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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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 Take on Transport

I used to love driving. I was late to learn, at 25, pootling around Putney in south London all of one cold, dark, snowy winter in the evenings after work, with my British School of Motoring instructor. My steering was unorthodox, he told me and said that I should have some lessons in daylight since I’d only ever driven at night.

I passed my second test, at Teddington-a place I knew no more of than Guildford, where I’d failed 2 weeks before. Then I acquired my little old, faded green Austin A40 with a steering wheel like a bicycle wheel and doors that stuck and had me crawling through the hatchback to enter and exit. But I was ecstatic to be independent at last.

Throughout the early years of motherhood, when there was only one family car, the independence was gone with the vehicle and I was reduced to shank’s pony, pounding the streets with a mewling sprog in a pram and wondering how it had come to this?

In the single-parent-working-full-time years I regained some autonomy with a battered Volvo and could load kids inside and camping gear on the roof rack in the holidays or collect bits and pieces for the ramshackle home I’d purchased and was attempting [on evenings and weekends] to do up. I loved to drive. I enjoyed long journeys-even when it took 9 hours of traffic jams to get to the Kendal home of friends I been invited to for a weekend.

Somewhere along the years to old age however a gradual falling out of love with driving took place; not that I won’t or don’t drive, but I’ve come to appreciate other modes of transport, becoming a fan of buses, especially with the gaining [finally] of my pensioner bus pass. I’m not the only bus-pass-holder to take a child-like pleasure in gaining the front seat on the top deck, either…

Then there’s the train, where a ‘seniors’ railcard gives a worthwhile discount. Of course it isn’t as glamorous as it was when I was a child, when you walked along the corridor and slid open a door to a compartment, but if you are lucky enough to get a seat it’s possible to drift into a reverie and gaze out; or listen to others’ conversations [real or phone]. These days train travel can be a frustrating and tiring business, as we found when, having travelled, 2 weeks ago, 4,000 miles by air through the night on a trans-Atlantic flight to Gatwick, arriving at 5am, all the trains south towards Southampton and beyond had been cancelled ‘due to signal failure’. Lovely. Just what you’d wish for after an 8 hour night flight.

On flights, ferries, trains and buses, where someone else has the responsibility, I think the trick is to sit back and relinquish control. Watch the movie, look at the view, listen to the conversations, read your book. Better to travel hopefully [and also to arrive!].

 

 

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!

 

A Month of Fiction

It’s November, a month that brings dark evenings and chilly weather; a month for curling up by the fire and indulging in a novel or a short story. Here on ‘Anecdotage’ fiction is celebrated in November with a month of stories, new and hitherto unpublished. 

Story 1 begins with a simple, uncomplicated woman whose curiosity mingled with a desire to help lead to complications…

Chalet Concerto [Part 1]

           I’ve been married to Dave for twenty five years. Sometimes it’s hard to get his attention. I often think I could swing naked from the light fitting with a beer can in my teeth and he’d still be glued to the football; so when I told him someone had arrived to the chalet next door he didn’t so much as grunt, even though it was gone eleven and the Match of the Day credits were rolling up the screen.
I was looking out of the curtains when he turned the telly off. A light was on but nothing else. He said ‘Are you coming to bed or what?’
There was no chance I’d see who it was until the morning. Once I’d cleaned my teeth and got into my nightie Dave was already asleep, lying on his back snoring as I was tossing and turning, wondering who would arrive to a chalet at eleven fifteen. A single person-and with no car.
When I was making the tea next morning I kept looking out but I had to wait until after breakfast to spot her: Anne-only I didn’t know her name then. I went outside to put the shower towels on the rail-there’s a little decking area with a rail around and she was coming out with a handbag on her arm, a small, grey haired woman, hunched over and behaving a bit suspicious, like a burglar. She looked neat enough though, in a navy jacket and a pleated skirt. Only I thought to myself ‘it’s not holiday wear’; it’s not the kind of outfit most folks here put on to go walking the dog or sunbathing, or sitting on a lounger doing a puzzle, which is my preferred activity.
I called out to her. ‘Morning!’ and she turned her head to mumble something back before scuttling away towards the park shop. ‘I’m just going down the shop, Dave’ I yelled and I dived in for my purse. I was thinking we can always do with something or other-biscuits maybe or a nice bit of cake to have at coffee time.
I got down to the shop and said ‘Hi’ to Wendy on the checkout.
‘You’re an early bird this morning’ she said. It’s not a big shop, just a mini-market with stuff campers might need and it’s bit gloomy and cluttered. There were only two or three shoppers besides me and I soon spotted the woman in the middle aisle, looking at the tea bags.
‘They only have one sort’ I told her. ‘If you don’t like those you are welcome to borrow some of ours-I always bring tea bags. We’re quite picky about our tea!’ She half turned, not looking me in the eye. Her face had a sort of pinched, haunted expression. My mum would have said ‘like someone walked on your grave’.
‘Thank you’ she said, ‘I’m alright with these’. Her voice was refined, quiet and a bit posh. She had the packet of Red Label in her hand.
‘The milk’s at the end, in the chiller cabinet.’
‘Thank you’
‘Angela’ I stuck out my free hand. ‘Nice to meet you’. I waited then she took my hand. Hers was cold and dry. She had long, thin, papery fingers which struck me as unusual for such a tiny woman.
‘Anne. My name’s Anne’. It was almost as if she was telling herself as much as me, like she needed to remind herself who she was.
‘How about coming for a cuppa at ours this afternoon, Anne? Dave, my husband, he goes out playing golf in the afternoons so I’m on my tod most days.’
‘I don’t know.’ She was frowning, turning the Red Label packet over in her hands.
‘It’s nice to have a bit of company. I’d only be sitting doing my puzzle book otherwise.’ I gave her my best smile. Then she nodded, down at the tea bags, not at me.
‘Perhaps I will’
‘Good! I might see you this afternoon then!’ I left her and went to pick up a Battenburg and some Cherry Bakewells for later.

‘There’s a single lady next door-Anne she’s called. She might come round for a cup of tea this afto’.

      I was getting a bit of lunch while Dave read the paper. Once he’d finished eating he’d change into his golfing clothes, get his clubs and be off. I knew he wouldn’t be back until this evening because he always stops at the clubhouse for a drink or two or three. That’s when they discuss the shots they missed and pick over it all which is enough to send anyone into a stupor and the reason I don’t go and join them. Golf is boring enough, but golf talk would bore the shell off a tortoise.
To be honest I like it when he’s gone out. I put my lounger in the sun and get on with my puzzle, or read a magazine or even a book. I’m fond of Mills and Boon but sometimes I do a bit of historical romance. I usually make a cup of tea and now and again I have a glass of wine, which feels a bit wicked but indulgent-like I’m spoiling myself.
I sat out with half an eye on next door until about three o’clock. There was no sign of Anne so I put my wordsearch down, went to her chalet and knocked on the door. I realise this seems a bit pushy and I didn’t want to intrude but I had the feeling she’d wanted to be persuaded-and she could only say ‘no’, couldn’t she?
After a moment she opened the door. ‘The tea’s made’ I said ‘and I’ve got a bit of cake if you fancy it’. I’d made it difficult for her to refuse, so she stepped out, closed the door and followed me up on to our decking.
‘Now Anne, sun or shade?’
She sat on the wicker armchair where a small triangle of shade appears in the afternoons. I sat down opposite her in my usual sunny spot. I’d made a pot of tea and put out cups and saucers.
‘How do you like it? I like a good strong cup. Do you take sugar?’ She shook her head.
‘Help yourself to a slice of cake-or a Bakewell?’
She took the cup and saucer from me and stared down into it then as she raised the cup to her lips her face was wet with tears. I ran indoors to fetch a tissue and dropped it into her lap. She put the cup on the table and blew her nose.
‘Thank you. I’m sorry. It’s just-you’ve been so kind, Angela.’
‘Not at all. We’re neighbours, aren’t we? Even if it’s only for a few days! Is there anything I can help you with? I don’t want to pry and there’s no reason why a single person shouldn’t take a holiday on their own but here, it’s unusual.’
She twisted the damp tissue around in her slender fingers. I ploughed on…

Chalet Concerto 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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How we Roll-

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These days we cross the English Channel [our most trodden travel path] by taking the line of least resistance-and since we live a few miles from Poole that line is Brittany Ferries to Cherbourg, a four-hour crossing leaving at 8.30am.
Despite the proximity we know better than to hang about and we are sure to leave home by 7.00am. Once, inspired by Husband’s ‘It’s only half an hour away-we’ve got oodles of time-we don’t need to be there until five minutes before’, we arrived at the barrier just as the ferry was about to leave and winged it up the ramp with minutes to spare.
The ferry, the ‘Barfleur’ [named after a Normandy coastal town] is comfortable and familiar by now. We know that once on board there will be good coffee and fresh, buttery croissants as well as comfortable reclining couchettes in a quiet salon in the bowels of the ship. We know that we can mooch around the small boutique and peruse the eclectic array of merchandise both useful and otherwise. There will be WiFi and television news.
Mostly, these days the ship is peopled with retirees or young couples with pre-school children because since retirement we have the choice of avoiding school holidays. This time, however by setting off a little earlier we are beset by knots of excited, shrieking children who still have time for a quick taste of France before knuckling down to learning their tables. They gallop about the ship, throng around the games room, chase each other from the bar to the restaurant, use loud devices and shout to each other. I surprise myself by enjoying their excitement, which reminds me how I felt on early trips abroad when every experience was new.
A sulky boy wearing a onesie in a bear design makes several circuits past our table with his lecturing mother, prompting me to wonder what he has done and if his excitement got the better of him. A tiny, table-height toddler staggers about, chased by his doting father and shielded from protruding table corners by the various diners he is entertaining.
In the quiet zone I open my Kindle and continue reading Alan Bennett’s ‘Keep On Keeping On’, which is part diary/part memoir/part lecture in itself and a treasury of informative and amusing anecdotes. A couple of rows behind us two men slumber whilst between them a young boy plays on and with a mobile phone, the sound of which is just a little distracting-loud enough to hear but not enough to decipher. Husband, whose own hearing has been compromised during the last few years is immune to such irritations and dozes off easily.
We arrive to Cherbourg, disembark and set off-not tearing southwards as usual but this time meandering across the Cherbourg peninsula to the coastal town of Barfleur itself, where we have lunch and a wander around the curving harbour followed by drinking coffee. Then we continue a few miles on to St Vaast, another harbour town with a convenient aire for us to park up in.

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St Vaast is a delectable place; full of seafood cafes, narrow alleys lined with pretty seaside homes and beautiful gardens, boulangeries packed with luscious pastries, breads and tarts, a crowded marina and a working fishing harbour where sturdy mussel boats are tied up.

There are many, many West coast ports like this, with harbourside brasseries serving the freshest shellfish you can get. We take advantage and I am able to enjoy my favourite treat-a plate of fat oysters nestling on a bed of ice and tasting of the sea.

We stay 2 days despite the drizzly intervals and walk the coastal sea wall to see ‘La Hougue’, part of some anti-British defences of 1664. Then it’s time to move on.