2019-The Year in Travel

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One way or another, this year we’ve indulged in seven trips, which seems, on first reading to be self-indulgent [a view that is certainly hinted at by some]. I don’t like to call our pieces of travel ‘holidays’, because holiday is an ambiguous term that means different things to different people. A holiday to many [myself included when I was a proper working person] is simply a break from work, lolling on a sofa in pyjamas watching movies. To others it is somewhere hot, lolling by a pool in swimwear. For us it is a foray into learning about places-their history and geography, the art and the culture.

The first 2019 trip was in January-to Scotland in our camper van, which may appear a strange choice to some, but the weather, though cold [-6 at Loch Ness] was mainly crisp and sunny, ideal for seeing the dramatic scenery of The Cairngorms or the grandiose architecture of Glasgow.

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Next, in February, we made a self-indulgent winter sun visit to Barbados, a tiny, laid-back, friendly island, where we self-catered in a modest ‘apart-hotel’ and enjoyed the company of our fellow guests, jovial Canadians, most of them.

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In the spring we trundled off along the [extremely wet] north coast of Spain, a spectacular journey following the pilgrims route to Santiago de Compostela. This rugged coast includes many cliffside towns that would rival the Amalfi Coast, if only there was sunshine and dry weather. We continued on around the corner to Portugal, which defied our experience of always being warm and sunny to be cloudy and windy. There is not much left of Portugal we haven’t seen but it remains a favourite destination.

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We undertook an early summer jaunt to Brittany, to cycle some of the Nantes-Brest canal. This was a spectacularly successful trip, the well-appointed, municipal sites along the canal cheap and conveniently placed by the towpath. But the temperature soared into the 40s, making cycling tricky even in the evenings. It was, however scenic, memorable and pleasant and we are likely to cycle some more French canal paths.

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Later in the summer we stayed locally in a New Forest site by a small, handy railway station and a large pub, hosting a small granddaughter who had requested to come camping with us and fell in love with it all immediately, especially riding around on her bike, being surrounded by wild ponies and cows and eating outside in the fresh air.

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This was followed in the autumn by a visit to the outrageously gorgeous Italian lakes, starting with Lugano and continuing on to Como, Iseo, Garda and Maggiore-all very different but all breathtakingly beautiful-and new to us as a destination. The return drive over The Alps via the Simplon Pass was spectacular and I’ve no doubt we’ll return to the lakes at some point.

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Our last outing, in October,  was to visit Norwegian friends where they live overlooking a fjord near Aalesund. We were gifted with cool, clear sunshine and our hosts’ hospitality was lavish.

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So a brilliant year of travel; but where to in 2020? Well-weather permitting we’ll be sampling the delights of the Lake District, UK in January, then heading for long-haul sun in February. After that, who knows? Will European travel even be feasible? We can only wait to find out…

More Hopeful Travels

Here we are, off again as we pack in another Europe trip before the dreaded ‘leave’ date of October 31st. When we park our camper van up at aires and sites we are surrounded by the usual mix of Dutch and German couples, our age or similar, making the most of the mild September weather and the cheaper prices.

They are their usual, friendly selves, smiling and greeting as all we travel pensioners do, yet I feel some sense of embarrassment for the way my own country is behaving; ungrateful, idiotic, stupid-and yes, a little ashamed to be British. As yet nobody has initiated a conversation on the subject of our leaving the EU. The Germans are most likely to do this and I’m waiting for it to happen. When it does I will be apologetic and honest, as I was three years ago. I can find no explanation for the decision to leave. It can only do our own country serious harm-and damage companies in Europe to boot.

But we travel hopefully as always, heading this time towards northern Italy via France and Switzerland. The first day is traffic torture, the second insufferably hot, but we arrive to Basel and a convenient [if extremely expensive] camp site with a tram site outside the exit. Switzerland is expensive, but at least free tram travel comes along with the pitch.

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The tram takes us straight into the heart of the city, through the enormous, international station, during which an announcement in English informs us the station is Swiss, German and French, [being on the border of all 3]; and I can’t escape the irony of how English is used as their common language.

But the city, bordering the mighty Rhine is beautiful, with a stately, red cathedral dominating the bank and a quaint Rathaus building the focal point of the market square.

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Behind the market square we find the famous Christmas shop and soon there are a couple of tiny additions to my tree decorations.

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A small, unmotorized ferry attached to an overhead line takes us across the Rhine. We wander back and take the tram up towards the theatre with it’s forecourt atttraction, the ‘Tinguely’ fountains.

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Then it’s time to relax with a beer outside in the sunshine on a busy corner, watching the world-and its trams roll by before we head back to the site.

Switzerland is not a large country and remains, to me, something of an enigma. They are not in the EU; were neutral in the war; keep much of the world’s wealth safe in their vaults. They are known for cuckoo clocks, chocolate and army knives. There are 3 [or is it 4?] languages spoken. It is not cheap!

We leave Basel next day and make a short hop towards Lucerne and the lake of Agerizee, where, at Unterageri there is a lakeside site. We have our first Brexit conversation with a charming Dutchman who seems to be following all the grim UK news closely.

We don’t like the EU as it is’ he tells us. ‘But it is not good to leave.’ No. We know!

 

Tales from the Towpath [Part 2]-The Re-appearance…

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Last week’s episode described how, like an old Brian Rix farce, Husband beetled over the canal bridge and I, in my ever-present need to take the easier option, scooted around a narrow, lumpy path that wound underneath, resulting in each of us losing sight of the other.
I ploughed on towards Josselin, searching the verges and benches for Husband, or at least his bike. When the turrets of the chateau appeared above the trees I felt sure he’d have stopped at the fence where we’d locked the bikes on our previous visit [from the opposite direction, you understand]. But no-neither Husband nor the bike was there, neither was he installed in the nearby bar, cold beer in hand [an obvious place to look for him].
I gulped some more water-the temperature was continuing to climb at 8.00pm-and turned back. I stopped a few people and asked if they’d seen ‘un homme avec un T-shirt noir et un velo rose’ and was met with negative responses from all. I’d spot the glint of a lone helmet in the distance and think it was Husband but many lone cyclists passed by and still no sign. I cycled back-and back.

After what seemed an interminable peddle back towards Le Roc St Andre, and after seeing no-one as the sun began to dip I caught sight of a cyclist approaching-dark T, black helmet and sweat-soaked-and yes-it was Husband.

We downed what was left of the water, by way of celebration [we are still able to celebrate finding each other after all these years] and peddled slowly back, stopping at a hostelry not far from our site, on a bend in the canal, to throw back a medicinal cold beer or two.

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The following morning, following a sticky, uncomfortable night, rather than easing, the temperature at Le Roc soared higher, climbing through the 30s and tipping over into the 40s. Many resorted to the site’s tiny pool, many others [including ourselves] squidged into any bit of shade available, lounging, sprawling, sleeping. It was a disquieting insight into how things may become as summers heat up. Cycling seemed less appealing, but we gamely prepared in the late afternoon and set off in the opposite direction to Josselin, achieving, perhaps, 100 metres or so before Husband’s bike, the improbably named Charge Cooker came to a standstill, the back wheel having seized up.

Reception directed us to a repair shop up the road, which turned out to be splendid at repairing lawn mowers, ‘le patron’, a humourless, moustachioed gent, redirecting us to a cycle shop at St Congard-a small village that was easily included into our itinerary. We returned to the site, me gliding down and over the bridge, Husband half-carrying the recalcitrant Charge Cooker on its one functioning wheel. At this point an ice cream seemed a fair alternative to a cycle in 40 degrees. We spent another uncomfortable hot night and moved on next day to St Congard-first stop the bike shop.

Here, the proprietor, a jovial woman who clearly loved her job dealing with everything bike-related told us that the extreme temperatures had caused the brakes to swell and jam the wheel; that we should pour cold water on it. Simples!

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We stayed at St Congard’s small municipal site for 11E and I undertook a short, solitary cycle to Malestroit, all of which was unremarkable except for the pair of beautiful otters I spotted on the return. Tiny St Congard’s one and only bar was firmly closed.

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En route to St Martin sur Oust we paused to look at Rochefort en Terre, alleged ‘most beautiful village’, which was indeed beautiful, but also wanted 5E to stay in a car park without water, emptying or anything else. We’d have liked to have purchased items in the shops but came to the conclusion that the stores must be part of the decor, since nobody seemed inclined to serve us. The poor citizens of Rochefort en Terre must be starving, since baguette availability was nil [we were offered a half of a baguette in a restaurant and decided to scarper before we were told the price]. After a quick look we moved on to a less pretentious place, and back to the canal!

 

Tales from the Towpath [part 1]

From Cherbourg, the French ferry port, it is a moderately easy drive to our first camp site on the Nantes-Brest Canal, at Grouerac.

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The site is sandwiched between the canal and the river and consists of 3 flat fields dotted with pyramid tents, tiny caravans and shepherds’ huts for hire. It is beautiful and has nearly everything; fully equipped kitchens, a large gazebo with picnic tables for diners to use, a bar, a small nook with armchairs and well-stocked bookshelves as well as the usual showers and so on. What it does lack is internet, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

After starting dinner off I wander across the field to stand by the river bank and am startled to see a kingfisher on an overhanging branch, near enough for me to reach out and touch. It is a bright, iridescent turquoise, like a bejewelled toy bird. It spots me and plops down into the water and I wait in vain for it to reappear.

Next morning we set off on our first cycle up the canal almost to Glomel. The canal is astonishingly gorgeous, a riot of green reflections, herons, water fowl, butterflies and wild flowers. The towpath ride is not entirely flat as locks and bridges must be ridden over, but is not too arduous.

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The following day’s section takes us away from the towpath and up an old railway track that rises-and rises as it goes towards Mur de Bretagne, a much harder ride. When at last we arrive to the town, which is itself situated on a steep hill, very little appears to be open except for one hotel bar, for which we are thankful.

Then we move on to Rohan, an unpretentious but pleasant enough town and the municipal camp site is again right by the towpath. We are invited for ‘aperitifs’ outside Reception and drink a convivial glass of cider with the other campers. There are two fairly straightforward, though long stretches to cycle over the next two days. The first day we cycle over 114 locks and cover 31 miles.

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The next stop is to be a rest day, at Josselin, a small medieval city with a fairy-tale chateau on the canal-side. We stay in the aire, at the top of town, with all services provided and saunter down to lunch in the centre before returning for a snooze in the van and to prepare for dinner-also in the centre of town [and if this seems self-indulgent the day is my birthday]. Tourists jostle in Josselin, a poster-town for the region.

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By the time we’ve enjoyed a delicious meal, slept soundly and risen next day the weather has begun to heat up, so that when we get to Le Roc St Andre ready for our next cycle it is clear that some effort will be involved and clearer still that waiting until late afternoon will be a sensible option. When we set off, to ride back to Josselin at 5.00pm the temperature is still fierce.

Along the way we come across a bridge with a fairly steep ascent, which Husband decides to ride up. I, however have spotted a tiny cycle short-cut underneath the bridge, which, being up for the easier option, I take. When I emerge on the other side I expect to see Husband pulling away in the distance but he is nowhere to be seen. I wait. Perhaps he is still on the other side? I return to the top. He isn’t there. I wait, have a drink of water.

A couple come past. I ask if they’ve seen Husband. They have not. I deliberate then decide to plough on to Josselin and perhaps he will be waiting further along the path…

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…

 

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!