blue trail and a slightly longer red trail. Both were very easy for their grades, but highly enjoyable and we whizzed round them a couple of times getting muddy in the process.
Finally we made our way back along to the Union Canal and across town back to the carpark at the Kelpies. We were asked for directions to the Falkirk Wheel by a Canadian who was cycling in the opposite direction and was a bit concerned after seeing us that it might be muddy en-route.
It had been a fantastic day and we felt there was plenty more to keep us occupied if we had the time to stay for longer. But we couldn’t stay, so off we went to our next stop, by-passing Edinburgh on our way to North Berwick where we parked up at the end of the beach alongside a few other motorhomes and campervans.
We left Kilvrecht to head east along the string of lochs, all with hydro schemes for electricity generation, until we hit the A9 where we were able to start heading south again.
We didn’t go far though as we were tempted by the Ordnance Survey map’s promise of bike rides just outside Dunkeld. Disappointingly there weren’t any waymarked routes, but we did manage a very strenuous couple of hours on tracks in Craigvinean Forest. It was still cloudy and we only got occasional hazy views of the Tay river valley. The forest tracks were steep in places and there was a lot of claggy clay which made them hard going. We found markers for the McRae memorial rally as we were going through the forest, as well of evidence of the substantial track maintenance that they must have undertaken to allow the rally to take place, we’d only missed it by a few days. When we got back to Bertie we were exhausted despite only covering 12 miles and didn’t have the energy for sightseeing in Dunkeld. We considered remaining parked up where we were, but it was gloomy and oppressive under the closely packed trees so we decided to move on.
Driving further south we reached motorway! This must have been our first motorway since we arrived in Scotland back in mid August. Bertie trundled along happily in the wake of a lorry until we reached Kinross where we decided to stop for the night. There were a number of car parks around Loch Leven and we opted to park in the most northerly one. When we got out for a little wander that evening we found information boards indicating that there was a bike ride around the loch. A lovely, flat, nicely surfaced bike ride. Just the antidote to our forest ride. It sounded ideal for the following morning.
The bike ride was everything we had hoped for, a chance to un-knot muscles and enjoy lakeside views and level forest paths. We stopped at a couple of bird hides on the way around, less for bird watching and more to allow us to relax, and we took a detour to Burleigh Castle on the way around. At about the same length as the previous day’s ride it took less than half the time which meant we were done before lunch and were able to move on to our next destination.