Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The Spanish Outback

The Spanish Outback

Good grief! Spain is an incredibly under-populated country. The first half of our route through the interior of Spain was a barren desert, and the second half was equally desolate! A high level, snow-rimmed dual-carriageway, with views across to the impressive Cantabrian mountains in the distance, reaching a peak outside Burgos. Signs flashing warning of snow and “slow down”, nothing to see but mile after mile of flora and fauna-free landscape. In the deep and distant past, I recalled a Geography lesson- continental weather is bitterly cold in Winter and baking hot in Summer, the result being conditions not conducive to life!!
We’d climbed out of Alicante and remained at about 2000’ for about ten hours of travelling! Last night at the Picos de Miel was the coldest yet, -5deg. Fan heater on most of the night to keep warm. In the morning we had worrying problems starting the van and a yellow engine warning light, which took all day to disappear from the dashboard. However we made it to Santander, and a free, overnight, out-of season campsite pitch. The following day we travelled down to the port for about 11am, for the 7pm sail. The main city area is built up around the port, so there was plenty to see and do, while we waited. A biting cold wind, but we were impressed by the surroundings of the port, framed by hills and greenery, a large sheltered harbour.
We dug out the faithful “Lonely Planet” guide, and found a cracking place to eat “Bar Cantabria”, with its smoky, friendly bar downstairs and slightly less smoky comedor upstairs. Sopa Castillana (light, meaty stock-soup), followed by Lenguadilla a la Plancha (a sort of plaice, grilled with garlic), and Pudding/Flan/Strawberry gateau and a bottle of wine and two cortados. Great food and interesting surroundings, as with most of the places we’ve tried in the LPguide, and all for 20euros! A brief snooze in the van, and then we began loading.
For most people the cabin would be tight, but we had room to spare, after being confined to the van for nearly two weeks. Good food, good night’s sleep on a trip thru a benign Bay of Biscay. We agreed we’d do this part of the journey again, rather than travelling down thru France, to get to Portugal. One Day!!

200 miles for 3 nights near Alicante

2000miles for 3 nights near Alicante!

A combination of continuing bitterly cold weather and the forecast of rain for at least the next eight days, and Dad worryingly still in hospital after four weeks, pushed us to make the decision to cut and run.
Specifically, the tipping point was waiting for nearly 30mins in the biting wind for a bus to Alicante, and thinking what are we doing here? It’s not really us sitting around on a site in a fairly unattractive area, waiting for the weather to improve. The van’s great, heating working well. But you can’t sit outside because it’s so cold, and after a while, you start to think “I could do what I’m doing now, whilst sitting at home in the kitchen!!” Ian’s tried cycling but has returned absolutely frozen! The site’s superb with a heated, indoor pool, but we could swim and go to the gym at home. And with Dad still not discharged from hospital and Mum needing the odd lift in, it just felt wrong.
So we changed the ferry date from Santander, to the first trip of this year to Plymouth and planned our drive across, via Madrid.
Our evening meal was a fairly solitary affair, and we realised it was because they weren’t offering their cut-price 5.95euro deal, so the campers were staying away in droves!!

The following day we set off on a practically toll-free 400k to Madrid. There were snowy showers over the high plains of Albacete and Cuenca. A bitterly cold, barren, desolate terrain. Freezing in winter, and boiling hot in summer. 400k of almost desert landscape and we promised ourselves not to return this way again. The journey was very speedy and straightforward, and we arrived at Picos de Miel campsite in time for a brief walk in the sunshine. A quiet site with a backdrop of impressive, jagged peaks and snow-capped Sierras behind, a welcome break from the bleak plains we’d just driven through.
With the Picos de Europa to the North, the prospect of Santiago de Compostela, Galicia and Asturia to explore, and a cheaper, speedier journey down to the Algarve, it is unlikely we’ll come down this way again. It’s not worked out this time, but the van’s been great and we’ve narrowed down our scope of exploration a bit. We had a lovely visit to Glyn and Caroline’s, and Pauline and Bill’s, but it’s been a long journey and the weather’s been much bleaker than we expected. France and Spain, the Canaries and the Algarve are all forecasted to have continuing poor weather, with more snow back in the UK. On the up side, I’ve got a whole stash of pristine T-shirts, which can go straight back in the wardrobe!!

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Staying Put

Staying Put

It’s so nice to stay in one place for a few days. Firstly, if you tell the reception you’re only staying for one night, you’re likely to be put in a spot that most people would turn down, that has a very large dog next-door, and is right next to a septic tank, or worse still, kiddies playground! So three whole nights in one place! I can get everything out and not have to put them back- the kettle, fruit bowl, TV, computer, sewing projects, books, plastic flowers in concrete plantpots!!
Such a joy just to sit and catch up on my blog, which unfortunately has little of real depth and interest to say, BECAUSE I HAVEN’T SET FOOT OUTSIDE THE VAN!! That feels better now. Ian’s gone off for a two hour cycle ride, because he’s suffering from perceived obesity, complete with bike lock keys, but he’s forgotten to unlock my bike first!! So there is/was the possibility of a cycle ride to the local market, until I found my bike was unusable!
So nothing for it but to sit down and get on with my blog- as if I hadn’t been sitting around enough for the last six days!
I’ve been sitting here for the last two hours! Ian’s just got back and informed me that the bike lock keys have been in the glove compartment all along, and he’d forgotten to say! 30odd years of marriage, with the emphasis on “odd”, and we still don’t communicate! I’m freezing! The sun’s shining but the wind is bitter! I’m off to stay with Andrew and Lizzy in USA next year!!!!!
Next blog when I’m in a better mood or warmed up a bit or had a swim or visited the fitness centre or had a couple of glasses of wine or all of the above!!

It's Official - we have become "Snowbirds"

It’s Official- We have become “Snowbirds”

We overnighted on an aire, near a town with two names-Le Boulou and El Volo, a stone’s throw from the border with Spain. Received info is that the facilities in Spain aren’t a patch on the French, hence the decision to overnight here. We filled up with LPG, because we’d read that that too is difficult to get in Spain, but we set off the following morning with an open mind.
That said, there is an awful lot of urban sprawl along this route through Valencia. But it’s interspersed with lovely areas of acres of orange and lemon groves, and nearer Alicante, almond groves. The vegetation is suddenly Mediterranean. The Almond Trees are splendid at this time of year- almost on their own worth driving 1600 miles! Dark, almost black, knarled, twisted bark, which looks so unpromising most of the year, but covered in delicate pale and deep pink confetti petals in February. When you catch a glimpse of an almond orchard in full flower, it really is one of the wonders of Winter and really cheers you up! Van Gogh painted such a tree set against a vivid turquoise sky, so he must have been captivated too.
However there’s no turquoise sky today, although it is quite bright, with a strong, cold wind. Our first stay in Spain was in a town called Oliva, right near the beach, behind the sand-dunes. Sounds a lot nicer than it was. A bitterly cold wind. Packed together like sardines, between German and Union Jack toting “snowbirds”, who’d set up camp for the winter, complete with plants set in breeze blocks! Shoot me if I ever begin positioning plants around the van!! Very basic facilities. Not far from town, but it was too cold and I couldn’t be bothered walking in. As we drove through Oliva the following morning, it didn’t appear to have a lot to say for itself!
The good thing about being here was that we were able to get away early a.m. to visit my cousin and her husband who moved out here a few years ago. We weren’t able to stay long, because they were off to a Spanish evening class, and then off to Benidorm the following morning. We’d booked the only one of two remaining pitches on a large, all the bells and whistles site nearby and wanted to arrive in good time, so it was a flying visit. They’ve got a lovely single-storey house with a great roof-terrace in an urbanization not far from Orihuela. Pauline moved out here mainly because of her health, and the chronic arthritis she suffers from has certainly improved a great deal since she came out here.
They gave us directions to the campsite, which included turning right at the brothel! It was strange, because both of us had seen a number of oddly-clad females, freezing their wot-sits off, waiting at the side of the road, swinging their handbags! It seems that their not Spanish, but possibly East European ladies, and the authorities try and clean them out but they keep coming back! But this is a quiet, out-of-the-way place, miles away from built-up areas, and you can’t imagine where their customers are coming from!!
We arrived at the camping complex, complete with fitness centre, indoor swimming-pool, club room, restaurant, washrooms, laundrette, fantastic showers, roomy pitches. We needed about 25% of what the site offered, and would normally avoid this site during the Summer. But if the weather wasn’t going to be good, there was somewhere to exercise and great facilities. Our first meal out since we left- we splashed out on the Menu Degustacion, whilst the Germans and English around us were all on the Menu del Dia, which was half the price! Spot the “holiday-makers” versus the snowbirds, who are here for the duration!
Anyway I’m off now to sing some beer-drinking songs, laugh very loudly, and try a spot of line-dancing!!!

Day 4 Staying with friends

Day 4 Staying with Friends

I arrived at Caroline’s in glorious sunshine. I’d dropped Ian off for his long-awaited cycle about 45k away so that he could cycle the rest of the way. He was really feeling the need for some exercise, and having ascertained that I couldn’t possibly get lost on the straight road to Gaudonville, I continued on alone. It’s a lovely, quiet undulating road to Caroline’s, through pastureland, with glimpses of very old villages and towns, set up of hillsides. Very little traffic, and an absolute joy to drive through in the warm, afternoon sunshine. For the first time since we set off, the heating was turned down and we could relax! That’s the difference, the sunshine further south has some real heat behind it, when it decides to put in an appearance! Incidentally, a note for the future- we need our hybrid bikes for a cycle along the Canal du Midi, because although it’s an excellent track, it’s too rough for road bikes.

Glyn and Caroline are great to stay with! Fantastic company, conversation, hospitality and comfort, and yes, I know they’re picking up this blog, but they know the comments are heart-felt! I only wished I’d been able to bring some small gidt down with us. I know Caroline likes plants and gardening, and I had thought of bringing some Spring potted plants, but it’s out of the question in such a small space, when you’re having to continually having to move stuff around. In the Summer it’s not so much of an issue, because you can spread outside. But, in winter, your eating space is your living space, sleeping space and driving space!

Caroline and I share the same guilty secret! We’re both passionate about fabrics, and, it turns out, ceramics. We swapped confessions of secret stashes of fabrics, UFOs, as they are known in the trade, or, Unfinished Objects, and plans for more forays into markets, and the internet, in search of another “fix” of that special fabric!

After a great evening feast in her cosy, big kitchen, a much-needed shower and brush-up, we were off again. Even though I thought we’d left all this behind, when we’d sold Blue Crush (delightfully re-named Mariposa or Butterfly in Spanish, by her new owners and currently waiting in Lanzerote, ready to cross the Atlantic), Ian was intensely covering the weather forecast, which wasn’t good. There was seriously cold weather back home, the Azores High was not established, there was rubbish weather in W Spain, S Spain and the Algarve and the only chance of a glimpse of sunshine was to stay in the East! The decision was to travel down towards Alicante, and stay for a few days, in the hope that things would pick up later. It couldn’t stay bad, after all, all the biking info had encouraged training in the winter sunshine of the Algarve, 360 days of sunshine per annum! Who writes these tourist propaganda sheets? Have they not heard about extreme weather and global warming!!

Heading south for the winter

Heading South for the Winter (well, just for a few weeks)

Not a good start- we had to postpone the ferry crossing by 24hrs because of yet another outbreak of snow. What seemed like a beautiful decoration of snow on Christmas Eve had evolved into an Arctic blast throughout the Xmas period. But wasn’t it gorgeous- bright, blue sky, crisp white covering and sunshine. OK by the week after Xmas the snow still hadn’t melted, and we were all getting a bit fed up of the stuff! A brief respite- grey, mild days, green fields and newly pot-holed roads were again visible. But here we go again more of that abominable snowy stuff!!!

Anyway, we finally set off in search of milder and hopefully sunnier weather. We’d arranged a rendez-vous with our friends, Glyn and Caroline in the S France near Toulouse. We spent one night in Beaune on an excellent aire/car park, surrounded by restaurants, equipped with electricity, and then a second night on another aire, directly under the ramparts of the medieval city of Carcassone- this time no facilities, but at this time of year and almost empty aire with superb views. During the summer, we would stand little chance of staying here. The ancient streets of the Cite’-clos, with its magnificent church , and castle, are normally thronged with visitors jostlingthrough the narrow streets, lined with a profusion of souvenir and craft shops. But this pm most of the shops were shut for the winter, with just a couple of bars determined to stay open. All a bit bleak and very cold, even this far South. I’d done it again. I’d packed a number of t-shirts, where a good chunky jumper would have been more useful. I never learn! I do it every year, mesmerised by the promise of winter sunshine, and every year I end up wearing the same stupidly-coloured, white sweatshirt, which gets grubbier and grubbier!!