Making it Back

With only three days left before the ferry crossing from Bilbao we arrive back to Spain’s north coast and settle in Islares to spend the time. The tiny village, on the edge of a bay is only just off the motorway [Bilbao/Santander] but hosts a secluded, daisy-strewn camp site laid out in neat rows of pitches. It  also houses overnighters making their pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, who can stay in the year-round, static tents [green, seen in the background below].

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At last the sky is an unbroken blue and the sun makes a welcome appearance. While the site is never full there is a steady flow of vans in and out, as well as overnighting pilgrims. Some come to stay a night before or after the ferry, some for surfing and a few have chosen to holiday here.

You would have to go around the bay to find an extensive beach, but at Islares there are small pockets of sand that appear when the tide goes out across the rocky shore and the remnants of a miniscule harbour decorated with the ruins of old fishing huts. It is all outrageously picturesque.

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Santander, a half hour’s drive away, is another city we’ve tended to bypass, however we were tipped it was worth a look and decide to visit, only to discover there is nowhere at all to park the van. We drive along the sweeping seafront and back through the town. It does seem very grand, but will have to wait for another time.

Another excursion, to Laredo and further along the lengthy sandspit, takes us to another point on the Camino, where a tiny passenger ferry carries people across the water to Santona.

We make lunch by the almost deserted stretch of beach then continue around the lagoons, nature reserves and beaches. Nowhere is there more than a handful of tourists or day-trippers.

Our last day brings sunshine warm enough to sit outside and read- a rare treat this trip.

Although we rise early next morning for our drive to the ferry the site office is firmly closed, which makes it impossible to settle up, reclaim our ACSI discount card [an essential camper accessory] detach ourselves from the electricity point and exit the barrier. We learn that all this should have been addressed the previous evening. Horrors! But we are fortunate. The security guys help out, taking our cash and lifting the barrier, and I write a note begging for our ACSI card to be sent on.

Then it’s along the motorway to Bilbao’s ferry port, conveniently sited well away from the city’s sprawl. Once loaded we locate our small cabin before finding a comfortable place to sit and munch Brittany Ferries’ pastries and coffee-and I have to conclude that nobody can do breakfast pastries and coffee like the French.

A wander round, a read, lunch on the top deck [to the accompaniment of the noisy dogs in the on-board kennels], a snooze, a read, a wander. The day passes. After a shower in our cabin we find dinner before spending an hour with the ‘entertainment’ in the bar; the music quiz being the only item we can manage, then it’s off to find a quiet spot for another read before retiring to the twin bedded cabin.

Next morning Portsmouth has arrived.-and the sun is shining…

 

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Bajan Escape

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The elderly [even to us] occupants 0f the rooms either side of ours are happy enough with the hotel, modest though it is. Mike and Linda [to the left on our ground floor terrace] are heavy smokers-a surprise given that they are liberal, forward thinking Canadians-as are most of the residents. Mike, squat, chunky and clad in long shorts and vest, cups his cigarette angled towards his palm and almost hidden behind his back in apologetic discomforture.

They are all enthusiastic advice givers and we the [relatively] younger newcomers. On our right, Tom and Francine express shock at our nine-hour flight.

By morning the rigours and frustrations of the long flight have dissipated, erased by solid sleep uninterrupted even by the Canadians’ loud, evening conversations and coughing. The walls are thin though and when I wake during the hours of darkness I’m treated to all manner of sounds; the vibrant chirping of miniscule tree frogs that punctuates Bajan nights, trickling water from surrounding rooms, vague traffic hum and exuberant taxi horns.

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We wake to sun, cloud, a garden view of palms and flowers. Either the room smells less musty or we’ve grown used to it already. The steady breeze blows warm as we sit on the tiny patio to drink the coffee that Husband has managed to coax from a machine in our tiny kitchenette. We are equipped with the basics, [though not a kettle] giving us options to concoct, re-heat, eat out or get take-out.

Since our arrival in the early evening we’ve found 3 ATM machines, 2 supermarkets, an express shop, several bars and the nearest beach, which held an alluring promise in the warm, balmy darkness-a small, palm-fringed bay overlooking moored fishing boats and dotted with pastel bungalows, bars and modest apartments. There is nothing high-rise here in Worthing-no gargantuan piles of corporate resorts.

We set off to the larger supermarket, Massy’s, where Waitrose products at inflated prices nestle smugly amongst the local stock. We are spoilt for choice and select chicken and salad for our evening meal, corned beef in a tin with a key! [a throwback to my childhood] and ‘Banks’ beers. The corned beef is welcome after the lacklustre hotel breakfast offering-a couple of pieces of watermelon plus 2 miniature slices of toast and some rough coffee.

Later we wander along to the beach with towels and books to while away a few hours beneath a palm tree while Henny-Penny and her two small chicks scratch in the sand around and beneath the sun loungers.

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A cockney middle-aged couple manhandle a wheelchair across the white sand, its passenger a very elderly woman, in all likelihood an aged parent. They settle next to a geriatric gent carrying a portable oxygen tank from which a tube leads to his nostrils. Nevertheless he gamely sets up his towel and prepares for some sun. Maybe Husband and I are not so infirm after all…

Francine’s brother, Bruce has a room a few doors along from ours. He is a small, neat, dapper man in pristine shirt and gabardine shorts-slow to smile or respond, unlike brother-in-law Tom, whose large, blousy exterior matches his expansive personality. Tom tells us his brother-in-law was widowed only a year ago and has the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease. A flimsy bamboo screen separates our tiny patio from theirs, making eavesdropping inevitable. Tom asks Bruce what arrangements he’s made for his funeral; ‘where does he want to be interred?’

‘They can do what they want with me!’ Bruce spits back. ‘Throw me in the lake!’ The reply is inaudible. Later, as I lie waiting for sleep I hear Francine making placatory noises as Bruce’s voice is raised, ‘I worked hard all my life-gave it 100%!’ His sister murmurs, ‘Shut up Bruce, shut up’…

Bajan escape continues next week.

The Lure of Simple Pleasures

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            We’ve been spending a few days at a favourite site here in South West France. Situated on the Atlantic coast on the peninsula created by The Gironde, Le Gurp nestles in pine woods by a beach that stretches on almost as far as the eye can see, stroked by azure Atlantic rollers crashing on to the sand in frothy crescents.
This camp site is almost entirely visited by German holiday makers, who flock here for the waves, which are perfect for surfing and for its proximity to the beach, which is surveyed by lifesaving personnel and has soft, white sand, a couple of showers and a car park. The proliferation of Germans [and surfers at that] makes for a Boho, hippy atmosphere where strings of bunting, flags, drapes and all manner of camper vehicles abound-like a Mad Max movie.

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           Sites vary as much as hotels do. If your preference is for infinity pools, spas, cocktail bars, beauty salons and karaoke you could have it. If, like us you prefer a beautiful location, a clean, warm, efficient shower, security, space and the basics Le Gurp is the place.
We happened upon it the first summer we travelled to the Gironde with a tent, twenty or so years ago. The site we were on, near to Soulac [having supposedly booked to no avail] was tightly packed with chalets and boasted raucous entertainment each night. During a cycle trip we found Le Gurp beach and site. Could we book? No-it is a municipal site but is vast. There was plenty of space so we moved.
From the site a network of tarmac cycle tracks radiate through the pine forests to tiny, pretty villages like Grayan et l’Hopital and Talais or bustling seaside towns like Montalivets [which has an extensive and boisterous Sunday market] or Soulac-which is touristy but pleasant. On our first visits here we were runners, jogging every morning along the forest tracks in hot sunshine as many continue to do. Later [and older] we took to cycling. On the way to Montalivets by bike you’ll go past the tight brush-work fencing of ‘Euronat’-supposedly Europe’s largest naturist holiday park, although anyone hoping to catch a glimpse of naked tennis or boules-in-the-buff will be disappointed. If you’re bent on spotting unclothed bodies a stroll along the beach in either direction will reveal plenty of devotees-but it’s not a pretty sight!
A short walk [or shorter cycle] over the hillock from the camp site towards the beach takes you past a surf shop, a small supermarket, a newsagents/beach shop, a boulangerie, a launderette and several bars and restaurants-not a massive development but everything, in fact that the average German camper needs or wants.
During the day tiny children play among the pine trees, peddling madly around the tracks on bikes and ganging together to play with sticks and pine cones before being taken to the beach. Here there are no organised activities, there is no pool, nothing but a couple of swings and a climbing frame to amuse them-and so they amuse themselves. Camping is surely the best holiday a child can have?
In these late summer evenings, the sun sets like flames through the pine trees and as twilight descends the site comes alive with twinkly lights from tents and vans. There will be an occasional gentle strum of guitar and groups of al fresco diners will sit up chatting into the night over bottles of wine. You could sit outside with a glass or two or stroll over to one of the beach bars for a late drink. Wonderful.

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Silly Season Selfi-shness

Here we are in the midst of the holiday season; overpriced, wet [now], crowded and frustrating [airports and traffic queues].

Schools are out, parliament is out, railway networks and road systems have chosen to upgrade or get repairs done as usual.

At the seafront in our nearest town the beach was thronged with families on Wednesday, so that finding a small space where we [GrandOffspring and I] could plop down long enough to construct a teeny-weeny sandcastle proved problematical. We’d already had a bus ride, done lunch and visited the funfair [a serious blow to the granny purse] and this next activity was sandwiched [see what I  did there?] between expenditure of industrial proportions on the rides and the obligatory ice cream.

For a brief rest [essential for grannies] we sat on a bench, where I was asked by a smiling young woman to take a photo of her with her husband and two small children-which I did, taking an extra one for luck. She thanked me, whereupon GrandOffspring was moved to ask me if the woman was my friend.

In these times, a request to take a photo is a refreshing breeze wafting through the forest of selfie sticks that crowd into every popular view. I read this morning that an unseemly scuffle broke out at The Trevi Fountain in Rome between two rival selfie-takers competing for the best spot [ fisticuffs at the Trevi Fountain ] and I remembered when, a few years ago whilst being escorted around The Alhambra Palace in Granada it was nigh impossible to photograph any of the inner courtyards, fountains and architectural marvels owing to a posing woman and her doting husband, who insisted on draping her coiffed and made-up body over everything and snapping all angles.

There was also last year’s visit to Venice, during which hoards of excited teenage girls were selfy-ing themselves to death on every bridge, corner, fountain, square, path, archway and step, taking up their ‘model’ poses with a leg bent out, chin up, breasts stuck forward and lips duly pouted.

My nearest and dearest know only too well that I am phobic about having my own photograph taken and that few images of myself exist since about 2003 [when Husband and I took the plunge into matrimonial decorum].

You have to wonder why this self-obsession has taken hold, why this desire to show oneself off at every opportunity is so overwhelming. I have a modest collection of grainy, black and white photos of previous generations of my family and something they have in common is that they are all taken whilst everyone is engaged in some kind of activity. There is a picnic, a walk, playing cricket on a beach. There are uncles with trouser legs rolled up, aunties with skirts hoisted ready to paddle, people eating ice creams and children batting at makeshift wickets.

This is why, when I photograph my own grandchildren I like to capture them doing what they do, not posed. Maybe the selfie fashion will die a death one day-I can only hope…

The All-inclusive Trap

Searching for winter sun, an escape from the dreary, grey drizzle or the bitter winds of this UK winter means travelling long-haul. The options are: far east [Thailand etc], Africa [tried, tested and now not tempted] or Caribbean. We’ve sampled a few islands in the West Indies now, with pleasing results, Barbados and Antigua having proved particularly lovely destinations. Mexico, last year’s experiment boasted beautiful weather but was less fun in that there were few options outside of the hotel.
And here’s the difficulty. In choosing a Caribbean or most other long-haul destination you are stuck in the inevitable groove of ‘all-inclusive’ deal, as after intensive research we have found it to be cheaper than either flying and booking hotels separately or B&B. An all-inclusive deal is likely to mean a vast, corporate hotel sprawling on a coastal strip and boasting several restaurants, bars, pools, terraces, a spa, a gym, shops, ‘entertainment’, beach with loungers and umbrellas and the ubiquitous ‘buffet’.
Hotels like these are betting on the hunch that most guests prefer to stay within the confines of the hotel complex and couldn’t give a cow’s udder about setting foot outside the gate to meander in the environs and hobnob with the locals. And it is true for many, who like to get up, sling their beach towels on their preferred loungers, wander into breakfast, order a cocktail and slump then slump on their sun bed until a member of staff bearing a tray offers more refreshment. There’ll be a further stint of slumping followed by lunch…
For some with a more active schedule in mind there might be a short session of aquarobics or pool volleyball-but then it’s back to the more serious business of slumping, punctuated by propping up one of the many bars.
We can manage a day or so of this, given sunny weather and a beach walk. But after a while some ennui creeps in. This is when we need to get out.
On our recent trip to Cuba the few days in Havana was perfect. We had breakfast in the hotel, we were within walking distance of the delights of the city and had the remains of our days free, at liberty to explore. Once we’d moved to the beach hotel, however there was a short stretch of beach to walk and everything else required a taxi or a bus ride-both of which we did. In one direction lay a sterile and uninspiring marina; in the other the town yielded more sightseeing and entertainment and it was there that we avoided incarceration.
One of the reasons for avoiding cruises is the enforced imprisonment aboard a floating, all-inclusive hotel, with nothing to do but eat and drink.
Our next expedition, already in the planning stages will be very different, involving an extensive road trip by camper van. On our journey we’ll stay where we want for as long as we want, moving on when we’ve had enough of a place and opting to explore by foot or bicycle. What a pity we can’t take the van to winter sun destinations!


					

Close Encounters with American Tourists

I wrote about our meagre experience of Mexico in last week’s post, explaining that there were no negatives in that small, tourist-friendly slice of the country.

Mexico, however has a troubled relationship with its next door neighbour, the USA and more so than ever since The Donald made his debut as premier in America. Americans are unhappy that Mexicans enter their country.

Americans, on the other hand seem more than happy to visit Mexico. The narrow strip between the lagoon and the ocean at Cancun that is crammed with hotels housing tourists is full-to-bursting with Americans, weekenders. Before departure I’d thought that our chosen hotel was vast-that is until we arrived and saw the array of gargantuan tourist inns stretching along the beach in both directions.

Nevertheless our own, seemingly modest accommodation boasted five or six restaurants, seven or eight swimming pools, numerous bars and terraces and the inevitable beach front with thatched sun shades over sun loungers.

My feelings about the American tourists are, I’m afraid ambivalent. On the one hand they are open, friendly and gregarious. ‘Wheer ya fraaam?’ they shriek from their sun loungers as you stroll past on your way to the beach, inviting us to respond with far-fetched replies. On the other hand their conversations are loud and designed for all to hear. In the lobby bar they become garrulous with increasing amounts of alcohol. They demand high standards from the hotel staff, which benefits everyone but their consumption is a spectacle to behold.

Here is the flaw in the all-inclusive deal; the temptation is to over-consume. We rein in, eating only twice each day, taking only what we will eat. A glance around the dining rooms reveals how much is wasted, piled on to plates to be discarded by the waiting staff, meanwhile the girths of so many tell the tale of their many-caloried intake.

Then there is the on-going sun lounger dilemma. On the first day we wander down from brunch in an innocent bid to find a patch of shade to enjoy a quiet read-but each and every place is reserved by a body or a beach towel. We retreat to a shady area of tables by the ‘Sushi bar’. Next day we are up early, like the Third Little Pig beating the wolf, dashing down to the beach to bag our own small patch. If you can’t beat them, join them. At seven o’clock the number of unreserved sun loungers is already depleted but Husband returns triumphant, having draped the beach towels and anchored them.

‘Please refrain’ says the hotel information, ‘from the practice of placing articles on sunbeds in order to reserve them. Security personnel have been instructed to remove items left longer than two hours’.

We scan the beach for signs of the sun lounger police but spot nobody-neither in uniform nor disguised in beach wear. Nobody is going to mess with the Americans, wall or no wall-nor will they be turning their backs on the not inconsiderable sums they bring in revenue!

Now there’s a cheaper option than a wall, Donald-just buy Mexico and be done with it…

Welcome to our Shores!

It can’t have escaped the greater part of the world that here in little old Britain we are experiencing a time of flux. Amongst the dire predictions of disaster that are flying from every media orifice are those of unaffordable foreign holidays, difficulties over flights, problems with customs queues, visas, reciprocal health cover and more besides. Horrors!

The gloom that has settled over our British summer is further compounded by an unseasonal bout of wet, windy and miserable weather. So not only are we facing the prospect of holidaying in the domestic bliss of our home shores but will be doing it in thick sweaters, raincoats and wellington boots.

To be fair, wet, windy and miserable summer weather is so far embedded in the ethos of a British holiday it has become an essential component-part of the essence of a traditional British seaside vacation. For the uninitiated, what else should a new visitor to British shores expect from their holiday?

To begin with, there is the matchless experience of staying in a British hotel, guest house or B&B. Where else are you provided with sticky carpets and overpowering aromas of disinfectant? You may get to sample the famous, ‘full English’ breakfast-a carb and fat-fest consisting of a lack lustre sausage, some pinkish, slimy bacon, a greasy egg and blotting paper toast. This feast is designed to arm you for the rigours of the day to come, when you are to set off out into the gales and torrential rain for some sightseeing.

What should you see? You should not miss the delights of the pier, where you may stagger along against the wind to the end, where although the view may have been obliterated you will be able to while away an hour or two feeding coins into slot machines-this will also provide some shelter. Exiting the slot machine arcade gives you an opportunity to enjoy the pier for a second time as you stumble back to the promenade. You may wish to hire a deck chair for an hour or two, weather permitting. Be sure to open your umbrella. You will be rewarded by the sights of British beach-goers as they walk their dogs or scour the beach with metal detectors. There may even be a lone swimmer-dressed of course in wet suit, goggles and cap.

If you have made it to lunch time you should not pass up an opportunity to try that great bastion of traditional English cuisine, fish and chips. Years ago this mainstay of the national diet was served rolled up inside sheets of newspaper, providing the added bonus of reading material once the contents had been consumed. These days, with the onset of health and safety, together with dwindling newspapers the packaging consists of a polystyrene box and may or may not be furnished with a plastic fork. Examples of the packaging are readily available to view around the streets and pavements of our towns.

The afternoon can be spent browsing the shopping centres, where a range of pound stores and super-buy  emporia interspersed with charity shops will clamour for your attention. Your evening will consist of a return to your accommodation for a tepid shower in your rustic ensuite, followed by an evening meal in one of the many and culturally varied restaurants at your disposal. Will you choose the kebab house, the Indian, the Chinese or MacDonald’s?

Well-what are you waiting for, international tourists? The pound has rarely been lower! Welcome to the UK!