Buona Pasqua! Buona Pasquetta!

01/04/18 – 02/04/18

We settled into our campsite at Lago Arvo waiting for the predicted snow to arrive. The temperature got gradually colder and the snow started to fall in dusty sprinkles before becoming slightly more persistent. On and off it settled and then thawed, it wasn’t going to be enough to remain at this altitude but I’m sure the people who were skiing were crossing their fingers for a top up of the snow base at the local ski resort in Lorica.

It was Easter Sunday – Pasqua – and the campsite was pretty quiet, we watched some skiers come and go with their kit on the top of their car, but we stayed in Bertie most of the day, staying toasty with the heater running. Every now and again we would take a quick walk around the campsite to stretch our legs. We indulged in our usual rainy day pursuits, playing some cards and scrabble. I got deeply entrenched in a book and had to tear myself away from it to do some baking – chocolate cake for Paul and a bit of ‘anything in the cupboard’ flapjack for me.

Cake!

By the evening the snow had passed and longer clear spells were evident. The following morning the skies were clear and we set off on our planned walk, a ‘spoon shaped’ walk heading east along a path and then doing a loop through the mountains before returning along the original path.

Almost immediately we ran into trouble, the map showed a path running eastwards along the northern edge of the lake to the dam. Even the trailhead map showed the same. But the path markers were pointing along the road. We didn’t really want to walk along the road so we attempted to follow the line shown on the map. On the way back we followed the road – there had obviously been some land access issues and our walk to the dam had multiple hazards, barbed wire, fast flowing streams and livestock. When we got to the dam we found ourselves on the wrong side of the security and had to be let out, luckily by some friendly staff who didn’t bat an eyelid at us turning up inside their gated compound. 

Brilliant blue – Lago Arvo

The plan from here was to ascend path CAI438 and descend CAI420 making a loop that ascended to a ridge line and some minor summits. We started off going up the well marked path past the farmhouse and ascending through orchards before entering the forest. The sunlight was streaming through the trees and plenty of golden beech leaves were lying on the ground giving an autumnal feel to the landscape.  As we climbed higher we started to encounter snow patches on the ground until finally we were walking across snow. Crocuses and other spring flowers created dots of colour and the only footprints disturbing the snow were animal tracks, rabbits and deer we think. We could see distant views of the ski resort on the other side of the lake and every now and again we heard a blast of loud music echoing off the far hills. We assumed it was the Easter celebrations at the ski resort, little did we realise that it was a family having a party at our campsite. Today was Pasquetta – Easter Monday – it’s the traditional day on the Easter weekend for spending time with family and friends in the countryside. Their celebrations and extremely loud music lasted well into the evening but not so late that it caused us any issues getting to sleep.

We were about 100m of altitude below the top of the ridge when we had to turn back. The snow had become deeper and deeper and ideally we would have had snow shoes, but without them we couldn’t continue to safely get through the snow. There is always that moment when you know you should turn back but just continue anyway. We struggled through knee deep snow for a few more meters hoping in vain that it was just a drift and would get shallower, but really we knew it was time to turn around and when Paul stepped into a thigh deep drift we did. 

Making tracks through the snow – real spring weather, snow on the ground but warm enough to be in a t-shirt

As we turned back and walked down the path we had so recently ascended it was amazing the difference an hour or so had made. Much of the snow from earlier had melted, leaving flowers in open meadows rather than snowy plains. Our footprints had become yeti prints, expanding with the melt. More water was running down the path and within a short while we were below the snow line and walking back to Bertie in warm spring weather.

 

 

Stuck on a Rock

29/03/18

Our next stop was Le Castella, known – strangely enough – for it’s castle that sits on a spur of land connected to the mainland by a narrow land bridge. We turned up hoping to find a large flat parking area near the marina. The parking was there but closed with gates and barriers. We weren’t the only ones to turn up and be bemused by the lack of parking – a couple of French vans towing car and motorbikes also turned up. The French vans moved on, but we decided to stay at least for the day time; there was a walk we wanted to do along the coast.

We ended up parking on the slope leading down to the marina, avoiding driving around the small tow to look for an alternative. Then we struck out on foot, heading north towards a small stretch of nature reserve, taking the road out of the town and then a track that ran down the side of the (closed) campsite. From there we just followed the coast as far as we could. This nature reserve is mostly a marine reserve and includes a protected area for Loggerhead Turtles who nest sporadically in Italy. Not that we would see them on the beach as they lay their eggs in July and hatch in September.

We enjoyed our wander along the coast, trying to walk on the firm sand nearer the water and at the same time avoid getting wet feet. One stream provided an entertaining opportunity to play chicken with the sea as we attempted to cross via a sandbar while the waves were ebbing. Occasional rocky outcrops provided some respite from the sandy shores, including one mushroom shaped rock that we used as our lunch spot. It was easy enough to climb up, but what goes up does not always come down. And this time that included me; dropping down from the rock would have required stronger triceps than I have, so Paul had to go and find a driftwood tree truck I could use as a ladder to aid my descent.

Our lunchtime spot – good views but a tricky descent

After Paul had come to my rescue, we continued along the beach until we found ourselves at a river we couldn’t ford. The current was strong and the river deep enough to put us off wading through it. We turned round here and retraced our steps back to Le Castella.

Views along the beach
The river that ended our walk

Before we returned to Bertie we walked through the town to see the main attraction. The castle here is a fortress from the 16th century, but built on older foundations dating back as far as the Magna Graecia period. There were also some remains of the town walls near our original car park. The castle was shut while we were there, but it looks impressive standing apart from the town on it’s island surrounded by the sea.

The fortress at Le Castella

When we got back to Bertie we decided that our parking spot was far to sloping to stay for the night. There was nothing to keep us here for a second day so we drove further up the coast looking for somewhere to park. It was one of those frustrating searches. We had a few possible spots marked up near Crotone, but some of them looked decidedly dodgy and some were just closed. In the end we opted for a bit of rough ground opposite a pizzeria on the outskirts of Crotone. Not the quietest spot, but at least it was flat. 

 

A Serendipitous Stop

15/03/18

From Maratea we were unable to continue along the coast due to road closures. So we decided to head inland. We could see on the map that the road wiggled it’s way over the hills, but it didn’t look like it got too narrow, and we didn’t want to go retrace our steps, so we’d give it a go.

Our target was a sosta in the town of Lauria that we found on an Italian website. A quick look on google maps indicated that we would find some parking at the very least and might even find some services.

The drive over the hills behind Maratea was a lovely mountain road, the type that is just about two cars wide, but larger vehicles need to take it easy. It seemed in reasonable repair but our definition of a good road has changed since being in Italy. Once over the first set of hills it dropped through the pleasant looking town of Trecchina into a wide agricultural valley before crossing the river and rising up the other side to Lauria. Here the sosta was a terraced parking area for three vans, with black and grey waste disposal. The tap by the waste disposal wasn’t working but there was a spring at the bottom of the car park which we used to fill a couple of bottles and rinse out the waste area after use. We didn’t know if it was drinking water (there was a helpfully blank sign above it) but as a number of people came down and filled up bottles we figures we’d probably be ok to drink it too. Although there wasn’t any non Motorhome parking various cars came and went; there were definitely some dodgy things going on, but not to the extent that it made us feel unsafe, just intrigued. 

Parked up in Lauria

Our first job when we arrived was to hang our wet clothes from the previous day on the outside of the van. While we ate lunch they dried off nicely and luckily didn’t have that musty smell that comes from leaving wet clothes too long. We did a couple of other chores before deciding to explore.

We wouldn’t have targeted Lauria if we didn’t have to swing inland, but a quick look on google showed that there was a ruined castle somewhere above our parking spot, so that was our first destination. We climbed steps and more steps to get to the highest part of the town. As we got closer to the castle we were able to follow signposts, and then we found a board with a town walk on it. That gave us a target for the afternoon, we would follow the signs around town before going back to Bertie.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, the castle was shut. Nevertheless the town was interesting to wander around with medieval streets, plenty of churches and lovely views. A serendipitous stop.

 

The Heavens Opened

14/03/18

The Basilicata coast has been compared to the Amalfi coast in our guide book. Is it comparable? We don’t know yet because our trip to the Amalfi coast was cut very short due to poor weather. One day we will find out, but for now this is our favourite stretch of coast in Italy and we think it’s pretty spectacular.

From Sapri the road meanders around the coast to Maratea. There was a road closed sign at the start of the route, but we managed to work out that the road was closed beyond our destination. The road is two lanes but narrows in places, as it crosses bridges over river gorges and also in the village of Acquafredda where there are traffic lights. I don’t know how we’d feel driving in high summer with large vehicles travelling in both directions, but it was an enjoyable drive in the low season.

Road closed sign – a bit of a challenge to read from Bertie’s cab

We started off by heading to Maratea harbour where google showed a large area of parking. This no longer exists, the surface had been scalped and it was gated off. But we easily found some roadside parking and stopped to have breakfast in view of the sea which was sparkling in the early morning sunshine.

Bertie’s breakfast parking by Maratea Harbour – notice the Statue of Christ the Redeemer high above us

We’re not fans of roadside parking, we feel a bit exposed to bumps and scrapes, so after breakfast we moved up to the higher part of the village where we parked in the market square. We thought we would go for a quick stroll from here up to see the large statue of Jesus that stands watch over the village and harbour. Its not a long walk although it’s pretty steep. By heading up through the steep streets of the oldest part of town you can find the small Chapel of Cappuccini. The path branches off here, marked with red and white slashes, taking you up through the woods, past another chapel and eventually coming out in the large car park just below the statue of Christ (there are motorhome spaces in the car park). A further short walk up the road from here takes you to some abandoned village houses right on the top of the ridge, the pristine Basilica di San Biagio and a well maintained pedestrian area and steps up to the statue. In high season there is a gift shop and café here, but nothing was open today.  

The statue of Christ
Jesus’ toes, I don’t know why they captured my attention

 

The views here were spectacular. The road that has been built to bring people to the top is impressive in it’s own right, the switchbacks standing on stilts over the mountainside. Plus you can see in both directions along the coast and to the hills and valleys inland.

Looking south along the coast.
Looking inland, you can see the clouds starting to gather

Unfortunately what we could see form here was a large bank of very dark cloud heading quickly towards us. As we had just been out for a stroll we hadn’t bought all of our waterproof gear with us. We took shelter in the church porch when the rain started, but soon realised that we wouldn’t be seeing any sunny spells. Our walk down took less than half the time of the walk up. We dashed down to see if the trees would give us any shelter, but they were so burdened with rain that they were unable to provide any shelter. As we reached the village the roads started to become water features. The drainage systems spewed water from rooftops directly into the streets where it ran over the surface of the roads, the drains unable to cope with the volume.

For the second time in a couple of days we had been drenched. I remember once we sent Aaron to a swimming lifesaving class where he had been asked to take trousers and a jumper to do training in wet clothes. We sent him with a fleece, poor thing, not realising that fleeces act like a sponge and just hold the water. We re-learnt that lesson today with our fleece jackets so saturated that our sleeves were hanging inches below our hands. 

Back at Bertie we quickly took refuge inside, stripping off our wet clothes and trying to squeeze as much water out of them before hanging up in the bathroom where they continued to drip into the shower tray.

 

 

Appraise my Donkey

13/03/18

The name of this post refers to the coast path that we walked on this day – Apprezzami l’Asino. The apocryphal story being that the path is so narrow, if two people were walking their donkeys in opposite directions it would be impossible to get past each other. So they would appraise the value of the donkeys and any goods they were carrying and then the lowest value one would be pushed off the path. With compensation to be paid by the owner of the surviving donkey. I can’t imagine this really happening, can you? But it makes for a good story and advance warning about the narrow path. 

More about that later. The day started with us waking up at the Lago Sirino sosta to reasonable weather. It had been pretty gloomy when we arrived so it was nice to see some sunshine amongst the swirling clouds. This sosta may be the nicest one we have stayed at in Italy. A well constructed set of half a dozen terraced pitches with electrical supply and water points between every couple of spots. Electricity had a cost of €2 for six hours but otherwise the sosta was free and the facilities clean and all in working order. There was a view over the valley (when we could see it), and from our side window we could see the lake. The road to get here had been a little deformed but it wasn’t busy so we could take it easy. We had a quick stroll around the lake before we left, the hamlet looked affluent and well maintained. I can imagine it being a popular spot for a weekend day trip when the weather warms up but today everything was quiet.

Settled into the Lago Sirino Sosta
Lago Sirino from the path that circles the lake

After our brief perambulation we set off towards the coast. We were heading for Sapri, a coastal town behind a wide bay on this most southerly part of the Campania coast. We had a couple of parking spots we had eyed up on google. Initially we parked up along the seafront, where the parking was free in low season, but the waves were crashing over the sea wall and the traffic was quite noisy so we moved for the night to park by the football pitch.

We set off to walk the donkey path which started from the harbour. There was no parking here so we had to walk along the seafront and then up the road for a bit until we could get onto the path. We later found that there was parking a couple of km along the path which could be accessed from the SS18.

The initial section of the pathway was well constructed, wide and pretty level. There were informative signs at various spots along the path and bins and cycle racks. It was obviously a popular place for a stroll, and when we were on our way back the small carpark was full of cars, but during the day we had it to ourselves. On the map the path looks very close to the road, however the slope is steep enough that you don’t feel it intrudes very often, just the unfortunate rubbish strewn under the laybys where people on the road above had ditched their food and drink containers.

We walked along this easy section of path enjoying the sight of the waves crashing against the rocks and the dart and rustle of the many lizards that were basking in the sunshine. The views south showed headland after headland disappearing into the distance, the stony cliffs contrasting beautifully with the cerulean sea. It was possible to venture closer to the coast at points to watch the waves crashing against the spiny limestone rocks. 

Sea views on the first stretch of the walk

After about 3km we reached a promontory with the ruins of a tower. From this point the path suddenly narrowed, it looked precarious where we could see it between the scrub and rocks, but it was worse from a distance than it was to walk. It is a maintained path and there were plenty of places where it had been shored up with stone walls to keep the earth in place and stop it slipping down the cliff face. At one point the path crosses the river that forms the boundary with the region of Basilicata, the river channel was completely dry, like so many rivers in limestone areas it probably only runs when there is significant rainfall. The views continued to delight, the coast becoming more craggy and indented as we progressed.

We didn’t manage to reach the end of the path (in fact I wasn’t sure where the path did end) because we had to turn around to get back before dusk. We agreed that this was our favourite coast path walk so far. This part of Italy was really ticking the boxes for us and we were looking forward to heading further south.

Views of the second part of the walk – see if you can spot the path (not the road)

p.s. it was along this path that I found my one spear of wild asparagus

A Walk and Two Doughnuts

10/03/18

We stayed in Marina di Camerota for two very different nights. On Friday night we were joined by a couple of Italian motorhomes in the big carpark behind the beach and had a peaceful night’s sleep. On the Saturday night the Italian motorhomes had left us alone in the carpark and we spent a couple of hours being the obstacle in a boy racer’s playground. It was only one car with a young driver and his girlfriend taking it in turns to speed up and down, do handbrake turns and screech donuts around us. Paul watched from our bedroom window, probably reliving his youth, and after a while they left us in peace. That’ll teach us to be wary of large empty carparks on Saturday nights.

Marina di Camerota

During the day we took another coastal walk to visit four beaches; the long sandy beach at Marina di Camerota that is split in two by a small rocky promentory, and the steep sided coves of Calas Pozzallo, Bianca and Infreschi. In fact we didn’t end up getting as far as Infreschi, having been captivated by the two other beaches. One day we may come back and walk in to Cala Infreschi from the other direction.

Looking across the long sandy beach at Marina di Camerota from the east

This coastline here is still part of the Cilento national park and is stunning. The cliffs are steep and wooded and the path strays inland to avoid obstacles but when it hits the coast you are rewarded with limestone cliffs, wave cut caves and brilliant blue water.

Caves in the cliffs – most of them had barriers in place

As we walked east of the carpark we encountered the first cave, a tourist attraction just behind the headland that divides the beach. This was gated and closed for the low season but we could read the boards that explained the Neaderthal and early Homo Sapiens habitation of the site. At the far end of the beach was the town’s cemetery and the path heads up through the wooded cliff beyond this, marked with red and white slashes. We had considered an alternative route closer to the cliff edge that we had seen from the far end of the beach, but didn’t realise that it would involve wading through the sea for a couple of yards, so decided to leave that for the return.

The path took us up through the woods and then onto tracks past olive groves, farm buildings and villas. We took a wrong turn at one point, keen to get off the main track we headed down a path through olive trees only to reach a dead end where a couple were clearing undergrowth from around the trees. They directed us back up to the track where we kept a closer eye out for the route markers.

Brightly coloured lizard – in the warm sunshine they were everywhere

The day was turning out to be pleasantly sunny and warm and so we stopped to enjoy some sun when we reached  the pebbly beach at Cala Pozzallo. The walk down here had taken us past a small patch of agricultural land where dogs yapped at us (not an uncommon occurrence here) and a rather nice beach bar (closed). The beach had the look of somewhere that is visited mostly by boat as one of those ‘visit a deserted beach but actually you can rent chairs and umberellas and get a cocktail once you’re there’ destinations.

Once we managed to tear ourselves away from here we took another detour inland before dropping down to Cala Bianca, this time walking out to the headland west of the beach before clambering down over the sharp limestone rocks to the beach. Again we stopped to enjoy the good weather, eating our lunch while sat on the rocks above the cove and sharing our bread with the voracious fishes that were swimming beneath us.

Looking down on the beach at Cala Bianca

It was at this point that we had to turn around in order to ensure we got back to Bertie in time to watch the rugby. The walk back was much quicker, along the way we kept an unsuccessful eye out for wild asparagus and had more success spotting many jewel toned lizards basking in the heat of the day.

This time we did get our feet wet as we walked to the end of the headland where a watchtower looks out over the bay before dropping down many steps to a tiny cove where we had to wade around the corner and back onto the sandy beach.

Wading around the rocks at the eastern end of the Marina di Camerota beach

That afternoon we watched rugby while eating scrumptiously light and sugary ciambella (doughnuts) that I had bought from the bakery that morning.     

Bent Wheels and Buffalo Butter

07/03/18 – 08/03/18

We drove down the road to Agropoli, the same road we had driven the day before in the other direction. A parking spot close to the coast was going to be a starting point for a bike ride. Paul knew he had a job to do as the rear tyre on his bike was completely flat, but when he took the bike down off the rack the wheel was buckled so badly that it was rubbing on the fork. We racked our brains trying to work out when we would have picked up this damage, but it didn’t really matter, we weren’t going to be riding the bikes today.

A quick google search found a nearby bike shop just north of Paestum, so we drove up the fateful road again to find it. Despite the language barrier it was pretty obvious what we needed and the staff in the shop had a go at straightening out the wheel before agreeing that yes, we needed a new one. The bike was left with them till the following morning and we needed to make a decision about how to spend the rest of the day.

Along that road we were getting to know so well we had spotted a number of ‘caseificio’. These are the dairies of southern Campania, an area known for it’s herds of buffalo which produce super creamy mozzarella and other buffalo milk products. A quick internet trawl took us to Caseficio Tenuta Vannulo which promised organic mozzarella and more. We had missed the guided tour, but we could still take a look at the buffalo in their winter lodgings and mooch around the dairy buildings. In the dairy itself a small sales area was rammed with people queuing to buy products. Paul decided to wait outside as I took a ticket and got in line. People were leaving with polystyrene cool boxes full of items and I was glad there was a bit of a queue so I could peruse the list on the wall that showed the small range of possibilities. I decided that not only would i pick up some mozzerella but also I would try some buffalo butter. I felt a bit miserly placing my tiny order in light of the large quantities being bought by other people but no one batted an eyelid except at my pronunciation of ‘burro’ (I’ve never been able to roll my ‘r’s). Following the scrum of the dairy we popped next door into the ‘Yogurteria’, a café selling yohgurt, ice-cream, desserts, drinks and sandwiches. An ice cream each – pistachio and chocolate flavours because we’re predictable – for a couple of euros each and we were both relaxed and happy.

We needed to stay in the area to pick up the bike, and we needed to use some services, so decided to drop into Camping Villagio Pini; an ACSI campsite shaded by many pines which I’m sure create welcome shade in the summer, but just created annoyingly heavy water droplets in the rain that evening. The site was nearly empty, apart from some long term tenants who had nabbed the beachfront pitches, we picked an easy access pitch (some looked quite difficult to navigate into) close to the wifi and settled in for the rest of the day. Our indication of money well spent on a campsite, the showers were hot and powerful.  

The following morning we popped back up the road to pick up the bike with it’s new straight wheel. Good service and a reasonable price made us very happy. We also popped back into the Caseficio, where there was no mozzarella, but we didn’t care because we wanted more butter. At €1.50 for 250g it was cheaper than supermarket butter and amazingly creamy, tasting almost like clotted cream.

Having picked up the bike you might think we would go for the bike ride we had missed out on. But no, for whatever reason we decided that we would push a little further south and go for a walk. We proceeded through the edges of the Cilento national park down to Ogliastro Marina. We couldn’t make it to our anticipated parking spot – the car park we thought we had spotted on Google Maps was actually part of a large camping village that was closed – but we could park on the side of the road as it was the low season. 

From here we walked along the coast path westwards. Initially we thought we were going to be thwarted, having to go through a gate that proclaimed itself private property and encountering fencing where we thought the path should be. But we persevered, by going through the gates and past the fencing we managed to find a cut through to the coastpath. Other walkers and cyclists were using the path and nearby road so we didn’t think we would be in too much trouble. This walk took us along a low cliff, never more than a couple of meters above the water and interrupted frequently by streams and small shingle beaches. Behind the coast was an open pine wood with gnarly trees and lots of green spring growth. Lizards basked on trees and rocks and birds were singing. Waves provided a rhythmic backdrop of noise. It was hard to believe, but this was our first coastal walk in Italy. Our previous attempts to enjoy the coast had been thwarted by the weather, and much of the coastline had been unappealing. Now we were freshly inspired.

We decided that we would move on from our roadside parking, so headed down to the archeological site of Elea/Velia where we parked up in the spacious coach parking ready to visit the following morning. 

Almost to the Top of Vesuvius

15/02/18

Snow had been falling on Bertie on Valentine’s evening. Fat flakes that hadn’t settled on the road but had frosted the trees. We didn’t know what Vesuvius summit would be like but chances were that the summit cone would be closed.

On Vesuvius there are nine marked walking routes of various lengths. Route 5 is ‘Il Gran Cono’ – the walk around the summit cone – and is the most popular. A ticket is needed for this which is purchased from a ticket office just below the summit, buses run from Naples and other spots, transporting people up the mountain to the ticket office so that the summit can be approached pretty easily.

Getting ferried practically to the summit didn’t appeal to us, we wanted to spend more time ascending the mountain to get closer to the volcanic terrain. Our chosen route was La Valle dell’Inferno, this spoon shaped route joins up with the summit walk at the ticket office so we could get right to the summit as well as seeing more of the mountain. Information about the various routes can be found here.

It was Paul’s birthday, so I allowed him a lie in before we set off. I made our packed lunch while he was busy snoozing and waved at a couple of mountain bikers who were setting off up the mountain. By the time we were ready to leave they were coming back down again, giving us a brief ‘Ciao’ as they sped down hill. We set off following their tracks uphill along a steeply zig-zagging asphalt road that soon became a dirt track. At first there was little snow but as we ascended we started to encounter more patches of snow and the melt off the trees pattered down on us so that we were glad we had hoods on our jackets. We were in awe of the cyclists who had slogged up this hill through the snow.

Following bike tracks in the snow

We reached a point where another route split off, there were a couple of useful map boards here. We kept left to follow our chosen route which continued to ascend through more and more snow up to a plateau where the route became circular. At this point we made a pact that if the snow got more than ankle deep we would turn around. We had gaiters and waterproof trousers but it would be foolish to walk on an unknown path in deep snow. We could see that this was the point where the mountain bikers had given up and turned downhill.

View of the Bay of Naples with the Sorrento Peninsula in the distance

Luckily the snow stayed about ankle deep all the way and only got deeper in pockets where the strengthening wind had blown it into small drifts. From the plateau we found our route markers leading off to the left through sparse alder trees, some of which had been blackened by forest fires. Eventually we made it to a cobbled road, still mostly snow covered, which we followed to the ticket office. The views along this section were beautiful with the snow covered cone of Vesuvius rising in front of us and a ridge to our right.

We could see views of the summit cone as we walked

Between us and the ridge was the Valle dell’Inferno and our return route would take us down here, but first we had to get to the ticket office. It was closed as we had suspected. We stopped here to have our lunch on the useful picnic benches as we decided what to do. We could retrace our steps and take an alternative path to the summit, but we didn’t know whether we would be able to make it to the top or whether it would be fenced off. It was Paul’s call as it was his birthday – he decided that we should continue our route and not try to get to the top, the biting wind had put him off continuing further uphill.

Outside the ticket office

It took a bit of a search to find the snow obscured path down into the valley, but once found it was a pretty straight forward to follow between trees with the twisted formations of lava cliffs on one side, festooned with icicles. 

Lava formations in the cliffs above the Valle dell’Inferno
Shrine in remembrance of a mountaineer who fell to his death, a stark reminder of the danger of walking in winter conditions.
Volcanic rock formations with a beard of icicles

Finally we reached the plateau again and were able to follow our original route back downhill to Bertie. By now the snow on the paths was starting to melt, but we could still see our own footprints melted into enormous yeti style tracks.

We rewarded ourselves with a cuppa when we got back to Bertie before we moved on. We were now going to follow a route north along the Adriatic coast. Our next stop was on the eastern side of Vesuvius near Caserta. This time we decided to take the toll roads rather than try to navigate through the towns.

     

After the Old Stuff, Old People

07/02/18 – 08/02/18

After Rome Paul decreed that he couldn’t cope with any more ‘Old Sh*t’ and needed to detox. So it was time to find somewhere we could walk or cycle and get out into the natural environment. We headed inland to Campodimele, chosen because it gave us access to the hills of the Aurunci Natural Park. What we didn’t realise was that Campodimele is a longevity hotspot. A place where the fabled Mediterranean lifestyle allows residents to live to a ripe old age, in fact they expect the average age of death of the current residents to be 95 years, which – when you think about it – is quite astounding.

Campodimele was yet another Italian hill town and we can’t get enough of them. Even if they are not in tourist guide books there is always something to explore, in fact as we drive past any hill town we end up worrying that we’re missing out on a nugget of interest.

Campodimele from the slopes of Mount Faggeto

The name of the town literally means field of honey, but sadly I didn’t find any honey to take away with me (I like honey with my favourite breakfasts, yoghurt, porridge or sometimes ‘overnight oats’ a combination of the two – oh ok, my favourite breakfast is a bacon buttie, but I like to pretend to be healthy). It perches on a perfectly conical hill, not in the natural park itself, but surrounded by the park on all sides. It’s only a small town and still has it’s walls and towers incorporated into the buildings that lean up against them. The sosta here sits just below the town and at the start of the walk up Mount Faggeto which was our first outing. There are many trails here and the details can be picked up from tourist information, plus there was a good map board at the Sosta.

The free Sosta at Campodimele with lovely views of the surrounding hills

We left the sosta to wander up the marked path through the river valley. The markings on the path were the white and red of the Club Alpino Italiano which meant they were well maintained, unlike the locally maintained route markings in some areas which were funded by the EU and have been left to their own devices since funding dried up. The route was not too taxing as it took us on a gentle uphill through the valley criss-crossing the barely existent water. The sound of cow bells could be heard above us on the sides of the valley but the trees were too thick to see through even though most of their leaves had dropped. Along the watercourse were multiple stone dams, we wondered what they were for; they weren’t in use anymore and the pools behind them had mostly silted up. As we got higher we started to see snow on the ground and snowdrops growing around the path, a heartening first sign of spring. When we finally emerged from the woodland we were nearly at the top of the mountain, just a small climb up the slope to the summit cross, made slightly harder work than it needed to be by the thin layer of snow that slipped under our feet.

The wind was strong at the top and we could see clouds starting to roll up the far slopes towards us, we took shelter by the mouth of a cave where warm air (well warmer than outside) was being expelled and creating a tiny microclimate of frost free ferns and grass. Here we ate our lunch quickly so that we could get moving before the clouds reached us. We didn’t want to get stuck in fog.

We struck off the main path for our return route, following barely visible red marks on the rocks that led along a lovely rocky limestone ridge. The views were pretty good and would have been amazing on a clear day. As we reached the end of the ridge, marked by a post, we encountered a solitary bull guarding a small area of pasture, we edged around him carefully before descending steeply down slopes of ankle breaking shattered rock. There was no discernible path now so it was a case of taking a bearing and heading in the right direction, picking our way over rocks, down muddy banks and between mossy trees. Finally we reached the main track back down to the parking spot, as is always the case we could see the pale red path markers when we looked back.      

A long walk in beautiful surroundings with no one else for company had been the perfect antidote to the hustle and bustle of Rome. We liked it here so decided to stay another night, this time joined by an Austrian couple in their campervan.

The following morning we took a cycle ride to the village of Pico. We started out following the tiny road between the parking spot and the mountains. This took us past several small farms where the farm dogs enjoyed chasing us, before bounding across the fields to intercept us again later. They knew what they were doing.

We passed a restored but empty monastery before eventually left the road to join a footpath that took us up and down over the side of the hill. It was hard going on the bikes, but the views were amazing and it seemed over too soon as we finally made it to a farm track on the outskirts of Pico where we zoomed down the steep gradient to the main road.

Restored Monastery

The way back was along the main road , a long slightly uphill stretch of road, we passed Camopdimele before doubling back on ourselves. As we gazed up at the village on the hill above us we decided that we would take the longer more gentle route back, rather than tackling the steep paths back up to the sosta.     

Beautiful far-reaching views

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. 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

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

 

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. 

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