Overwhelming Rome

03/02/18 – 06/02/18

Rome has won the prize for the most overwhelming location we have visited so far. I don’t think either of us had really been prepared for a visit to this city and it quickly became clear that doing Rome in a weekend was as possible as doing London in a weekend. You could wear yourself out trying to do everything, and still fail, not only that but you could quickly grow jaded with the sights awaiting you at every corner. We’d had similar overload in Egypt where the ancient buildings had merged into one, and when on safari the herds of Wildebeest and Zebra had become commonplace rather than magnificent. 

After our first day in Rome we knew that we had to take it easy. The answer in a city (for us anyway) is to choose a couple of sights for a day, and in between to have lunch, pick up an ice-cream, have a coffee (or tea for me please) and just observe what’s going on around you without forcing it. We decided that we wouldn’t do the Vatican this time, it was just one thing too many, maybe next time, because there will be a next time.

We bought the Roma pass for our visit. We only just broke even on it, so it wont always be worth it. You get a free visit to the Coliseum/Forum, including fast entry (ie not queuing at the ticket office), two other museums free and any further museums at the reduced rate, plus free public transport. Museums come at various prices so it’s cost effectiveness depends on what you want to see. You also have to visit the museums in order as you cannot chose which are your freebies, it will always be the first ones. It doesn’t apply to Vatican City sights.

Here are a few photos from our time in Rome.

 

The Hollow Ways of the Etruscans

30/01/18

As we drove south through Tuscany the land slowly flattened out. From the steep sided closely packed hills of the north we ventured through lower hills and wider shallower valleys until it seemed almost flat. But appearances can be deceiving, we were still a couple of hundred meters above sea level, and as we approached Sorano we rounded a bend in the road to see a town perched on a clifftop above a dark forested river valley cutting through the land.

Hilltop towns had been very much a feature of Tuscany, and here in the province of Grosseto the tradition of fortified defensible towns continued with the clifftop ‘Tufa Towns’  of Sorano, Pitigliano and Sovano. Tufa (although it should properly be called tuff) is the volcanic rock that underpins the landscape here – a soft rock that is easy to excavate, which gives rise to some of the archeologic features.

Of the three towns we randomly chose to visit Sorano, like the other towns it had been established by the Etruscans and although their legacy isn’t visible in the town it can be found in the surrounding area. We parked up by the Orsini fortress which dominates the top part of the town. It wasn’t open to visitors but we were still able to walk through it’s courtyard and see the view down towards the medieval buildings of the town below. We wandered down through the narrow streets, down mossy steps and cobbled slopes. It felt like walking through a ghost town, doors and shutters were pinned closed and we could only hear our footsteps. When we tried to get to the viewpoint of Masso Leopoldino the gate was firmly padlocked, it didn’t matter though as there were plenty of other viewpoints through the town.

After a few wrong turns we found the Porta di Rocco on the lower eastern side of the town and we could escape the buildings and descend to the river below. This was what we had really come to the area to see. Down here are ancient pathways deeply carved into the rock – the Vie Cave – it’s thought they are Etruscan in origin, but no one knows why they were cut so deeply into the rock. They link together the towns of Sorano, Sovana and Pitigliano – we didn’t go that far but allowed ourselves to get lost and turned around exploring the three main pathways that spread out from Sorano. There was something eerie about being between the confines of the pathway walls, the ghostly feeling enhanced by the rock cut caves and burial chambers that could be found in the surroundings.

We found a porcupine quill in the vie cave – we had no idea that there are porcupines in Italy

Emerging from the Vie Cave we could then head in the opposite direction to the troglodyte town of Vitozza, an archeological area of many cave dwellings from different periods. Spread out through the forest it was not well signposted, or at least we didn’t find any informative signs, but we had not approached from the usual direction. We felt that we were probably missing some interesting sights and should have given the area more time, but it was starting to get a bit dimpsy so we needed to get back.

Approaching Sorano from below you can see how precariously the houses perch on top of each other, on top of the ancient walls and all on top of a cave riddled cliff. We wandered back up and through the more modern part of the town where we found evidence that there was a local population and a few shops and bars. Our parking near the fortress was the school bus drop off/pick up point so we investigated, and later moved to, a different parking spot as we didn’t fancy being woken up too early.

From our parking spot we could watch the setting sun shine on the town.

We put this on our list of places to come back to and explore further. Pitigliano is a bit bigger and looks like it has some interesting buildings as well as it’s historic Jewish quarter, Sovana has an archeological park with more Etruscan heritage, there is a mountain bike trail around the area taking in some of the sights which looks like it could be interesting and of course many more miles of Vie Cave to explore. You could easily spend a week in the area exploring these three towns.

Bagno Vignoni and the Via Francigena

28/01/18 – 29/01/18

We moved on from Greve-in-Chianti to find something less strenuous to occupy our time. Tuscany has a number of hot springs and so we thought we’d see if we could find somewhere for a soak.

Not Bagno Vignoni though. This village has a hot spring that fills a large rectangular pool in the centre of the village. At this point it’s about 50 degrees, lovely, but no bathing allowed here. From the village centre the warm water flows through the local spa hotel before cascading down the side of a hill to the public pools which are tepid at best. It’s probably very refreshing on a hot day but not in the middle of winter. I suppose we could have paid to go into the spa, but we’re far too tight for that.

Instead we spent a few hours wandering around the village with many other people enjoying their Sunday outing. We hung out for a while in one of the cafes that were situated around the edge of the village’s central pool. You could feel the warmth from the water, not a fierce heat but just slightly less cold than the surroundings. Steam rose gently above the pool, visible only when the air was very still, and the spring bubbled under the surface of the water. The pigeons enjoyed splashing in the pool even though we couldn’t.

From the village centre we followed the path of the water down past the spa hotel and into the Parco dei Mulini. The water made it’s way through narrow channels cut in the rock to the ruins of the mill. We tested the temperature of the stream here and it was still pretty warm, but the channels were too small for anything more than a quick dunk of the feet.

We followed steps down the small cliff where we could see the water splashing over waterfalls, the rocks here had a thick coating of yellowish sulphur deposits left by the water. There are four mills in this park, set on top of each other with the lower mills set into caves and carved into the rocks, if you were happy to squidge through the mud and be dripped on from above you could take a look inside.

Further down there are two pools where the water is shallow and much cooled. These are the public bathing areas, although I’m not sure they are in use any more and I couldn’t persuade Paul to take a dip. From here the water runs into the river valley. It’s relative warmth is still evident in the amount of vegetation that grows along it’s channels, and even in the middle of winter we could see frogs jumping. 

After our easy perambulations around the village we decided to stay for a second night and the following morning we felt up to something a little more strenuous again. There are many walking routes leading from the village, all well signposted. We walked uphill from our parking area, following a track up to a small fortified village of Borgo di Vignoni with it’s keep, church and walls, then onwards along a section of the Via Francigene, an ancient pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Rome. We turned off this path to follow a deep cut track between high ferny banks – very reminiscent of Dartmoor – which eventually led us towards the Castello di Ripa d’Orcia, before dropping down to the river and following it back to Bagno Vignoni. 

This area was beautiful, Bagno Vignoni gave a tourist’s eye view of Tuscany with all buildings perfectly maintained and the streets beautifully laid out. In contrast walking around the area took us to some more rural areas with farm buildings much more ‘lived in’. All in all Tuscany was shaping up to be a fabulous area to visit. 

 

Leaning Towers and Impossible Towers

26/01/18

Every blog I’ve read has reported disappointment with the Leaning Tower of Pisa. So it was with lowered expectations that we headed for Pisa. A bit of backtracking but the weather forecast was gloomy and we thought it would be a better day for sightseeing than for outdoorsy stuff.

After Lucca this was another location with reports of thefts from vehicles so we opted for a parking spot that seemed slightly more secure with a manned office (not 24 hours, but we weren’t intending to spend the evening out). It was on the Via di Pratale and was signposted at most junctions. Our satnav told us that we were entering the Pisa environmental zone (the Zona Traffico Limitato) at one point, and although we didn’t see any roadsigns for it I cant guarantee there weren’t any – there were lots of signs that I couldn’t keep up with. There is a map of the ZTL entry point cameras on the official site here.

We got to the site and got ourselves parked up – no need for electric so it was €12 for 24 hours – then it was off to explore Pisa and see what all the disappointment was about.

From the parking spot we followed the Medici aqueduct into the city. This work of renaissance engineering once bought waters from the hills north of Pisa. Now, although mostly intact (we had to drive under it to get into the sosta) it is no longer in working order. It still runs all the way to Asciano though and you can follow a bike path along it’s length.

The aqueduct running through Pisa

The old town of Pisa seemed very similar to Lucca, plenty of renaissance buildings, cobbled streets and piazzas. We wandered around for a bit before heading to the tower planning to be underwhelemed.

As we entered the Piazza del Duomo our first impression was of the striking white buildings. In contrast to the earthy tones of the surrounding buildings each of the buildings in the piazza were radiantly white, like the bones of the city exposed. There is more to Pisa than the tower, and maybe this is one source of disappointment. The tower was built as the bell tower of the cathedral, and so was never meant to be the starring feature of the area. The cemetery is a massive block of marble, the cathederal likewise is huge and imposing. The baptistery with it’s impressive dome adds some more graceful curves. The tower is small in comparison to all three, and it’s not even unique – all the buildings in the area are leaning slightly. But despite the relatively small size it really does make an impression, when you stand next to the tower and look up you get the vertiginous feeling that it’s toppling down on you.

Yes – it really does lean
The cathedral and tower, it gives a sense of the angle the tower leans at.
Baptistry, Cathedral and Tower

We visited the cathedral, which is free but you have to pick up a ticket to get a time slot. We would have liked to climb the tower, but at €18 a pop it was far too much for us, especially as we had plans to spend our money later that day. We enjoyed wandering around the Piazza dei Miracoli, although the only thing remotely miraculous was the number of foreign tourists that had emerged from the woodwork. 

Later we wandered down to the Arno river heading for Palazzo Blu. When i’d been googling places to visit in Pisa I’d found out that there was an Escher exhibition being held. It felt like a stroke of good fortune to be able to see this after our visit to the Dali Museum, bringing back fond memories of the posters on my university bedroom walls. The exhibition bought together a large volume of Escher’s work, arranged mostly thematically, but also with a bit of history. I had been a fan of the paradoxical towers and geometrical pictures when I had been younger, but this time it was the reflections that captivated me.  

 

Walking Walls in Lucca

25/01/18

The city of Lucca was our first stop in Tuscany, founded by the Etruscans and with an abundance of renaissance buildings, it looked like a pleasant place to start a short tour around Tuscany.

Lucca old town is surrounded by intact city walls. After walking around the Roman walls in Lugo we fancied repeating the exercise here in Lucca. The walls here aren’t as old as Lugo’s walls, and their character is completely different but they share one thing in common; they are fully intact and encircle the old city, the ‘centro storico’.

There is a sosta situated outside the old city where there were a couple of other motorhomes. It’s got a barrier on entry where you pick up a ticket and you pay before you leave. At 10 euros for 24 hours it seemed reasonable value, especially when compared with the previous night’s parking. When we read reviews of the sosta there had been warnings of thefts so we double checked the precautions we take when leaving Bertie unguarded. It’s very easy for us to get complacent with our security measures and let them slacken off so it was a good exercise to check them. Making sure that valuables are in the safe, using our deadlocks and double locks on all the doors, ensuring windows are properly closed, putting the steering lock on, hiding our electronic equipment (the stuff that doesn’t fit in the safe) and making sure that our money, cards and phones are on us at all times and not just left hanging around. We don’t have much that would be of value to a thief, but the distress and inconvenience of theft shouldn’t be underestimated. So far we haven’t experienced it ourselves and we want to do everything we can to avoid the hassle and heartache.

Fortunately all was well and Bertie was untouched when we returned from our perambulations around the city walls. They are so wide and spacious, with grassy parks and trees lining the paths and cycle tracks, it is unnerving when you remember you are top of a man made structure.  They are just over 4km around and as we walked we were lapped a couple of times by runners out for their lunchtime jog. I had wondered how people managed to cycle around the walls but there were long ramps providing easy access to the walkways. 

We didn’t do much in Lucca apart from wander around the walls and then meander through the city. We saw churches with their beautiful marble facades, one that seemed to have tried a marble of every hue in it’s columned facade. There were towers, including the Guigni Tower which stands out because of it’s rooftop oak trees. The streets and piazzas, including the oval Piazza Anfiteatro which was built on the site of the Roman amphitheatre, were cobbled and lined with beautiful buildings, mainly traffic free they were ideal for a bit of aimless exploration.  

On the way to Lucca we drove past many unfinished blocks of marble, no wonder there are so many marble clad buildings here
The broad and grassy walls of Lucca
We spotted this gorilla, not sure what it’s significance was
San Martino Cathedral
Palazzo Pfanner with the Basilica di San Frediano in the background.
The Palazzo Pfanner, the palazzo is closed to visitors between November and April, but you can see the extent of the buildings and the beautiful gardens from the city walls.
One of the many squares in Lucca, the streets and squares are a joy to wander around

A Tale of Two Towns

21/01/18 – 22/01/18

Normally our travel schedule is built around things that we want to see or do, but after Chateau Peyrepertuse we didn’t really know what to do next. Our alternative strategy is to look parking locations and see if any reviews spark our interest.

In this way we had found Sommières, which was in the right direction of travel. We had spent the Saturday night here and our sleep had been rather fitful, the Saturday evening revelry had woken us up every now and again and the morning was noisy with the sound of fit people doing energetic Sunday morning things. 

One reason for deciding on this parking spot was a review comment about a cycle track down the river towards Nimes, but in our bleary eyed state it wasn’t going to be particularly pleasant. Instead we wandered the streets of Sommières, finding a charming town of medieval cobbled alleys, arcades and archways. We wandered up to the castle, which was shut but offered good views, and down to the bridge, famous for having buildings built on it’s outermost arches; now it’s impossible to tell where the bridge ends and the streets begin. There were shuttered windows and stone tenement buildings. Cafes were open and bakeries and patisseries offered artful displays of pastry and bread. Joggers and lycra clad cyclists were doing a much better job than us of being energetic, but most people were just wandering like us. As we wandered around we found a memorial to Lawrence Durrell who had owned a villa and died here, a claim to fame we had been unaware of. 

The arched bridge, originally Roman, but extended and built on from Medieval times onwards
One of the town gates
Tenement buildings and cobbled alleys

In the early afternoon we moved on to another parking spot chosen in the same way. It was only mid afternoon and we weren’t going far. This time we ended up in Saint-Chamas, another pleasant small town where shuttered houses with pastel shutters are set out in a neat grid formation. Here we parked on the shores of the Étang de Berre where the wind was whipping up white horses. We walked a short distance along the lakeside but found our way blocked so headed towards town instead. The town is divided by a long cliff, and we could see caves carved out of the cliff looking out towards the lagoon. At one point a gap in the cliff is spanned by an aqueduct so we just had to climb to the top to see the view.

The aqueduct cuts across the centre of Saint-Chamas
From the tope of the aqueduct you can see both sides of the town.
Saint-Chamas street with caves cut into the cliff behind

The parking at Saint-Chamas is supposedly charged, and we were expecting the police to drop by at some point and collect some money, but they drove past and neglected to charge us. We weren’t complaining and felt quite smug compared to the French van that had arrived late and set off early. The following morning I popped into the tourist office to pick up a jeton so we could fill up with water and we had a leisurely start to our day.

Bertie enjoys the sunset at the Saint-Chamas aire

We set off, choosing to follow the shore of the Étang for a while before breaking off east past Marseille. Just outside town we spotted another Saint-Chamas landmark, the roman bridge ‘Pont Flavien’ standing in a field and looking rather out of place now that it is no longer the main crossing point of the Touloubre river. Bertie had difficulty sticking to his lane due to Paul’s fixation with the sea planes that were taking off and landing near Marseilles, flying low over the road (which was quiet, fortunately). We drove through limestone hills, past vineyards and Provencal country houses enjoying the landscape on our way to our next destination. It was going to be a long drive, so we stopped at an Intermarche to get some groceries and have our lunch. The self service laundry facilities were too good an opportunity to miss so we laundered our clothes as we ate lunch. Exciting times! 

Typically French tree lined road

     

Squirrel Cages and Putlock Holes

20/01/18

Our trip through France was just going to be a fleeting one, a few days to see us from Spain to Italy. Still, we wanted to make the most of it by seeing some sights rather than just driving.

We had spent a quiet night in the village of Duilhac on a free aire which had the usual facilities, even the tap was on which is unusual for a French aire in winter. The following morning we decided to walk up to Peyrepertuse Castle. We could have driven up to the car park, but we fancied stretching our legs with a walk up to the top of the limestone ridge where the caste perched.

We followed the road and then the footpath up and up, it was a strenuous and steep ascent, but only took us just over half an hour to get to the ticket office, by which time we were down to t-shirts and sweating profusely. The castle was built into the pale grey limestone of the ridge with local stone, at a distance it was difficult to tell what was castle and what was wall, but the size of the fortification was slowly revealed as we got closer.

Approaching the castle

At the ticket office I used my awful French (interspersed with some Spanish words because my brain couldn’t cope with changing languages) to ask for two tickets. The woman who was on duty responded in perfect English and congratulated us for being the first visitors of the day, in fact we only saw two other visitors as we were leaving. We picked up the audio guide to help us find our way around the site and made our way even further up to the gates of the castle.

The route to the entrance took us further uphill and round to the other side of the ridge where we finally found the castle gates for the lower keep. On the way we were accompanied by the deep voice of Le Capitaine Alban, complete with very French guttural ‘thinking noises’. This was a great audio guide, the Capitane is taking an inventory of the castles defences and so it is acted rather than being a dry commentary. In addition it has a glossary of terms which Paul found fascinating. Here we learned that the square holes for holding beams are Putlock Holes, and that the man powered ‘hamster wheel’ mechanism for raising and lowering building materials is actually called a Squirrel Cage.

The castle is often called one of the Cathar Castles, although very little of the Cathar era structure remains, most of it being the lower walls and foundations. The majority of the building, especially the higher keep and dungeon, was built at the order of Saint Louis shortly after the crusade against the Cathar ‘heresy’ was called to a halt in the 13th century. At this point the border between Spain and France was still being disputed and the castle formed part of a network of border defences. By 1659 and the Treaty of the Pyrenees the castle was no longer on the border with Spain and so was decommissioned.

The view from the upper keep

We spent a couple of hours wandering around the castle taking in the views, marvelling at it’s defensive position high above the valley and wondering at the efforts of construction in such a difficult location. Eventually the wind started to swirl around us and raindrops started to fall from the lowering clouds. It was time to leave and head back to Bertie, this time wearing a couple more layers.

Looking down towards Duilhac, on the distant ridge is another Cathar Castle – Chateau de Queribus

In the village we searched for the local shop, but they couldn’t sell us any bread – have you ever heard of such a thing happening in France? So for our late lunch we fell back on our emergency cream cracker supply.

We moved on that afternoon, taking a long drive through the hills to Montpellier, where our avoidance of tolls took us through the city outskirts. It was dark by the time we arrived in Sommieres and the town was bustling with pedestrians enjoying their Saturday evening. The approach to our parking spot was through some of the narrow medieval streets of the town. We held our breath hoping that the sat nav was taking us in the right way. Luckily we found the signs for the municipal camping (our parking would be just outside the closed campsite) and we followed them through right angle turns and narrow streets to join a few other motorhomes in the large car park.       

Tie a Yellow Ribbon

17/01/18 – 18/01/18

We took another long drive north, heading past Barcelona towards the town on Figueres. Along the way we passed fabulous scenery, including Montserrat – the serrated mountain – which hid the city of Barcelona from view behind it’s fantastic silhouette.

We were now firmly in Catalan Spain, on the route we saw yellow ribbons everywhere, tied to bridges, stencilled on rocks, hanging from windows. We later found out that the yellow ribbons are a symbol of solidarity with the politicians who were arrested without bail in the furore that surrounded the recent vote for independence.

The draw of Figueres was the Dali museum. Like many students of my era the walls of my room were decorated with posters, not the revolutionary images of Che Guevara that were popular in the 70’s, but the surrealist images of Salvadore Dalí  and the geometrical paradoxes of Escher. Much as I hate to admit it, this was probably driven by the posters available from Athena rather than any conscious choice. Nevertheless I’ve had an interest in both artists since and was very keen to visit Dali’s museum.

Before we got to Figueres though we needed to get Bertie’s tracking seen to. With the long drives Paul had noticed a slight pull to the right, and inspection of the tyres indicated the tracking might be out. We stopped at an industrial estate tyre centre where they sorted our tracking, but also managed to snap the adjustment arm. After some interesting attempts to communicate (google doesn’t translate technical terms very well) a bit of pointing at the broken part and then at tools we fathomed that the mechanic was proposing to weld the adjustment arm in place and we would need to go to a proper workshop to get Bertie sorted out. It’s not urgently though so we decided to leave that for another day. 

Bertie’s wheels were now pointing in the same direction and we made it to Figueres where’s we drove round a few times looking for a parking spot that suited us. The town didn’t fill us with great joy, it looked quite run down and depressed. The couple of wild spots we found didn’t feel safe, too many young men hanging around. So we ended up in the supermarket car park with a number of other vans.

The Dali museum was fantastic, set in an old theatre that was burned and ruined during the Spanish Civil War. Dali moved back to Figueres when his wife died and restored the building, creating a museum of his art. It is crammed full of pictures, sculptures and installations, to the extent that you just don’t know where to look. I dragged Paul round a second time and could easily have gone round again and seen something new. As well as Dali’s own work there were items by other artists and I particularly liked the series of photos of Dali’s moustache. The ticket also gets you into an exhibition of the ‘jewels’ – Dali’s creations from gold and precious gems. Some of these were very beautiful and some just excessive and gaudy, but all worth seeing. 

In the theatre courtyard a multitude of sculptures vie for attention
This mechanical installation slowly expanded to reveal it’s bright colours. I can’t come claim to understand the religious imagery
Dalí created this installation for his museum based on his painting of Mae West – the painting depicts Mae West’s features as furniture in an apartment – here’s they are furniture and you can view them through a lens to recreate the 2D painting.
A ceiling mural that depicts Dalí (note the moustache) and his wife holding up the heavens – the perspective of the Dalí figure is particularly well done
Eggs – one of the pervading images from Dali’s work – adorn the roof of the theatre
The glass dome tops the theatre courtyard and allows the artworks to be bathed in sunlight

After overdosing on Dali’s works we went up the hill to the fort – the Castell San Ferran. This is the largest bastion fort in Eurpoe and really is enormous. You can walk the path around the outside of the walls for free, but we decided to go inside and we’re pleased that we did. However we had a bit of a disagreement with the woman in the ticket office who wouldn’t let us have an audio guide because it was 1 hour long and she was leaving in 50 minutes. We couldn’t persuade her that we would get back in time and so we ended up wandering around wishing we knew what we were looking at. 

The huge courtyard of the fort
Looking down into the warren of barracks
Álvarez de Castrowas a general in the Spanish war of independence, he died at the fort under suspicious circumstances (according to the Spanish) or of natural causes (according to the French)
The stables went on forever

Talking, Eating and Drinking with Friends

12/01/18 – 13/01/18

After our short stint in the Alpujarras we were back in Malaga, completing a round trip we had started before Christmas. This time we were meeting friends Heather and Dave who were in Malaga for a few days and we actually braved the city. We picked our less than salubrious parking spot (bottles of suspicious yellow liquid, lots of rubbish and plenty of graffiti) because it was not far from their hotel, allowing us an evening out for a few drinks and tapas. 

After an evening catching up we were hoping for some sleep as we were taking Heather and Dave off to Antequera the following day. Woken up at 3am by loud traffic we assumed it was the end of the night, but it only seemed to be the beginning of the end of the evening, which then became the beginning of the following day and we figured that the noise probably hadn’t stopped all night – it was just the wine that had initially knocked us out.

Bertie has never had all travelling seats occupied, so it was a new experience to have people sitting in the back as we took the road out of Malaga, earning a disapproving look from a Spanish gentleman on the way as we turned left where we shouldn’t have. Some of the junctions were a bit confusing.

In Antequera we were meeting another friend, Ruth, who Heather and I used to work with. She had settled in Spain ten years ago and it was an excellent opportunity to catch up with her. Odd to think that the last time we spoke was at lunch in the work canteen in Exeter, it didn’t seem as though that many years had passed.

Ruth gave us a guided tour around Antequera where we managed to see most of the sights without being rained on, and then to tuck into another tapas lunch and more drinks.

View across the rooftops of Antequera, taken from the castle courtyard
La Peña de los Enamorados, also known as the ‘Indian’s Head’

Later that afternoon we said goodbye to Heather and Dave at the bus station as they headed back to Malaga, and walked back to the car park with Ruth who was heading home. Bertie was parked in the motorhome parking area at Antequera and we spent the rest of the evening in post lunchtime drinking lethargy, unable to muster enough energy to pop out for another drink or even make anything to eat.

A fab couple of days meeting up with friends, it’s been a while since we’ve talked quite so much or eaten and drunk so much. 

 

Ronda the Unexpected

19/12/17

Our trip to Ronda took us by surprise. When we headed out of the Grazalema mountains we thought we would go further south into Cadiz and have a day or two in Gibralter before hot-footing it to Malaga to meet up with Aaron. But as we drove south, across fairly flat farmland, Paul suddenly exclaimed  ‘what is that?’. And we could see the impressive escarpment that supports Ronda coming into view.

The city of Ronda sits atop an escarpment that can be seen for miles as you approach the city

As I described Ronda to him, using phrases from guidebooks as I’d never been there myself, we came to the conclusion that actually we would like to see this town that sits precariously over the El Tajo gorge of the Rio Guadalevin. It was a bit of a frantic investigation then, to see where we could park and stay for the night. It’s not the most motorhome friendly of towns but on park4night we found a possible spot on the side of a road near the old town but still accessible to motorhomes. Quickly the sat nav was updated and we followed it off the main road, down a rural lane to suddenly arrive on the outskirts of Ronda, making it just before twilight turned to full dark.

Despite the youngsters walking by and the waste-ground to our right we agreed that it seemed ok for a night, it’s odd how a place that can seem unprepossessing in print can actually ‘feel’ fine. It ended up being a quiet spot where the most frequent passers-by were joggers who I always feel are too knackered to think of doing anything untoward – at least that’s always how I felt when jogging.

Waking up in the morning we were greeted by cold air but blue skies, ideal for a day of sight-seeing. We had done some research in the evening and flagged a few places we wanted to see, but it’s such a compact town it felt really easy to just wander. We headed first of all for the Puente Viejo, the closest bridge over the gorge. We had fancied taking the steps down from near here to the bottom of the gorge but with the frosty morning they were closed. From here we wandered under the walls of the old town and then up through the Arco de Felipe V – at one point the main entrance to the town.

The narrow cobbled streets of Ronda old town, but still navigated by cars and bikes
The Puente Viejo or the Old Bridge, but not as old as the Arab Bridge, which isn’t Arabic. I suppose it’s too late to change the names?
Looking across the city walls of Ronda

Here we were able to climb up steps to the top of the wall where, at a certain height that someone must have calculated to be the ‘certain death if you fall’ height, there were barriers in place.

We wandered up through narrow streets which were open to cars and bikes although I’m not sure I would have driven through them. The next major sight was the Puente Nuevo, the most distinctive bridge over the gorge, where it is said that dissenters met their deaths during the Spanish Civil War. We wandered around this area looking for the best vantage point to see the bridge and the gorge, we particularly liked the terrace around the side of the Parador hotel where you could look back to the bridge and also out to the mountains. From here we could see that there was another point where we could descend further into the canyon, from the Plaza de Maria Auxlliadora so, after a bit more wandering through the streets and tourist shops of the new town, we ended up descending down to bring us closer to the foundations of the bridge.

The Puente Nuevo seen from the path down from the Plaza de Maria Auxiladora
We looked over the El Tajo gorge and wondered at the process of building so close to it’s edge. We particularly liked some of the balconies that had been built into the canyon walls.

We tried to remember that every step down would be a step back up, but it was tempting to continue to descend into the chasm. Finally our stomachs told us that we had to turn back to get some lunch, and we made our way back up and through the old town to find somewhere we could pick up a bocadillo taking in a few more sights as we went.

Iglesia Santa Maria la Mayor, built on the ruins of the mosque it’s a beautiful combination of architectural styles
This tower was once the minaret for a mosque and later a bell tower of the San Sebastien church

We were really glad we had stopped off at such a spectacular place, touristy but justifiably so. We could have stayed for a couple of days just meandering through the streets and wondering at the way the town is made of  so many layers, but we had a rendezvous to make so unfortunately had to move on.

As we walked back through the town to Bertie we saw lots of houses for sale with notices extolling their tourism potential, I wonder what it’s like living somewhere like this, very similar I imagine to living in some of the picturesque Cornish villages. Looks lovely, but full of second homes and difficult for the local population to afford.  

A Busy Day in Sevilla

re 15/12/17

At the end of our day in Seville our mobile devices told us that we’d walked over 9 miles, which I can believe as my feet were aching. A day in a city can be as arduous as any mountain walk.

This was our best city day so far, both of us relaxed and a good selection of sights to see. It’s hard to put my finger on what makes a good city visit for us as a couple but Seville hit the sweet spot, neither too big or too small with a calm atmosphere that allowed us to wander without feeling unsafe or pestered, even when we wandered alongside the river through a less than salubrious area where homeless people had laid claim to the shelter of the bridges.

We started the day by walking from our parking spot across the river and through the park to the Plaza de España where we whiled away half an hour looking at the various tiled niches that exhibited each province of Spain. I think I may have a better grasp of Spain’s geography now.

The Plaza de Espana
The niche for Lugo – we had visited the Roman city of Lugo earlier in our trip, before Portugal

Once we’d dodged the mounted policemen with their beautiful horses and the Gitanos selling lucky heather around the plaza (Gitanos are Andalusian Romany people and there is a large population in Seville), we moved onto take a quick look at the university buildings – previously the Royal Tobacco factory made famous by the opera Carmen. It was just a quick walk through on the way to the Alcazar.

The Alcazar in Seville is a Royal palace, still used occasionally as residence for Spanish royalty. Started in the 1300’s on the site of a Moorish fort it has been extended and added to over time. Much of the architecture and interior design is Mudejar – Christian adaptation of Moorish influences – but there are some other elements including gothic and renaissance. Plus it has extensive gardens which weren’t at their best due to the time of year but still pleasant to wander around. It is difficult to adequately describe how ornate, ostentatious and beautiful the palace is, and I don’t have the skill to capture it in photographic form; it has a combination of incredibly intricate detail amongst the structural elements and I could never decide where to focus. We paid the extra for the audio guides which were a great help, although we had sore ears by the time we had made our way around the building. We didn’t pay the extra to see the current royal quarters and to be honest we didn’t really have the energy to do any more after the main palace.

The Mercury pool and fountain
Arches leading to the Hall of the Ambassadors
Courtyard of the maidens

After the Alcazar we stopped to relax and have some lunch at one of the many restaurants that line the streets of the old city. We took our time over tapas and a glass of wine (for me anyway) before heading onto Las Setas. It was siesta time and many shops were shut, parents were walking their children back from school and bars and restaurants were full.

The Metropol Parasol is a wooden installation in Plaza de la Encarnacion, a more modern part of the city and is nicknamed Las Setas (the mushrooms) because of it’s shape. I remembered seeing this on a Rick Stein programme and wanted to walk along the top of the structure to see the views of the city. We took some time trying to find the entrance, lots of people on trip advisor had noted how hard it was to find but hadn’t given any guidance on how to find it. The answer is that you have to go to the basement, which can be entered down wide steps from the northwest or southwest corner of the square and is signposted to the Antiquarium. If you enter from the north west you come to the Antiquarium first on your left and then the kiosk for the lift to the Mirador.

Having finally found the entrance – taking in the market (almost closed) and ice-rink (puddle) – without having an argument we both felt pretty ebullient. We wandered around the walkway taking in the views and the sunshine. It doesn’t cost much to get in, at €3 it was worth it and you also got a euro off a drink at the bar at the top (not a free drink as the ticket says), we couldn’t say no.

Views across the city from Las Setas
The structure is constructed of Finnish birch wood and walkways wind around it, quite impressive from above

Our Alcazar ticket gave us entrance into the Antiquarium, an underground museum housing some of the finds from excavation of the plaza when they erected Las Setas. Many of the electronic displays were not working and there was a pervading smell of drains from being in the basement. Nevertheless what we saw was an interesting insight into a working area of a Roman city, we only spent half an hour and I wouldn’t make it a focal point of a visit, but as it was essentially free…

At this point we didn’t feel like visiting any more sights, so we decided to wander back along the river to the parking spot, passing the bull ring and the Torre del Oro on the way. We wound through narrow streets down to the river where we walked, initially through some run down areas until we hit the more tourist oriented area around Puente de Triana.

We took in the bull ring from the outside, the white walls and yellow door/window surrounds are typical of a number of buildings in Seville. We’d discussed bullfighting the night before; neither of us are supporters of activities that inflict unnecessary cruelty on animals purely for entertainment (Celebrity Love Island anyone?), but we recognise that bull fighting is a part of Spain’s cultural identity. Anyway it was one of ‘those’ conversations, and the outcome was that we recognised our hypocrisy as meat eaters and leather wearers but we didn’t want to see a bull fight or any bullfighting memorabilia.

Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza – the bull ring of Seville – taken from the opposite side of the road to get a good view of the building, but also the cars and vans passing by!

The Torre del Oro (Tower of Gold) was also an ‘outside only’ visit. A 13th century building on the side of the river, it currently houses a small museum but we didn’t have the energy to visit.  

 

The Torre del Oro on the banks of the Guadalquivir river

Finally we found our way back to Bertie, footsore and ready to slump, the sun was beginning to drop and street lights were coming on.

 

Seville really was a beautiful and relaxed city, it would be easy to spend several days here, especially if you are a city lover, visiting sights and wandering the streets.

p.s. while we were here we were wondering why we spell and pronounce place names differently than the native population – is it colonial arrogance? or something that gets lost in translation as place names evolve over time? Either way I am still writing Seville instead of Sevilla which seems wrong.

 

Roman Ruins at Italica

14/12/17

From Aracena we decided to head south towards Seville, on the way we were planning to visit Italica, a Roman city that has been partially excavated near the current town of Santiponce and was the birthplace of emperor Hadrian. Many important pieces, sculptures and mosaics, are in the museum at Seville, but there is something about seeing an ancient city in situ that it is far more impressive than seeing individual pieces in well lit museums with their accompanying explanatory placards. 

Not that it wouldn’t have been useful to have some explanation. There were a few boards by the main buildings but remarkably little to help us make sense of the large site – I found out later that there is a guide book for 10 euros which, given that entry was free for EU citizens, would have been worth buying. Anyway, we spent a few hours here walking around the ruins and drawing our own conclusions, later ratified (or not) by the internet .

The main building is a large amphitheatre sitting just outside the Roman city walls. It is the third largest Roman amphitheatre in the world, according to some, large enough to hold more than the estimated population of the city (it’s believed it was the main amphitheatre for the whole region, attracting people from Roman Seville). You can easily see the amphitheatre on google maps looking like an eye staring out at you.

View of the amphitheatre through the trees
View of the central pit from the amphitheatre gallery
Valking through the corridors of the amphitheatre

Inside the city walls you can walk down streets paved (in part) with the original Roman slabs and see the outlines of the villas that made up this area. A few villas have beautiful mosaics in place – some restored onto flat surfaces and some still sitting on the original surface now distorted with time. We spent some time watching conservationists who were working on one of the buildings using tools that sounded like they came out of a dental surgery – I wonder how they feel working in such a public setting on something so delicate, I would prefer to be hidden away. To one side of the site is an aqueduct that once channelled water to the city and, for the privileged villas, brought it directly into the buildings. 

Beautifully restored mosaic showing the gods
Hard at work restoring a mosaic
Mosaic from the house of the birds – the photo doesn’t do the colours justice
We weren’t sure what was happening here

As with many Roman cities, in previous centuries the ruins were plundered for their dressed stone, but because the river silted up the site could not continue to support a large population so the ruins were better preserved than some. 

Fountains and pillars
Looking out over the footprint of one of the villas – I have decided that I want a mosaic floored villa

That afternoon we moved onto Seville, we’d had a quick stop to deposit waste and refill with water at a Repsol garage so that we could park near the centre of Seville at a site we knew didn’t have any facilities. After missing the same exit off a roundabout TWICE (not a sat nav issue this time, our own stupid fault) we finally managed to find the car park with the friendly attendants directing us into a spot with a view of the river where we whiled away the evening watching the activity on the river and beyond and preparing ourselves for an assault on Seville.

In the Footsteps of Columbus

11/12/17 – 12/12/17

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.

Courtyard in La Rabida monastery
Chapel with Mudejar architectural influences in La Rabida monastery

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.

I think this was the Santa Maria, note the  sailor in the rigging – sadly I didn’t get any gratuitous photos of the naked natives
The three replica ships that undertook the voyage to the ‘Indies’

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.   

The Special One

30/11/17 – 01/12/17

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.

Beautiful chapel decorated with azueljo tiles

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.

Windmills had been a feature of the drive down this part of the Portuguese coast – from the fort we could see several in various states of repair
Each point of the ‘star’ fort was very similar apart from the views – this point looked over Setúbal and the sea, a view of strategic importance, protecting naval access to Lisbon

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.

A distant view of the Roman ruins through chain link fence
View from the Troia peninsular

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.   

Underground, Overground

 23/11/17

We spent the night of 22nd parked at Batalha in preparation for a visit to Batalha Monastery. We wanted to visit one monastery while we were in Portugal and it was a pretty random decision that bought us here of all the monasteries we had flagged as possibilities.

Batalha means ‘Battle’; the monastery was built by King João I to give thanks to the Virgin Mary for victory in battle over the Castilians in 1385. For many this was the deciding point in establishing Portugal as a country, distinct from Spain, and so the monastery has a special place in the Portuguese people’s regard. 

Statue of King Joao I

The church is free to visit but some of the other buildings require a ticket, after a bit of a search we found the tickets being sold at the back of the church and started our exploration. The building is beautiful with highly ornate stonework in parts, although the church interior was surprisingly stark. The contrast in styles apparently being due to King João’s wife – Philippa of Lancaster – inviting British architects to contribute to the design. We liked the chapterhouse with it’s vaulted ceiling which houses the Portuguese tomb of the unknown soldier, attended at all times by military personnel, the two cloisters, very different in style and the unfinished chapels with their ornate stonework left open to the sky and pigeons.

The Royal Cloister with attractive gothic screens

The ornate stonework of the unfinished chapels

After exploring the monastery we ventured further inland to Mira de Aire. This town is in a Natural Park area of limestone rocks, gorges and caves. We found our parking spot up near the sports complex at the top of the town after another sat nav disagreement (this time it tried to take us straight up a cobbled alley to the top of the town when there was a perfectly sensible road that cut uphill on a more gentle gradient) and wandered down into the town to visit the Grutas Mira de Aire, one of a few tourist cave systems in the area. We bought our tickets and waited for the tour with a handful of people only for a large school party to arrive. The sound of 40 eleven year olds having a good time was an assault to our ears. We crossed our fingers that they would be giving the kids a different tour but it was not to be. With apologies they lumped us in with half of the class. We watched a documentary about the geology of the area (they obviously didn’t believe in dumbing down) which was interesting when we could read the subtitles, but guesswork when showing white subtitles on a limestone background. Then we went down to view the caves, the guide providing commentary in both English and Portuguese.  The part of the cave system on display was vertical, so we descended lots of steps (there was a lift at the end to take us back to the surface) it was well decorated with stalactites, stalagmites, curtains and flowstone. Despite the fact that this is a tourist attraction, has some fairly garish lighting, and water is pumped through during dry periods we still enjoyed viewing the impressive natural decorations. 

Limestone curtain formation – ‘The Organ’
Some of the many stalactites in the cave

We left the caves, walking back uphill to Bertie. The skies were dark with cloud and the first spots of rain started to fall. It quickly got heavier and Paul decided that he wanted to escape the rain rather than stay for the night. We drove back down to the coast in heavier and heavier rain with occasional flashes of lightening. As we approached the coast we got stuck behind a car doing about 15mph, not sure whether he was scared of the dark, worried about the rain or just drunk, we kept our distance until they slowed to a complete stop halfway round a roundabout. We gingerly edged past them and down to our parking spot.          

Roaming Roman Walls

04/11/17 – 05/11/17

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

The cloud approaching at Islares that morning

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

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

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

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

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

The Stairs to Dragonstone

03/11/17

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

The bridge and steps to the top of the island

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

The view across the artificial lagoon at Islares

A Quick Trip to Bilbao

02/11/17

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

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

Heading down to Bilbao in the funicular

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

A selection of photos from the Guggenheim

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

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

The Art Deco frontage of Bilbao’s station

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

 

Border Crossings

31/10/17

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

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

Looking west along the beach at San Sebastien

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

The Comb of the Winds

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

Suffolk Coast

11/10/17-12/10/17

We moved from our overnight parking spot to the National Trust parking at Dunwich Heath ready for a stroll around the heath. The heath to the north and inland was a little uninspiring in the subdued autumnal light so we extended our walk alongside Docwra’s Ditch and then across to RSPB Minsmere before heading back along the coast to the car park.

Autumn colours on Dunwich Heath

The landscape on the latter half of the walk was more interesting, we joked that Docwra had made a better attempt on his ditch than Offa – subsequent research seems to indicate that it’s a recent feature built as a firebreak, I have no idea why it specifically named after Docwra though. We stopped in a couple of the enormous and well appointed hides at Minsmere hoping for a sight of something interesting but the wind was keeping the birds away. We did see a hobby though as we walked through the wetlands.

Sea views from RSPB Minsmere

That afternoon we moved onto Sutton Hoo, the site where an Anglo-Saxon burial mound was excavated in the 1930s to reveal an amazing ship burial with it’s treasure intact, including the now iconic Sutton Hoo helmet. The exhibition contained a number of artefacts from various of the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo and replicas of the more substantial treasures which are now in the British Museum. I find this period of British history fascinating, probably because so little is known about it so it crosses the boundaries between history and myth.

The Sutton Hoo helmet – large scale replica above the exhibition centre

Also on the site is the house of Edith Pretty, the landowner who requested the excavation of the mound in the 1930s. It contains the story of the excavation and in particular the race to complete the work once war was declared, much more interesting than I was expecting, and we took a short stroll around the mounds. It always makes me wonder now many treasures have not only been plundered by grave robbers but also just ploughed under by farmers or builders.

The Sutton Hoo mounds – the largest has been reconstructed to give a sense of the scale of the burial mounds

 Our overnight spot was at some quiet parking on the coast at East Lane near Bawdsey. Sadly the radar station museum was still undergoing refurbishment – all part of the 100th anniversary work according to Aaron – but there was still an opportunity for a morning walk along the coast, so we set off past Shingle Street and along to the mouth of the Ore and it’s shingle spit before heading back. Along the way we saw remains of pillboxes, some falling into the sea, and four impressive Martello Towers – cylindrical forts built to help defend us from Napoleon’s forces. Some of these had been converted to private houses with additional glass roofed structures to provide views out to sea. 

Martello towers along the Suffolk coast

That evening we moved on to parking at Felixstowe where we watched with awe as the massive container ships were loaded up with their containers using equally massive cranes. The industrial sound of the loading, with the distant thunder ‘boom’ of each container being settled onto the ship soothed us to sleep, with only the sound of the ship’s horn waking us up as finally it was loaded and could set off to sea.

Felixstowe harbour