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

 

Zombie Nation

06/12/17 – 08/12/17

We didn’t intend to spend much time in the Algarve, but we wanted to see the rock formations of the Algarve cliffs somewhere and Lagos seemed as good a place as anywhere.

We stopped off at the Intermarche supermarket on the approach to Lagos and here we got an indication that there may be a few British people around. As well as hearing a lot of English spoken we were also able to get our hands on some British produce. Blackcurrant squash was number one on the list for us.

We parked up at Praia de Porto de Mos on the western side of Lagos where there is a large dirt car park behind the beach and from here we walked along the coast towards the Faro. Or at least we tried to. There is a lot of development right up to the coast and it was difficult to find a coastal path on the way out. We ended up walking up residential streets trying to find a way through to the coast with no luck, and eventually walked through a hotel complex, climbing through a hole in the fence around their golf course before we were able to get onto the headland. On the way back it was much easier to find the coast path, we had just picked the wrong street, and we only had to leave the coast for the last part of the descent back to Bertie.

Rock formations at Ponta da Piedade, Lagos

The cliffs around the headland of Ponta de Piedade were spectacular, worth exploring with lots of paths and stairs winding around cliffs, arches and grottoes. There were plenty of people there, including a rapper (grime artist?) making a video to the backdrop of the golden arches. 

From Lagos we moved onto a campsite at Armarcao de Pera for a couple of days of rest. We had arranged to meet our son and his girlfriend for a couple of days near Malaga just before Christmas so we wanted to do some planning to see how quickly we needed to move.

The campsite we arrived on gave us a taste of the life of the people who stay on campsites long term. We were amazed by the shanty style dwellings that had been erected by some of the residents. In some cases you couldn’t see the caravan or motorhome, they were covered with shelters and surrounded by windbreaks and awnings. Even fences and gates had been erected. The social life of the campsite took place at lunch time – making the most of the daylight hours – we saw people joining each other for lunch, going out for a walk or just stopping to exchange greetings. By evening it was a different matter, the campsite was deathly quiet. We went into Armarcao de Pera to have dinner one evening, when we got back we thought we’d crossed into a parallel world inhabited by shuffling, dressing-gown-wearing, zombies.   

To the Furthest Corner of Europe

05/12/17

Well…one of them anyway.

Our parking spot was at Cabo São Vicente, the south-west corner of Europe near the town of Sagres. We had emptied and refilled Bertie at the Intermarche supermarket in Sagres before finding a parking spot.

When we arrived on the evening of the 4th we parked up with views of the sunset which was spreading rose and amber colours across the sky. I was so caught up in watching the colours that I forgot to take a photo. Oh well, it’s sometimes nice to just enjoy something without thinking ‘I must take a photo for the blog’.

The following morning we set off to walk along the coast, the cliffs here are spectacularly high and the wind swirled around them, carrying sea birds, pigeons and falcons in swooping curves above and below us. As usual there were fishermen dropping their lines from high vantage points into the sea below. We rock hopped amidst the scrubland between the top of the cliffs and the road, heading west and skirting around a couple of military installations until we hit private property just before Praia de Tonel that would have forced us inland. Instead we decided to turn around and back to Bertie. We dropped down to the Praia de Beliche for a spot of lunch and a paddle – enjoying the sunshine and sheltered from the wind by the high cliffs – before making our way back by a more direct route parallel with the road.

Cliffs and chasms in the coast between Cabo Sao Vicente and Sagres
Flower heads on the clifftops

That evening we moved a little further along the coast to the Praia de Boca do Rio. On first sight this seemed like a run down place with an abandoned graffiti covered building between the car park and the sea and a very small beach at high tide. But ignoring the building the car park was set in an attractive river valley nature reserve and also has some roman ruins. At low tide much more beach was exposed. We stayed for the night even though there were signs forbidding overnight parking, I think they probably don’t bother enforcing this in low season. We didn’t stay for long the next morning just took a short walk to the top of the cliffs before we left. 

Beach at Boca do Rio, beautiful despite the abandoned, graffiti covered, building

Laid Back at Praia de Bordeira

03/12/17 – 04/12/17

When we woke up at the Praia de Bordeira we were surrounded by vans. The usual big white boxes of various nationalities, but also smaller campervans and van conversions of all sizes. Surfing seemed to be the main theme here with many surfers already on their way to the beach to catch the tide, but the thing that made this stop stand out for us was the number of young families travelling with children. The whole combination gave the parking area a laid back vibe, although it took our ears a while to readjust to the sound of children’s chatter.

The car park here sits behind the river, you can reach the beach either by wading through the river (seldom more than knee deep), or you can walk along the point to the south of the parking area and descend wooden steps to the beach where the river disappears below the sand, this second option is not always available as the river channel changes and sometimes flows above ground all the way to the sea.

River and beach from the headland at Praia de Bordeira. You can see someone wading across the river

We spend two days here, chilling out in the sun, watching surfers, swimming at the beach and walking the paths around the headland. and village. Large fishes swam languorously in the river, plenty of sea and river birds enjoyed the waters, storks flew overhead, their orange beaks and legs making them easy to distinguish, and at one point a peregrine falcon alighted on the bank of the river, turning it’s grey moustached face backwards and forwards to survey the area before flying off again.

Views of the cliffs on the other side (south) of the headland
Portuguese fishermen scaling the cliffs to find the best fishing spot

If there had been somewhere to dump our waste and refresh our water we might have stayed for longer, but instead we moved on further south.  

Another view of the beach from the headland

Sand in our Shoes

02/12/17

From our parking spot at the Praia de Almograve we could access part of the Ruta Vincentina, two interconnected long distance trails that run all the way down the south west of Portugal from Santiago do Cacem to Cabo Sao Vincente. There is a historical trail, a fisherman’s trail and a number of circular routes that allow you to join the two together.

Exposed rocks on the beach at Almograve

We joined the fisherman’s trail and walked south, heading for Cabo Sardao. The route took us for a short distance down a well made track until we reached a small fishing port. There were plenty of other people walking this section of the path and most turned around here.

Looking down on the tiny port

The route struck off over the clifftops with the paths mostly soft sand between rocky outcrops. It was hard going on the uphill stretches as we slogged through the sand, but worth it for the fine views of the ochre cliffs against the blue sea.

Colours of sunsets and rust in the cliffs south of Almograve

As we approached the Cabo Sardao we detoured inland to avoid a large sand dune, this took us through a forest which gave us welcome respite from the sun.

Cool shelter provided by eucalyptus and pines in the forest

On the other side of the forest we were only on the coast for a short distance before we took another inland detour along tracks and roads to avoid a deep valley, on the other side of this was the lighthouse at Cabo Sardao which had plenty of decking platforms for people to admire the view. We were sure that we hadn’t needed to take that detour, so on the way back we followed faint tracks down into the valley and up broken steps the other side to emerge in a thicket of shrubs – we would never have found this from the other direction. Not the designated path but it cut out a lot of the less interesting walking.

This walk was incredibly beautiful and worth doing, despite the tonnes of sand we found in our boots, clothes and rucksacks at the end of it. The coastline, constantly being redefined due to erosion, is made up of many shades from cream to deep ochre and is sculpted into interesting shapes and precipitous overhangs. Being Portugal the fishermen still manage to find somewhere high and dangerous to fish from.

After our walk we wanted to find somewhere we could enjoy the sunshine and relax, so we took off down the coast and explored a few parking spots. Eventually, after exploring a number of spots and with darkness fully upon us, we settled on Praia de Bordeira. There were plenty of other vans here, in the dark we didn’t know if it would fit the bill but it was time to stop for the evening and we would decide whether to stay the following day.   

The End of the World is Running Out of Cider

28/11/17-29/11/17

The forecast for the 28th was rain, so we didn’t make many plans except for a spot of grocery shopping. It was a mega two supermarket shop. Lidl for the bargains and stuff we know that they sell (i.e. cheddar cheese) and Intermarche for their baked goods and French cider. Paul, being almost exclusively a cider drinker, has had some interesting experiences in Portugal with Somersby and Strongbow – so called – cider. He was very excited when he saw these British brands in the supermarkets, but disappointed to find that it wasn’t really cider especially as he went a bit mad and bought 24 bottles. Instead it is a mixture of cider, apple juice and apple flavouring and tastes like an apple alco-pop. Luckily Intermarche sells the french stuff which passes muster and I’m sure we’ll find some british brands for vastly inflated prices when we get down to the ex-pat territory of the Algarve.

After stocking the cupboards we decided to take a quick trip to Cabo da Roca, the headland that is the most westerly point in mainland Europe. We approached along busy roads and drove into the carpark only to drive out again, narrowly avoiding the hordes of tourists. We parked for a cuppa on a layby to the side of the road and watched coaches arriving and leaving with great regularity. It’s obviously a popular day out from Lisbon. The Romans believed that this was the end of the world.

Although we’d fancied the walking from Cabo da Roca, we didn’t fancy the company of the tourists so we pushed on further south to Cabo Espichel. Another headland but much quieter this time although it seems to have more going for it than just geography. The church of Nossa Senhora do Cabo has been a place of pilgrimage and still has the dormitories for pilgrims lining the approach, although they are now boarded up. There is also a chapel lined with Azulejos – the blue and while tiles  that Portugal is famous for – depicting the story behind the dedication of the church, although it was locked when we were there and we had to peer through the bars on the door.   

The church of Nossa Senhora do Cabo and the pilgrims accommodation
This tiny chapel was beautifully decorated inside with azueljos

The skies were a deep grey by now and rain was threatening. We decided not to venture too far from Bertie and sure enough the rain began to descend heavily almost straight away. We watched as the car park in front of us turned into a small pond and water ran in rivulets down Bertie’s sides and then down the carpark eroding channels in the clay. It was an afternoon for a bit of TV and web surfing.

The following day the rain had passed and we went for a walk around the headland, following a marked route to the south, passing the lighthouse and taking us to a ruined 17th century (we think) fort where a rusted pillar would have once held a warning beacon. 

Lighthouse at Cabo Espichel
We clambered around on this ruined fort which gave us good views out to the south

 

On the coast below the fort was this emplacement, including a rusted post for a warning beacon. These days it looks like someone uses it as a fishing spot.

From the fort we cut across the headland, passing half built villas, maybe from the 80s which were now derelict. Building materials were scattered around and Paul identified a few asbestos tiles – nice. 

Half completed buildings, there must have been a dozen of these in various states of completion.

On the north side of the headland we joined another marked route that followed the northern coast to the Pedra da Mua – the footsteps of the dinosaurs. The coast here is made of many layers of sedimentary rocks and several steps of dinosaur footprints have been found. The only ones we could make out were those that tracked up the cliff opposite the viewpoint, although there are others we couldn’t find them and I would recommend looking on the internet for some pointers before going rather than afterwards! These footprints form part of the legend of the area with stories that the Virgin Mary rode a giant mule out of the sea and up to the headland.

Can you make them out?
Eroded paths, channels have been scoured by rain waters through the soft sandstone

 At the end of the walk we investigated another building, this was part of the water supply and laundry area for the church and pilgrim buildings and an aqueduct can be seen near the road that leads to the headland.

Laundry, water supply and now there is a rustic campsite within the walls to the right of the picture (summer only)

Because of the previous day’s rain the walk had been extremely muddy, we both felt a couple of inches taller with the amount of claggy sediment that was clinging to the bottom of our boots. Despite our best endeavours this mud got everywhere. 

 

 

 

Guincho Beach

26/11/17-27/11/17

Next we drove to Foz do Lizandro, intending to stop there for the evening. We parked up on the clifftop and walked down steps to the beach where the Rio Lizandro enters the ocean. The waves washing up the beach were coming from two directions, making interesting swirling patterns where they met. There was plenty of surf and surfers out to sea but towards the beach the waters were calmer, protected by a sandbank. We decided to go in the water, less a swim and more of a float as we allowed ourselves to be churned around in the currents created by waves washing over the sandbank.

After our swim we lazed on the beach drying out and warming up, but the sky was starting to cloud over which drove us back to Bertie. We looked at the local area and decided we might as well move on. We ended up at Praia Guincho, another surfer’s beach where campervans and motorhomes were parked up for the evening. When we got there in late afternoon the sea was still full of the black dots of surfers taking advantage of as much light as possible before they gave up for the day, it seemed fully dark to me by the time the last few were walking up the beach.

The usual Portuguese fishing spot. This isn’t Paul fishing, he prefers to get closer to the sea

Paul had been sussing out the cliffs to the north of Guincho and thought he might have some fishing spots, so we took a random walk along the coast that soon met a signposted route, so we followed it until we reached the promontory that Paul was aiming for. Here we followed fishermen’s paths down to the sea. The coast was south facing and slightly more sheltered from the ocean swells, but there were still big waves washing up and causing Paul to jump back every now and again. Paul fished (unsuccessfully) while I relaxed on the rocks reading. 

The coastline north of Guincho beach, taken from Paul’s fishing spot

Occasionally I would have a little clamber about on the rocks to see what was around. Down at the edge of the water were mussels and gooseneck barnacles. The mussels were too small to gather and I think that the gathering of gooseneck barnacles (known locally as percebes, expensive, delicious and slightly odd looking) is probably regulated, so I decided against it – that, and they were too difficult to prise from the rocks by hand.

Percebes hidden between the rocks. Called gooseneck barnacles because it was once believed that they were the larvae of the Barnacle Goose

We stayed a Guincho again that night, it had a relaxed atmosphere, but we knew that rain was due the following day and we would need to find some services too.    

Peniche

25/11/17

Peniche is a town on a small headland that sticks out from the west coast of Portugal just north of Lisbon. It’s known for it’s great surf, and because it has coast facing in many directions it’s usually possible to surf here regardless of wind direction. Not that this was why we were here, but there were plenty of surfers around and also a lot of Portuguese motorhomes here for the weekend.

We drove along the north side of the peninsular, stopping at Intermarche for a quick restock and taking note of the motorhome facilities in their car park, then taking a look at a few parking spots. The one we had liked the look of on google turned out to have no motorhome/campervan signs all over it so we drove on out to Cabo Carvoeiro lighthouse.

We decided to take a walk around the headland, following tracks around the south coast until we got to the Fortazela and harbour area where we wandered through narrow streets of tiled houses and apartments, lived in and busy. Restaurants lined the harbours edge and were full of people out for their Saturday lunch.

Peniche Fortezela – closed for lunch when we walked by

From the harbour we followed an inlet north, this cuts across the middle of the peninsular making it almost an island, the town walls hug the western edge of the water and an industrial estate is on the less picturesque east side. We crossed the main road to the northern coast where we stopped to watch surfers before following the cliffs back to Bertie. Along the way we noticed that fishing spots were marked with yellow fish symbols on white posts, these fishing spots often clung precariously to the side of the cliffs, down steps onto small platforms that looked like they might have been built by the fishermen. Some were already slipping down the cliff or undercut by the sea.

A marker post for one of the many fishing spots along the cliffs
Collapsing steps down to what was once a fishing spot

The rock of the peninsular is heavily weathered limestone forming odd and beautiful karst formations with limestone pavements, deep crevices and sea stacks.

Limestone pavement, looking towards the chapel of Igreja de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios
Eroded and undercut, the cliffs of the south coast

This was a nice place to spend the day and set the tone for the next few days as we followed the coast, the fishermen, and the surfers, south. 

Paiva Walkways, the Ultimate in Garden Decking

19/11/17 – 20/11/17

When we moved into our house in Exmouth I remember Paul installing decking in the back garden – decking steps from the backdoor, decking over the crazy-paved patio, and more decking steps down to the lawn. A fun project for Paul. For a while it seemed as though we had the whole of the local timber yard in our garden.

These memories came back to me as we approached the Passadiços do Paiva, our next destination. This walk up the gorge of the Rio Paiva takes place mostly on timber steps and walkways that cling to the sides of the gorge allowing people to walk the length of the gorge from Areinho to Espiunca. 

The walkways are in Arouca geopark, an area of Portugal that is designated a Geopark by UNESCO who use this designation to promote the management and development of sites of geological interest. We started by visiting Arouca itself, a pleasant town inland from Porto with motorhome parking and services in the main carpark. We had a walk around the town; it was Sunday and everywhere was busy with visitors, there was a small farmers market in the park but the main attraction was the monastery (I suppose we would call it a convent as it was home to nuns rather than monks, but I think the term Mosteiro is used interchangeably) with it’s sacred art museum. We popped into the tourist office and spoke to a lovely lady who gave us lots of information about walking in the area and warned us off a couple of the paths where signposting had been damaged by forest fires. She sold us tickets for the walkways (you can also buy them online or at the start of the walk)  – at €1 each it seemed to be good value. 

We had intended to stay the night in Arouca but she suggested we could drive up to the parking for the Paiva walkways and stay there if we wanted to. She advised that with an autocaravana we should park at the Areinho end where there was a large unpaved parking area where it looked like someone had sheered off the top of a hill. There is also some parking down the track that leads to the official start of the walk but it was a narrow road and we couldn’t see how much parking there was so gave it a miss – when we walked down the next day we realised that we could have parked there easily but the track down had no passing places so not an option for a busy day.

Off we toddled, mild sat nav frustration this time as the sat nav didn’t want to allow us to leave Arouca by the main route, there is a 3.5 tonne limit on some roads which was the cause of confusion to the poor thing. We ignored it’s instructions for long enough to get out of town and then found our way easily to the car park where a couple of campervans were already in situ. We watched people returning to their cars at the end of the day, many returning in taxis from the other end of the walk.

Looking down on the Areinho road bridge across the Paiva river.

The next morning it was 5ºC in the van. Much warmer in the snug of our bedroom, but the coldest morning we had experienced so far and only our bladders provided motivation to get out of bed. We slowly warmed up as we prepared a lunch and flasks for our walk. From the car park it was a steady downhill to the official start of the walkway before heading across the main road and straight away tackling the hardest part of the walk – a series of staircases leading up to the top of the gorge. We wondered how people didn’t just avoid purchasing tickets as there are no barriers to stop anyone from accessing the paths, but at the top of the walkway they had cunningly placed the first ticket inspection point. There was another inspection point at the far end of the walk and also a park warden wandering about at the mid-point so you weren’t going to get away with it.  

The stairs wind up the side of the gorge giving plenty of opportunities for photos (and catching your breath)

The sun was shining and the initial climb up all those steps was very warm, but straight away we were going down an equal number of steps into the gorge and there the low November sun was often obscured by the cliffs, providing welcome shade with a bit too much contrast for good photos. We wound our way along the paths through a landscape that switched many times between dry rocky slopes and shaded forest that looked very British with autumn colours, ferns and mosses. Birds and butterflies flitted over the water, we saw plenty of yellow wagtails and a dipper playing in the water, easy to spot with it’s distinctive wide white bib. At one point we saw a European mantis sitting on a step, as cool – and as green – as a cucumber.

European Mantis watching us from the walkway

The Paiva gorge is well known for it’s white water but this year has been so dry that the river’s flow was placid and the rocks that would normally create the rapids were exposed and dry. Boards along the walk pointed out geological features which were easy to see with the river so low. 

Roughly half way the walkways are crossed by a couple of other trails, here there is a suspension bridge; an opportunity to look down on the river from a bouncing and swaying vantage point (not a compulsory part of the walkway). There were also toilets half way, a welcome opportunity as leaving the path for a wee was going to be a bit tricky. 

Suspension bridge, enjoyably springy

Along the way Paul enjoyed pointing out the way that the walkways had been constructed, the clever bolts that were used to anchor the timbers to the rock and the bits of joinery that had been well put together to cope with odd angles. Not just any old garden decking!

We got to the Espiunca end, 8km later, in just over two hours, taxis were waiting for the weary but we turned around and made our way back, taking a bit more time to stop and look around. Despite it being a Monday in November there were a good number of other people on the walkways, I can imagine that in the height of summer it could get quite frustrating and feel like a conveyor belt (I assume they limit the numbers through the ticketing system), but also you could take time to stop by the river and have a paddle or a swim; the November water was far too cold for us. In all it took us 5 hours with plenty of rest stops and photo opportunities. The trudge back up the dusty tracks to the carpark was probably the hardest part of the day.  

We could see why the walk had won tourism awards, it was well maintained with information boards, toilets and cafes but most importantly it was in a beautiful and interesting location. If you’re a decking fan then that would be the icing on the cake!

 

Peneda-Gerês, Perfect

15/11/17-16/11/17

The national park of Peneda-Gerês was a place we fell in love with during our short visit. The first place since we crossed the channel that makes it into our ‘visit again’ list (as opposed to our ‘must visit next time’ list for the sights and places we have passed by).  

The park is largely forested but above the tree line you’re in a landscape of granite tors and lumpy bumpy ridges. We were lucky with the weather for our visit, at this time of year we should have expected significant rainfall and low cloud, but northern Portugal was getting unusually clear and dry weather for the time of year. Not great for the farmers, especially after the hot summer and awful forest fires, but fantastic for us visitors.

Views of granite ridges across a landscape subjected to forest fires in the national park

We had chosen to base ourselves in the main village, known as Vila do Geres or Caldas do Geres or just Geres, a spa ‘town’ with a string of small hotels and an outdoor pool complex. While we were there most of the hotels were shut and the pools were empty. A few cafes and shops were open but it was very quiet. Our parking place was also the bus stop and the school bus came through a few times each day dropping off a scant handful of children, this area is not heavily populated anyway and according to the internet the population tends to be female and elderly rather than families. To our surprise we weren’t the only motorhome in the car park, another motorhome was already there when we arrived and one British van turned up while we were on our walk, so obviously a few people were thinking the same way as us and enjoying the good weather while it lasted.

With clear days came cool nights and we were in double duvet territory (we have a 4.5 tog and a 7 tog duvet, plus blankets and brushed cotton (ok, flannelette) bedding for a bit of extra comfort – if it gets really cold we might wear pyjamas but generally we prefer to sleep in the buff) but the heating didn’t need to come on yet.

For our first day in the mountains we followed one of the marked paths on the east side of the village, we picked it up by walking up the first switchback on the road above the car park until we found the red and yellow markers which led us steeply up a track through the forest – our legs complained at this unusual activity, we haven’t done any serious mountain walking since Scotland. Eventually the forest started to clear and we found ourselves in a mountain meadow where people had created many stacks of balanced rocks on top of the granite. From here the path followed the contours of the ridge heading south. We looked at the ridges above us and hankered to climb them, but without maps we didn’t want to head off the route.

Mountain meadow of stones

As we started to descend we found the source of the horse droppings we’d encountered on the trail, a few of the semi-wild Garrano horses in the park were munching on the autumn bracken. They weren’t disposed to pay us any attention or pose for photos. The path headed past an area that was fenced off (we don’t know why) and another mystery area with a cistern of water and large bare patches – we wondered if it was in some way linked to fire fighting.

Pine Processionary nest – the caterpillars of this moth have fine hairs which cause allergic reactions 

Further downhill at the Miradouro Pedra Bela we surprised a herd of goats off the viewpoints and sent them leaping with bells clanging further down into the valley. There were roads up to the Miradouro but, just like the rest of the walk, we didn’t see anyone as we followed the path, crisscrossing the road heading downhill.

Horse grazing above the tree line

The path bought us steeply down to the bottom end of the village and then through the cobbled back street past homes and smallholdings and yapping dogs until it dropped us back down to the car park.

On the way we had talked about our plans and decided we should stay another day and make the most of the beautiful scenery and ideal outdoor activity climate – clear and sunny but not too warm – so we had a quick walk down to the bakery to pick up some rolls for the next day’s packed lunch.

The following day we got our bikes out to cycle up the other side of the valley – this was the route that the sat nav had tried to bring us down and we were intrigued to find out whether we had made the right decision to turn around. It was a steady climb up the road past the football pitch, we put our bikes into a low gear and chugged along, sometimes it’s easier to keep climbing steadily than it is to cycle through undulating territory where the uphill stretches take your legs by surprise.

Smoke from chimneys hanging in the valley after a cold night

After 500m and 7 km (I am trying to retrain my brain to using the decimal system only) we had reached the highest point of the road, past a couple of picnic spots and viewpoints. We had seen the first evidence of Portugal’s forest fires as well as a herd of attractive cattle with very sharp horns.

Portuguese highland cattle with their sharp horns

The road was actually in good condition and would have been ok to drive in Bertie so long as we hadn’t encountered something coming in the other direction. It wasn’t empty, a dozen or so cars and small vans drove past us as we cycled. Driving in Scotland has spoiled us, we are used to well signposted passing places on single track roads and here the opportunities to avoid oncoming vehicles were few, we were still happy that we’d turned around.

Invigorated by our uphill ride we then decided to go further up and take the off road track to the Miradouro da Boneca.  This was a different experience as we slogged – generally uphill but with many ups and downs along the way – over rutted tracks to the viewpoint. At the end we had a spectacular view down into the valley and Bertie’s car park, and had the company of other people! We were a stone’s throw from our starting point and had nearly closed the circle, but I knew there was no way I would cycle the steep path straight down – it would have been suicidal.

The view down the valley to Bertie’s parking spot

We retraced our uphill bike ride, this time downhill and freewheeling most of the way, the switchbacks were particularly thrilling as we cycled downhill towards what looked like a sheer drop off before turning onto the next downhill.

Long mountain roads, perfect for cycling

When we got back we were exhausted but the adrenaline was pumping and so we used the energy to set off away from the hills and back down to the coast. I’m still regretting leaving, when will we ever get such a good period of weather for exploring such a wonderful place? We’ll be back one day for at least a couple of weeks to give us plenty of time to explore and enjoy.