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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The Rain Across the Spanish Plain

Sometimes exploring an area in depth can make you realise how woefully ignorant you are, that there are so many world heritage status places you’ve never heard of-or at least-that I’ve never heard of.

Portugal’s Evora is one of these.

We took a couple of days’ beach break, just down the coast from Lisbon, at Caparica, where Lisbon-dwellers come at weekends for sea and sand but precious little else, Caparica being Lisbon’s equivalent of Southend on Sea. On the camp site you could have been fooled into thinking it was snowing, if the temperature hadn’t been 28 degrees, so much fluffy seed was blowing, blizzard-like across the site and settling, ankle deep on the ground or in heaps of white fluff inside the van.

Next, Evora.

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This walled medieval town is a pristine vision in white and ochre, packed full of whitewashed churches, monasteries, ancient university buildings and a wonderful, 15th century aqueduct which begins low, at the top of the town and lengthens as it descends. Homes have been made between the arches:

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The town is quiet, the gift shops awash with knick-knacks, but few buyers. I take pity and buy a small, red, cockerel embellished wine cork for a gift. There are a few other tourists. Did they, like us, stumble upon Evora? Or did they research it at home and make a special pilgrimage here?

For reasons that can best be described here

we need to turn towards the north and make our journey home. As yet it isn’t urgent but I’m aware that it may become so. We set off towards the Spanish border and Badajoz, which we’ve passed by on occasions but have been told is worth a visit.

The weather, never reliably sunny this trip turns overcast once more, but the journey is beautiful-rolling hills and vast cattle ranches, the road quiet and peaceful and we arrive at lunchtime.

The aire at Badajoz is brilliant; easy to locate, a convenient situation just across the River Douro from the town and services all provided free. Little wonder it fills with vans by the evening. We wander across the attractive footbridge, through the gate of the city wall and across towards the ‘Alcabaz’, the citadel which dominates the town from a high vantage point above the town. By this time it is raining and with an afternoon to spend we fritter some of it in a cavernous bodega.

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A return to Spain means a return to tapas, a variety of tasty snacks offered with every drink. Though we’ve lunched it seems rude not to stay and enjoy the fare-and it is raining outside the bar. Badajoz’s cloistered square is beautiful.

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Zipped into raincoats we brave the rain to stroll around the domineering Alcabaz, then it’s back to the aire, where some local residents whose house adjoins it have decided to share their music with us. Freddie Mercury’s vocals are blasted for an hour or two, but since I’m not averse to a bit of Queen myself I think it could be a lot worse…

Next day it’s on to Valladolid, where we make several circuits of the one way system before locating the motorhome parking bays. It’s a quick stopover and our sincere apologies to the parking authority for our inability to pay the 9.50 euros fee, but having managed to retrieve my bank card from the machine when it was stuck I didn’t feel up to giving it a second go!

Onwards and upwards…

 

 

 

 

Turning Portuguese

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The first time we visited Portugal was with a tent, a giant, swish ‘pyramid’ tent that we’d borrowed from Husband’s colleague. I had to crawl in and hold the central pole, getting hot and sweaty while Husband hammered the pegs in outside. On a site at Ancora [north Portugal] where an interested neighbour ‘advised’ us on where to have our doorway, we pitched under some sap-dropping trees that stained said tent for ever, resulting in our having to buy the colleague a brand new pyramid tent when we returned. [We’d also torn the fabric attempting to dry it out in a French motorway services car park].

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This was also the trip when we visited Porto by train from Viano do Costelo, buying return tickets and discovered on our return to the station to get back, that the train ‘does not return from here’. We had a wonderful, dockside meal and returned on a ‘milk’ train, from a different station at about 2am.

During this and subsequent visits, with various vans we’ve done the major must-sees of Portugal: Porto, Lisbon, Guimares, Coimbra, Sagres, Faro-

Mostly we’ve found the west coast to be more pleasant and less developed than the Algarve, but there are exceptions.

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Portugal, like Greece is one of those countries that never fails, with luscious countryside, beautiful historic cities, reliable, warm weather, delicious food [including the famous ‘pastel de nata’ custard pies], a gorgeous coast line and friendly people.

We find Lisbon much changed, with the addition of hideous cruise ships blocking views and throngs of tourists everywhere. Our previous visit was quiet and we were able to stroll the narrow lanes without stepping around selfie-takers. To anyone intending to visit Lisbon and considering an open top bus tour I’d say, ‘Don’t!’ You pay 11 euros to inch along for hours in stifling traffic, a woman wailing Fado songs in your ears. You get to see very little and anything of interest is zipped past or around before you’ve got your finger on your camera shutter.

I can get no purchase on the Portuguese language whatsoever. Spoken, it sounds eastern European with lots of sch, z and cz. Written, it looks remarkably like Spanish and meaning can often be deduced. We know we must take care not to speak Spanish to the Portuguese in spite of so many words being similar, nevertheless Husband is inclined to say ‘gracias’ instead of ‘obrigado/a’ for the first few days. My own knowledge of Portuguese is restricted to ‘obrigado/a’, ‘Bom dia’ and ‘ola’ so it is fortunate that almost everyone here speaks English very well indeed.

The Portuguese are fond of tiling the outside of their homes, which can look beautiful or tawdry; railway stations, hotels, churches-no building is safe from this treatment.

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And neither are the bone-shaking, tooth-grating streets, which are tiled in cobbles.

The Portuguese countryside is strewn with cork oak trees, the cork continues to be harvested and goods such as cork handbags can be seen in the shops. Perhaps the backlash against plastic will see a resurgence of the cork industry? It does seem to be a versatile material with useful properties: lightweight, water repellent, attractive.

In recent years, wildfires have decimated much of Portugal’s forests and evidence of this is everywhere.

Orange and lemon trees abound, in gardens, parks and along the streets. They are all hung with tons of fruit which nobody seems bothered to pick, the ground around the trees littered with fruit just as the plums lie fallow in Gloucestershire.

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Before using the [very quiet] motorways you must register your bank card and attempt to forecast how much toll you will be using, which is tricky. Otherwise you can register at the first ‘portagem’ [toll booths] but then you’ll have no clue as to what is being deducted.

We’ll soon be leaving Portugal and crossing back to Spain-but I’ve no doubt at all that we’ll be back!

 

A Dog’s Breakfast of Linguistics

Driving towards the Spanish border and San Sebastian I am attempting to reclaim, renovate and restore my rusty Spanish, a language that’s languished unused for a couple of years. A few words and phrases float in- ‘Si’ ‘No’ ‘por favor’ ‘gracias’ ‘lo siento’ ‘la cuenta’ ‘cervezas’ and ‘banos’. All the essentials. Then I get to wondering what the word for breakfast is and it becomes an irritation. I can find the German word-‘fruhstuck’ but I’m frustrated by Spanish breakfast. This is absurd, mainly because we’ve no need whatsoever to be ordering breakfast in Spain.

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We locate a site with great mountain views and stretch legs by plunging down a steep, bendy road towards the sea. The weather has turned hot and muggy and by the time we’ve returned and got some chairs out the first drops of thunderous storm have arrived. Rain continues until bed time but by morning it has all cleared and it’s bright, sunny and fresh.

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A convenient bus ride takes us into San Sebastian via Monte Igelda [where our site is], stopping at the ancient funicular en route. After locating the tourist office we follow a suggested walking route around the city which takes in major plazas, the waterfront and important landmarks such as the Basilica. We stop for tapas lunch at ‘Tapas Santana’, where a sumptuous display of tapas dishes fills the counter and hordes crowd in. I look at the menu and there it is: desayuno-breakfast. Of course!

Husband waves me to the counter to order, although I’m not ready, not well enough rehearsed in my renaissance Spanish. I muddle through aided by the kindness of the waiter and we are rewarded with a delicious lunch.

We leave next day for San Juan de Gaztelugatxe and get hopelessly muddled when our new SATNAV decides the best route is along unmade mountain cart tracks, but at last we find a sensible coast road, albeit winding and tortuous. The terrain here resembles the Amalfi coast but with fewer tourists even now at Easter time. After a number of glitches, including a near-death experience on the motorway when a bendy bus decides we are a pesky nuisance and attempts to do away with us, we arrive to San Juan de G, a destination better known as a location for filming Game of Thrones than for scenic or religious significance. It is, however spectacular.

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The tiny church of San Juan, dating from AD890,  is perched upon an island rock accessed by a winding path across a stone causeway. The path down [and up!] is steep and arduous. But plenty of people of all ages, sizes and fitness are tackling the walk. Remembering the Tiger Cave Temple climb in Thailand we decide this is a doddle, which it isn’t, but we make it down and up.

It is only a stone’s throw then down to Bakio, where a perfectly nice, free, well-serviced aire awaits. Here is surfing galore so of the many vans parked up a lot are typically bohemian and strewn with the paraphernalia of the sport.

Leaving Bakio we head off towards Comillas, the steady drizzle strengthening into steady rain, which continues throughout the day and is still dropping relentlessly when we arrive to our selected site. On into the evening it rains…and rains. Next morning it is still raining. So the rain in Spain is not restricted to the plain, clearly…

January Travels

We woke to a crisp, frosty, sparkly morning by Loch Ness, thankful that we’d been warm and were able to continue. We followed the lakeside along to the end [Dorres] and then on to the outskirts of Inverness, before turning to The Cairngorms where we were treated to a full day’s travel of wintery scenes; snow covered hills and roads lined with Christmassy, snow-laden conifers.

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I remembered being given a slender cookery booklet from the Festival Theatre, Pitlochry many, many years ago- a publication that has been lost but that contained recipes for whisky-laden concoctions [none of which I attempted]. We stopped at Pitlochry, a modest one-street town, attractive in a modest way although more yielding to tourists in days gone by, perhaps.

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At last we came to Fishcross.

At the risk of insulting the residents of Fishcross I feel obliged to say it is remarkable only in its unbecoming appearance-in other words, Fishcross is not a town that you would visit for its stunning architecture or historic value, rather there are row upon row of beige, pebble-dashed terraces punctuated by a Spar supermarket and a cat rescue shelter. Hm…

Nevertheless Fishcross is host, not only to a perfectly acceptable camp site but the site has a great restaurant, frequented by local residents, the poor souls.

But Fishcross is an ideal place to stay for a visit to Stirling, a fine and elegant city which has a stonking great castle on a hill top. So the following day, which dawned damp, dank and misty we caught the local bus there [passing the Wallace Monument en route] and ascended the steep cobbled street up to Stirling Castle.

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This is a proper classic castle, such as we used to draw in history lessons at school, for some obscure reason which now escapes me-

The castle has been restored to within millimetres of its long, historical life-even to the extent of its tapestries, which took years to construct and have their own exhibition.

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Outside was no less fascinating, although the view from the battlements was mist-shrouded and atmospheric.

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There was so much to see at Stirling Castle that little time remained before the bus returning to Fishcross but we managed a whistle-stop tour taking in the bagpipe shop, the kilt shop and Darnley’s house [Darnley was a husband of Mary, Queen of Scots]. Then it was back to the delights of Fishcross, taking care to watch out for the cat rescue centre, since this was our cue to exit the bus.

It was time to head south again, striking out firstly to the Lake District, an area that becomes overstuffed with tourists in summer but is undeniably beautiful.

At our lunch stop at Lockerbie services I weakened on my way out of the building and bought scrumptious, mountainous scones and we were entertained by the many cars arriving with dogs and owners to use the surrounding parkland for walkies.

Then we were at Keswick and this was the reward:

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Next January’s trip may well be to the Lake District!

 

The Ups and Downs of the Highlands

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We moved on, north from Glasgow towards the Highlands and the lochs [lakes], driving through suburbs crammed with beautiful sandstone mansions; first to Loch Lomond, Bannoch and Bannoch Castle. We are limited, at this time of year to sites that are open, yet many are-and all boasting five-star provision.

The castle [pictured above] is picturesque enough in its setting but all that visitors can see of the interior is a torn lace curtain.

Since Glasgow I’d been mentioning to Husband that a faint, high-pitched whine drifted intermittently through our vehicle, a comment that he dismissed in his customary airy fashion.

Loch Lomond, immortalised in song, surrounded by hills and adorned with small leisure craft and a steamer is of course beautiful, although Balloch village is nondescript, apart from some droll touches:
p1060647Having spent the night in Balloch’s excellent site we moved on and towards Loch Ness while I puzzled over the fizzing, crackling sound that appeared to come from the passenger side air vent.

There was little in the way of grocery stores but a plethora of farm shops indicated that my lust for pies might be about to be satisfied and it was. After our visit I concluded that if we lived in the vicinity of such a shop we’d be a] bankrupt in a very short space of time and b] obese.

Back in the van with the spoils the fizzing noise began to be accompanied by a burning rubber aroma, which even dismissive Husband admitted smelling. There were no indicator lights on the dashboard but we halted while Husband peered into the engine. Nothing amiss. We continued, as did the fizzing and the smell. There was a short stop to see ‘The Falls of Falloch’:

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Then we stopped to consume ‘Scotch’ pies here:

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At last we came along the Caledonian Canal side and to the shores of Loch Ness, check-in, plug-in and Horrors! 

The leisure battery under the passenger seat was too hot to touch! This was certainly where the smell had originated. No more plug-in as everything needed to be switched off; no lights, no water, no cooker, no heat-no heat? The temperature was -6C and a light dusting of snow. From Reception I got the number of a motorhome specialist in Inverness. We prepared to vacate and trek up to a hotel in the village. Then the mobile repair fellow messaged to say he’d be with us at 6.00pm.

There was an anxious wait, but he arrived, managed to isolate the offending battery, leaving us with 2 that continued to function and informing us that the stench was of noxious boiling sulphuric acid and very, very dangerous. Lovely. We’d been breathing it in all day. Ho hum…

Thanks to the cheerful, able mobile repair fellow we could plug in, get warm and be lit, waking next morning cosy and snug and to this view:

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January Odyssey 1

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January in the UK is my least favourite month. Gloomy, often cold and wet and with the remnants of Christmas and New Year celebrations clinging like grey cobwebs, it seems to go on too long.
In an unaccustomed surge of January optimism, we’ve heaved ourselves out of the post-Christmas languor to pack up the van, load it with our warmest and most weather-resistant gear and head northwards towards Scotland, a trip we’ve been meaning to do for a few years and only now decided to tackle.
The van, having languished unused for a couple of winter months needed a little de-moulding in its nether regions, otherwise it felt purposeful to be loading up and re-acquainting ourselves with our little holiday-home-on-wheels. There are enough sites open to enable us to travel up [first to Gloucester relatives, giving us a head start] and get around once we arrive. The weather was set to be manageable and Husband assured me that at the first sign of snow we would return, since I was somewhat nervous about getting ‘snowed in’ and unable to return in time for the next [contrasting] excursion in February.
Motorways have conveyed us here and while there were works being carried out almost everywhere the journey was incident-free. Our first, uneventful day took us to ‘Whittingham Club’, a site near Preston and not too far from Blackpool and a perfectly acceptable overnight stop. I assume this is an ex ‘working men’s club’ as it has a club house with a bar, large screen TV, snooker tables and darts plus a bowling green outside. The site facilities are an add-on but serviceable.
Next day we covered the remaining miles to Glasgow by early afternoon, arriving at the holiday park in time for a quick excursion into the city; two stops on a small train from the nearby station.

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Glasgow is just as a city should be; elegant, decadent, grand and squalid. It is busy and vibrant, the architecture both beautiful and innovative, with ugly inserts. The honey and rose sandstone buildings dominate and there is no shortage of galleries, museums and historic sights-too many in fact to see in a single visit. There are areas of development as well as hideous, high rise blocks. The shopping streets are packed with all the usual stores, from up-market fashion to restaurant chains. There is a vast a number of theatres and concert venues as well as lively clubs and pubs.

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Next day we returned in full daylight to take in the award-winning transport museum, the modern art museum, the Necropolis, [a steep hill crowded with mausoleums, obelisks and fancy gravestones] and the cathedral [sadly closed]. From the summit of the Necropolis the tower blocks of outer Glasgow can be seen as well as the grey ribbon of the Clyde. We had no time to tour the art museum, People’s Palace or botanic gardens.
Next day we drove north west towards Lock Lomond, out through suburbs of impressive Georgian sandstone terraces and while I felt it must be a pleasant place to live, I also realised we’d given the more depressed areas such as Paisley a wide berth. It feels good to travel to the outer reaches of the UK and understand that all life does not revolve around the London and the south.