I have always been a fan of public transport. I didn’t learn to drive until I was in my late twenties, and that was more out of necessity for work rather than any desire to actually do any driving. Unlike many people I didn’t equate the ability to drive with any form of freedom, after all you cant read books while driving and that is a serious impediment to my liberty! I suppose it also helps that I always lived in towns within easy walking distance of amenities, had I lived in a village in the middle of nowhere things may have been different. Certainly Paul has a completely different perspective.
On our travels so far we haven’t used as much public transport as we expected, we’ve moved the motorhome to be close to the attractions we want to visit and the trailheads for walks and bike rides. It’s just part and parcel of the way we have travelled, moving every one or two days. It’s also a sign of how well the countries we have visited are set up for motorhomes, the parking areas seem to be in the right places. Now we’re in the UK we are finding ourselves spending more time in one place and a static Bertie means that we need to find a way to get out and about.
By this point we were in the Temporary Holiday Site at Annstead Farm near Beadnell. We took the plunge and moved from the campsite at £22 a night (without electric) to this THS at £8 a night. The THS was as busy as the campsite, but the wardens explained that they try not to turn anyone away; their overflow field and the ability to squeeze some of the generously sized pitches give them room to manoeuvre and still stay within the rules (minimum of 6m from the neighbouring unit). By the time we left on Friday we had been rearranged to provide a pitch for another motorhome between us and our neighbour. They started with over 100 spaces, who knows how many units were on site by the end.
From here we were able to walk the coast path in either direction and make use of the excellent X18 bus that runs along the coast between Newcastle and Berwick-upon-Tweed. The bus comes with a bit of tourist commentary, and kept us entertained as it pointed out key sights along the route.
On our walks we visited Long Nanny, the location of a breeding colony of Little and Artic Terns. The beach is closed off and a community of volunteers and naturalists live on-site during the breeding season. Sadly this year hasn’t been a good one for the Little Terns whose nests were almost wiped out by a storm earlier in the year. We spent a little while talking to one of the rangers who explained how they raise the nests off the ground to try and protect them from high tides and storms. While the parents are away, each nest is painstakingly removed from the ground, boxes full of sand and shingle are then placed over the nest site and the nest is reconstructed on top. By the time the parent birds return it all looks the same as when they left – just a foot higher. All the time we are talking the more successful arctic terns are noisily wheeling around overhead, readying themselves for their migration.
Dunstanburgh Castle sits on an outcrop of rock looking out over the surrounding farmland and sea. It’s one of those evocative ruined castles, sufficiently intact to clamber about in the towers or the remains of the bailey walls. We used our NT membership to visit for free and ate our lunch while watching children running around with wooden swords playing at being knights. You could tell that the school holidays had started. There are plenty of other castles around but we chose to view Bamburgh Castle and Alnwick Castle from the outside rather than pay the entry fees. I’m sure we’ll be up this way again.
Craster was the furthest south that we managed to walk in one hit, famous for it’s kippers, the smell of smoke and fish wafts through the village. It’s much nicer than it sounds. We visit a number of other pretty villages on our explorations, Embleton Newton-by-the-Sea, Seahouses, Beadnell and Bamburgh are all attractive places, but Craster is our favourite and we can sit and watch the harbour for hours.
We ended the week being treated to a slap up meal by Aaron and Katie, we indulge our love of seafood with a couple of massive seafood platters at The Old Boathouse in Amble. It’s a wonderful meal and food wins this contest – we have to take home the smoked salmon for lunch the next day.
These blog posts may get a bit samey…visit a valley in the Aosta region, cycle a bit, walk a bit, see some marmots etc etc. if they get a bit dull then all I can say is that it doesn’t reflect the amazing time we’ve had in this area. We never get bored of mountain views, snow, ice, meadows, rivers and nature all around us, but it gets a bit difficult to find new ways to describe them.
We withdrew from the Cogne area to re-stock with food and wine in Aosta. Aosta is a really nice city, but we have visited before while skiing and only ventured in for food shopping on this trip. We tried to get into the Lidl car park but found it rammed full of cars, so instead we parked with several other motorhomes in a parking area near the roundabout at the east end of town and walked to the shops to stock up on basics.
Our destination this time was Valsavarenche – the next valley west of Cogne. Whereas Cogne is the tourist centre of the Gran Paradiso, Valsavarenche is the outdoors capital of the area, this is where most people will leave to summit the Gran Paradiso itself. Sadly we weren’t planning to ascend it on this trip, we would need to pay for a guide because we don’t have the experience to cross the crevassed terrain near the summit on our own. We have been higher, but that was on Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru in Tanzania, and those mountains don’t have glaciers on the ascent route (Kilimanjaro does have a glacier but it’s dwindling fast). Summiting an alpine 4000m mountain is on our bucket list though, so maybe next year.
Valsavarenche was a lot quieter that Cogne, we turned up at the sosta in the main village to find ourselves alone, next to the obligatory river and within sight of the usual flower -dotted grassy meadows. We popped to the town hall (municipio) to make our payment only to be told that they wouldn’t start charging until July. I wouldn’t have minded paying but I’m not going to say no to a free stop over when it’s offered up. Because we were alone and the weather was nice we decided to get the BBQ out to cook up a nice bit of steak for tea. What a treat that was, the Cadac has taken some getting used to but it cooked the steak perfectly, charred on the outside and still pink in the middle. We served it up with some barbequed sweet potato, which we cut into slices, dip in oil and griddle, it’s our new favourite barbeque veg. I’m salivating just thinking of that dinner.
We spent two nights in this sosta before moving up to the head of the valley and parking in the large car park for a couple of nights. The parking area at the head of the valley is outside a nicely positioned campsite which was closed when we arrived, but did open for the weekend.
As well as being the starting point for the Gran Paradiso, Valsavarenche is where you are most likely to see Ibex. These large-horned members of the goat family were almost hunted to extinction before their population was protected and restored. The Gran Paradiso was one of only two areas where Ibex still existed at their lowest population point. The national park was the hunting preserve of the first king of a united Italy, Victor Emmanuel II. His hunting practises both killed and preserved the species (an argument that is often used by hunters of trophy animals today, but today we should be much more enlightened). Nowadays they aren’t hunted and as a result you can seem some older specimens with their unfeasibly long horns that look as though they would weigh down the heads of the animals. If you want to see some examples of Ibex horns for different aged animals then there is a good display on the outside wall of the municipio in Valsavarenche (it’s on the wall that faces away from the road and towards the river). We were lucky enough to see a male group (probably the same group) several times in the areas at the head of the valley.
Cycling up the Valsavarenche
Our initial foray into the Valsavaranche was on our bikes, we just took the road up to the head of the valley and then zig-zagged up the man made track (route number 4) on the side of the valley. There was a large amount of avalanche damage here and I really didn’t like the looks of the rocks that teetered on the edge of the trail, ready to fall down on the path below. At one point the top of an electricity pylon had been dragged down to the opposite side of the valley and the wires had been temporarily suspended on lower poles. At the head of the valley we popped to the campsite to see if it was open and saw a herd of Ibex crowded onto one of the large boulders that were scattered across the camping area.
A Walk to the King’s Hunting Lodge
This walk was a circular foray up to Victor Emmanuel II’s hunting lodge at Orvielle. It followed trail number 8 from the village up through the forest, a trail that is also used for snow shoeing in the winter. This trail did feel a little interminable as we zig-zagged upwards through trees on a humid day. Wood ants were out in force scurrying around the forest floor carrying their treasures back to the nest; it was difficult to find a spot where we could sit down for a break without ants coming to investigate us.
On our back and forth route we crossed an avalanche corridor several times, massive rocks had taken gouges out of the soil where they had been flung down the slopes and trees lay in neat lines following the line of descent. Occasionally we had to cross the snow where it had been laid down thickly by repeated avalanche action. I’m sure it’s probably melted by now.
The hunting lodge was enclosed by a fence which said that access was forbidden, we stopped here for a bit of lunch and I said to Paul that I would take a photo from a small rise that was on our onward route. I completely forgot though because an Italian came bounding over to us to show off his photos of Ibex around Lago Djouan. They were great photos and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that we’d seen a herd down in the valley the previous day.
We left Orvielle to follow route 7 back down to the valley. Oddly this wasn’t very well signposted, but we managed to spot the obvious path where the trail broke off. This trail went more steeply downhill than the ascending path, past the abandoned buildings of the hamlets of Le Carre and La Ruya. We emerged in the valley at Le Cretou and walked back to Bertie through the wild flower meadows alongside the river, surrounded by butterflies.
Halfway up the Gran Paradiso
We might not be able to make it to the summit of the Gran Paradiso, but we were definitely going to get as high as we could on the route. We headed up route number 1 with the aim of reaching Refugio Vittorio Emmanuel II. We weren’t alone on this route. We had watched many people ascending in the late afternoon of the previous day, taking their snow shoes, crampons, ice axes, snowboards and skis up to the rifugio where they would spend the night before an early morning ascent of the Gran Paradiso and possibly the excitement of a fast descent on skis. When we started up the path there were plenty of casual walkers just going up to the waterfalls or the hut along with us. There were also the first few people descending from their early morning summit exploits. It was a bit of a shock compared to our previous walks where we had only encountered one or two other people and reminded us of walking in the Lake District or Snowdonia.
The initial part of the trail followed the river before turning upwards and following tight hairpins up a well constructed and well maintained path. The zig zags gave us glimpses of the valley and the large waterfall that tumbled down the gully next to us. We quickly emerged from the trees onto the open mountain side and increasing amounts of snow covered our path. However the large numbers of walkers meant the path was well trodden and easy to navigate. We pushed upwards over deeper and steeper snow, at one point we watched people descending a steep slope by sledding down on their backsides. I told Paul there was no way that I was doing that, but still we somehow managed to descend by that route! We could see plenty of ski tracks over the snow and by the time we reached the rifugio we had seen skiers, it didn’t look like it was difficult skiing, but there were plenty of rocks just under the snow that I wouldn’t want to encounter (plus the whole thought of carrying skis and BOOTS up was just exhausting).
The refuge was at 2710m and there was no way we were getting any higher as snow was lying thick on the ground. The building was a cut above any of the other mountain huts we had seen so far, a large building with an arched roof which could hold 120 people. It was busy with people on it’s sunny terrace, some settling in for the day and others packing up their kit to come back down the mountain.
We had finally arrived in the Valle d’Aosta, the most westerly of Italy’s alpine regions which has borders with Switzerland and France. In fact French is an official language as well as Italian (and many people also speak a local dialect) and so you will see both on road signs and other information boards and people. The Aosta valley runs from east to west and has subsidiary valleys both north and south of the main artery. The valleys to the south take you into the Gran Paradiso national park, more about that later. For now we were heading north into the Valtournenche.
We’re quite familiar with the Valtournenche (the name of the valley, a town in the valley and the local ‘commune’) because we have skied here a few times now. Mostly our skiing has been at the head of the valley in the resort of Breuil-Cervinia, so, for a bit of a change, we wanted to spend some time lower in the valley.
We popped into the tourist information centre in Antey-St-André to see if we could get some information on walks and bike rides in the area. This was one of the most helpful tourist offices we have been into yet, it probably helped that the lady spoke good English so could ask us lots of questions about what we were planning to do and how long we were planning to be here. We left with a good map of walks and mountain bike routes in the lower and upper valley (€5) and booklets of bike rides, driving routes, local food and drink, castles and motorhome parking spots. She also advised us to head to Torgnon if we wanted somewhere peaceful and surrounded by mountain scenery and walks. The sosta in Torgnon is free outside of the ski season AND has electricity, we took her advice and headed up the switchbacks to the strung out series of hamlets that make up Torgnon.
The sosta is beyond the top of the village just under the small ski resort. As promised it was quiet; the restaurants and cafes in the ski area do open in the summer, but not till July. There was a bit of road repair going on, and every now and again a car or van would drive up to one of the buildings. There was a ski lift directly in front of us and every day someone would come up and start the lift up, we wondered if this was a usual summer routine, just keeping things ticking over. One day the chairs on the lift had large blue containers on them, we assumed they were testing the weight capacity of the lift as they had about 100 of the containers stacked up next to it and when we went for a nose they were pretty heavy.
We stayed here for three nights in glorious isolation, the weather was the typical mountain weather we have been experiencing for the last month or so. Dry and bright in the mornings, cloud building up during the day and rain and thunder at some point in the afternoon. So we tried to drag ourselves out of bed as early as possible in the mornings (which is still pretty late really) so that we could get out and enjoy the outdoors before the rain fell.
On the first day we followed a mountain biking route that doubled as a cross country ski trail in the winter months. We cycled out of the parking area up to the ski resort where signposts pointed the way for us (this was also walking track number 1). This ride took us through mountain scenery to paths around small lakes, over streams and under gushing waterfalls. We stopped for lunch in a dilapidated building to shelter us from the rain and were very excited to see marmots frolicking in the meadow in front of us. The highest point of the trail took us over 2100 meters and we ended up having to push the bikes uphill over snow in this section which was a bit demoralising. It was a shame that the weather wasn’t better for this ride because the views were very beautiful but by the time we got back we were muddy, soaked and had fingers like icicles, hence a lack of photos.
The following day the sun came out and we decided to see fi we could tackle the Becca d’Aver which had been teasing us with it’s summit for the last couple of days. We knew we probably wouldn’t make it to the top because we could see a significant amount of snow in the saddle between it and the next peak. We were right, we only got as far as Mont de la Fenêtre before we had to give up due to a ridiculously small patch of snow on a steep section. The route up this far was lovely though (route 8 and then 9 from the ski area) so it wasn’t a wasted walk, the narrow path wound up and around rocky outcrops; one section had a chain as a hand rail, but manufactured rocky steps had been added later making the chain unnecessary. To make up for not reaching the summit we followed the southerly part of route 1 (which we hadn’t followed on the bikes the previous day) through the woods, climbing over trees still bowed or felled by the weight of snow, even though it was now gone. On the way we spotted fleeting glimpses of deer through the trees and one hare running across a meadow below us.
After three nights we felt it was time to move on, a few chores to do first. We did the usual empty and refill, but also took advantage of the fact that the water here is fed from a spring and so is constantly running through a trough. We used the trough to give our muddy cycling clothes a good scrub and washed down the bikes. How long they will stay clean is anyone’s guess.
As we travelled around the ridge of the Gran Sasso we started to see more evidence of earthquake damage, this was to become a feature of the next week or so and we never got used to the way in which people’s lives have been turned inside out by such a primal force of nature.
We stopped at Tossicia on the way around the mountains, this small town on the edge of the national park has a motorhome service area near a community centre and some of the ‘temporary’ accommodation that was erected after the 2009 earthquake. The mediaeval heart of the town sits on the edge of a gorge, but wander down it’s lanes and you see buildings that are only standing with support. We watched an older couple drive up and inspect one of the buildings, in my imagination this was their home they were visiting and wondering when or if they would ever be able to move back.
From Tossicia we followed one of the Ippovia – bridleways – on our bikes for a while, but the weather was hot and muggy and after fighting through undergrowth Paul was sweating so much that I was worried he was dissolving like the Wicked Witch of the West. We gave up and turned around getting back just in time for the thunder to start, but the fat spots of rain never really amounted to anything and the muggy atmosphere drove us onwards and upwards.
Our next destination was Pietracamela, we drove along the attractive SS80, following the river gorge before turning south and climbing up steep hairpin bends to the village. We thought there might be parking here but it was difficult to tell from google maps due to the tree cover. We almost overshot the turning just before the village which was unmarked and led sharply downhill to some parking on grass-crete just below the church. It wasn’t a dedicated motorhome parking area but no one else seemed to be interested in parking here so it was very peaceful. The car park also boasted a hi-tec recycling station which kept me entertained for a little while.
From here we followed a walk suggested by the guidebook we had bought, in fact we joined together three walks to create a circuit that has to be one of our favourite walks of all time, firstly following path 102 up into the spectacular Val Maone and then taking path 100 via Prati di Tivo to Pietracamela.
In early 2011 Pietracamela was subject to a different natural disaster; part of the rock outcrop above the village collapsed and a massive chunk of rock ‘the size of a block of flats’ sheered off from the cliff. As we walked up through the village on the first part of our walk we could see the resulting blocks of rock to the side of the path. We were lucky that the path was now clear as it had been closed for some time until the rock had been cleared away.
The path followed the river as it appeared and then disappeared under the limestone rocks. As we walked through the wooded valley we passed memorials to a couple of climbers who had been killed in blizzards here back in the early days of alpine climbing. The steepest part of the walk was a climb up a muddy bank shaped by a landslip and littered with fallen trees before we reached an attractive little waterfall and then broke from the tree cover into the Maone valley. This was the highlight of the walk, a beautiful and dramatic valley between the steep rock walls of Pizzo d’Intermesoli and Corno Piccolo. We walked up here as far as we could, over snow and around huge boulders. On the steep slopes we could see chamois browsing on the short grass and cooling off by laying in the snow.
When we had our fill of the valley (and our lunch) we walked back to the waterfalls and took the alternative path across to the ski resort of Prati di Tivo. This path followed the contours of the valley and crossed a couple of snow banks. As we reached Prati di Tivo we crossed beautiful alpine meadows with narcissi and orchids flowering. It felt like a true Heidi moment.
At Prati di Tivo the car park was busy, it took us a moment to realise that there were an astoundingly large number of Porsches and Lancias amongst the cars. Then we realised it was a classic car rally. Paul was particularly taken with the Sierra Cosworth and Peugeot 206 GTIs. It all just looked like a 1980’s carpark to me.
The walk down took us through woods again, and as we approached the village we had to climb over a new landslide, the rocks clean and freshly cleaved from the cliff. We stayed at Pietracamela overnight, watching the bats flit across the sky as the sun set and enjoying the stars in an unusually clear night sky.
We spent some time in Camping Torre Sabea thinking about our plans for the next few weeks. We need to be back in the UK for the end of June and have a wish list of things to do between then and now. We mulled over our options – do we continue tootling around and taking things as they come, or do we start to make more firm plans to visit the areas we know we want to see. We decided on the latter…for now.
So first on our list was a visit to the Gargano peninsula. We had seen mixed reviews of the area, but most of the negative reviews were about the busy summer period when it gets incredibly busy. The positive reviews extolled the beauty of the coastline and the forested interior. It’s a popular destination for Italian holiday makers and campsites can get full. We felt we were safe enough in the low season, although we did wonder what the May public holiday might bring.
The Gargano Peninsula is still in Puglia, but when you look on the map Puglia is a very long region and by the time you reach this ‘spur’ that sits above the heel of Italy you are actually further north than Naples. It was a pretty long Sunday drive and for the first time in ages we had to pay a toll for the main roads (the motorways in the south are free).
We drove to a couple of spots in busy Manfredonia, but didn’t really enjoy the vibe of the place, it was just too busy for us and the parking was all in quite noisy locations. So we trundled around the coast to Porto di Mattinata where we parked in a large parking area right by the harbour. Our drive was a little more exciting than we expected as the tunnel was shut and so we had to climb switchbacks over the ridge before taking further hairpin turns back down to the coast. The road was fine though and the views were amazing.
We had expected to pay for the parking by the harbour, but no one was manning the entry so we were lucky. Although the little seaside resort was very busy the car park was almost empty, everyone seemed to be parking along the side of the roads. That evening the couple of restaurants and bars were busy and the atmosphere was cheerful, we wandered down for a late evening drink to get a taste of the atmosphere.
The following day we walked south along the bay and up the marked path to the headland of Monte Saraceno. From this vantage point we could see the orderly ranks of olive trees on the flat land behind the bay. Mattinata town itself sits as a shining white highlight in a sea of green on the steeper land a couple of kilometres back from the bay. The olive trees may have been an important part of the economy once, but many of them now have dual purpose, doubling up as campsites, private parking areas or providing access to the beach lidos. Who can blame the local population for making the most of this beautiful location.
Our walk followed one of the ‘running trails’ that are marked up for the Gargano running week. In the temperatures we were experiencing I wouldn’t want to be running, it was sweltering enough to be walking in the heat of the sun on this exposed bit of coast. The path took us around the north side of the headland and then up onto the ridge heading from east to west. The limestone rocks of the ridge were carved into strange shapes and overhangs and the mostly good path was eroded in one section – a rope had been provided to help people up or down.
On the top of the ridge we startled a couple of groups of pigs who were keeping cool under the scrubby trees. Did you ever sing the song ‘Whose pigs are these?’ ? I remember school coach trips and family drives where we had fun trying to think of rhyming solutions to the pig conundrum. ‘They are John Potts’ and I know them by the spots’ is the usual first verse but of course you can make up any version, as rude as you like (if the teachers aren’t paying attention).
As well as being home to a herd of pigs the ridge is the location of the necropolis of the Dauni tribe who lived here over 2500 years ago. Grassy paths wind in and out of the tombs carved into the rock, some obviously man made, some that might be natural. It’s a mysterious place to wander around and try to identify the graves, it’s a shame there isn’t much information locally about their discovery or their contents.
After wandering along the ridge we found a footpath downhill that crossed the switchbacks of the road we had driven down the day before. We were too hot to venture into Mattinata itself so we headed back through the olive groves to the beach where we could cool off in the sea.
We left our lovely campsite to head a very short distance to Otranto, We had one of those starts where we just couldn’t settle. There is a lot of parking in Otranto, but we couldn’t find a spot that we felt happy with. After visiting several of them we parked along the side of the road while we went for a look around. That evening we finally decided on a car park. It said we had to pay, but all the parking machines were turned off so we figured we would be ok overnight.
The morning was spent wandering around this touristy town. We were parked near the harbour so we walked along looking at the boats and the fish swimming lazily in the sea. Our entry into the centro storico was via a gate in the medieval fortress, we walked through the busy streets roughly in the direction of the cathedral, there were lots of tourist shops but there wasn’t any hard sell.
The cathedral is the main event in Otranto, we wandered into the cool calm crypt first with it’s many marble pillars and frescos. We had obviously done this the wrong way round as we weren’t allowed to ascend the stairs to the cathedral and had to walk around the outside to get in. Once in the cathedral proper we could see the 12th century mosaic spread across the floor of the nave and adjacent areas. It is crude when compared to Roman mosaics, but it’s depictions of beasts, demons and angels were compelling; we spent some time trying to decipher the Latin and make sense of what we were seeing. Above the mosaic is a fabulously ornate gilded coffered ceiling added in the 17th century.
Also in the cathedral are the relics of the Martyrs of Otranto, killed in 1480 by Turkish invaders. The town of Otranto had put up considerable resistance to the invading Ottoman army, when the Ottomans finally gained the town they killed or enslaved the majority of the population. A group of able bodied men were told to convert to Islam or die. They chose death and were executed. The following year the Ottomans were ousted and the relics of the martyrs were exhumed. Now you can see many of their bones in glass fronted cabinets on the walls of the chapel although some of the relics have been shared amongst other churches in the Salento region and even further afield. This was one of our favourite religious buildings, maybe we’re a bit ghoulish!
Our wander around Otranto had only taken the morning so we popped back to Bertie for a spot of lunch and then decided to do some walking along the coast south of the town. We were aiming for Punta Palascia, but it was a hot day so we didn’t make it that far. We had passed a nice looking beach at Cala Casotto, so we decided to turn round there after a swim. It was a bit of a scramble down the cliffs to the beach, but it was worth it to cool down in the clear water.
This was one of our favourite coastal walks. For most of the walk the cliffs were quite high and rocky with deep water offshore. Lots of fishermen had found their favourite spots and settled in for the day. Sea birds wheeled around off shore, including mediterranean gulls with their distinctive red beaks and feet. We spotted hen harriers – mostly brown with a white strip across the base of their tail – being mobbed by swallows and other small birds. On the heathland were crested larks singing loudly from the ground, possibly distracting us from their nests. There were many spring flowers dotting the grass. The whole area was full of life.
The interest wasn’t limited to natural wonders, on the headland near the Torre Dell’Orte there were many underground buildings and bunkers built into the rocks which we explored as much as we dared (our fear mostly being of finding human waste – our motto being ‘if you see tissues turn around’). A ruined lighthouse stood sentinel on the hill, it’s rear half collapsed.
It had been a very full day, Otranto was somewhere we could have stayed for longer. If only we could make up our mind where to park!
It might seem like we’re doing the Hokey-Cokey with our regular alternation between coast and inland. It was time to put our left leg in and move inland again. Our destination this time was the Sila mountains. The landscape here is a densely forested high plateau with several lake reservoirs. We were attracted by the well marked and maintained forest trails, unusually for Italy we could find the routes online which gave us lots of opportunity to prepare.
La Sila has several ski areas as well as walking, mountain biking and plenty of interesting flora and fauna. While we were there the ski resorts were in their last throes, but events were being held for Easter and snow conditions still looked ok for a bit of morning skiing in Lorica. Other resorts had lots of brown patches. We weren’t here for the skiing though, tempting as it was. We were here for the walking and biking.
Our first night was spent on the shores of Lago Ampolino, parked on a small spit of land that extends into the lake. The motorhome service point, owned by the nearby café, was shut when we arrived; winter covers were over the water supply and the waste disposal, but the owners must have spotted us and it was uncovered by the following morning.
Our drive up had been slow and winding but nothing too adventurous, the highlight being just a few meters away from our parking spot when a black squirrel darted across the road in front of us. We saw several other black squirrels while we were in the area, but this was the only one we managed to capture a grainy photo of. The black squirrels here are assumed to be a genetic variant of the red squirrel, although a bit of web trawling reveals an opinion that they are a separate species.
The weather was good when we arrived at the lakeside so we spent the afternoon lazily pottering around, strolling around the village and very low key ski resort (just a hotel and a lift really), watching the wildlife and getting excited (Paul) about a sea plane that skimmed back and forth over the lake a few times. That evening it was pleasant enough to sit outside and watch bats skim over the lake hunting insects. In Italy we have spent a lot of time in car parks with lighting, so it was nice to get a bit of darkness and see the stars for a change.
The following morning we got on our mountain bikes and headed west along the main road, the SS179. Only a couple of cars passed us, the area seemed very quiet considering that it was the Easter weekend. We took a right hand turn off the road towards the village of Zimmaro and followed random tracks northwards through the forest to try to connect up with the SP216. As we ascended over the small ridge between the two valley roads we encountered more snow between the trees, but also signs of spring starting to emerge. Crocuses were blooming and small bluebell like flowers dotted the verges. When we finally reached the other road we headed east between farmsteads where sheep and cattle grazed. We followed the opposite shore of the lake whose banks were high and tributaries swollen with snow melt. Eventually we had made a full circuit of the lake and arrived back at Bertie.
That evening we decided to move northwards into the heart of the mountains. There was a forecast for snow so we fancied a campsite where we could use our electric heater. Camping Lago Arvo is just outside Lorica and was €8 per person per night in winter. This huge campsite has a lot of very attractive grass pitches by the lake, but we wanted to avoid getting bogged down so stayed near the entrance where the pitches were firmer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
That afternoon we watched rugby while eating scrumptiously light and sugary ciambella (doughnuts) that I had bought from the bakery that morning.
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.
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?
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We were looking forward to visiting the Natural Park of Cabo de Gata, somewhere that we had seen on blogs and forums and imagined we would enjoy.
We started at the western end of the park, driving (via supermarkets) to the town of San Miguel de Cabo de Gata where there is a large area of hard standing behind the beach. Motorhomes were parked in neat rows looking out to sea and we started a third row, peering through the ranks in front of us to see a sea that was still wild and foamy from the winds of the days before.
There was a tap here, which was lucky as the water we had taken on board at the campsite in Balerma had a very strong chemical taste that was really unpleasant. A lot of people prefer to drink bottled water and use their water tank for cleaning and washing, but because we’re in the motorhome full time we are flushing water through the tank quickly so feel quite happy using it for drinking too, usually, but with the horrid taste of the water from the campsite we decided to fill our emergency water containers up here for drinking until the water in the tank had been flushed out.
On the way to the parking spot we had passed the end of the salt pans that run behind the coast here. We had spotted a hide for viewing the birds and wildlife of the area so took a short walk alongside the road back to the hide so that we could do a bit of flamingo watching. This is the third place we have seen flamingos and they have not lost their appeal, with their bizarrely rubbery necks, great scooping beaks and the intense flash of dark pink as they raise their wings.
The following day we got the bikes out and cycled along the road eastwards in front of the salt flats. Here we got the answer to one of our questions from the previous day – what were all the lorries doing going past the carpark? At the eastern end of the salt flats was a salt production operation with great mounds of salt and lorries going to and fro all day.
Soon after this the road started to go uphill and we huffed and puffed from the shock of steep roads after our days of lethargy at Christmas. Luckily the uphill was rewarded with a downhill section towards the lighthouse, where we were able to take a few offroad paths. Then more uphill, steeper and higher this time as we went past a barrier (the coast road is not a through road, unless you are the type of person who will drive their family hatchback anywhere – and there are a few of them round here!), we climbed up this road, up and up the tarmac to the Torre de la Vela Blanca.
Then down the other side, this time the tarmac had disappeared and we were on rough dirt track. Paul whizzed down over rocks as I picked my way more carefully, using my brakes nearly the whole way.
Down on this side we went past several possible motorhome parking spots and beaches until we got to the beautiful Playa de los Genoveses where we stopped for some lunch. This looked ideal for overnighting in Bertie and we agreed we would head here for the night.
On the way back we pretty much retraced our steps until we got to the salt flats where we went a bit further inland to follow a sandy track which ran closer to the lakes, there were three further hides along here which we visited in succession, watching yet more flamingos and other wading birds.
As an introduction to Gabo de Gata it rated pretty well and the rollercoaster ride had been a good re-introduction to exercise after our Christmas relaxation. With the beautiful surroundings of the coast and volcanic hills, and with improving weather, we looked set for a good few days.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We crossed the border between Portugal and Spain, passing into the province of Huelva, an area of Spain I had never heard of before. There is a lot of industry here with mines inland and a large port at Huelva city, but there is also a long stretch of coastline with coastal resorts backed by pine trees and cork oak forests and a huge national park that encompasses the wetlands around the Guadalquivir and Odiel rivers.
We had fancied spending a night by the coast but we couldn’t find anywhere we felt comfortable, the parking in the forests was on soft ground made softer by the overnight rain and other parking was too close to the road. We settled for having lunch in a parking spot alongside the road and taking a short walk along the beach.
We proceeded onto Huelva city and drove around the outskirts to the large area of parking next to La Rabida monastery. On the way we passed through the wetlands; the ‘Marismas del Odiel’ where we saw flamingos, we didn’t stop here as we were on the main road but it looked good for a bit of bird watching.
Huelva has strong ties with Christopher Columbus, La Rabida monastery was where he approached the Franciscan order for aid in securing royal funding for his first expedition west to find the Indies, and the town of Palos de la Frontera was the point that the first expedition set sail from.
While we were here we cycled into Palos de la Frontera, and attractive town with the church where the sailors on Columbus’s first voyage received a blessing before setting off. We also found the point that the three ships set sail from, although the river is silted up and there is no port any more. On the way we passed through fields of polytunnels where strawberries were being grown – apparently the area is famous for them – and saw more birds on the wetlands this side of the city including several glossy ibis.
We visited La Rabida monastery, it was based on a Moorish site and had some Mudéjar architectural elements which made it feel cool and tranquil. There were audio guides in English which explained the history and Columbus related artefacts. We wandered around with the guides glued to our ears, the only people in the building apart from cleaners.
We also visited the replica ships from Columbus’s first voyage. These ships were constructed in the late eighties to be part of the celebrations of the fifth centenary of the discover of the Americas. They sailed to America before returning to Spain where they now sit in a dock with an accompanying small museum. It’s quite astounding how small the ships are, the ‘Pinta’ and ‘Niña’ were caravels and the bigger ‘Santa Maria’ was a carrack but is still under 19 meters long. When walking round the vessels we imagined what it must have been like on the heavy swells of the Atlantic, with water rushing down the curve of the deck, trying to manage the sails and the climb the rigging. Some of the reviews of the museum had been less than complementary but we found it really interesting, although some of the waxwork dummies of sailors and natives were unnecessary.
That afternoon we moved on into the mountains, heading to the town of Aracena. On the way we passed huge mine workings and at one point a large rodent ran out across the road in front of us. We thought it might be a marmot, but after a bit of investigation it’s more like to be an Egyptian mongoose.
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.
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.
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.
We had a moment of deja vu as we approached our next destination of Sao Pedro do Moel. This is Portugal’s Silver Coast and had some striking similarities to France’s Cote d’Argent; long sandy beaches, big waves for surfing and dunes backed by pine forest. We drove to a parking spot on the coast just north of Sao Pedro where we had a view from the cliffs with the lighthouse to the south and a long golden beach to the north.
This area had seen significant forest fires this year and we drove through large swathes of burned forest where the sand and ash and dead trees created a starkly monochrome scene of desolation.
We took a walk along the cliffs and then down onto the beach, watching fishermen casting into the surf and exploring the lagoon created where the river pooled behind a sandbank. The wind was blowing strongly although the skies were blue and people were wrapped up against the chill.
The following morning we got on our bikes and followed the bike track north. The road was long and straight, passing coastal resorts that had shut down for the winter, few people seemed to live in these towns where most of the shops and cafes were boarded up waiting for next years tourist season. We sat on the beach in one location watching the sea and were alerted to a pod of dolphins by large numbers of gannets, cormorants and gulls swirling around and diving for the fish that were being driven to the surface. There was life here, but not much human activity.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
We had a bit of a lazy day on 8th November. For some reason we just couldn’t get moving and our plans for a bike ride ended up with us driving around the hills and coast near Pontevedra and stopping to take in views or short strolls without doing very much at all. We spent the night at the Memorial Park aire near Poio where we walked around the bay and encountered eucalyptus trees in abundance. These trees, native to Australia, have been planted in Spain and Portugal to provide quick growing timber for the paper industry and this was the first time we had come across them in quantity; their alien charm, with their constantly peeling bark, silvery leaves, and odd flowers, quickly becomes wearing when you realise they are on their way to becoming a monoculture and ousting the native flora.
The following morning we decided to go into Pontevedra in search of a large supermarket as we needed to do a proper stock up. There were two Carrefore supermarkets, the first only had a tiny outdoor parking space that was completely full. The second had an empty outdoor parking area but we didn’t spot the sign on the way in that told us the only way out was through the underground parking. Bertie wasn’t getting through there! Given that we were already in trouble we decided we might as well do our shopping anyway and so, with full fridge and cupboards, we tackled our predicament. I donned my hi-vis vest and went up to the top of the entrance to stop the traffic in a semi-official way while Paul drove the wrong way up the one way ramps. Apart from a case of mild embarrassment it was remarkably easy.
From Pontevedra we drove south west out to the end of the next peninsular. Galicia’s coast is indented with a number of ‘rias’, these sloping sided inlets are like gentle fjords and between each ria is a peninsular, more populated inland, and wilder and more rugged as you reach the seaward end. The Dunas de Corrubedo had been at the end of one of these peninsulas and we were now heading for the Praia de Melide where there was a large parking area south of the village of Donon. We had another falling out with the sat nav which took us through smaller and smaller streets in tiny villages until Paul said quite firmly ‘I’m not driving down there’. We knew there was an easy way there because we had seen it on google maps, but the sat nav just couldn’t direct us and by the time we knew we were going wrong we didn’t have great signal. We retraced our steps back to a ‘main’ road and a point where we had signal so that we could pick up the route on google maps and ignore the sat nav. We finally made it to the village of Donon where we stopped for restorative tea and cake before tackling the remaining couple of miles off road to the car park. Bertie did admirably avoiding ruts and potholes and finally parked up in the sunshine. We spent the next hour or so doing a few chores before exploring the beach and cliffs near the carpark. The low cliffs were ideal for fishing and so I read and sunbathed while Paul fished for mackerel – he managed to catch one, but it wouldn’t make a meal so I gutted it and put it in the fridge, hopefully to be joined by a second one the following day.
The next morning we decided to walk around the headland, we started by walking out to the first of three lighthouses Faro de Punta Subrido before heading back across the beach to lighthouses two and three – the particularly attractive squat red Faro de Punta Robaleira and the more standard Faro de Cabo. From here we followed rough tracks north as far as possible along the Atlantic side of the headland with large waves crashing against the rocky cliffs, at one point we descended by an awkward and steep fisherman’s path to a tiny beach where the incoming tide quickly chased us back up again.
Eventually the steep cliffs forced us back onto the main track we had driven down the previous day and we walked into Donon. From Donon we dropped down to the Praia de Barra, a large and deserted beach where we gathered large mussels from the rocks before taking cliff-side paths back towards our parking spot.
Paul decided to do some more fishing from the same spot as before, but no luck this time. We did see dolphins in the bay though, which made up for (and probably explained) the lack of fish. The large pod, including some mother and calf pairs took their time as they swam past us on their way out to sea.
That evening I cooked the mussels and solitary mackerel in a rice dish that I hesitated to call a paella after hearing some very sarcastic comments on Spanish radio earlier that week (not that I’m fluent in Spanish but when you hear the words Jamie Oliver, Chorizo and Paella alongside derisive laughter you know that something negative is being said). Whatever the dish was, it was very tasty and the mussels in particular were luscious and juicy. It’s always a bit of a gamble to eat shellfish gathered from the shore and we do take some care, but you never know. No side effects this time though so good news.
The following morning we left the carpark. There was a one way system for car park access, so we had to drive up a different track than we had come in…at first…until we got to the point that the road was rippled with foot deep undulations. I don’t think I’ve every seen anything like it, they weren’t potholes or ruts, but were running across the road and there was no way we would get across them without ripping something out from Bertie’s undercarriage. Paul reversed us back to the car park and for the second time in a couple of days we were driving the wrong way up a one way street. Luckily we had made an early start and we didn’t encounter anyone coming the other way.
Further south, still enveloped by the pine forests of the Landes region of France, is a purpose built resort with the rather long name of Vieux-Boucau-Les-Bains. Part of it’s attraction is an artificially created lagoon which lets in sea water at high tide and has sluice gates to control the exit of water; this gives people the option of the surf beaches of the Atlantic or the calmer waters of the lagoon. Even though we had set off early we still found it incredibly busy when we arrived, it was Saturday and very sunny after all. The two aires were near to capacity and there was a constant flow of people arriving, we queued up behind a couple of other vans to get in and I went to look for possible parking spots while Paul helped them to get through the airlock style barriers (the trick was to get close to the ticket machine as the front barrier wouldn’t lift unless your van was close enough to the sensor). We wedged ourselves into a spot in the sun on the southern side of the lagoon and hooked up to the electricity, at €7 a night for a pitch plus electricity within a stone’s throw of the lagoon, it didn’t seem like bad value.
We had a quick stroll around the end of the lagoon watching the fisherman who were lined along the outflow from the lagoon. We decided that the calm waters were too good an opportunity to miss and we should get the Kayak out and enjoy a spot of paddling and fishing. It was easy to launch the kayak from the shore close to the aire and we started with a gentle paddle around the lagoon gliding over long strands of green weed waving in the gentle currents of the lagoon. We could see fish jumping as we approached, darting out from their shelter in the weed, but despite best endeavours weed was all we caught.
We circled the lagoon again, closer to the island in it’s centre this time, and pulled up a couple of times to explore it’s beaches. Here we paddled in the shallower waters looking at all of the life, hordes of hermit crabs in their stolen shells crawled across the sands, starfish nestled in the weed and small fish were well camouflaged against the sand. The waters of the lagoon were too weedy, and the bottom too muddy to tempt us in for a proper swim. We gathered a few clams from under the sand to make ourselves a starter for dinner, but they were too gritty even after a few hours being purged and the juices in the pan were grey with silt. Luckily we had cooked up some pork and roasted veg for a main course which kept hunger at bay.
We moved from our overnight parking spot to the National Trust parking at Dunwich Heath ready for a stroll around the heath. The heath to the north and inland was a little uninspiring in the subdued autumnal light so we extended our walk alongside Docwra’s Ditch and then across to RSPB Minsmere before heading back along the coast to the car park.
The landscape on the latter half of the walk was more interesting, we joked that Docwra had made a better attempt on his ditch than Offa – subsequent research seems to indicate that it’s a recent feature built as a firebreak, I have no idea why it specifically named after Docwra though. We stopped in a couple of the enormous and well appointed hides at Minsmere hoping for a sight of something interesting but the wind was keeping the birds away. We did see a hobby though as we walked through the wetlands.
That afternoon we moved onto Sutton Hoo, the site where an Anglo-Saxon burial mound was excavated in the 1930s to reveal an amazing ship burial with it’s treasure intact, including the now iconic Sutton Hoo helmet. The exhibition contained a number of artefacts from various of the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo and replicas of the more substantial treasures which are now in the British Museum. I find this period of British history fascinating, probably because so little is known about it so it crosses the boundaries between history and myth.
Also on the site is the house of Edith Pretty, the landowner who requested the excavation of the mound in the 1930s. It contains the story of the excavation and in particular the race to complete the work once war was declared, much more interesting than I was expecting, and we took a short stroll around the mounds. It always makes me wonder now many treasures have not only been plundered by grave robbers but also just ploughed under by farmers or builders.
Our overnight spot was at some quiet parking on the coast at East Lane near Bawdsey. Sadly the radar station museum was still undergoing refurbishment – all part of the 100th anniversary work according to Aaron – but there was still an opportunity for a morning walk along the coast, so we set off past Shingle Street and along to the mouth of the Ore and it’s shingle spit before heading back. Along the way we saw remains of pillboxes, some falling into the sea, and four impressive Martello Towers – cylindrical forts built to help defend us from Napoleon’s forces. Some of these had been converted to private houses with additional glass roofed structures to provide views out to sea.
That evening we moved on to parking at Felixstowe where we watched with awe as the massive container ships were loaded up with their containers using equally massive cranes. The industrial sound of the loading, with the distant thunder ‘boom’ of each container being settled onto the ship soothed us to sleep, with only the sound of the ship’s horn waking us up as finally it was loaded and could set off to sea.
Unintentionally we made a poor decision today – we had to choose between another day lazing at Fidden Farm and maybe popping over on the ferry to Iona, or moving on to do one of the longer walks on our wish list. We chose to move on as we knew the weather was then going to be pretty poor for three or four days and I was twitchy about wasting the sunshine.
So we chose to drive part way back down the Ross of Mull and then over to Carsaig to do the Carsaig arches walk. Probably we should have been warned when we saw the signs at the start of the road to Carsaig; ‘weak road’, it said, max weight 13 tonnes (and then another sign which said max weight 3 tonnes with the 1 added using a black marker, we assumed it wasn’t just graffiti). We are just under 4 tonnes so in theory we would be fine, and we’d read reports of other motorhomes going down to Carsaig, so we went for it.
The road ran uphill through woodland until it crossed a cattle grid and we were out in the open, following the contours halfway up the side of the valley. The road had a tenuous hold on the side of the hill, slumping in sections as if it just couldn’t be bothered to stay in place. Bertie sat precariously on the tarmac straddling the grass running along it’s centre, we hoped we wouldn’t have to use any of the passing places which just looked as if someone had tipped a truck load of hardcore off the side of the road. It had the look of a road that was approaching it’s old age, one day it would be a road no more, just a track, and eventually it would disappear from maps and atlases completely.
As we approached the coast the road got steeper, running through woodland and over a couple of streams which were further contributing to it’s decline. Finally we got a glimpse of the parking spot – another motorhome was there so we weren’t the only nutters. We rounded the corner into the parking spot and it was FULL. Yes, we had come all this way only to find there was no space for us (full was one motorhome and three cars) in this gravelled potholed parking spot on a steep downward incline.
Paul insisted on a cup of coffee at this point to calm his nerves. As he stepped out for a cigarette I put the kettle on – and had to hold it in place to stop it sliding off the burner. We walked around Bertie with our hot drinks trying to work out whether there was some miraculous way we would be able to park without blocking everyone in. Then we walked around Bertie again figuring out how we would reverse out of here without burning out the clutch or catching our undercarriage on the lip of a pothole.
As we started to back out of the car park a 4×4 was coming down the road towards us with a trailer full of logs – that was all we needed – but he pulled over onto the mud to keep out of our way as we backed out with only a slight smell of hot clutch.
The return drive wasn’t too bad, conducted in silence – the best policy when both of us are tense. In fact the whole drive would probably have been a bit of a fun adventure if we had managed to get parked, but driving all that way only to have to turn around made it highly frustrating and exacerbated our stress levels.
We didn’t have a backup plan for the day so once we were back on properly maintained tarmac we talked about what we would do next. With a long spell of poor weather predicted, and on a bit of a downer because of our day so far, we decided that we would leave Mull the next day and so drove up to Tobermory. There were a number of forestry commission parking places along the road that runs to Tobermory, but these all had ‘no overnight parking’ signs in them and were very close to the road. We stopped in one of them and saw our first seals on Mull. Eventually we parked just outside Tobermory in the large forestry commission area of Aros Park.
Although there were also ‘no overnight parking’ signs here we considered there was a low chance of being moved on, the car park was empty and out of sight of residential areas and roads; no one was going to see us and it was unlikely that the ranger would do night time rounds just to oust us. Aros Park was once an estate which was bequeathed to the forestry commission, the car park was the site of the house which was demolished in the 60’s. There were lakes and paths and picnic areas and a small pier with views over the bay to Tobermory. It was really quite pleasant, not the dramatic walk we had been hoping for, but not a bad place to spend our last afternoon on Mull.
We walked into Tobermory late that afternoon and treated ourselves to posh fish and chips from the van on the harbour. I had scallops and Paul had calamari. It was yummy and warming and we ate it sitting on a bench looking over the harbour. We washed this down with a couple of pints before heading back to Bertie in the twilight feeling more relaxed.
After a lovely day at Calgary Bay, the weather turned a little gloomy again, but when we had last seen the forecast it was just the one day of glooms we planned the following day to climb Ben More, something on our wish list while we were in Mull.
We used the dreary morning to make our way around the narrow coast road, heading south from Calgary. On the way we stopped at the Eas Fors waterfalls where we made a fried breakfast to cheer us up. The falls were pretty but lots of people don’t realise that it’s the waterfall down to the beach that is the most spectacular. You can walk to the bottom to view it from the beach, but it was too damp to tempt us so we just viewed it from the top of the cliff.
Apart from Eas Fors there weren’t many parking spots along this road, something that I’ve noticed in general in Mull; long stretches of scenic coast with nary a parking spot to appreciate it. After the falls the one parking space we saw had a height barrier – how rude! It made me quite grumpy, it’s no wonder that people stop in passing places.
We finally reached the stretch of road where we wanted to park up. We had a short pause to let a herd of cattle past us before we got to our first choice of spot – the main parking area for people climbing Ben More – but it looked too boggy and we retraced our steps back to the firmer parking at Rubha na Moine.
We were sitting comfortably alone in this parking spot looking out to sea when Paul spotted an otter on the rocks rolling around in the seaweed looking like it was having a whale of a time. Another campervan drove up after fifteen minutes of this and the otter scarpered only to be replaced a few minutes later by a sea eagle swooping down on a couple of small seabirds that were bobbing on the water (it missed). Suddenly the day seemed a lot more exciting. When we popped out for a chat with the people in the campervan it transpired that they didn’t see the otter because they were busy watching two sea eagles ‘talon grabbing’ above Bertie – something we’d been completely unaware of.
The evening did literally get brighter. Ben More had been mist bound when we arrived but by sundown only the summit had a cap of cloud. We could clearly see our route up the mountain. Firstly up the slopes of Beinn Fadha and then along the ridge of A’ Chioch before continuing onto the ridge of Ben More, then a leisurely descent via the usual route up Ben More.
The following morning we were up and out by 8:30. We wanted to make it to the summit before any cloud came in. The first 500 meters of ascent were admittedly a bit tiresome, with boggy stretches and no clear path, plus I hadn’t realised that the sun would rise in the gap between the hills and shine directly into our faces on the way up – and I had left my sunhat behind. When we hit the upper slopes of Beinn Fhada things started to pick up, and the ridge ahead of us was looking both inviting and challenging.
We kept to the ridge line as much as possible, but it was obviously not a well trodden route and the rocks were slippery with moss and the morning dew that hadn’t yet evaporated. When we reached the most difficult section of the ridge – a small rock tower with a north facing scramble to it’s top – I chickened out. I couldn’t get purchase on the rocks and it was pretty exposed so I took the path round the base of the tower and climbed up a drier set of rocks on the south side of the ridge a few yards later. We had been completely alone on this walk so far, only the crampon scratches on the rocks indicating that people had been there before us, so when we finally emerged at the summit of Ben More it was a shock to see half a dozen other people who had walked up the other route.
As we started to make our way down from the summit we felt relieved we hadn’t come up this way, there was a very dull initial section of zig zags through scree before it dropped low enough that the path was on rock and grass. It was at this point that I realised I had lost something – we hadn’t had any internet for three days and so we had taken our mifi device to the top of the mountain so that we could get the weather forecast and drop friends and family a message. We stopped for a bite to eat on the way down and I thought I would check whether we still had any signal…no mifi device…my heart dropped. I left Paul with the rucksacks as I made my way back uphill expecting to have to go two miles to the summit. On the way back up I thought I would ask the other people on the decsent whether they had found it and luck would have it that the first couple I asked – who we’d overtaken some time before – had found it. The relief fuelled the remainder of the walk and not even Paul’s jibes could upset me.
The carpark at the bottom of Ben More was really busy when we got down – that’s what happens on a rare sunny Sunday. Even our parking spot was getting full with another motorhome and campervan and a couple of cars. It was so beautiful we decided to stay for another night and spent the evening chilling out and watching an otter swimming around.