El Torcal to Granada…. .

The Parque Natural de El Torcal, a huge expanse of limestone upland, lies about 10km south of Antequera and is famed for its rock sculptures.  The drive up there was as picturesque as can be with far reaching views across lush farmland and rocky peaks.  We passed several rural restaurants on the way up and, it being Fathers day in Spain, they were packed to the gunnels with Spanish families enjoying a leisurely lunch in the sunshine.  As we climbed the last 3km before reaching the visitor centre the sheer enormity of the rock formations suddenly hits you.  We’ve never seen anything like it on this scale before.

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Parque Natural de El Torcal.

There are a couple of trails leading from the visitor centre and we opted for the 2hr one which winds its way up, over and around parts of the parque giving some excellent vantage points to view the limestone outcrops.  Once away from the visitor centre, and the shorter trail, which most people seemed to be following, it was eerily quiet.  It was quite hard going and not ideal if you have dodgy knees or hips but took us about 90 minutes with plenty of stops for photos.

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The limestone is weathered into bizarre shapes.

Our Camper Connect App showed the car park to be an overnight stop but some of the reviews on it suggested that the Rangers had on occasions moved campers on.  We’d seen the ranger trawling about in a four wheel drive a few times and, as he hadn’t taken us to task by 7pm, we decided he probably wasn’t going to so we decided to stay the night.

Next morning we took another trail which took us about 3km down the hill to a lower car park giving us fabulous views across the valley, returning via the same way.

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Early morning walk.

We dropped back down again to the free aire at Antequera for the night to plan our next stop, Granada.  Being a city stop, with no motorhome aires, we planned to stay at a campsite outside the city.  There are those certain times that we think it’s definitely worth paying for a campsite over finding somewhere to wild camp.  Big cities are those times as, after a day of sightseeing, it’s always nice to have a van to return to!  We stayed at Reina Isabel campsite, which is in the ACSI book, about 7km outside the city with a bus stop almost outside the door which takes 20 minutes to reach the city centre.  All for €1.50 each.  Bargain!

Our guide book says ‘if you see only one town in Spain, it should be Granada’.   My Dad also said ‘Jane, you must do Granada’.  It was inevitable, then, that we would end up there at some point on our journey!

Having not opted to do History even to GCSE level (or O levels as it was in my day) I’ll leave you to peruse Google if you want to know more about Granada’s history!   All I’ll say is it was first occupied by the Moors in the 8th Century, had a golden period under the Nasrid dynasty from 1238 to 1492, fell to the Catholic monarchs in 1492, had a period of decline in the 19th Century but much has been restored since then to its former glory.

The Alhambra, the Albaicín district and the Sacromonte district were the three main areas of Granada we wanted to see.  The guitarist Andrés Segovia described Granada as ‘a place of dreams, where the Lord put the seed of music in my soul’.  Travelling into Granada on the bus I was questioning that statement as it all looked a bit ordinary and, well, uninspiring really.

We picked up a map from the tourist information, got our bearings, and made our way to the Rio Darro which separates the Alhambra on one side of the hill with the Albaicín and Sacromonte areas on the other.  Strolling along the river on the Carrera del Darro, with views of the vast Alhambra on the hill to my right, the steep narrow streets of the Albaicín to my left and glimpses of the cave houses of Sacromonte’s gypsy area straight ahead I revised my initial thoughts.  Ordinary and uninspiring this was not!

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Paseo de los Tristes along the river below the Alhambra..

Walking up the hill to the Sacromonte area we left all the people behind, which was great for us, but they were missing out as we thought it was a fascinating area and the views across to the Alhambra from several vantage points were superb.

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Views across to the Alhambra from Sacromonte.
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Sacromonte district of Granada.

This area was, in its heyday, Flamenco central where travellers would go to be wowed by impromptu performances.  Sadly though both our guide books warn that most of the flamenco shows put on today are of questionable quality.

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It might need a bit of work but the views are fantastic!
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Some people still live in the caves on the hillside.
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Sacromonte, home of Flamenco.

The Albaicín, the former Moorish town, is full of narrow alleyways and small squares where we whiled away another hour or so before dropping down to the Cathedral.

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The Albaicin.
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Granada Cathedral.

Yes, we’d been seduced by Granada with its backdrop of the snow capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada and we were two happy bunnies on the return bus to the campsite.

After several aborted attempts on the Alhambra website a week ago where I could only go so far with the booking before the whole thing crashed we decided to wait until we got to Granada to buy tickets.

We’d asked in the tourist information about booking tickets but were told that they were sold out until May but if we queued up early in the morning at the entrance we MIGHT be able to get a ticket then as lots are returned!  What sort of time would be best I asked?  Oh, 6.30am if you want to be sure of the best chance of getting one was the reply!  Aaaarrrrggghhh!  Neither of us fancied doing that as it would mean cycling in as the first bus wasn’t until 7.00am and even if we did get a ticket we would have to wait another couple of hours before the Alhambra opened to get in.

The chap did say to ask at where we were staying as the hotels and guesthouses have a certain number of tickets.  When we got back we asked the friendly guy at reception about tickets and he said ‘sure, how does 11.00am suit you?’   It cost us a €2.50 each admin cost but it was a small price to pay for a stress free day!

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Patio de la Acequia (Court of the Water Channel).

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Other end of the Patio de la Acequia (Court of the Water Channel).
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Patio de la Sultana (Court of the Sultana).
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Patio de la Acequia (Court of the Water Channel).

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We had a brilliant day with cold but fine, clear sunny weather and we would absolutely recommend a visit. It is………….oh I can’t describe it.  Ok, I’ll describe it in one word………Sumptuous with a capital ‘S’.  You would have to go there yourself to get a true feel of it.

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Graffiti on the trees (looks like a tattooed elephants leg to me).
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The baths of the Mosque.
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Palacio de Carlos V (Palace of Charles V).

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View from the Torre de la Vela (Watch-Tower).
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Patio de Arrayanes (Court of the Myrtles).

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Patio de los Leones (court of the lions).
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Palacio de Partal.

So, with the visit to Granada a resounding success we set off up the A395 to Pradollano, Europe’s most southerly ski resort in the Sierra Nevada.

 

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The drive up to Pradollano, Sierra Nevada.
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It was freezing at the ski resort!

We had intended to stay the night up there but, as it was freezing cold and with the weather closing in, we revised that idea and decided it was time to visit Las Alpujarras area south of Granada.

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Wild camping spot at Embalse de Beznar near Lanjaron, much warmer and more civilised!

In preparation, I’ve just started re-reading Chris Stewarts ‘Driving over lemons’.

Buenas noches!

 

 

 

El Caminito del Rey…. .

Ollie, our van, was riding high heading east out of Tarifa on four shiny new tyres.  Tim was equally riding high feeling like a dog with an extra appendage at having the said tyres fitted!  Oh the little things?!  To be fair it had been touch and go as to whether the tyres would be done as, when we duly arrived at the garage at our allotted time of 16.00hrs, the tyres had yet to be delivered.  Several phone calls confirmed they were on their way being couriered from Cordoba.  They finally arrived at 18.00 and we were on our way 90 minutes later.

We stopped for the night at the aire at Castellar de la Frontera where we’d stayed before which is conveniently located just 8km off the main A7 Algeciras to Malaga road.  Whilst there we popped over to the cafe across the road to pick up some wifi and saw on the news that in fact the whole south coast of Spain had been battered by severe gales for 24hours.  Maybe our experience in Tarifa had been on the extreme side then!

Our next destination was to be Garganta del Chorro, a huge canyon in the limestone massif above the Río Gualdalforce, 50km north west of Malaga.  It’s a major centre for rock climbers but we wanted to walk the Caminito del Rey, a walkway traversing halfway up the steep walls of the narrow limestone gorge.  The 3km long narrow path, clinging precipitously to the mountainside by pins driven into the rock, is set some 100 metres above the Guadalhorce river and is just a few feet wide. Just my kind of thing!  If you don’t really have a head for heights then I suggest you look away now!

Now a tourist attraction, the Caminito del Rey was originally built between 1901 and 1905.

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Building the walkway circa 1901.

With the construction of the El Chorro and Gaitanejo hydro electric powerplants, the path gave workers the ability to cross between two nearby waterfalls.  It effectively provided a shortcut so the workers didn’t have to climb down the mountain on one side to then have to climb up the other side.  After all, we all love a shortcut!

It wasn’t until 1921 that the path became known as El Caminito del Rey (the Kings pathway) after King Alfonso XIII crossed it to reach the dam for the inauguration ceremony.

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Inauguration day presided over by King Alfonso XIII in 1921.

Over the last century intrepid climbers used the path, also as a short cut, to reach Makindromo, a famous climbing sector of El Chorro.  Throughout the years the walkway fell into a serious state of disrepair with gaps in the guard rails and pavement areas which were completely missing but still the climbers came and risked life and limb to cross it.

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The condition of the path before the restoration.
However, after four fatal accidents in 1999 and 2000, the path was closed by demolishing the initial section to prevent any further fatalities.

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Yeah, I think I’d give that a miss!
Plans were afoot in the early 2000’s to restore the path but lack of the old wonga prevented the project going ahead.  Fast forward now to February 2014, the Provincial Deputation of Malaga finally had the cash to restore the path.  The new path was constructed one metre above the line of the old one and was reopened to the public in March 2015.

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The old path below the new one.

The actual path is now run by a private company but for €11.55 each for the walk and the return bus I don’t personally think they are ripping us off!

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The start of our journey almost opposite to where we were parked.

The whole route from where we parked the van at the North end to the finish at El Chorro is about 7km on a mixture of woodland path and board walks.

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Rock formations on the path down to the control cabin where we exchanged our tickets for hard hats.

So what did we think? Well, despite definitely feeling like a tourist attraction, we thought it was superb.

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The adventure begins!

You can only walk it in one direction, north to south, and the numbers are limited entering the path at different time slots to prevent overcrowding.

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It wasn’t too busy on the path.

I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

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In parts the gorge is no more than 10m wide.

It felt all very safe but I imagine if you are a tiny bit wobbly about heights then I guess it wouldn’t be your idea of a dream day out!

P1010950.JPGIt’s also probably not advisable, like I did, to keep walking whilst gawping upwards at the vultures soaring across the top of the canyon which at some points is 700m high.  A sure recipe for vertigo and a tumble I think!

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One of Tims ‘art’ photos again!

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The train from Malaga runs through the gorge on the opposite side.
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After the first boardwalk section the path runs through pretty woodland.

The final part of the walk, which traverses the gorge at the southern end by way of a suspended (read MOVING!) bridge, continues on down and around the corner giving far reaching views down the valley from El Chorro.

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You can’t see it but it’s a loooooong drop down!
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The new suspended bridge replaced the old one behind.
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Coming out at the southern end of the gorge.

It was just fantastic.  It’s not until you look back at where you have been that you suddenly realise the sheer height and precariousness of it all.

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So that’s where we were – it looks higher up from this viewpoint than when you are actually on the path.
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Some intrepid soul has even cycled the route!

The whole thing took around four hours and we got back to the van at around 2pm for a rest and a regroup.  Whilst it did seem a shame to wake Tim up from his afternoon kip to go for a further walk I felt it was necessary as I’d hate to feel he was missing out!  It was worth the effort though for the views we had over the three reservoirs.

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Walking the hills around the reservoirs.

We would have ideally liked to have spent another day in the area but, due to the uncanny lack of others vans around, and it being in the natural park, we thought that wild camping here would be a no no and we’d risk a fine.

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Embalse del Guadalforce (one of the three).

We drove to the very good free aire at Altequera, a prosperous looking market town with several fine churches.  What it is most famous for is the three prehistoric dolmen caves dating from around 2500 BC.

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The Menga Dolmen.

Call me a heathen but I found it a little underwhelming but it was free!

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I quite liked the patterns made by people’s shoes in the sand inside the burial chamber!

Today we’re off to the Parque Natural de El Torcal, south of Antequera, to do some walking and look at some rock sculptures.

Hasta luego!

Gibraltar and the Costa de la Luz…. .

Boy we sure are ‘living the dream’.  We are currently hunkered down in between two blocks of flats on the outskirts of Tarifa trying to escape from the relentless wind.  Last night Ollie, our van, was blown hither and thither by a gusting, godawful  wind coming off the hills behind Tarifa beach.  The cover for the bikes, which was already in a sorry state with numerous patches, is now virtually shredded to bits!  The skylights on the roof of the van have just about held their own despite the wind trying its level best to remove them from their moorings.  So, after a restless night, we came to seek some refuge in between some flats in the town.  As I said, we are living the dream folks!

Tarifa is not called the kitesurfing and windsurfing capital of Europe for nothing it seems.  Our guidebook also happens to mention that Tarifa, before it was famous for kitesurfing, was a quiet village known only in Spain due to its unusually high suicide rate!  The reason for which is that unremitting wind, apparently.  After last night I can well believe it!  But anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.  Back to last week.

We left the very pretty hilltop town of Casares (a brilliant place to watch the vultures) after three days of rain to drop back down to the coast to do a proper visit to Gibraltar.

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The hilltop town of Casares.
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It’s a great place to watch the vultures.

What can I say, I expect it’s a right of passage for most Brits who travel around Spain and we are no exception.   We stayed at the aire on the marina at La Linéa de la Concepción, just across the runway from Gib.

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The aire at the marina at La Linea de la Concepcion.

The aire is €12 per night, has a view of the boats in the harbour and is far enough away from the main road to be a quiet and peaceful stop.  It’s also only a five minute walk to the border.

After having nipped over to Gib two weeks ago we knew what to expect at the border.  We’d walked across to the town coming back at about 5.30pm and Tim had likened it to coming out of Devonport Dockyard 30 years ago when 3000+ employees would leave the base at the same time.  Cars, vans, scooters, mopeds, bikes and pedestrians were all rushing headlong for the exit!  I hadn’t realised that so many people work on Gibraltar but live in Spain.  Let’s just say it was an experience!  It did, however, confirm our thoughts that it wasn’t worth taking the van over to take advantage of the 75p per litre diesel to be had on the island.  Nope, too stressful in our opinion!

We spent a couple of hours wandering around the town, marina and Morrisons(!) on the Tuesday afternoon we had arrived.  Apart from Main Street, which is pedestrianised, it’s not a particularly pedestrian friendly place.  It’s so compact that virtually every space has now been built on and we only found one small park area. Usually when we explore a larger town or city we try to go through as many parks and green spaces as we can but Gibraltar town is a bit lacking in them!

Not to be deterred though the next day we had a brilliant day walking up to the top of the rock, over the other side down a steep rocky footpath called ‘Mediterranean steps’ to take in views of the east side of the island down towards Europa Point and then continuing on back around to our starting point.

It was quite a strenuous walk in the end and we were glad we wore our walking boots.

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A coffee break half way up the rock and time for a Morrisons Pork Pie!

When we set out a huge cloud had been hanging over ‘the rock’ but it miraculously cleared by the time we were half way up to the top and the views were superb.

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The view down to the town.

We weren’t disappointed on the ape front either.

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The apes were completely non plussed by us tourists taking photos.

We whiled away some time watching them at the top of the rock and at other points on our walk.

P1010875.JPGWe made sure we had our lunch where none were to be seen mind!

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View from the top of the rock.
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View back to La Linea from the east side of the top of the rock.
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Mediterranean Steps – the path that took us down the east side of the rock and around to the views of Europa Point.
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It was quite an adventure!
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Climbing up the path on the east side.
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The view towards Europa Point with the Morrocan hills peeping above the clouds..
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They look cold but it wasn’t cold!
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It’s not often you see a sign like this.

Our other reason for coming to Gibraltar was to meet up with my friend, Nik, who had lived on the island in the mid 1980’s as her Dad was posted there for three years with the Navy.  She’d come, with her Mum, on a reminiscing tour to see how things have changed.  We met up with them for some lunch and a catch up.  It was great to see them and we spent several happy hours chatting away over lunch whilst supping Sangria……..too much Sangria!  We both suffered for our over indulgence but, well, you live and learn………or not!  So thank you for lunch and a great afternoon Nik but I never want to see you again!!!!!!  Just kidding;)

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I won’t be drinking Sangria again for a while!

So that, then, brings us round to Tarifa, on the Costa de la Luz, which stretches from Tarifa to Cadiz, where we have been for the last few days.  This coastline is a complete contrast to the Costa del Sol.  It’s relatively undeveloped, backed by rolling green hills, with some beautiful beaches……..and plenty of wind!  Saturday and Sunday were glorious, weather wise, with temperatures up to the low twenties and a nice breeze that brought out probably in the region of 300 kite surfers.  It was quite a sight stretching across the 7km of Tarifa’s beach.

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Tarifa beach.

We were able to walk into Tarifa town at low tide along the beach and then returned over a boardwalk and some scrubland when the tide had advanced up the beach filling a lagoon which prevented us from retracing our steps.

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Tarifa old town.

We drove 10km up the coast to visit Bolonia which has a beautiful beach and the remains of a Roman settlement.

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Bolonia beach.

We met another British couple there, John and Sheila, who are doing a similar trip to us and invited us in for coffee where we exchanged stories on our experiences so far.  It’s always nice to chat to other people who are doing a similar thing, renting out their house, getting rid of most of their stuff and seeing where the road takes them,  just to confirm we’re not completely nuts choosing this lifestyle!

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Trust me when I say this thing was the size of a small dog (well maybe a gerbil)!

Coming full circle now, to where I started on this somewhat rambling post, we are sheltering from the wind in Tarifa instead of moving on today as Ollie is going to have four shiny new tyres fitted later.  We had thought we would wait until returning to the UK to get them done but the front ones are now pretty close to the lowest limit and with probably another 1500 or so miles to do before we get back to the UK it’s safest to get them done now.  They are Michelin somethingorothers (Tim has done all the research!) which will comply with the regulations of some European countries when travelling in winter.  Tim does van stuff.  I do cooking!!!

After the tyre fit our plan is to travel east again as we’ll eventually want to visit Granada.  We seem to be doing a backwards and forwards, zig zag, tour at the moment but that’s what you get when you don’t really have a plan!!

Buenas noches!

More pueblo blancos…. .

The rain is, once again, drumming on the van roof.  It’s been raining now for the best part of 36 hours and the natives, chez Ollie, are getting restless!  We are currently pitched up at a great aire at the entry to the little hilltop town of Casares, a 15km or so drive from the coast.  We arrived here on Thursday afternoon but, due to the shi inclement weather, we have yet to venture out.  Sometimes I can see the town across the valley from our parking spot, sometimes not.  The rain and mist are sweeping in and out obscuring our view.

The kitchen window is leaking and has been gaffer taped up and Ollie has been turned around the other way to protect said window from the elements!  The forecast for tomorrow isn’t much better. So, this lifestyle is not all glamour let me tell you!

Oh but……………..oh but……………..the week we have just had touring the hilltop towns north of Gibraltar has been just brilliant.  We left Ronda ten days ago heading down the A397 to the coast road near Marbella in search of a garage selling LPG.  The drive down to the coast, winding its way down through mountains, was spectacular.

We’d spent a week touring the quiet Pueblo Blancos so, as always, coming back down to the coast was a bit of a culture shock.  It still never ceases to amaze me that, in the space of half an hour or so, you can go from seeing shepherds scratching a living in the hills with a few goats and a scabby dog to humungous luxury villas, leisure complexes, marinas and tower blocks.  The contrast still gets me every time!

But, back to the quest for LPG.  We discovered that our aires book, which has a list of garages selling LPG in Spain, is out of date.  The garage near Marbella didn’t sell LPG.  Meh!  Two more garages were found but the LPG pumps were out of order.  Double meh!  We finally found one on the outskirts of Algeciras.  Lesson learnt – do more research on t’interweb – don’t rely on a book published several years ago!

So, LPG tanks brimming, we stopped overnight at the aire at La Linea de la Conception, just across the water from Gibraltar.  This wasn’t in the plan as we weren’t supposed to be in Gibraltar until next week when I’m meeting up with a friend.  We decided to save exploring Gib until then but we did make a quick flit over to visit the supermarket, because, well, it would be rude not to wouldn’t it?  And, we haven’t had any baked beans or spaghetti hoops for eleven months!  Or an easter egg, or prawn cocktail crisps!

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Ah, Waitrose Essentials Spaghetti Hoops – that’s why we wanted to go to Gib!

It was back to the hills we wanted to be though so taking the A405 out of La Linea we stopped for the night at the aire at Castellar de la Frontera.  The aire is actually at Nueva Castellar, a new town built in 1971, 10km down river from the old hilltop town.  I was confused at first as, wandering around the town, which is fine with a nice square and a few cafes, I was thinking ‘where’s the castle?’ and ‘it’s not on a hill?’.  Then, on re-reading the guide book, I realised the original town was 10km away………………..uphill!   Still, it was a beautiful sunny day and perfect for a bike ride!

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Approach to Castellar de la Frontera.

It was definitely worth the climb up.  The tiny town, enclosed by the walls of a 13th century Moorish castle, has all but been restored.

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Inside the walls of the castle, no vehicles, all cobbled narrow streets.

Our next stop was Bennaraba, a pueblo blanco, 50 or so km north, which has a brilliant little aire just as you enter the town.

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View from above the aire at Benarraba.

Unbeknown to us at the time, we arrived for the start of a food festival.  The little town was bustling with activity and we were able to sample some of the local produce.

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The Great Spanish Bac-on Off!
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Reminds me of the film ‘Good Morning Viet-ham’.

We had the best beer we have tasted since leaving Yorkshire ten months ago.  It would have given some of the Yorkshire real ales a run for their money that’s for sure.

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The best beer in Spain from La Catarina Brewery in Marbella.  The Muelle de Hierro was superb!
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A cheese and onion roll and a really good beer…………….the simple things are the best!

There are plenty of footpaths around Bennaraba to explore the area, which we did for a couple of days, so if you are into walking it is worth a stop.

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Aww, the first donkey ‘hands-on’ for a month!
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Benalauria – another white town further up the hill off the A369.

Next up, Grazelema, another Pueblo Blanco, set within the Parque Natural Sierra de Grazalema.  Oh this one was a good one!  We spent two nights there at a large lay-by below the town where wild camping is tolerated.

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Grazalema viewed from our wild camping spot.

What a beautiful village set in such dramatic scenery.

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Grazalema town.

We couldn’t have asked for better weather whilst there.  Warm, sunny, clear days with views for miles.

A circular bike ride took us up and over the Puerto de las Palomas (pass of the Doves – at 1350m the second highest past in Andalucia) down into the fortified hill town of Zahara de la Sierra, along the edge of the reservoir and back up and over to Grazalema.  Fantastic!

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Cycling up the CA9104 from Grazalema to Zahara de la Sierra.
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The view just over the summit on the Zahara side.
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We were so lucky to have a clear day after so many hazy days.
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Lunch in Zahara de la Sierra.
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Happy bunnies to be back in time to soak up some sun at our parking spot.

The next day, we took a footpath out of the town which wound its way up to the top of one of the peaks above the town for incredible views right across the Natural Parque.  Perfect!

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The views above Grazalema.
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View down to Grazalema.
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Mountain goat catching some rays.

On hindsight, looking out of the window at the weather now, we were so lucky to have had a week of perfect weather for exploring this area.  So there we are, mustn’t grumble at a couple of days of rain!  It’s given us a chance to catch up on some over due admin too. We haven’t been idle, oh no!

Hasta Luego!