Border Crossings

19/01/18

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.

The coastline at the Platja de Garbet

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.

Looking down on Portbou

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.  

Looking south along the Costa Brava coast

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.

 

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

A Pause in Alcossebre

16/01/18

We got out of Moncofa as quickly as possible in the morning. Using the facilities (thanks Moncofa for providing them) and making tracks further north along the coast. The plan was to find somewhere in the Parc Natural de la Serra d’Irta where we could walk or bike for the day to take a little time off from driving long distances.

The spot we found, courtesy of Park4Night was at the Alcossebre end of the natural park, a lovely ‘wild’ spot on a rough dirt car park used as the entry point to some of the bike rides and walks. There was a modern faro here and, when we finally walked around the corner back towards Alcossebre we found the end of a promenade. But we didn’t do that until later that evening. The park ranger drove round a couple of times, and once the guardia civil drove by, but both just gave us a polite nod. People were coming and going, mostly dog walking or just enjoying a stroll along the promenade.

The modern faro at Alcossebre

 We ended up walking, heading north as close to the coast as possible, which involved hopping between rocks following some yellow marks which seemed to indicate a route. The scenery was gorgeous and the sun was shining, although a sharp wind was blowing and taking the edge off the temperatures. The coast along here is mainly made up of a conglomerate rock, looking like some particularly badly made concrete. The sea has worn away some of the softer stone making an interestingly shaped rocky shore with many undercut sections where the waves boomed.

Undercut rocks along the coast

Occasional pebble beaches dot the coastline, and every now and again a particularly striking white beach is revealed to be made up of a myriad of shells of all sizes, some as small as a pin head.

Beautiful beach
Shells on the shore

There is little development along here, at this end a few privately owned homes, a campsite and one hotel block that looks like a sawn off pyramid. At the other end a couple of holiday complexes. The dirt track roads are also a deterrent to visitors and so most people visit the resorts at either end of the park; Alcossebre and Peniscola, both of which are relatively charming resorts of low rise white buildings.

Apartment block in the middle of nowhere

When we felt that we’d had enough we headed inland a little way and picked up one of the waymarked tracks that run from end to end of the park to come back again, pine trees gave us some shelter from the sun as we walked back to Bertie. There were some far more demanding walks inland where the land rises to for a long hilly ridge, but we were happy enough to stretch our legs and enjoy the beautiful coast.

That evening the clear sky and lack of street lighting gave us one of the best starry skies of the trip so far, with the pale beam of the lighthouse making very little impression on visibility. We sat on the rocks watching the stars and I actually managed to see a shooting star. A rare occurrence for me.

 

 

Putting the Miles In

14/01/18 – 15/01/18

With three weeks to go before we were due to be in Rome to watch the Six Nations it was time to start putting some miles in. We had lingered in Andalucia, making the most of the warmth and the sunshine, but we needed to start heading towards France.

With over 2500 km to go we would need to cover at least 100 km a day if we factor in visits to supermarkets and heading off the main route to find overnight spots. We decided though that we would try to do the journey in a number of long days interspersed with short hops to give us some respite from constant travelling. Having decided this we had to choose where to do the long hops. First was an agreement that we had to bypass Benidorm and Alicante.  

So a couple of initial long hops took us up the Mediterranean coast. Firstly heading across the north of the Sierra Nevada mountains to Murcia where we stopped at the beach of Playa Carolina, and then a push north of Valencia to Moncofa. Two very different overnight spots; Playa Carolina felt very much like some of the Cabo de Gata stops (but much busier) – tolerated off season parking close to an attractive beach. Moncofa was a very neat and tidy aire in an area of apartment blocks and grids of roads where apartment blocks had not yet been built. Moncofa got our prize for the most depressingly located motorhome parking so far, I would rather have grubby city parking where there is some life than this dead and sterile environment, but then again it allowed us to empty and refill for free and we didn’t have to stay for long. 

The sea front at Moncofa – from this angle it looks quite attractive, but this part of the town was just a series of empty apartment blocks. Perhaps the town centre was more lively. 

 

 

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. 

 

Snow in the Alpujarras

09/01/18 – 11/01/18

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. 

Canjáyar from the other side of the A348, the motorhome services are at the top of the village, accessed from the junction you can just about see

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.

Terraces cover every slope that isn’t vertical

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. 

Dry looking terraces

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.

Acequia on the route up the Poqueira valley

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.

Look – snow!
You cant help smiling in such wonderful surroundings

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 abandoned village of La Cebadilla with the Sierra Nevada in the background

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.  

Those beams look a little dodgy – abandoned dwelling in the Poqueira valley
The ruined dwellings in the valley all had a small terraced and paved area outside
Bridge over the river, a nice picnic spot in fine weather

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.

Starting to look a little bit icy on the track

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.     

Linger a Little Longer

07/01/18 – 08/01/18

Our plan had been to leave the Cabo de Gata and head back to the Malaga area across the Alpujarras, getting some time in the hills before meeting up with friends Heather, Dave and Ruth. But the weather in the mountains was not great, an unseasonable fall of snow had closed roads for a short time and we were nervous of heading into hairpin road territory too soon.

So, we stayed in the Cabo de Gata area. There was a bit of debate about whether to head back to our last stop or to head to pastures new and we eventually decided in favour of somewhere different. So we made our way to another small town in the area – Las Negras. Las Negras had a similar feeling to San Jose, busy during the day and quiet at night and a slightly patchouli scented atmosphere. Walking around we stopped to watch a singer and guitarist outside a bar, picked up some items in the local shop and window shopped the clothes shops which definitely had a hippy clientele in mind. A nice place to spend some time relaxing. 

View of Las Negras from the campsite.

The motorhome parking was conveniently central although there seemed to be a two tier system going on. Van conversions and campervans in the more central town parking and shiny white boxes on the other side of a gully/stream. We stayed in the centre, it was quiet and felt perfectly safe.

We walked from here towards Agua Amarga along the cliff path, we didn’t make it all the way but walked to and around the headland past Cala San Pedro before retracing our steps to Las Negras. On the way we walked up a well made track that we could have easily driven Bertie up, about 3km along this track was a large parking area where a number of vans were parked. After that point the next 3km was impassable by car although we did meet someone on a trail bike.

Approaching Cala San Pedro and the ruined Castillo

We had been intrigued by Cala San Pedro after seeing it from the Kayak, the reality  is an odd place, an abandoned village, unreachable by car, that has been appropriated by hippies living in a communal style. The dwellings were of various constructions from restored village houses, through tepee covered with local vegetation to one-man tents. I wondered how the decisions had been made about accommodation, surely there wouldn’t be a hierarchy. It was neat and tidy, the paths had been lined with rocks and an aqueduct ran water down to a small reservoir at the top of the village, composting style toilets were well marked throughout. We lost the path on our first pass through and ended up wandering around the village, not quite sure how much privacy people wanted. Fences had been erected in some places, but in others the paths cut through cooking and living areas. Fortunately it seemed quiet with just a few people on the beach and working their plots of land, the only sound the bees buzzing loudly around the plants. As we walked up the slope beyond the village we talked about it’s appeal. A beautiful location but a hard life if you are trying to subsist. Despite the valley’s reasonable fertility it still looked dry and desiccated by UK standards. The occupants must have some way of ensuring they can obtain necessities. 

Looking down into the village from the Agua Amarga side

After walking around the headland with views north and south we made our way back through the village which had livened up, the sounds of conversations and more people on the beach and in the communal spaces. The predominant language seemed to be German, we sat on the beach again and fed the sparrows the crumbs from our lunch.

Looking north towards Agua Amarga

 

The beach at Cala San Pedro

Finally it was time to move on and approach the hills.

Putting Down Roots

02/01/18 – 06/01/18

It took some persuasion to move us away from our next stop, that and a very full toilet. The sun was shining and the wind had mostly dropped and we had found a perfect beachside stop mere paces from the sea.

We were at Playa el Playazo de Rodalquilar, a beautiful cove where overnight parking is (sometimes) tolerated in low season. The route down to the cove is along a good quality concrete track and ends in a sandy parking spot where there were maybe a dozen vans. To the north is a small fort, privately owned but creating an interesting feature, and the low cliffs are eroded into a series of platforms and caves. To the south the coastline rises sharply, a slope of desert like sandy rocks and scrubby plants. Along the valley road leading to the beach palm type shrubs are being grown in rows, another fort sits abandoned alongside the shell of a windmill and a handful of houses and holiday properties. 

An array of vans parked behind the beach.

We walked in both directions from here, two short walks that could be joined together to make one decent length walk. The weather was too good for long walks though and each day we were keen to get back, relax on the beach and refresh ourselves with a swim in the sea.

We took the kayak out on one day – the second time in a week – and explored the caves and coastline. The area is a marine reserve and while the sea was calm we could see the underwater vistas, sadly it didn’t stay calm for long. I’ve started to hanker after a glass bottomed kayak, I wonder if it’s possible to get an inflatable glass bottomed kayak?

Kayaking into one of the caves on the coast

A couple of times we snorkelled, the water was pretty cold and my ears were freezing, but it was worth it to see the wonderful underwater views up close; rocks covered in vibrant red and green weed, surrounded by shoals* of colourful fish, swathes of sea grass hiding yet more fish and sandy sea bed where the fishes were so well camouflaged they seemed almost transparent.

The fort of San Ramon in the rosy sunset light

The vans parked here were of all types, self build ‘hippy vans’, camper vans and white boxes like Bertie. At night we were lulled to sleep with the sound of bongos and the desultory strumming of a guitar, the waves a gentle accompaniment in the background. It was warm enough to sit outside at night watching the bright, clear stars before the moon rose. In the morning day trippers came down and set up their umbrellas and windbreaks on the sand, one chap towed a trailer tent onto the sand to create a shelter for his extended family (he had some problems getting it back off the beach, but a few rocks under the wheels helped to get some traction). Nudists got it all out on the beach, while other people were dressed to combat the wind in full length trousers and puffer jackets.

After three days we were meant to leave, but we just couldn’t, on the fourth day we had to leave or create a pollution problem. Tearing us away from this beach was difficult. We don’t dare come back in case we never leave.

Looking north along the coast at the caves we would later visit by kayak
Walking North

We decided to do a small circular route north and wanted to save the best (the coast) for last. So we started by heading up the valley towards the self catering properties past the Torre de los Alumbres, a ruined fort that had been built to defend the population from pirates. It didn’t do a great job, having been built in 1510 and then sacked by the pirates in 1520, but it was reused in the 18th century.

Walking inland, cultivated palms on the left, dry and dusty on the right, and the ruined fort in the background.

Just before we reached ‘La Ermita’ we followed a track to our right across the valley. When this met a narrow path at a t-junction we turned left and ascended up a gully between hills, past a white building that looked like a converted water tower and a collection of beehives. This path met the road and we turned immediately right to follow the dry river bed down to the Cala del Cuervo. Then we finally turned onto the coast, a very pleasant walk along the fantastically eroded cliffs that passed the 18th century Castillo de San Ramon before dropping back down to our parking spot.

Looking back down to the beach from the cliff top path
Walking South

We walked south from the parking area following the coast path’s white and green markings. When the path eventually crossed the tarmac road we followed it up switchbacks until we reached the lighthouse, the Torre de los Lobos, at the top. This tower was rebuilt in the 18th century on the site of an earlier lookout post, and is apparently the highest lighthouse in mainland Spain. The views are certainly spectacular.

The Torre de los Lobos with the remains of the volcanic cone of El Fraile in the distance

From the faro we descended the switchbacks again until we could break off onto a path that descended straight down the hill, cutting off the last switchback, we skirted around the southern edge of the small conical peak to our left and ended up at the parking for the Cala de El Carnaje. This terraced parking was quite extensive, but the dirt track to it was heavily eroded and would have been impossible to drive in anything other than a 4×4.

From the parking we followed the dirt track inland to the same road that led to the lighthouse, this time following it inland until a track led to the right. We followed the track around a house and then down to the small collection of holiday properties  on the road back to our parking spot.  

while I was writing this I had to check whether I should be using shoals or schools to describe groups of fish. Did you know that a shoal is schooling if the group of fish are all moving in the same direction in a coordinated manner? ‘How interesting’ as Paul would say.

Do you know the way?

31/12/17 – 01/01/18

We walked the coast path out of San Jose towards the east, working our way up through the streets of the town until we found the path leading out of the end of the Calle las Olas.

Looking over San Jose from the path

The path started with promise, worn and rocky with a fence on one side that stopped us from slipping down into the properties below. There were great views of the harbour from on high. As we rounded the headland we dropped down over worn chalky white cliffs into Cala Higuera, past the café and pebbly beach and up the other side of the bay where the path joined a wide track which took an inland route to avoid inlets and rocky outcrops. We walked on this track past the quarry but were not very inspired by the rather easy path with distant views of the sea.

Looking down over the quarry – the road down to the bottom was closed with the usual safety notices, but this didn’t stop fishermen from driving down here to get to the Cala Tomate (or ‘artists’ evidently)

We needed to liven things up a bit so we followed a path that took us down to the sea at Cala Cortada. This was a bit more like it, the pock marked cliffs loomed over the tiny pebbly beach, there was an abandoned village and two brick pillars painted bright white on one side to guide boats in through the rocks. From this level we could see along the coast where there was a rock arch like the eye of a needle. We could also see a faint track that followed the coastline.

Pockmarked rocks are everywhere, I don’t know what forces of erosion create so many small indentations but I assume it may be volcanic in origin

We followed this faint path along the sloping coastline, it only took us as far as Cala Tomate when we had to cut inland and join the track again, but it had been enough to liven up the walk.

The wide track avoided the ups and downs of the landscape but made for quite dull walking

That afternoon we needed to empty the toilet and headed to a camper stop inland. We’d only intended to ‘carga y descarga’, but the wind had picked up and the possibility of a nice level parking space, a hot and powerful shower and free wifi tempted us to spend the extra €5 to stay overnight. It was a quiet way to spend New Year’s Eve but it allowed us to do a few jobs before moving on again.

 

The Kayak makes an Appearance

30/12/17

The drive to the Playa de los Genoveses involved a long and dusty dirty track which we might have avoided if it wasnt for our bike ride the previous day. It was the type of track that involved driving slowly and carefully and we were glad not be doing it in the dark. Having said that there was a chance we would be moved on, most beaches in the Cabo de Gata do not allow overnight parking. We crossed our fingers and hoped that the ‘out-of-season’ fairy would be working her magic and causing any officials to turn a blind eye.

The dry and dusty drive back from the beach

Having moved onto Playa de los Genoveses we had to make the most of being close to the beach and get the kayak off the roof. The more we do this the more we consider getting inflatable kayaks. The faff of climbing up on the roof, especially the packing away when tired is quite off-putting, and that’s just for me – the person who does little apart from offer encouragement and a slight heave to help the kayak up.

But it didn’t put us off this time, we explored the coastline to the west of the beach, rounding the headland and hugging the coast, past pretty beaches and stopping at Playa Barronal which was incredibly scenic with it’s volcanic rocky outcrops. As we kayaked around the coast we passed a group of walkers who were walking along the base of the cliffs where they formed a natural shelf, it looked almost impossible to walk around but on closer inspection it was quite feasible and looked like great fun. They were the reason I didn’t end up taking any photos as they made quite a crowd and detracted from the ‘deserted beach’ atmosphere. 

A view from the Kayak – along the base of this cliff was a shelf that allowed people to walk between beaches

As we kayaked we could see a bank of fog out to sea and kept an eye on it. There is nothing more disconcerting than being caught in fog at sea. Thin strands of fog occasionally wrapped themselves around the headland ahead of us and we decided that discretion was the better part of valour and we should head back to the beach . We enjoyed sun and relaxation on the beach for the rest of the afternoon with not a wisp of fog to be seen – typical.

Relaxing on the beach – ok so maybe there is a slight hint of fog on the horizon

That evening we decided to move on to San Jose as we were interested to see what the town was like in the off-season. Quiet was the verdict, there were a few people wandering the streets and walking the beach, but it seemed that most of the resorts energy was focussed on daytimes in the low season.

 

 

 

Cycling in Cabo de Gata

28/12/17 – 29/12/17

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.

Clouds at sunset, looking out to sea from our parking spot

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.   

Flamingos – taken through our approximation of a telephoto lens – a iPhone and a monocular

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.

Mounds of salt ready for distribution

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.

Our view along the Cabo de Gata coast from the highest point on the bike ride

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.

Looking up the dirt track we would have to climb on the way back to Bertie

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.

Playa de los Genoveses, we fancied spending some time here

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.

Looking across the salt lagoons from one of the bird hides

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.  

 

Christmas amongst the Polytunnels

23/12/17 – 27/12/17

After saying goodbye to Aaron and Katie we started heading further east, looking for somewhere to stay for Christmas. We used the ACSI book to try and identify possible campsites and as Paul drove I was reading reviews and trying to work out which would be the best.

Truth to tell, our most important criteria for a campsite these days is ample hot water and good water pressure. Anything else is just a bonus. As soon as we read reviews talking about cold water and dribbly showers we want to move on.

So we kept moving east until I found a campsite that seemed to meet our needs. This was Camping Mar Azul near the town of Balerma. The whole area from Motril to Almeria and beyond is devoted to growing out of season veg to meet the needs of supermarket shoppers throughout the whole of Europe. Tomatoes and peppers – and other veg too I’m sure – are grown under plastic shelters. They stretch for miles as far as the eye can see and although they are exceedingly ugly I cant object as I am an avid consumer of tomatoes at any time of year.

Camping Mar Azul was situated on a plot between these polytunnels and behind a long stretch of beach. The surroundings may not have been particularly scenic, but the campsite itself was exceedingly tidy, clean and had the all-important hot and powerful showers. It was also €15 euros with the ACSI card, a bargain.

We spent Christmas here, relaxing and chilling out amongst at least 150 other motorhomes (and a few caravans), mostly German but also a number of other nationalities, then we spent a couple of extra days while a storm blew over. It was tempting to stay for longer, lulled into campsite torpor, but we wrenched ourselves away finally with the promise of more scenic surroundings in the Cabo de Gata national park. 

A sea of plastic on the way to Camping Mar Azul.
Our attempt at Christmas decorations – there is less clutter if you can stick them to the windows. Note the many vans around us.
I found some mincemeat at an ‘English Supermarket’ in Cala de Mijas and made some mince pies – a proper taste of Christmas
The beach at Balerma – the sea was churned up from the storm, more froth than wave

Hairnets and Hardhats

20/12/17 – 22/12/17

After Ronda we made our way down to the coast to meet up with Aaron and his fiancée Katie who were joining us for a few pre-Christmas days in the sun. They had booked an apartment near Fuengirola in one of the sprawling white developments that characterise much of the Costa del Sol.

We spent the night before they arrived parked down at the Playa del Castillo, taking a quick walk into Fuengirola to depress ourselves in the shadows cast by the seafront tower blocks. The parking was definitely more pleasant than the town.

It was very odd moving ourselves into the spacious apartment, we’ve become so used to our little space and the way in which have organised it to work for us. The apartment felt very poorly designed and the space unproductive. We did enjoy the sofa though and a chance to sprawl.

We spent a lot of the time with Katie and Aaron doing holiday things, going out for meals, sitting in bars and cafes by the beach and generally catching up. However we did venture further afield on one of the days to visit the Caminito del Rey, the trail that runs the length of the El Chorro gorge, with it’s two sections of aerial walkways hanging halfway up the wall of the gorge.

We cant provide any insights into getting to the walk by Motorhome as Aaron drove us in his hire car, and so much has been written about this walk that I don’t intend to describe it again except to say that it is spectacular and well worth doing. 

So any pointers from us? Remember to ask if any of the party have a fear of heights (Katie hadn’t realised what she was letting herself in for), read this page when planning your visit so that you get to the arrival point at the time you have booked, don’t take walking poles or anything else that you cant fit into a rucksack (we saw one gentleman having his poles taken from him as they don’t allow them on the walk – they did offer to take them to the end point though) and leave your vanity at home – hairnets and hardhats are compulsory.  

The final stretch of the Caminito as it leaves the gorge, seen from the El Chorro end
Slight trepidation about stepping onto the glass platform. The bridge in the background looks solid, but it’s deceptive – the actual crossing is a suspension bridge just behind the remains of the aqueduct you can see.
The train line runs on the opposite side of the gorge, mostly in tunnels but every now and again it pops into the open. It would be a good way to get to El Chorro to do the walk.
The original caminito was built to service the workings of the hydraulic power stations in the gorge – every now and again you can see the aqueduct, and at one point  (between the two sections of aerial walkways) you walk along it.
You can see sections of the original caminito from the new path. Much of it is still in place, although the concrete is rotten and the steel girders rusted.
Railway bridge at El Chorro end of the walkways
Memorial to three of the climbers who died on the original walkway. Although it was closed, climbers and adrenaline seekers still accessed the dangerous walkways. Plenty of climbers still use the gorge for rock climbing and we saw a couple on our visit clinging to the cliffs far above the railway line.
Near the end of the first section of the walkways. From here you could see plenty of griffon vultures wheeling above.
Hairnets and hardhats are compulsory and are handed out at the start of the walk.

 On the way back from the Caminito we stopped at the Castillo del la Mota because we were intrigued by it. We’re still not sure what it is; a folly, a water tower or a house? Whatever it was intended to be, it doesn’t look like it was ever finished and the construction quality was poor. We climbed to the top to see the views.

Far reaching views from the top of the Castillo de la Mota

 

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.  

Mountain Summits and Vultures

18/12/17

Our last post was on New Year’s Day 2018, so we’re going back in time to catch up on the happenings of later December 2017.

We had stayed the night outside Grazalema village and been awakened, multiple times, by the sound of vehicles driving over rumble strips on the way into the village. Once we’d woken up properly and had our breakfasts, we drove back through Grazalema again, stopping for bread and cakes on the way. 

On today’s agenda was a longer walk. We parked outside the local campsite on a large flat parking area, the campsite seemed to be closed for the season and I’m sure we could have parked here overnight, but then we would have needed to drive to get bread anyway.

From this spot we were climbing up and turning right at the junction to meet the path we had walked the day before. Today we would be turning off behind the enclosure to go up into the mountains proper and we were full of excited anticipation as we would be climbing to a couple of summits for a change.

The start of the walk was even more frosty than the day before and we marvelled at the way the ice crystals had pushed the earth up, especially where the previous day’s frost hadn’t melted. It looked beautiful in the morning light and the going was easy underfoot over the solidified mud. To the west the cliffs held griffon vultures, large even from this distance, perched and waiting for the warm air currents to start rising. On the rocks to the east of us we startled a herd of Spanish Ibex who were minding their own business on the rocks.

Ibex looking down on us
Frosty meadow. near the animal enclosure at the beginning of the walk
Frost coats the plants on the way up the mountains of Grazalema
Frost crystals pushing through the soil

The path was easy and obvious to follow, although we were also following the walk via wikiloc. It skirted behind the enclosure heading up through the woods and out onto open mountainside, always pretty much south. Once out into the open we warmed up and were quickly down to t-shirts in the sun. We continued to head south following the path through a high meadow with the ridge of Simancon on our left, trying to decide at which point we should head up onto the ridge and back north to the summit. In the end we walked to the south end of the meadow to see the views before taking an easy line north-west onto the exposed backbone of the ridge.

The bare ridge of Simancon

From Simancon our route to the next peak was obvious, picking our way down steep slopes westwards to an obvious saddle leading to El Reloj (The Clock). Then less obvious route south from El Reloj, trying to find our way to the Charca Verde (green pond – more like a puddle, but still attractive to cows who had congregated there for a lie down) where the path became clear again.

 

Cows congregating on the way to the Green Pond

Following the path down was a delight, the forest was shaded and mossy with stark white rocky outcrops and occasional tiny grass clearings where the sunlight broke through. It would have made any Victorian garden designer weep with envy.

Eventually we re-joined the path back down to the campsite, the ground was still frosty even on such a sunny afternoon, but the air was warm and we sat and watched many vultures carrying nest building material to the cliffs. We pondered over the collective noun for vultures, and when we got back to Bertie we found that they have three. We had definitely seen a Kettle of Vultures (in the sky), and possibly a Committee of Vultures (sitting), but not a Wake of Vultures (feeding) on this walk.

Vultures wheel overhead

Back at Bertie we knew we would have to get moving before we succumbed to exhaustion. It had been a great day but we were leaving the mountains on our way to meet up with Aaron. The Sierra de Grazalema  Natural Park is another place that we’ll definitely return to.

 

The Grazalema Mountains

16/12/17 – 17/12/17

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.

Mountain views as we approach El Bosque

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!

 

Roman Salt Pans on the way back to El Bosque
Wide farm tracks and views of mountains

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.

Lime Kilns on the lower slopes of the mountains
Looking down towards an enclosure at the Grazalema end of the walk
Grazalema cattle – sharp horns but friendly faces

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.

Mass on the mountainside

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. 

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.

Sierra de Aracena

13/12/17

North of Huelva, the town of Aracena sits in the folds of the Sierra de Aracena; gentle forested hills and mountains that form part of the wider Sierra Morena mountain range. Towns and villages are scattered amongst the hills, the population relying either on agriculture or mining for support. It is an area renowned for the ham from it’s Iberico pigs which root around under the canopy of the cork oaks.

Our arrival had been largely uneventful apart from a slight contretemps with the satnav and we had spent the night in the large market parking area with a couple of other Spanish motorhomes. There was a Mercadona supermarket and a Lidl in the town, so we stocked up – Paul being especially happy to find that the Mercadona was stocking cider from the Asturias region which met his benchmark of being ‘proper’ cider.

Aracena has a castle sitting on a conical hill at the edge of the town, so we took a quick stroll up, it was closed and seemed to have odd opening hours ie it opened on the hour to let people in. We contented ourselves with a walk around the walls before descending back to the Tourist office where I bought a map of the area. I expected more for my €4.50 than a glossy pamphlet, a contour line or two maybe, but it felt churlish to hand it back. 

Aracena bell tower, church and castle all sit on top of the hill at the edge of the village.

We had fancied some time in the mountains, but to be honest the hills of Aracena didn’t really meet our requirements. We did have a lovely walk following a marked trail

out to Linares and then up to Los Marines before returning to Aracena, but it was rural rather than mountainous, following old farm tracks between the villages taking in cork oak forests, rooting pigs, herds of sheep, sharp horned cattle and a couple of chicken farms. We did attempt to branch off at one point to reach the high point of the ridge but were thwarted by fences and a quarry and ended up having to push through brambles and other spiky things to regain the path. The path was marked with slate markers or wooden makers and the numbering bore no resemblance to the numbers on my map!

 

Signposting on the Aracena paths 

Denuded cork oak, the red colour is natural and gradually fades as the bark grows back. Cork is harvested from each tree roughly every 7-9 years.

From looking at the other marked paths in the area we knew that rural was likely to be the character of most of the walks. We decided that we wouldn’t linger to do any more walks here but would move onto another area for our mountain fix. It was a pretty place but not quite to our expectations. Of course we picked up some Iberico ham before we left, we’re not daft. 

Lucky pigs – lucky because they havent been slaughtered to make delicious ham – under the trees

 

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.