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!

A hop, skip and a jump across France and Spain…. .

Some days don’t always turn out how you expect them to.  On leaving the chateâu our plan had been to get south of Bordeaux for our first stop.  Unfortunately, the sat nav seemed to be having an ‘off’ day.  After lack of use over several months during the summer I was thinking she was a tad rusty.  She just didn’t want to take us the way I thought she should be taking us.  And she was being really stubborn about it by trying to get us back to where she wanted us to go after I’d over ruled her.  Again.  And again.  And again.  So anyway, after a diversion following a road closure and what seemed like forever we arrived in Cognac well short of our intended first stop.

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Cognac.

Still, Cognac isn’t the worst place we could have ended up in and the aire is just a few metres from the river.  I had thought the quickest route to get us south of Bordeaux avoiding tolls would be via Niort but the sat nav was trying to take us via Poitiers.  On hindsight I should have kept my nose out really and left her to get on with it.  Long story short, and though it pains me to admit it, I think her route via Poitiers would have been better.  Ah well.  I didn’t admit that to Tim until a few days later.  It was baking hot when we arrived in Cognac though so we enjoyed a stroll around the town in the evening.

The following day we did manage to get south of Bordeaux and arrived in the seaside town of Capbreton just before a massive storm.  The sky had been looking ominous for several hours and the heavens opened just as we got parked up at the intermarche.

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It’s not all sunshine and roses you know.

We’d been to Capbreton last year and, as it’s just a short detour from the motorway, it made an ideal stop for the night.  The aire (read: carpark) is directly behind the beach, has electric hook up, water and services and a bread van that visits in the mornings.  €10 a night is all they ask.

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At least the storm blew over for an evenig stroll on the beach at Capbreton.

Fortunately, the aire is fairly sheltered behind the dunes as it lashed down nearly all night.

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The rain came again for most of the night and the next morning though.

Faced with more rain in the morning we were on the road early heading for San Sebastián just over the border into Spain.  The aire in San Sabastián is easy to get to, cheap, quiet and a fifteen minute walk from the seafront.  After visiting for the first time last year we really love it.

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Beach art at San Sebastian.

The town has a really nice vibe to it and we were happy to pass the evening sampling various different Pinxtos, the Basque regions answer to Tapas, in one of the bars.

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Pinxtos (they look fab but in reality they’re a bit too salty and greasy for me).

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img_20191015_173055382_mpEven though we only do about four hours or so of driving per day when we are on the move it does feel like enough.  Having nearly three weeks to get to where we need to be in Southern Portugal we do have time to linger so after four days of driving we pitched up at a campsite twenty kilometres outside Burgos close to a via verde (cycle route on a disused railway) which looked interesting. Tim could swap the driving seat for the saddle for a day.  I’m sure he was thrilled.  No excuses now we have the magic of electric bikes.  Alas, electric bikes don’t shelter you from the rain.  And it was raining again in the morning.  The via verde would have to wait for another time. 

We are both fair weather cyclists.  I don’t mind walking in the rain but I hate cycling in the rain.  We like to think we are quite the ‘outdoorsy’ kind of couple but, in truth, we are quite the ‘indoorsy’ kind of couple when it comes to inclement weather.  We were southern softies before we started our trip and now we are even worse.  We don’t venture out unless it’s dry and at least twenty degrees!  It can be a bit of a hindrance as we have shied away from countries where the temperature is likely to drop into single digits.  I’m looking at you Norway. 

So anyway, the bikes didn’t see the light of day and we were back on the road again heading for Salamanca. 

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Salamanca.

It never ceases to amaze me how inexpensive public transport seems to be everywhere except the UK.  We pitched up for a couple of nights at Don Quijote campsite several kilometres to the east of Salamanca and took the bus into town. At €2.90 return each it was a bargain. 

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Part of the University.

There is a cycleway from the campsite into the city but dodgy weather and the thought in the back of our heads that the bikes might disappear in a large city put paid to that idea.  It’s always in the back of my mind that our bikes are likely to be stolen when left for a few hours in a large city but it doesn’t usually put us off leaving them.  However, knowing that we will be spending four months in Portugal in one place in a couple of weeks time with the bikes as our only form of transport did make me feel a bit precious about them.  It was either that or the fact that I’ve been reading several things about the ‘law of attraction’ recently that made me think if I keep thinking that the bikes are going to be stolen then they probably will be! 

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Museum of Art  Nouveau and Art Deco.

IMG_20191018_113048929_HDR.jpgSalamanca is worth a visit.  It’s quite compact and easy to navigate and explore on foot.  Most of the interesting bits are traffic free giving it a big tick from me.

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The Cathedral.

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Casa de las Conchas – House of the shells.  A symbol of the Order of  Santiago.

The 18th Century square is ‘wow’ inducing even with a book festival being set up in the middle of it. 

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The impressive Plaza Mayor.

IMG_20191018_124802083_HDR.jpgWe stopped in at Cáceres for the night before heading for the border into Portugal. 

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Cáceres

Oh it’s attractive enough but I thought we would be seeing a bit of drama with ‘hanging houses’ perched on rocky outcrops which I’d read about sometime in the dark and distant past.  Obviously if I’d done some research before we arrived I would have realised I’d mixed it up with Cuenca.  Ah well, it’s an easy mistake to make……….maybe. 

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IMG_20191020_121102271_HDR.jpgAnyway, Portugal was on our radar and couldn’t be ignored any longer. 

Hasta luego! 

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!