Time to leave Spain…. .

This last week has seen unprecedented decisions being made around the world in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.  We came to the decision on Sunday 22nd March that our time was fast running out in Spain as it was finally confirmed that all short term accommodation, including campsites, had to close by 26th March.  We were still on the aire at Úbeda in north eastern Andalucía mulling over our options.

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The aire at Úbeda.

We were down to just two vans by this stage, us and the French.  The German, Belgian and Spanish vans had decided to call it a day and repatriate themselves to their homes.  I suspect we’d have done the same at the time they had if we’d had a home to go back to.  As we’re ‘full-timing’ in our van and our house is currently rented out this wasn’t an option for us.  When we return to the UK to see family and friends we normally stay on a campsite but by this time all the campsites in the UK were closed as well.  Mmm, what to do?  So we chewed over our options.  And chewed a bit more.  Finally we came up with a Plan A, B, C and D.  Fortunately for us Plan A came through so we didn’t have to get the ball rolling on B, C or D.

We sent an email to Jenny and David at Chateau de Jalesnes in France where we have volunteered through Helpx twice before to see if they needed any help and would be willing to take us.  Our reasoning was that they have plenty of space where we would still be able to work in exchange for our keep, we would be completely out of the way from other people to self isolate and it would be likely we could stay long term.  We had an email back the same day to confirm that we were welcome as we could self isolate there without any problem and, due to the current situation, there were only Jenny and David and two other helpers there.

So, on Monday we packed up, filled up with diesel, went to Lidl to do a shop to tide us over for our two weeks of isolation and hit the road.  We were stopped by the police in Spain going through a small town south of Ávila.  After my attempt at speaking Portunol (a mangled version of Portuguese and Spanish) the officer called over his colleague to deal with the ‘Inglés’.   The officer was exceptionally polite referring to us all the time as Timothy and Jane and after a passport and driving licence check and a few questions about why we were travelling, where we had come from and where we were going etc we were on our way again with firm advice to get a move on.

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Olives everywhere.
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Empty roads.

A five kilometre queue of traffic greeted us coming up to the border with France at Irun in Northern Spain.  From what I’d read we needed an ‘attestation’ form stating why we were travelling to be able to cross the border into France.  As we had no access to a printer, and I didn’t know if we would be able to pick up the forms at the border, I’d written two forms out by hand which was apparently acceptable.  I was sooo glad I had written them out as the first word the officer said to me as we went over the border was ‘attestation’.  I hadn’t filled them in though as the five valid reasons for travel didn’t include ‘repatriating to home country’ (which we weren’t going to do but he didn’t need to know that).  He just accepted that we had the forms and told us to fill them in on route.

The whole route would have been pretty much stress free had I not had a nagging anxiety that if we were stopped in France and quizzed about where we were going we would be prevented from going there and directed to go straight to Calais.  I had decided that if we were stopped then I would be honest as I know I would unravel under even the mildest of interrogations.   I’m a hopeless liar and they would see through me straight away.

Sticking to the autoroute added an extra sixty kilometres to our journey but when we finally came off it we only had twelve kilometres to do on a minor road which didn’t go through any towns or villages to get us to the chateau so the likelihood of being stopped was considerably less.  Ironically the exit off the autoroute for the final stretch went right past the Gendarmerie National and we were expecting the game to be up, to be stopped, fined and sent packing back to Calais but there was not a single police car in sight.  We arrived at the chateau and breathed a huge sigh of relief.

We’re now in isolation for two weeks and have, very generously, been put up in one of the apartments in the chateau with our own entrance so as to keep us separated.  We have been working in the garden for the last few days which has been just brilliant after nearly two weeks of being ‘van-bound’.

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There’s plenty to do in the grounds.

We are so grateful to be here and know that we are super lucky to be able to be outside in the grounds without the restrictions that everybody else is going through.

Nobody knows how long this situation is going to go on for.

France has just announced a further two weeks of lock-down until 15th April.

It looks like we’ll be here for some time.

Keep safe, keep washing those hands and keep optimistic.

À trés vite!

Keeping a low profile…. .

Much has happened throughout the world since my last blogpost a week ago.  The COVID-19 virus is an ever present feature of everyone’s lives.  Spain went into a ‘lock-down’ situation the day after we arrived in Úbeda.  France followed suit two days later and a similar situation is fast approaching in the UK.  It’s unchartered territory at the moment.

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Outdoor gym equipment off limits.

The announcement came last Sunday that Spain would be effectively closed for business from Monday.  In light of this announcement, and the fact that we’d heard that campsites were closed to new arrivals, we deemed it prudent to pitch up at the aire in Úbeda where we’d have access to all the services we’d need and isolate ourselves as much as possible.  As I mentioned in my last blog post the normally popular aire was uncannily quiet when we arrived.  There were just five of us with five nations represented.  French, Belgian, Spanish, German and English.  Chatting to our neighbours we were all in agreement that we would hunkerdown and wait out at least the first two weeks to see how things developed.

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The aire at Úbeda.

We collectively visited the police station around the corner on Tuesday to ask about the possibility of hooking up to some electric as a couple of the vans don’t have solar panels.  On Wednesday afternoon a friendly electrician arrived, asked us how many outlets were required and sorted us all out with electric which we are all extremely grateful for.

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Our night in shining armour arrives to sort us out with some electric.

From what we’d read we would be able to go out for necessary trips to the supermarket, pharmacy or doctor.  Everything on Saturday had been calm in the supermarkets with just the obvious difference that most people were wearing gloves and one or two had a mask on.  We’ve been fortunate in that we haven’t seen any of the panic buying situations that other areas have experienced.  The local Lidl and Carrefour supermarkets are well stocked and quiet.  We walked up to Lidl yesterday and all was quiet.  We couldn’t go in together and had to maintain our distance between other shoppers but it was so quiet it wasn’t a problem.  It’s the new normal now.  They’ve also moved out all the other crap useful things they sell like tools, clothes, stationery and the like to allow more space to move around.  Personally I’d like to see that rolled out in every Lidl throughout Europe but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

Meanwhile back at the van we’ve been keeping ourselves busy.  We’ve likened it to being in the Big Brother House except without all the egocentric wannabes.  Unlike the Big Brother House we also have books, internet, music, and our own space……..all seven metres of it.  We’re used to living in a small space though but it will be the first time we’ve been confined in one position for more than a week without being able to do our daily walks, work, volunteer or other normal things we take for granted.  So far, so good.  I’ve been able to do my exercises with my dumbbells outside the van everyday which always makes a difference to me mentally.  Tim has been putting his electronic saxophone through its paces.  I’ve been able to practice my French with our neighbours, although I try not to burden them too much!  I have plenty of downloaded language learning material to get through and have a plan to follow to help keep me focussed.

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The electronic saxophone has been put through its paces.

Friends of ours, who were staying on a campsite near Seville, were told on Wednesday that the campsite would be closing and to make alternative plans.  In other words to get themselves back to the UK.   The Gov.uk website was stating on Wednesday that all hotels and short term accommodation in Spain would be closed by the 24th March so travellers were being advised to start planning their journeys to their home countries.   By Thursday the information had changed slightly in that it was now saying that the Spanish Government was expected to order that hotels and short stay accommodation (such as short-stay campsites or caravan parks) must close in the coming days.  So we’re still not sure if we’ll be moved on.

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This was before we had electric on a chilly second evening conserving our battery power after an overcast day.

After hearing the news from our friends and reading the Gov.uk website, I fell into the trap of having a mooch around on a few news sites and forums.  Normally I don’t follow news sites, social media or message boards for a reason as I find that things can, quite often, get blown out of proportion.   I’m not disputing the seriousness of this challenge we are all facing but, for me, I prefer to turn the volume down on the amount of media I consume so as to try keep things in perspective.  I’m being more vigilant with myself and trying to avoid anything but the necessary information we need to make decisions over the coming days.

Two Dutch vans arrived on the aire last night who were on their way home.  I didn’t speak to them myself but they were under the impression that all campsites were closing and so had decided to call it a day and return home.  Our Belgian and German neighbours have decided to do the same and left this morning.  So we’re down to three vans here now.  For us, we’d prefer to stay where we are as the longer we’ve isolated ourselves the less of a risk we are to other people.  And it’s warm here!  If we are asked to move on and return to the UK then we will move onto Plan B.  So far this situation hasn’t happened but I’ve a feeling it might be on the way.  The police have swung by a couple of times this morning but have just given all of us a wave of acknowledgement.

We’ll see.

Despite the stories of panic buying there are signs that lots of people are working together, checking on neighbours, setting up online support groups, keeping in touch, shopping for those that can’t etc which is heartening to see.  Here in Spain, a call went out on social media several days ago asking for all Spaniards to come to their windows and show their thanks with caceroladas (the bashing of pots and pans) in appreciation for all the hard work that health care staff are doing to care for their patients and contain the virus.

Three Spanish flags have appeared this week on the balconies of the flats opposite the aire presumably to show solidarity.

So there we have it, that’s our situation at the moment.

Please take care wherever you are.

Hasta luego y cuídese!

Jaén province…. .

Leaving Portugal after so long was a bit of a wrench but a welcome wrench as we shot straight across the Algarve and into Spain.  We headed straight for the Province of Jaén in north-eastern Andalusia.  It’s an area that we’d cut across in 2016 when making our way from the Costa Blanca to Córdoba to meet our friends Di and Chris for a couple of days.  We’d had a few days, at that time, to get from east to west but absolutely loved the area and wanted to see more so earmarked it for a future visit.

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Province of  Jaén – olives, olives everywhere.

The province of Jaén is the largest producer of olive oil in the world accounting for twenty percent of the worlds market.  According to Wikipedia 66 million trees grow here covering 550,000 hectares.  It’s fair to say that it’s enorme.  A huge patchwork of green.

img_20200308_165809331The province also boasts four natural parks.  On our way across the area in 2016 we met a chap called John who gave us various co-ordinates and advice on where to stay and what to do in the area so we dug them out to have a look.  He’d recommended a 128km via verde (cycle track on a disused railway) running from Jaén to Puente Genil.   We headed for an aire just outside the little town of Doña Mencía.

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The aire at next to the via verde cycleway at Doña Mencía. 

It never ceases to amaze me the facilities that are put on for motorhomers in some European countries.  We parked up at the aire adjacent to the via verde for just three euros a night.  Can you imagine that next to the Camel Trail in Cornwall?  You probably pay three times that just to park for the day.  All facilities were there.  Showers, water, waste disposal and electric.

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There’s also a visitor centre, cycle hire and cafe.

We ended up staying five nights and explored the area by bike and on foot.  Apart from the obvious draw of the cycleway there are several good walking trails in the area as well.  We had the pleasure of watching several pairs of vultures circling above and below us on our afternoon walks.

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Looking towards the delightful village of Zuheros a couple of miles away.

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Views from the cycleway.

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A walk in the hills above Zuheros.

So thank you to John wherever you are now for all the good info you gave us.  As I’ve said on the blog before, when travelling there are so many unanswered questions that go through my head.  How many olives are there?  How many trees?  They surely can’t harvest all these by hand like we saw in Greece?  If they do then there must be a mass influx of seasonal workers?  Who owns them all?  How did they water all the trees in the olden days?  Do the owners have a detailed map of all their trees or is it in their head?  What’s the maintenance plan?  Is there ever a day in the week when you don’t hear the buzz of a chain saw in the background?  And so the questions go on.

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A cycle ride in the hills around Albanchez de Magina east of Jaen.

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A long descent took us into the town of Torres.
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Torres.

Another of John’s recommendations was the Segura Natural park east of Úbeda.  Cazorla is a perfect base to explore some of it with a handy aire located at the top end of the town with spectacular views looking out over the olives below.  It’s just a big layby really but as laybys go it got a thumbs up from us.

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The aire at the top end of Cazorla.

Cazorla is in a superb setting with craggy mountains above and thousands of acres of olives below and boasts several historic monuments.  There are many walking trails, most of which you’d need a few days to complete but we set off up the steep hill to join one of them to see how far we’d get before turning back as there didn’t appear to be a viable circular route.

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Views up to the castle in La Iruela just a short walk from the aire.
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Looking back down at the castle.

 

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Processionary catarpillars we saw at the beginning of our walk.

After an hour and a half of mostly uphill climbing we were heading through patches of pine forest.  The shade was welcome as it was roasting hot but then we saw some pine processionary caterpillars.  When we looked up we could see their nests in the trees and all looked to be empty.

For those that don’t know, these little creatures can be harmful to people and pets.  The hairy caterpillars are part of the moth family.  I won’t bore you with their life cycle but just say that they feed on pine trees in nests.  Then between February and April they descend from the trees and make their way to the ground in a long chain (hence the name) searching for the next place for their life cycle.  They’ll eventually disperse to go underground for the next phase of the lifecycle.  They pose a risk to animals and humans at the stage when they are marching across the ground.  Those hairs are the cause.  If they are threatened, stressed, prodded or poked they can eject their hairs which act like tiny harpoons and can penetrate and irritate exposed skin.  Generally dogs lick affected areas thereby transferring the hairs to their tongues resulting in itching, swelling, vomiting and even death.

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There were lots more later on the higher we got!

We carried on for a while but were seeing them in increasing numbers so whilst I sat on a tree stump consulting google Tim hopped from foot to foot.  After telling him that I was sure it was just animals that were at the most risk I thought I’d check just to be on the safe side.  I read out the end of the second paragraph ‘the pine processionary caterpillar has even made its presence felt amongst dog owners themselves, causing painful, itchy rashes, or at worst, fatal anaphylactic shock’.  So I asked him if he wanted to carry on.  Stupid question really.  He was off back down the hill like a greyhound out of the starting trap.

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Well signed routes around Cazorla.

Having retraced our steps we took the road up out of the town in the opposite direction and were rewarded with more spectacular views.

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View down to Cazorla from the other side.
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A sunsey walk in Cazorla old town.

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img_20200312_184608862After a few days soaking up the surroundings of Cazorla we headed to the aire at Úbeda forty or so kilometres away to get some washing done.

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We love these places!

We arrived in Úbeda this morning in search of a self service laundrette to find parks closed, events cancelled and most people in the supermarket wearing plastic gloves.   The aire, which we’d stayed on a few  days ago, was practically deserted.  There’d been probably in the region of twenty before.

We took a stroll into town earlier this evening to find, other than two or three cafes and some mini supermarkets open, everything else is closed.

The Coronavirus has been rumbling around in the background of our travels for the last two weeks but today it looks like preventative measures have been ramped up considerably.

Our rough plan for the next three months had looked like this:  Take three to four weeks to make our way across Spain to Barcelona, catch a ferry from there to Sardinia, spend a few weeks on Sardinia before hopping over to Corsica for a look see, then back onto mainland France, up through south-eastern France into Switzerland, maybe a bit of Austria before landing in Germany towards the end of May as I’m doing a weekend course with donkeys somewhere in Bavaria.  It was a very loose three month itinerary.

Fortunately we only really ever make loose plans as you never know what is around the corner.

It looks like Spain, as I write, is going to announce a lockdown of the entire country.

Better to be safe than sorry.

Time for a change of plan………..

Adios!

Back on the road again…. .

So that’s it.  Our prolonged stopover in Portugal came to an end last weekend.  We’re back on the road.  We moved out of our rental house and back into the van almost a week ago.  It’s time to take stock methinks.  I wrote in the blog at the beginning of our stay that after nearly four years we felt we needed a break from travelling and van dwelling to relax, recharge, regroup, reset, reflect and reboot.  Over the last four years we’ve had breaks from the van of between three weeks and two months whilst we’ve been volunteering through Helpx where we’ve worked in exchange for accommodation and food.  The last four months, though, was the first time we’d a) stayed in one place for more than two months and b) done so on our own terms without any undue commitments.  One of the reasons we treated this period as an experiment was that we were curious to see how we would feel living in, what is effectively someone else’s house, for a significant chunk of time and whether it would be something we would be happy to do again (and again) in the future.

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The view from our window.

When we started our travels in April 2016 we considered three options when deciding what to do with our house in the UK: use it, sell it or rent it out.  We chose the latter as that made more financial sense to us.  Leaving the house empty for a large part of the year would cost us money in bills and if we sold we’d have to consider what to do with the cash.  There was also a bit of fear in there that if the house price train were to gather considerable momentum then we would have just fallen off the back of it and would maybe struggle to scramble back on to it if we wanted to buy again in the future.  So we rented it out.  And all has been well.

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Arrifana beach.

So getting back to my point we wanted to see whether, if we needed a break from travelling and vanlife, renting and living in a fully furnished holiday let would suit us.  We don’t have possessions now other than what is in the van so it’s not like we have been missing the creature comforts of our own home.  All the things we use on a daily or weekly basis (other than kitchen equipment) came with us into the house so we weren’t without anything that we constantly use.  There are other things to consider though.  Feeling at home isn’t just about the bricks and mortar you’re living in.  It’s also about where it is.  Community.  That sort of thing.  It’s one of the reasons why we chose Aljezur for an extended stay as we have connections there.

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Portugal is one of the biggest producers of cork.

Having spent some time in 2016 and 2018 helpxing at Donkey HQ we already had a few connections.  And, of course, the donkeys were a huge draw for me as I love spending time with them.  Tim was looking for some musical connections and was fortunately welcomed into the Aljezur Bombeiros band with open arms.  In the time leading up to Christmas he was extremely busy with not only the Bombeiros band but a choir and the occasional jam session.  Since the New Year things calmed down considerably as he felt the choir and the jam sessions weren’t really for him so he let those go.  He would have liked to start a small group, and did try to get something going, but it’s difficult for that sort of thing to gain momentum especially when you know you are only going to be spending four months somewhere before moving on again.  After the first two months, where he’d been busy with the band things became very quiet and he felt like he needed more to do.  He did a few jobs like fencing at Donkey HQ but would have really liked to get his teeth into a project that involved tools of some sort.

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A bike ride up to Monchique.

And that’s the rub really with this lifestyle.  Everything is a compromise. You can’t have it all.  It’s difficult to maintain strong relationships within a community if you aren’t there for much of the year.  We can’t have hobbies like growing our own vegetables or have animals or a man cave for whatever men do in man caves.  It depends on your interests really.  Our only transport is the van and our bikes.  It wasn’t a problem to drive the van off for an afternoon or two but there were times when we thought a car would have been great to have.  Tim would have maybe found some music further afield.  The bike isn’t ideal for transporting instruments and the accoutrements that go with them. I suppose we could have hired one but we decided not to.  Perhaps we will in the future.

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Views towards the Algarve.

Staying put for four months, however, allowed us to focus on our respective interests.  For me I focussed on my language learning whilst Tim spent a big chunk of time honing his skills on the electronic saxophone he bought last year.

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Monchique.

So, in the end, was our extended stay a success?  Apart from a couple of quiet weeks in January, four months for me was fine but it was a little too long for Tim. For me, if we rented somewhere without the donkeys and the dogs to occupy me then one or two months at a time would be just about right.  The idea of a bolthole is extremely attractive but I don’t think we are there yet in making a commitment to it.  We still like the freedom we have.  We still want to travel and experience new countries so even if we had somewhere to go back to we wouldn’t really be there very often.  Renting somewhere for a period of between a month and four months is the best compromise for us at the moment if we feel we need a break from travelling or the van.

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Off to donkey day care.

So all in all our experiment was a real success.  We also like change.  Change is good for us.  Change challenges us.  Gets us outside our comfort zones.  Four months ago we immediately settled into our little house on the hill.  Last weekend we immediately settled out of it and back in to our van. We’re happy to be back on the road and eager to see where life takes us next. 

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Adeus Aljezur……

Até a próxima!