North West Spain…. .

Our last visit to this part of Spain in April 2017 was but a fleeting one to take the ferry from Santander back to the UK.  We said then that we would come back at some other time and explore more of Northern Spain.  And here we are.  I was happy to be back here for no other reason than to stay at the ‘elephant aire’ again.  The toll free A8 motorway crosses right across this region close to the coast so it was just a mere six or seven kilometre detour.  Situated on the edge of the Cabárceno Wildlife Park this free aire is, we think, a great stop before or after the ferry or at any other time really.

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This cow was completely non-plussed by our presence and didn’t even get up as we walked past.

We did get our walking boots out this time though and followed a path up the hillside which eventually crests the ridge of the hill for a superb view of the bay of Santander below and then further on for about a kilometre to a peak for more views across the countryside.

 

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Views across Santander bay.

It was about a three and a half hour there and back trip and gave us just enough time go and see the elephants again before it got dark:)

 

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I could have put that little one under my arm and taken it with me!

Santillana del Mar is billed as one of the most attractive towns in Spain with its collection of 15th to 18th Century stone houses.

 

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La Colegiata in Santillana del Mar.

We had a beautiful sunny day to see it and there is no denying that it is an attractive village but it felt a little bit too twee and perfect, a tourist town with all the many associated restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops and coach parking areas.  Maybe we were having an ‘off’ day but it didn’t hold our interest for long.

 

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Santillana del Mar.

Even though the Picos de Europa mountains were calling me (not so much Tim!) we could clearly see the white stuff on their peaks and we felt we’d left it a wee bit late in the year to explore them this time.  (Queue a huge sigh of relief from Tim).

 

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The tide stops play on Playa de Meron.

We decided to stick to the coast instead stopping off at different points along the way and to enjoy a bit of coastal walking.

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El Capricho in Comillas, designed by Antonio Gaudí , now a restaurant.  I did have to look up if that is where the word ‘gaudy’ came from!          

We’ve had mixed weather over the last week from warm sunny days to squally rain and one overnight storm where, once again, reinforcements were needed to retain possession of our roof vents.

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Yep, that should do it.  (picture taken in the morning when the sun was back out again!)

New elastic hair bands were deployed and tightened, the suction cups were resucked and the washing line was affixed from skylight to toilet roll holder in the bathroom.  The belt, braces, stockings and suspenders approach.

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Toilet roll holder s have more than one use!

We’d had a beautiful sunny day with a fabulous coastal walk but big black clouds loomed up late in the afternoon and we had a similar sleepless night to one we’d had in Greece last year where we thought we were actually going to take off.  Thankfully by the morning it had all blown itself out.

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Universidad Pontificia overlooking Comillas.

You see some curious things when travelling to new places but tractor surfing is probably up there with extreme ironing.  We’d seen tractors on the beach scraping up the seaweed when we were in St Jean de Luz in France but in Spain they take it to the next level.  We were quite far away so the picture isn’t great but it all looked a bit dangerous.

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Tractor surfing.

Three tractors with a comb like contraption attached to the back were being buffeted around in the surf whilst trundling back and forth into the waves dragging in the seaweed.

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The seaweed comb thing.

We’d seen a lot of seaweed seemingly being used as mulch come fertiliser in the farmer’s fields but we’ve also seen it left in lots of little clumps on wasteground too.  I haven’t been able to find out anymore about it though so it will remain a mystery.

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Seaweed in the fields.
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Buzzard taking a break.
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A traditional hay stack.

Another unexpected sight whilst out on a coastal walk was a spectacular blowhole on a little island off the coast.

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The blowhole might not look much in the photo but it was pretty impressive.

The waves were crashing up the coast that day and we probably wouldn’t have seen it on a calmer day.

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A closer view.

It’s a rugged coastline which reminded us of parts of the Cornish and Pembrokeshire coast.

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You could be on the coast of Pembrokeshire.

There’s not a complete coastal path as such but there are plenty of coastal walks to be had using the towns as a starting point.

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A brilliant day to watch the waves.
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The seaside town of Ribadesella.
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Cudillero.
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I was like an excited puppy clambouring all over Cudillero up and down the steps and alleyways.  Much of it is quite rundown but I really liked it.
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Cudillero from higher up.

You could easily spend weeks exploring the north west coastline but as inclement weather had been forecast we swung a left inland effectively chopping off the North West corner of the country.  We were into Galicia now and part of the Galician coast is called the Costa da Morte because of the number of ships pulverised against the rocks during stormy weather.  We didn’t fancy any more sleepless nights on a windswept coastline lying awake wondering if we would survive the night so thought it best to cut our losses and get further south.  We couldn’t leave this region without visiting Santiago de Compostela though.

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The cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.

After the supposed discovery of the tomb of St James the Apostle (Santiago to the Spanish, Saint Jacques to the French) in the 9th Century, Santiago became Europe’s second most important religious shrine after St Peter’s in Rome.  The cathedral is the showpiece of Santiago and at the heart of its medieval core and is mightily impressive but then the entire old town is impressive really.

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Cathedral.

A tightly packed feast of narrow lanes, Plazas, squares, monuments and ancient churches all of which is pedestrianized.

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The colonaded streets of the old town.

Our guide book says ‘uniquely Santiago is a city at its best in the rain’ and goes on to say ‘water glistens on the facades, gushes from the innumerable gargoyles and flows down the streets’.  Mmm, yeah right.  Water does gush from the innumerable gargoyles but quite often instead of flowing down the streets it drips down the back of your neck.

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A dribbling gargoyle.

Still, we did enjoy our visit and planned on watching ‘The Way’ when we got back to the van just to get into the whole spirit of the El Camino de Santiago thing but then discovered we didn’t have it.  Doh!  I remember watching it a few years ago and was convinced we had it.  Ah well, we can download it another time.

Our penultimate stop in Galicia before we hit the frontier town of Tui on the Spanish/Portuguese border was the little fishing village of Combarro to look at the collection of Hórreos (stone granaries) on the seafront.  The town apparently has the largest collection of them in Galicia.  We arrived at the aire which has a view of the bay about a mile outside the town just as all he cocklers were returning with their hauls.

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Coccle pickers returning with their haul at Combarro.
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Traditional hórreos on the seafront in Combarro.
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Raised above the ground on pillars to stop those pesky rodents getting at the contents.

So it was time to head for the Portuguese border.  Alas, the rain has followed us:(

Hasta pronto!

The Basque Country…. .

San Sebastián with its vast sweeping crescent shaped bay and fabulous sheltered sandy beach was our first stop on crossing the border into Spain.  The aire at just €3.30 a night at this time of year is only a fifteen minute walk to Ondareta beach at the western end of the town and then a further twenty minute walk along the seafront into the Casco Viejo, the old town.  We’d been looking forward to coming to San Sebastián as we’d heard good things about it and, apart from the change in the weather, we weren’t disappointed.

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San Sebastián

Yep, as mentioned in my last blog post, the run of good weather broke on our first evening in San Sebastián with bucket loads of rain coming down throughout the evening, overnight and into the following morning.

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The library lit up at night.

The balmy temperatures we’d had for so many weeks plummeted too which was a bit of a shock to the system.  It had turned into hat and gloves weather.  Still, all credit to San Sebastián it is still an attractive place in dreary weather and I can imagine it would be spectacular in warm sunny weather.  We ended up spending three nights at the aire and made the most of any dry spells of weather we had to get out and about.

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Plaza de la Constitucion.

Basque cuisine has established a reputation for some of the finest in Spain but as regular readers of this blog will have surmised by now we are pretty much philistines when it comes to food preferring food of the pie and a pint variety rather than anything fussy or fishy.  We weren’t averse to trying a pintxos and a pint though. Pintxos, the basque equivalent of tapas, are like little works of art lining the counter tops of the many Pintxos bars in the old town.

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One of the many Pintxos bars.

Seafood is the major ingredient for many of them but we did find a type of all day breakfast one and a mini burger one and the obligatory tortilla pintxos.  We did push the boat out and try the bacalao (cod) as well but it was a tad chewy.  Sorry but if you are into food and want to read about and see fabulous pictures of food then this isn’t the blog for you!

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Full English breakfast, mini burger and tortilla pintxos!

Anyway, it wasn’t all sightseeing we had chores to do as well with a three week backlog of washing to do.  We found an excellent launderette five minutes walk away from the aire which looked almost new and had super fast free wifi. So in the hour it took to wash and dry everything I was able to upload all my photos, upload the last blog post and download some podcasts.  Getting back to the van and putting away the still warm washing was very satisfying on a wet and dull Sunday morning.  Getting those little jobs done without any stress of drama do help to keep spirits buoyant when you’ve been van bound by inclement weather for longer than you would like.

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Miramart – the pedestrain tunnel between Playa de Ondarreta and Playa de la Concha designed by Victor Goikoetxea and opened in 2016.

The Costa Vasca (the Basque country’s coastline) stretches for over one hundred miles and is a rugged up and downer flanked by wooded hills with plenty of little inlets and coves to explore.  We spent a night at the aire at Zumaia thirty kilometres west along the coast from San Sebastián.  I say aire it was really just a patch of land on the industrial estate by the river but it was free, felt safe, was surprisingly quiet and a ten minute walk along the river got us into the town.  We didn’t know it at the time as neither of our guidebooks mentioned it but the thirteen kilometres of cliffs between Zumaia and Deba have been recognised by the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) and UNESCO as one of the planet’s great geological outcrops.

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The flysche cliffs at Zamaia.

The near vertical rock layers of the ‘flysch’ as they are known are like the pages of a book revealing, layer by layer, the erosive actions of water and movements of land over the course of 50 million years of the earth’s history.

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They are pretty special.

You really have to see them from sea level to appreciate them and we really enjoyed this natural phenomena.

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Above the beach.

We stopped at the aire outside the fishing port of Lekeitio where old Basque houses line the seafront and watched the locals clamouring to buy the catch of the day landed that morning.

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The catch of the day just landed.

I have to say we were a bit mopey (is that a word?) as the weather hadn’t really improved with rain coming and going and pottering about the fishing villages isn’t really the same unless the sun is out.

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Lekeitio harbour.

We cheered ourselves up though with a stop at Gaztelugatxe, an islet connected to the mainland by a manmade bridge and on top of which stands a hermitage dating from the 10th Century dedicated to John the Baptist, which had been recommended to us by Tim and Jan who follow the blog and are on their own tour of Spain and Portugal at the moment.

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Gaztelugatxe.

Gaztelugatxe means castle on the rocks in the Basque language and is the most popular place of pilgrimage along the Basque coast.  Its religious rites are also tied to the sea.  Devotional offerings are left by sailors and fishermen to give thanks to the saint for protecting their boats from the dangers of the sea.  Even today when the tuna season begins the fishermen from nearby Bormeo still bring their boats into the waters nearby to ask the saint for good weather, good health and good fishing before heading for the tropics in search of fish.

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Over 200 steps to the top.

The small church at the top is eighty metres above sea level and is accessed via a narrow path and over two hundred steps.  For all you Game of Thrones fans out there the location featured in Season 7 as Dragonstone with a digitally created castle on top.  It was worth the stop and did us for our exercise for the day too before we trundled along to Bilbao.

The aire at Bilbao is in a spectacular location on a steep hillside to the west of the city with magnificent views out across the city and surrounding countryside.

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View from our pitch on the aire at Bilboa.

At €15 a night with electric it is well worth staying a night or two.  A regular bus service will set you back just €1.30 each way and drop you right beside the river in the old town.

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The Zubizuri footbridge (the name means ‘White Bridge’!)

Once an industrial port city home to steelworks and chemical factories, Bilbao has reinvented itself over the last twenty years with many of the old shipyards and factories having been replaced by parks, riverside walks, cafés and new modern architecture.

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Spacious pedestrian walkways line both sides of the river.

The pièce de résistance of that new modern architecture is undoubtedly the Guggenheim Museum.  Designed by the American architect Frank Gehry and completed in 1997 it transformed a derelict piece of post industrial wasteland right in the heart of the city.  Its success triggered a revitalization programme of the city including the development of a new metro system and airport.

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‘The Puppy’ – designed by Jeff Koons and clad in living flowers outside the entrance to the Guggenheim Museum.  It was supposed to be a temporary exhibit to coincide with the opening of the museum but the locals wanted it to stay., and I can see why:)

Now, we don’t normally do museums preferring outdoor pursuits instead but we made an exception for the Guggenheim as we were sure it was going to be worth seeing inside and out.  We approached it from the north bank of the river and climbed up the steps of the Puente de la Salve for a view from higher up.

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The view of the museum from the Puente de la Salve.

All I can say is it lived up to all its hype and is, I think, the most remarkable modern building I have ever seen or experienced.

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‘Maman’, one of Loiuse Bourgeois’ spiders overlooks the river.

All its sweeping curves are clad in golden titanium tiles and it is just fabulous.

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Fab-U-Lous!

Standing in the sixty metre high atrium on the ground floor  it is just mind boggling how it was ever a) conceived b) designed and c) built.  Just astonishing.

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Outside the atrium.

We enjoyed the various galleries but as with a lot of modern and contemporary art I don’t always ‘get’ what the artist is getting at so to speak but that didn’t matter as the building its self kind of overshadows what’s in it anyway.

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Richard Serra’s sculpture series – the ‘Matter of Time’.  I did listen to the audio recording on what it represents but lost the thread halfway through.  It was interesting to experience though!

So, with all that excitement all we had time for was to walk back along the river and have a mooch about the old town before getting the bus back to the van.

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The Casco Viejo.

There you go, Bilbao surprised us as we’d always thought it was just a hum drum urban sprawl of a place and somewhere to get the ferry back to the UK.  How wrong we were.

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Plaza Nueva.

So that brought the end to our tour of the Basque region and it was time to move on into Asturias and Cantabria.

Adíos!

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!

Pueblo blancos and bike rides…. .

Our plans for an overnight stay in Arcos de la Frontera were scuppered as the circus was in town.  Our Maps.Me app showed a free parking area on the outskirts of the town but nearly the whole car park was taken over by the circus.  We had no option but to continue on to the bottom of the steep hill.  We pulled into a layby for a regroup and to have another look at the maps and guide books. Handbrake on, we got out of the van, turned around and gawped at the view of the town perched on the edge of the cliff above us.

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Arcos de la Frontera.

If we’d managed to get into the carpark further up the hill we probably wouldn’t have seen the town from that angle so a disappointment turned into a bonus.  We finally managed to park at the bottom end of the old town after a stressful fifteen minutes of driving down narrow streets not knowing what would be coming next.  As it turned out the town at the bottom was ok to drive through but it’s the not knowing and thoughts of a potential mega reverse that stress me out!

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This reminded me of the main street going up through Totnes in the UK!

Getting up to the top of the old town was a really steep climb but it was so worth it for the views, the buildings, the patios, the narrow cobbled streets and the labyrinth of white washed houses.

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The Rio Guadalete curves round the limestone crag in a U shape.

A moped seems to be the best mode of transport, and there were lots of them, as many of the streets are so narrow with wing mirror scrapes on most walls!

P1010283.JPGThe viewpoint at the Plaza de España, at the top of the town, is right on the edge of the cliff with a sheer drop down to the river below.

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The view from the Plaza del Cabildo.

I like a bit of drama!

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Gothic-Mudejar church of Santa Maria de la Asuncion

Yes, we liked Arcos even if we weren’t able to stay the night.

We’d had a recommendation from our English neighbours, Ken and Mo, at the aire in Rota, about a 36km cycleway from Olvera to Puerto Serrano on a disused railway line, the Via Verde de la Sierra.  Thumbs up from Tim – disused railway line = flat!

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Our parking spot at the disused railway station at Puerto Serrano.

We decided to park at the Puerto Serrano end, to do the ride from west to east and back, as the leaflet showed there was a slight uphill gradient practically all the way to Olvera.  Not all flat then!   We were able to stay the night in the car park at the station which we shared with two German vans.

The ride was quite simply.  Totes. Spec. Tac!

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10%??  I thought it was a disused railway line!

It rates as the best disused railway line ride we have ever done.

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The line itself, although almost complete, was never put into service. It was originally planned, among other things, to provide a market for the wine trade from Jerez in the Cadiz province to Almargen in the Malaga province.  By 1934 the tracks had been laid all the way to Olvera but with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil war everything ground to a standstill and the work was never reconvened.  It wasn’t until 1995 that work commenced to reclaim the old Sierra Railway and turn it into a greenway. Four viaducts and thirty tunnels took us through the most glorious scenery.  I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

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The longest tunnel at 1km.
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The restored station at Coripe.
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It took a while to see the goats (this picture is zoomed in).  We heard their bells and then spotted them like ants crawling over the hillside on the opposite side of the valley.
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View from one of the viaducts.

16km from Olvera is a rocky outcrop, known as Peñón de Zaframagón, which is home to the largest colony of griffon vultures in Andalusia, and one of the largest in Spain.  Over 200 pairs have nests on the ledges but we left it for another day to cycle back with the binoculars to take a closer look at them.

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Penon de Zaframgon.

Peñón de Zaframagón – there’s vultures in them there hills!

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Towards Olvera the landscape opened up into Olive groves.
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36km done – 36km to go!

After several hours we arrived back at Puerto Serrano tired but exhilarated having had a fabulous day out.  We celebrated by eating nearly half the tapas menu at the station cafe next to our parking spot!

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An rare picture of both of us taken by our very friendly and patient waiter who translated all the menu for us!

We were so lucky with the weather as the day after our ride it turned quite bleak with some rain and a cold wind.  We drove to Olvera, at the other end of the cycleway, to stay at the aire there so that we could cycle back to revisit the vultures.  As it’s a protected area you can only view the vultures from the cycleway so it was a bit too far away to get any decent pictures but we whiled away an hour or so having coffee and lunch just watching from afar.

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Some of the 200 pairs of griffon vultures that nest here.

At just €2 per person, the interpretation centre at Olvera station is worth a look guiding you through the history of the railway and surrounding area with a 3D sound only film.  The receptionist gave me a guided tour in English as I was the only one in there!

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The church of Nuestra senora de la Encarnacion in Olvera.
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A view of the roof terraces in Olvera taken from the church.

After a couple of nights at Olvera we made our way to Ronda.  Our guide book describes Ronda thus:

‘The full natural drama of Ronda, rising amid a ring of dark, angular mountains, is best appreciated as you enter the town.’

We entered Ronda from the north trying to find a free parking spot indicated on our Maps.Me app.  We pulled off the main road into a housing estate where the car thirty yards in front of us came to an abrupt halt.  A man shot out of one of the houses and dragged the driver out of the car and started beating him up.  By the time I realised what was happening Tim was already reversing muttering ‘we’re out of here’!

Not the best introduction to one of Spain’s spectacularly located cities!  Obviously we weren’t going to spend the night at that end of the town so had to seek an alternative.  We found a campsite on the southern edge of the town within walking distance of the town which worked out really well even at €19.50 per night.  (Tim recovered soon enough!).

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Camping El Sur, Ronda.

We managed to do three weeks of washing which was a load off!  I was out at 7.20am pegging it onto the line in the laundry area lest anyone get there before me!  Tim predictably made the Germans and towels comment!

Ronda, being described as spectacularly located, didn’t disappoint.  It was one of the last towns to be wrestled from the Moors by the Christians in 1485.  The old town on the south side is a classic Moorish Pueblo Blanco and very well kept.   We entered the town via an old donkey track to get a view, from below, of the Puente Nuevo, the eighteenth century ‘New Bridge’ over the 100m deep Tajo gorge, which joins the old town with the new.

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Puente Nuevo, Ronda.

It really is quite a sight especially seeing it firstly from one side, then climbing up to the bridge to see it from the other side.

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The view from the other side of the Puente Nuevo.

Choughs nest on the crags around the new bridge and we spent a while watching their aerial display.  They are only seen in certain areas of the UK so that was an unexpected treat.

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Looking down to the Rio Guadalvin from the old town.

Across the Puente Nuevo near the bull ring is a fantastic clifftop paseo (walkway) with amazing views of the surrounding countryside.

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Views from the ‘paseo’.
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Looking the other way.
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A very symetrical field in the valley below – must have taken some planning.  Touch of OCD maybe!

We’d recommend Ronda but come in from the south end!

Our tour of the Pueblo Blancos is being curtailed today as we are in need of some more LPG and the only places to get it are all on the coast.  Also it’s turned pretty cold up here and we are used to being warmer now!  It has been colder here than at home by a couple of degrees over the last two days! Tim even wore trousers instead of shorts yesterday which is a sure sign that we need to get back to warmer climes.

Adiós!

 

Continuing on to Cadiz…. .

Since arriving in Spain nearly ten days ago we’ve had some rain………..boy have we had some rain!  Whilst parked up at the aire in Sanlúcar de Barrameda the rain came and went in waves for nearly forty eight hours.

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The aire at Sanlucar de Barrameda.

In the one extended break in the weather that we did have we had a mooch around the town, but, alas, we didn’t manage much of anything else!  Sanlúcar was the departure point for Columbus’ third voyage in 1498 but it’s probably better known for its light, dry manzanilla sherry made by, amongst others, Bodegas Barbadillo.

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Entrance to the Barbadillo bodega in Sanlucar.

Sherry producers are in evidence all around the town.  Nik, one of my oldest friends, will be disgusted with me for not doing a tour of one of the Bodegas as sherry was one of our drinks of choice on our nights out in our younger days!  (No, we weren’t normal!)  Ah well, maybe we’ll do a tour if we go to Jerez de la Frontera which is the capital of sherry production and not far away!

What we’d really come to this area for, though, was to see Càdiz so after two nights in Sanlúcar we made our way further south to an aire at El Puerto de Santa Maria which is across the bay from Càdiz.

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The aire (carpark) across the river from El Puerto de Santa Maria

We didn’t fancy driving into Càdiz as it’s very compact and options for overnight stays were limited.  The aire at El Puerto, another 24hr manned carpark similar to the aire we stayed at in Seville, is convenient for the ferry which shuttles regularly to and from Càdiz and takes about thirty minutes.

We had only intended staying two nights at the aire but another thirty six hours or so of rain had us confined to the van.  Normally we don’t let the weather dictate to us but it really wasn’t worth venturing out as the rain was torrential and would have been no fun at all to be out in.  We were super lucky though to be able to pick up some free wifi whilst at the aire and managed to watch the England v Wales rugby match on the laptop.

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Yay, RBS Six Nations chez ‘Ollie’!

That was a bonus as I’m not sure Tim could have coped with the disappointment as he’d set his heart on seeing it!  It was easy in Portugal the previous weekend as we just went to an English bar in Lagos to see it but no English bars were to be had in El Puerto.

We finally made it into Càdiz on Monday 13th February, albeit by bus as the ferry wasn’t running due to the weather.  I’m not sure why that was as it was sunny and calm and looked alright to me.  We got there though and it wasn’t raining which was a huge plus as we’d been beginning to get cabin fever in the van!

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Cadiz.

Càdiz, purported to be Europe’s oldest city, is set on a peninsular, and is almost completely surrounded by water.

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Looking back at the old town in Cadiz.

We started our exploration by walking the waterfront and then, after some lunch, walked the myriad of narrow streets and alleys in the old town.

P1010211.JPGIt really is very compact, with a slightly run down look about some of it, but all the more interesting for it.

 

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Narrow streets of Cadiz.

P1010238.JPGIt wasn’t as clean and well kept as Seville but had some pretty Plazas and green spaces.

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Plaza de Espana and Monumento a las Cortes.

A day in Càdiz was enough to see what we wanted to see and, with the sea now looking like a millpond, we were hoping to return to El Puerto by ferry but, nope, it wasn’t to be and back by bus we went.

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Cadiz Cathedral.

After three nights at the aire at El Puerto, which doesn’t have any facilities, we needed to find somewhere to empty and replenish so to speak.  The aire at Rota, half and hour’s drive away, fitted the bill.  It’s free and a short walk from a sandy beach so was a good stop for a couple of nights.

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Rota.

We got out on the bikes and, whilst not exactly all picturesque, had an interesting cycle along some of the local cycle tracks around Rota and Chipiona.

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The nice part of the cycleway we followed from Rota to Chipiona!

It’s completely flat, which cheered Tim up no end, and a bizarre mix of farms and smallholdings haphazardly sprawling inland with holiday homes and apartments equally sprawling along the coast.

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I don’t suppose the vans envisaged sharing the field with free range sheep and goats when they parked up!

It was good to get out on the bikes though and get some oil on them after all that rain.  We need to replace the bike cover we have as it has several rips in it now as the fabric is completely rotten.

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Coming back towards Rota from Chipiona on the coast this time.

Whilst at the aire at Rota we did a much needed clean of the inside of the van and a revamp of everything we have stored in the outside lockers.  In the planning stages of our big trip we had discussed whether we should maybe change our van, ‘Ollie’, for a slightly bigger van with more outside locker storage.  At the time, we felt that if we were living in it full time we’d need to carry more stuff than we did when on holiday.  However, having been on the road for ten months now, we are feeling we are much happier when living with less!

A couple of weeks ago we sorted through our clothes and shoes and dropped a bin liner of stuff into one of those charity clothes bins.  Whilst tidying the van yesterday we managed to fill another bin liner full of clothes to donate.  If we haven’t worn it in ten months we just don’t need it right?  There will be more to go – I’m looking at you flippers – before we get back to the UK I’m sure.  So, we’re glad we stuck with ‘Ollie’ and saved our cash instead of changing him for a more alluring model!

Anyway, I’ve gone off piste and this is getting rambling.  We moved on today to do a tour of the ‘Pueblo Blancos’, white towns, which dot the hills inland from the coast.  We’re starting off our tour at Arcos de la Frontera and we’ll make our way round several towns probably finishing in Ronda.

Nos vemos!

Goodbye Portugal, hello Spain….again…. .

Today was going to be a day of biking.  I had it all planned out in my head.  We’ve not been for a ‘proper’ bike ride for what seems like ages and I was looking forward to it.  We awoke this morning, however, to grey skies and the drumming of rain on the van roof.  Tim has sloped off back to bed muttering something about needing ‘to check the back of his eyes’ so it looks as though the planned bike ride has now been postponed!  Ah well, time to catch up on the blog then.

We left Donkey HQ in Aljezur, Portugal with a plan to walk some of the ‘Rota Vicentina‘, a network of walking trails covering the south west coastline of Portugal.

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View looking back to Monte Clerigo.

Unlike the Algarve to the south, the south west coast of Portugal is wild and rugged reminding me of parts of the north Cornish coast or sections of the Pembrokeshire coastline.

DSC00749.JPGWe spent three days walking short sections of the Fishermans Trail, a 120km route following the tracks made by locals to get to the beaches and fishing spots.

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On the rocks above Praia de Amoreira beach.

It’s quite hard going as much of the paths are single track soft sand but it’s exceedingly quiet and, of the three days we spent there, we only passed a handful of people.

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View above Praia de Odeceixe (we are reliably informed it is pronounced Odd-a-say-sha).

The wild flowers were starting to emerge and I think March/April would be a perfect time to walk the whole route.

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Zambujeira do Mar.

That’s maybe something we’ll do in the future though as we wanted to retrace our steps back across the Algarve to start exploring Spain again.

We made a quick one night pit stop at the aire in Lagos to watch the start of the RBS Six Nations and then had a day relaxing on the beach at Manta Rota, east of Faro and close to the Spanish border, before crossing  back in to Spain.

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Relaxing on Praia da Manta Rota.

Our first destination was Seville which we had intended visiting after we’d been to Córdoba but couldn’t face doing two cities back to back!  We have very short attention spans and don’t seem to have the energy for too much culture in one go!

Seville had several options for motorhome aires so we decided on the one closest in to the city.  It was just a city carpark but had 24 hour security and was a ten minute walk into the historic part of Seville.  At €10 per night we thought it was a bargain and would recommend it although it doesn’t have any facilities for waste emptying.

Seville, the capital of Spain’s Andalusia region, famous for Flamenco, Don Juan, Carmen and Figaro, is quite simply stunning.  As soon as we walked across the river into the historic old town and saw the Cathedral our jaws dropped.

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Seville’s huge Gothic Cathedral with Moorish bell tower.  It’s the largest Cathedral in Europe.

The streets are clean, car free, lined with orange trees and an absolute feast for the eyes.

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Avenida de la Constitucion.

The whole atmosphere in Seville felt safe, friendly and welcoming.

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Plaza de San Francisco.

We spent our first day wandering the streets of the old town and the surrounding areas trying to take it all in.

DSC00780.JPGIt was surprisingly quiet on the Wednesday so we were able to see all the buildings without being impeded too much.

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Metropol Parasol – designed by Jurgen Mayer and opened in 2011.  Houses an archaelogical museum, market and several bars and restaurants.  Apparently the locals call it ‘Las Setas’, (the mushrooms).

As usual for me I hadn’t done any research before we arrived, other than have a quick flick through our Rough Guide, but in some ways that’s a good thing as we don’t have any preconceived ideas on how things will be.

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Plaza de Cabildo.

We tend to just prefer to wander around with no set itinerary getting our bearings as we go.

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Entrance to the Cathedral.

With zero research we were then surprised and delighted when we strolled through the Parque Maria Luisa to reach the Plaza de España, such a pleasant and relaxing place to while away an afternoon.

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Museo de Artes y Costumbres Populares set in the Parque Maria Luisa.  The museum displays traditional Andalusian folk arts.
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Plaza de Espana.
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View of the Plaza de Espana from the first floor balcony.
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Regional scenes on ceramic tiles – the work of Anibal Gonzalez.

On our second day in Seville we discovered more of the old town and whiled away a couple of hours mooching about in the Santa Cruz area which hides many plazas and flower decked patios.

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Square lined with orange trees.

Then more walking of the river to the north and over into the Triana district, which was once Seville’s gypsy quarter.

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Puente de Isabel II conecting central Seville with the Triana district.

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View across the Rio Guadalquivir towards the Triana district.

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Internet binge using the cafe wifi!

There’s so much to see in Seville that we couldn’t do it all and after two days we were feeling a little bit overwhelmed with information overload so decided to hit the road south following the Rio Gualdalquivir to the sea.

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Sanlucar de Barrameda.

We arrived in Sanlucar de Barrameda last night which seems to be a lively small coastal town at the mouth of the Gualdalquivir overlooked by a Moorish castle.

The rain has now stopped so it’s about time we got out to have an explore!

Hasta Luego!

 

 

Rural Spain and into Portugal… .

Walking has dominated our calendar since we left Zafra on Wednesday 12th October 2016.  We drove along the picturesque EX101 south west from Zafra to stop at the little town of Cumbres Mayores.  The aire there, perched on the top of a hill, gave us fantastic views towards the town and its fortifications, and over the surrounding countryside.  It’s quite an isolated spot which I should imagine would be a bit grim if the weather closed in.

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The little one is a white dog masquerading as a calf!
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Morning rush hour in Cumbres Mayores!

We had a couple of iffy days of weather with clouds overhead but it stayed dry so we had a lovely walk on the GR48 Sierra Morena path (a long distance path of 590km) across 6km of farmland to the tiny, very well kept village of Cumbres de Enmedio which only has about 65 inhabitants.  I think it was one of the cleanest little villages we have been to with an orange tree lined main street.

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Black Iberian Pigs.
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Porklet kindergarten!
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The main street of Cumbres de Enmedio.
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Section of the GR48.

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Along the way we passed hundreds of Black Iberian Pigs which are indigenous to the Mediterranean area.

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They seem to have a very nice life thank you very much roaming around grazing on the acorns from the holm oak, gall oak and cork oak trees.  Unfortunately though, troughing all those acorns is their eventual downfall as they are destined for the jamón ibérico cured meat factory at nearby Jabugo.  The hams are covered in either rock or sea salt to ‘sweat’ before being moved to cool cellars to mature for up to two years.   At Jabugo the very best hams are graded from one to five ‘jotas’, (the letter ‘J’ for Jabugo), depending on the quality.  A whole leg of ‘cinco jotas jamón’ can set you back €250-€350 and a few slices at a restaurant may cost as much as a main meal.  Needless to say we haven’t tasted it!  We just enjoyed watching the pigs doing what pigs do in a natural environment.

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Pigs like a siesta too!

 

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A pile of pigs.

We moved further south east to Arecena, the highest town in the Sierra Morena, famous for the Grutas de las Maravilla, the largest cave in Spain.  Apparently it is astonishingly beautiful, but at €8.50 each Tim said I’d have to be satisfied with looking at it on YouTube as, if it’s anything like Cheddar gorge, we’d have wasted our money!

Another walk took us out into the countryside beyond Aracena where we added bambino donkeys to our list of animals seen in the past few days.  Oh, and also a black snake that slithered across the path right in front of our feet before disappearing into the undergrowth.  It took a while to talk Tim down from that one as he is not a fan of snakes!

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Bambino donkeys:)
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Countryside around Arecena.

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Arecena.

Our loose plan, after visiting the Arecena region, was to take a look at the Barragem d’Alqueva, the biggest manmade reservoir in Europe.  The waters cover 250 square kilometres, 69 of them in Spain and the rest in Portugal.  We had a bit of a detour getting to Luz, our destination, as the EX112 was closed for repairs and only open to residents which seemed a bit over the top as it is the main route into Portugal from Zafra.  What we thought was going to turn into a nightmare drive was a drive across a really good minor road where the surrounding countryside could have been the plains of Kenya.  I’ve never been to Kenya but it’s what I imagine it might look like!

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Random new building in the middle of nowhere with the tree growing through it!
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Portugal sticker is now on ‘the map’!

The Alqueva reservoir is just huge and not without some controversy.  We stopped for a few days at the aire at Luz, the village that moved.  Sadly, the old village of Luz was a casualty of the planned development of the new reservoir as it sat below the proposed water-line.  The government consulted with the villagers to re-locate them a few kilometres away onto higher ground by building a new village.

In 2002 the 300 villagers moved into the new Luz before the old village was razed to the ground. The Alqueva dam was then closed flooding the land behind it and submerging what remained of the old Luz.

We went to the little museum there which showed an excellent documentary filmed during the consultation and relocation process.  The authorities proposed that anyone who had a house would be provided with another new one of the same size and that neighbours were relocated as close as possible to each other.

The film didn’t shy away from telling the story from the villager’s point of view clearly showing their emotions at losing their homes and land which had been in their families for hundreds of years.  Even the cemetery was relocated which was clearly a traumatic process for such a tiny community.  We came away from the museum feeling quite humbled and looking at the reservoir in a new light imagining how things were before it.

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View across the reservoir from the new Luz.

We’ve cycled some of the area with roads ending abruptly at the edge of the reservoir and disappearing underwater.  We parked the van up at the end of one such road and spent the afternoon relaxing in the sun and watching the birds.

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Parked up for the afternoon at the ‘end of the road’.
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With launderettes few and far between there’s nothing else for it but to hand wash everything!
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Washing the roof of the van at the aire at Luz.

Having spent three nights at Luz we continued a dozen or so miles on to the aire at Monsaraz which has probably the best view of any aire we have ever been to.

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Room with a view at the aire at Monsaraz!

Monsaraz is one of the oldest settlements in Southern Portugal with hundreds of megalithic monuments in the area.

P1000398.JPGIt’s a beautiful little village, with castle remains and fantastic views of the reservoir.

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Views to the reservoir from Monsaraz.
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Monsaraz’ main street.
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Health and safety would have been all over the castle if it was in the UK.
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View back over the village.
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Tim made a guest appearance with the local male voice choir!

We did a lovely walk from there dropping down to the reservoirs edge and then up to a viewpoint for some lunch.

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Excellent lunch stop apart from the flying earwigs!

The aire was quite lively with a mix of mainly French, Dutch, German and English vans.  We spent three nights there and gleaned some useful information on places to go from some of the people we met on the aire.

We’ve now come back to the aire at Luz as it has services for water and waste and I’ve done another load of washing (in a bucket by hand)!  Our loose plans have changed again as we were going to go on to Evora but now, armed with some new information, we are thinking of following the Guadiana river south to the sea to then amble along the coast for a while.  Watch this space though as we may well end up somewhere completely different!

Hasta la próxima!