Unfortunately, Seville will have to wait until later this year or maybe next year as we’ve now moved north west into the Extramedura region. Doing two cities back to back was a stretch too far for us as we felt we wanted to get back into the countryside away from people! We spent two nights wild camping at Embalse del Retortillo, a reservoir, in the Parque Natural de la Sierra de Hornachuelos, west of Córdoba.
The landscape, made up of oak, cork and olive trees, wasn’t as dramatic as the Segura National Park but was pleasant with plenty of birdlife to see. We cycled an out and back route along the western side of the reservoir as there isn’t a circular route around. We stopped to take a photo, startling three deer across the valley, which darted off over the hill out of sight.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any footpaths in the area so had to make do with a short walk along the edge of the reservoir on a camber in the sandy soil. It’s one of the things I take for granted in the UK that we are never far from a public right of way with the myriad network of footpaths, bridleways and permitted paths available to us.
After two nights at different locations on the reservoir we continued on towards Zafra on a minor road for about 35km which wasn’t wide enough for two cars to pass but thankfully very quiet. Passing only two cars and a cyclist, we were relieved to get back onto a major road again after nearly an hour! One of the hazards, apart from meeting other vehicles, when taking the smaller roads in a van our size, or any van come to that, is being taken through narrow villages not knowing if there will be enough room to get through, especially if cars are parked. Fortunately, Tim is less stressed than I am about it which is just as well seeing as he is doing the driving! We’ve had a couple of close calls where I needed to get out of the van to run to the end of the road to scope out what was around the corner to make sure there was enough room to get through. We had this problem trying to get to the aire at Alanis, which was going to be our next stopover, but with cars parked along the entry road to the aire it was too narrow to get through. Even if we had got through there was no guarantee we would get out again the next morning, especially as it was market day! We, therefore, continued on to the next town of Guadalcanal to park up for the night in an aire on the edge of the town.
The next morning we made our way to Llerena, with it’s pretty plaza and 13th Century church, stopping for some lunch and a stroll around.
Continuing on we’ve now been at the free aire at Zafra for the last two nights. It’s on a noisy junction but we’ve been able to pick up some free wifi from somewhere.
Zafra old town is very welcoming with some lovely Plazas, a fifteenth century fortress, a convent, several churches and many interesting buildings.
We were able to find a footpath out into the hills south west of the town for a descent walk. We were hoping to see some vultures but they are proving to be a bit illusive.
We got back to the aire to see a huge bird soaring high up above us – a vulture! Doh!
We woke up this morning to the sound of heavy rain hammering down on the van roof. I opened up the blind to have a gander and we may as well have been in England. The cloud was down over the hills in the distance covering up what was a pretty good view yesterday. It’s the first real rain (other than overnight or the odd shower) we have had since arriving in Spain four weeks ago.
We’ve been taking the time to do various admin jobs until it clears and we’ll be moving off later this afternoon to the Sierra de Arecena area to find some walking routes. The loose plan then is to cross over into Portugal to visit the Barragem d’Alqueva, the largest reservoir in Portugal.
We arrived, without incident, at an aire just outside Córdoba late afternoon on Monday 5th October 2016. Our friends, Di and Chris, were meeting us there which we were really looking forward to as we had not seen them for six months. The aire was just a carpark really but it was on the edge of a very nice park and had some much needed shade. At €11 per night and a five minute stroll into the historic part of Córdoba we thought it was excellent. We left our exploring until the next day and spent the Monday evening catching up with our friends over a beer or two. They had brought with them our new camera, a wifi boost and some more 3 data cards which we’d ordered and had sent to their address in the UK. It felt a bit like Christmas! The camera couldn’t have come at a better time as the other one has become very tedious with smudges and black dots coming out on most of the pictures (I vet them for them blog!). Muchas gracias to them for coming all this way to pass them on. On Tuesday we all had a stroll into the old town to start our explorations.
Córdoba was once the largest city of Roman Spain and for three centuries it formed the heart of the western Islamic empire, the great medieval caliphate of the Moors.
Córdoba’s main monument, and a must see, is the Mezquita, the grandest and most beautiful mosque ever built by the Moors in Spain. Oh boy, was it grand! I don’t think if you visited everyday for a year you would have the time to appreciate every detail. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
It is huge and absolutely stunning. Originally intended to be a church it came under the rule of Abd-ar-Rahman III in the 10th Century and was used as a mosque and extended to become the second largest mosque in the world. However, once the Spanish reclaimed the site from the Muslims it was converted from a mosque to a church.
The whole monumental site of the mosque was first consecrated as the cathedral of Santa Maria in the year of 1146 and definitively in 1236. Since then a Holy Mass for the Christian community has been held every day.
We had a wander around the narrow, tight, winding lanes of the Jewish quarter before walking over the bridge for a view back towards the Mesquita and the watermills which were once used to grind flour and olives.
We had a stroll round in the evening when it was extremely quiet and wandered further away from the more popular areas.
We rounded our evening off with a few beers at a bar soaking up the atmosphere at the Plaza de la Corredera, once used for horse races, bullfights and Inquisition burnings!
We said goodbye to Di and Chris and left the aire on Wednesday 7th October 2016 to do some shopping and then went to have a look at the rambling ruins of Medina Azahara, a palace complex built on a grand scale by Caliph Abd ar-Rahaman III, 7km outside Córdoba.
The site was almost 2km long by 900m wide and took 10,000 workers and 1500 mules and camels to build over the Caliphs reign from 936 until his death in 961. Unfortunately, Medina Azahara lasted less than a century before a popular revolt broke out and the caliphate disintegrated into civil war.
Medina Azahara was looted and in 1010 plundered and burned by retreating Berber mercenaries. Oh dear! In 1944 excavations unearthed remains of the palace and the site has been painstakingly reconstructed since then.
We loved Córdoba and would definitely recommend a visit there but we can only cope with culture for a couple of days so it was time again to move on. We stopped for the night at Almodóvar before moving further towards Seville.
We’ve spent the last 24 hours at a free aire at Plama del Rio. I’ve been catching up on the blog and Tim has been spending time downloading some more free maps and aires for Spain and Portugal. We are using our Wifi boost to pick up the wifi from the cafe a short distance away and it’s working really well. Tomorrow we may do Seville or we may get waylayed along the way. Tomorrow is another day!
We had a deadline to meet this last week as we had planned to meet our friends Di and Chris in Córdoba on Monday 5th October 2016. A direct drive of 600km or so would have got us there in maybe 8 or 9 hours in the van but, as we have the luxury of time on our side, we made the journey across country over a few days to take in some of the scenery bordering the Segura National Park west of Murcia.
After a two night stop at the free aire at Louqui near Murcia, where we were able to wash and wax the van, we headed across country in the vague direction of Córdoba.
Whitewashed hillside villages nestling between the mountains gave way to vast open plains where we didn’t pass another vehicle for an hour. What first appeared to be an abandoned village was in fact a little hamlet built into the shallow hills presumably to be protected from the heat in the summer and the cold in the winter. The temperature was well into the mid thirties so I can imagine how hot it must be in July and August.
We stopped to have a look around feeling a little unsettled at the silence not really having experienced silence quite like it before.
Coming out of the plains we were back into the mountains with reservoirs, dams and gorge’s marking out our route.
We stopped for the night at Embalse de San Clemente (reservoir) at a parking area having the whole place to ourselves watching the changing colours of the water as the sun set.
Embalse de San Clemente (reservoir)
We continued on the following day through quiet winding roads stopping at the Embalse del Portillo at Castril.
Another whitewashed hillside town, Castril was in the middle of a week long fiesta. Preparations were being made for the bull run that evening through the town.
We watched a religious festival parade through the town before we dropped down to the river to discover a boardwalk built into the side of the gorge which took us down the river, across a suspended bridge and through a tunnel to the bottom end of the town.
Back in the van three hours later we continued on through a patchwork quilt of thousands and thousands of acres of olive trees as far as the eye could see. I felt like I’d had spectacular scenery overload by this point so it was just as well, after two days, we were back on the dual carriageway near Ubeda (should have stopped there, need to go back!).
We were bowled over by the scenery and we are planning on returning to the area next year on our way back through Spain to explore some more but we needed to press on to Córdoba.
On Sunday 25th September 2016 we arrived at Dènia, on the coast halfway between Valencia and Alicante. We felt a little uninspired by what we’d seen along the coast to get there though. Having been spoilt all through France with small, pretty medieval towns and villages, making driving a pleasure between our overnight stays, Spain is a different kettle of fish! Admittedly we didn’t explore the Mediterranean Coast of France this time which will undoubtedly be busier than we would like maybe. We’re trying to pick out areas along the coast which aren’t too built up and offer some cycling and walking opportunities for us. I looked on Google Earth at the area around Dènia and Xàbia, further around the coast, which seemed to fit the bill.
Both are small (for the Spanish coast!) towns bordering the Montgò National Park. We found some free parking right behind the beach at Dènia where we spoke to a British couple to see if it was possible to stay the night. They’d stayed the previous night with no problems so we thought we’d give it a go.
We had a very pleasant stroll along the coast and marina areas before having a swim in the beautiful clear waters on the beach a few steps away behind the van. Although busy we quite liked the town with it’s narrow, colourful streets and café atmosphere. After sitting on the beach to watch the sunset we did as the Spanish do and headed out at 10pm for something to eat.
After a big pizza each we had a very quiet night tucked away behind a big tree in the beach carpark alongside another French van.
Monday was shopping day at the local Lidl followed by a diesel fill up at €1 a litre before taking the coast road up and over the hill to Xàbia.
Although it wasn’t that far it was more stressful for Tim than the drive through the Pyrénées as the road was narrower and busier with nowhere to pull over to let the big tailback of cars we had acquired go past us. The scenery was beautiful though.
We arrived in Xàbia after a steep, winding descent into the town with a grinding noise coming from the brakes. We’d had the same noise after the long descents in the Pyrénées so we thought it best to pull into a tyre and exhaust garage to get them looked at hoping they spoke a little English! The van was booked in at 9am the following day to have a free check so we decided to stay at a nearby campsite for three nights to have a base to do some walking and cycling.
The campsite was excellent with a 24 metre long pool which I made full use of to have my first proper pool swims for ages. Xàbia is a bustling resort but not too built up and has given us the opportunity to do some coastal walking. We had excellent service from the garage who did a free brake check for us. They were fine so that’s put Tim’s mind at rest!
We took a walk along the coast from the marina into the Montgò National Park which was superb.
Sooo nice to get away from traffic and noise. With the temperatures in the top twenties it’s hot but not oppressive and lovely to be in shorts and tee-shirts all day, everyday!
We had thunderstorms overnight on Tuesday giving iffy weather on Wednesday morning so we opted for a lazy day reading and the like with an hours stroll along the seafront. It was a different place than the day before with surf rolling in and twenty mile an hour winds but the temperatures were still up there for shorts and T-shirts!
Tim has had the glue out again sticking anything from sandals to sunglasses to binoculars to cupboard doors. Anything that needed sticking got stuck! Inevitably living in the van for nearly six months and using our small amount of stuff nearly every day some running repairs need to be done. Tim has a few tools on board that seem to come out every other day for some job or other. I just let him get on with it as it keeps him quiet and seems to keep him happy! Funny, nothing ever got fixed at home though!
We left the campsite on Thursday morning and parked up on the beach road the other side of Xàbia from Montgò National Park to do a walk along the coast. The weather was superb again with temperatures in the top twenties. Can’t complain!
I’m behind with the blog after the ‘blip’ I had uploading pictures (these have loaded up in minutes today!) and another week has gone by since leaving Xabia but I’ll try to get up to date in the next few days! Oh, the pressure!
The past week has, again, been one of contrasts. We arrived on the Mediterranean coast on Wednesday 14th September 2016 ready for a restful few days. The first job was to get ‘Spain’ stuck on our map of Europe. It’s taken us nearly four months to reach a new country!
We kicked back and relaxed at one of the aires on The Parc Naturel del Delta de l’Ebre for three nights enjoying some flat cycling every day, a spot of birdwatching and free wifi. The area was designated as a Natural Parc in 1983 and is one of the largest wetland areas in the Western Mediterranean. It is home to around 95 species of breeding birds and also serves as a stopover point for a huge number of migratory birds. Not unlike ourselves really! It’s the first time I think we’ve seen wild flamingos at close quarters. Being a wetland area it attracts its fair share of mosquitos but also hundreds of dragonflies in every different colour imaginable.
We spent three nights there before taking a foray inland to the medieval fortified town of Morella. We didn’t know if it was worth the ninety minute detour inland after having finally reached the coast but it turned out to be a real hightlight for us.
We stayed at the free aire 1km outside the town giving us a marvellous view of the town, especially when lit up at night.
It reminded me a bit of a pavlova or of this egg sandwich we made at our first Helpx!
The castle above the town is over 1000m above sea level with a ring of ancient walls defending the lower reaches.
We did one of the signed walks around the outskirts of the town which gave us fantastic views over the surrounding plains and a view of the castle and walls from a different perspective.
We also paid a very reasonable €3.50 each to visit the castle. The views from the top down over the town and across the surrounding countryside were exceptional and well worth the climb up.
What we really also enjoyed about this area was the landscape.
It’s a mixture of isolated farms amongst rugged terrain, rocky hilltops, woods and ravines. Hundreds of dry stone terraces and walls adorn the hillsides giving an insight into the hard graft and labour it took to farm successfully in this area in days gone by.
Having spent two nights at Morella we drove eastwards to Valderrobres, another medieval town with a fortified castle and 14th Century Gothic church.
We spent a couple of hours wandering around the old town before deciding to head back down to Peñiscola on the coast. Peñiscola is a fortified promontory jutting out into the Mediterranean made famous by the filming here of El Cid in 1960.
It’s also been used recently for the sixth series of Game of Thrones.
It was built by the Knights Templar on the remains of an old Moorish citadel in the 13th Century. Within the walls lie many narrow, windy, cobble stoned streets lined with restaurants and tourist shops.
It is buzzing with mainly Spanish tourists. We stayed on an aire a couple of miles away and enjoyed a leisurely cycle in along a purpose built cyclepath taking us to the ‘city in the sea’ as Peñiscola is known.
It’s very touristy but has a very lively, family friendly, air about it and we enjoyed whiling away a couple of hours exploring. We continued our cycle west along the coast for several miles which revealed much quieter coves with significantly less people!
Today we headed east along the coast on the bikes taking a pitstop for an hour to have a look round the market in Benicarlò.
I went for my first swim in the ‘Med’ this evening but shot out of the water when my legs suddenly started stinging. I think I’ve been stung by a jellyfish although I didn’t see any but, looking at the rash I have, I can’t think of anything else it might be. That’s put me right off a second swim now!
Tomorrow we’re moving on again but, to where, I’m not sure. Best get the maps out and have a look!
Since my last blog update we have had a week of contrasts in terms of both landscapes and weather. We left the aire at Aulus-les-Bains on Sunday 11th September to have a drive up to the Ski resort, a few miles away, at Guzet. After 6km of steep climbing we arrived at the ski station with a stupendous view across the Pyrénées all to ourselves. It’s only a small place which seems to just cater for the ski season so everything was deserted bar two or three cars. All it lacked was a bit of tumbleweed blowing through! It all felt a bit surreal really and it would be interesting to see the difference in the ski season.
We lingered admiring the views for half an hour or so and we could have probably stayed the night up there without any bother. However, we’d planned an early start on Monday morning to get the washing done so drove the 12km back down to the aire at Seix ready to hit the ‘laverie’ at 7am.
I arrived at the ‘laverie’ at 7am to find it does not open until 8am. Meh. I arrived at the ‘laverie’ at 8am to find all three machines in use having just started their 45minute program. Double meh! So much for our early start. Washing eventually done we headed back down the valley to St Girons for a quick pitstop at Aldi to restock before traversing the lower Pyrénées westwards towards Bagnères-de-Luchon, 10km from the Spanish border.
The drive wasn’t too torturous, but then, I wasn’t driving! We followed the D618 over Col de Portet d’Aspet (1069m) and Col des Ares (797m)passing through rugged little towns and forested hillside along the way. We arrived at the aire at Bagnères-de-Luchon, twinned with Harrogate (nod to my parents who live just outside Harrogate), in the early afternoon.
Luchon is a mixture of ski resort, thermal spa resort and Tour de France destination. We were disappointed that the cable car only runs at the weekend from September as it was long, steep and looked fun and we could have done some walking from the top. Tim dragged me round the whole town trying to find somewhere that would sell a half decent camera but to no avail. Unfortunately, until we find somewhere big enough to sell that sort of thing you’ll all have to put up with the black dot and other blemishes on the photos.
As we were now only 10km to the border of Spain, and with the cable car not running until the weekend, we decided to press on into new territory. We took the road out of Luchon towards Vielha climbing and climbing and switchbacking to meet the Guardia Civil at the summit on the border.
We weren’t stopped so continued down the other side stopping at a viewpoint to see the little town of Bossòst below.
Yay, new country!
After a wander around Bossòst we continued on to Vielha, another ski resort, which was a contrast to all the ancient medieval towns we’d seen in France.
Taking the C28 out of town in a south easterly direction we embarked on a spectacular drive up and over Port de la Bonaigua at 2072m and down the other side through the Vall d’Aneu. Epic!
Tim did a fantastic job of driving. He did ask if I wanted to drive, but with me having more interest in the view than the road ahead (read: short attention span), he felt it safest that he continue on as he doesn’t make a particularly good passenger, especially on these types of roads. D.I.V.O.R.C.E. may have ensued had I taken to the wheel!
Further on down the valley the mountains gave way to reservoirs of iridescent blue, flanked by rugged hillsides, in between more ski resorts until we came through La Pobla de Segur which was the first traditional looking town since arriving in Spain. We carried on down (we’d been going downhill for hours by now!) and swung into a free aire at Tremp. 108 miles covered with an average speed of about 25mph!
Tremp is a contrast of old, new, derelict and half built but it had a vibrant friendly air about it as we strolled around in the early evening. Lots of people were out with their children enjoying the tree lined streets and cafes. We joined them for a couple of cheeky beers to soak up the ambience! Four 50cl San Miguels and two complimentary bowls of nuts came to €6.40. Oooh we’re liking Spain, that would have cost us €19, without the nuts, in France! Big tick for Spain on that one!
We got back to the van before a huge thunderstorm which continued into the night. On looking out the next morning to see the clouds down over the mountains we discussed our plans on where to go next. We both felt that, with the weather forecast to be unsettled for the next few days, we would head out of the hills towards the coast. We are going to be meeting our friends, Di and Chris, in a few weeks time somewhere on the south coast of Spain so felt we might as well start to move in that direction.
Decision made, we programmed sattynav to take us to an aire in the Parc del Delta de l’Ebre on the coast just south of Tarragona. Great, 3.5 hrs and we’d be there by lunchtime. That was until we drove through the Mont-Rebel canyon. The drive from Tremp was stunning through the gorge and as we rounded a bend we saw a parking area coming up so pulled in just intending to take a quick photo before resuming our journey. We got out of the van marvelling at the view down the valley but then turned around to see the immense sight of the gorge behind us.
We’d have missed it if we had continued on without stopping. It was just stunning, glowing orange in the sunshine, with the river in full flow after the rain the night before.
The Noguera Ribagorçana river divides the Monsec area into two with Ares on the Catalan side and Estall on the other in Aragon.
We gaped for about half an hour before deciding to get the boots out and take a footpath leading across the hillside on the other side of the river.
The footpath took us up and over the railway line to a viewpoint where we could see right through the canyon to a hilltop village about 3 miles away.
When we got back down to river level we sat for another half an hour watching four climbers halfway up the sheer rockface. Awesome!
Waylayed by three hours now we continued on further down the gorge stopping at several places along the way.
The finale to this phenomenal drive was a steep descent to a dam across the river leading into a tunnel about half a mile long to emerge on the other side to the tailend of the gorge. What a day, views wise it rated as our best day of the trip so far!
By now it was 4.30pm and we were still 3 hours away from our destination! The drive to the coast was a comedown after the day we had had with the roads busy with lorries and sprawl after sprawl of factories and industry. We got caught in a thunderstorm, which brought lightening and high winds, so we were mightily relieved to arrive at the aire at El Pouble Nou Del Delta at 7.30pm just in time to see the sea before it got dark. With the weather as it was it looked more like the North Sea than the Mediterranean though!
The Parc Naturel del Delta de l’Ebre is a rice growing wetland area that is a haven for birdlife away from the busy coast road. We are going to stay here for a couple of nights at least to enjoy the birds and a bit of flat cycling before trundling down the coast a bit towards Valencia.