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Sunday, 31 January 2010

All that rugby puts hairs on your chest

Since living in Leicester we have enjoyed watching Rugby Union and we were surprised to see this being played at the sports fields next to the campsite on Saturday afternoon, we didn't associate it with Spain. Further investigation courtesy of Wikipedia revealed that what we saw was the local team, Club de Rugby Atletico Portuense, who play in the Honour Division B, equivalent to the Spanish third division. On the team's website they shorten their name to El Crap!

In Andalucia we have come across Padel courts; Padel is like tennis, always played as doubles and on a smaller court that uses the walls, in a similar way to squash. Padel racquets, or paddle's, are solid wood, not stringed.

On a sunny morning in Cadiz, we were interested to see a group of school children arrive on the beach with a couple of teachers; the children carried footballs and goal posts and were soon being organised into teams and warming up for a match.

There are no excuses for not taking part in some kind of sport in Spain; the weather is good, there is the national obsession with football, there are cycle lanes, long beaches with joggers and if none of these appeal there are always the outdoor gyms. At first glance these look like children's playgrounds, every town has at least one installation of bright yellow and red metal gym equipment. We are unable to pass these gyms by without stopping and playing for a while, but it is never just us and the other campers who use these facilities, the Spanish are always there too; typically the users vary from the serious keep-fit person with an MP3 player and an earphone, to children, who find them more fun than the nearby play area.

The one, so called, sport we have avoided is bull-fighting. We are surprised how prevalent this is, particularly in Andalucia, most towns of any size have a bull-ring. Thankfully, it is in no way as popular as football and some regions are looking to end it.

Life is so full of sweet, sweet things, I’d like to do some tasting

Jerez is sherry city and we had looked forward to visiting a sherry bodega and tasting some different sherries. We chose the Sandeman's bodega and as the only people on the English tour, learnt about how sherry is made from our guide and breathed in the syrupy aroma of the sherry ageing in the casks, before being sat down with three different glasses of sherry each to taste, along with a bowl of crisps. After so much alcohol it is not surprising that we emerged from the shop, that is handily placed before you exit the bodega, with a carrier bag full of sherry, we are only grateful that even in our alcoholic haze we managed to resist the souvenirs that were not sherry.

Jerez had other delights, aside from the bodegas; the railway station alone is a work of art, the tiling in the photograph is from platform one. The city has made money from exporting sherry to the UK and beyond and the wealth is obvious in the city's ornate buildings.

We are camped at El Puerto de Santa Maria, a small town, across the bay from Cadiz and extremely convenient for visiting Jerez by train and also Cadiz by train or boat. The site has good facilities and friendly campers and we are inclined to stay a few days; maybe even fitting in a second bodega visit.

Spain does not have Sunday shopping and Sundays here have their own atmosphere; cycling around El Puerto de Santa Maria between 3 and 4 pm on a Sunday afternoon you notice the restaurants are all thriving, the Spanish lunch time is usually from 2 pm. It may be January and only 15C, but the Spanish are tough and prepared to sit at tables outside. Those families not eating out are at the multi-screen cinema or on the beach; Sundays feel like a lively day here.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

It's a mixed up muddled up shook up world except for Lola

We were comfortable at the campsite in Tarifa and stayed there seven nights; an accolade only bestowed on four other campsites up to now on this trip; generally we like to be travelling, even if it is not very far and from Tarifa we only travelled 60 kms north to Cabo Trafalgar, to see where all the action happened in 1805.

The campsite here is the 100th site we've stayed on during the past nine months. We like campsites and the opportunities they give to meet people and observe human behaviour and various posts have described some of our experiences. Recent delightful characters have included a man from the UK who was painting his van with vivid pink emulsion; an amateur naturalist with such a breadth of knowledge we would have had to stay months to hear even a part of it and a story teller from the Netherlands who had learned his craft in Findhorn.

One thing you will always see on any camp site; Crocs, this is the footwear of the camper; everyone wears them, from small children to the retired, Italians to Germans. We have seen pink crocs, decorated Crocs, Crocs with socks, Crocs with dressing gowns, camouflage Crocs and fake Crocs. We own subdued blue and green Crocs; they are very practical for camping, being lightweight, washable, waterproof, comfy and versatile; you can wear your Crocs to the beach, in the shower, even in the rain.

One of the huge advantages of Crocs is that when it is raining you can leave them outside the van, thus avoiding bringing wet and muddy shoes inside. However, this was not possible at the campsite in Tarifa, as Lola, the owners West Highland Terrier would spot an unguarded Croc at 50m and mischievously carry it off to another part of the site. It was not uncommon for campers to ask if you had seen one of their shoes and we were seen hopping out of the van to collect a displaced shoe on a number of occasions.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Let them truckers roll, 10-4

Sitting in a café in Tarifa on Saturday morning we noticed lots of motorhomes driving up the main street; at first we thought a ferry had just come in and these vans were all returning from Morocco. After around 100 vans we started to wonder, could all these fit on one ferry? The convoy of motorhomes was a demonstration by the Andalucia motorhomers association (ASANDAC) about parking restrictions on the beaches of Andalucia. In an effort to stop wild camping by motorhomes and following pressure from campsite owners, motorhomes are now restricted from even parking by the beaches for the day.

We like campsites, they have showers, even if they are of varying quality, and other useful facilities that make our trip slightly more luxurious. For other motorhomers wild camping is a way of life; many of these motorhomers wild camp for one or two nights at the most, take their rubbish and waste products away, are truly 'kings of the road' and give no cause for concern. Other motorhomers will park like sardines in a can at a beach-side beauty spot, wild camp at this same spot for months and some of these will regularly empty their chemical toilets in a nearby ditch. As is often the case, the law does not have the subtlety required to allow travellers the freedom to roam, while preventing environmental degradation of long-term wild camping.

As we cycled back to the campsite the demonstration passed us, tooting horns and waving. The Cheshire Caravanner from our site said he'd counted over 200 motorhomes in the convoy.

Oh, Father of the four winds fill my sails

Tarifa’s geographical position has shaped the development and the atmosphere of the town and its surroundings; it is on the south west corner of Spain, the Straits of Gibraltar to the left, the Atlantic to the right. The winds off the Atlantic are welcome relief in the summer, when all four of Tarifa’s campsites will be full, but keep most of the long-term winter campers away; this breezy weather is ideal for kite and wind surfing, even in January people in wetsuits are messing about on the beaches. The contrast between Tarifa and the Mediterranean resorts and campsites is huge; the shops in Tarifa sell Rip Curl clothing and ethnic jewellery; our campsite is green, tranquil and un-crowded, there are a few retirees over-wintering from different countries, there are also young people with battered vans and surf boards on the roof; this mixed community suits us well.

The beach is just outside the campsite and is a vast expanse of sand, stretching the kilometre of so south to Tarifa and as far as the eye can see to the north. It is bordered by green fields of brown cows, sand dunes and woods of Umbrella Pines. This coastline is now protected as the Parque Natural del Estrecho (the Straits) and further development is unlikely with this designation.

There is no shortage of activities to keep us occupied in the area. We have cycled north to Bolonia, to see the Roman town that has been excavated there; we have wandered around the pretty streets of Tarifa and we have paddled in the Atlantic Ocean and watched amazed as a group of White Storks follow a chaotic flight pattern.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

She might be in Tangier, she left here last early Spring is living there I hear

Since Dylan sang about Tangier in the '70s, its been on the list of places to visit. However, our only other connection with Morocco is through the Western Sahara Campaign; every month for a number of years they sent us a list of four addresses and we diligently wrote to each one asking for the same three men to be freed from prison. The crime of these men was to seek self-determination for Western Sahara. We considered not going in solidarity with this campaign, but felt this small boycott would have little impact.

We opted for the guided tour with our ferry tickets; largely because this option was strangely cheaper than just the return ferry and included a guide, a bus tour of newer Tangier and lunch. We are not generally tour group sort of people, but at this time of year our group was our excellent guide, who answered all our questions about this very foreign country, us and an American father and son, who proved to be very good company.

We have been travelling through Moorish occupied Spain for some weeks and so the architecture of the narrow streets of the old town of Tangier were in many ways familiar. That said, this evidently was not Europe, the Straits of Gibraltar may seem narrow, but they separate two different worlds and all our senses were overwhelmed by new sights, sounds and smells; the call to prayer from the mosques, women washing clothes in the streets, the wood-fired bakery, the constant requests to buy souvenirs, ornate remnants of Colonial Morocco, young men hanging on to the back of lorries hoping to get a lift to Spain, children chanting as they played in the school yard and the beautifully tiled doorways leading in to the huge prayer spaces in the mosques.

The disadvantage of being on a guided tour is that you are taken from spending opportunity to spending opportunity; the out-of-place camels who had been bought north for the tourists, the three storey carpet shop, where the pressure was off us once the Americans had agreed to buy and the sweet smelling spices shop with a multi-lingual shop-keeper who went through the origins and uses of different spices and oils.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

People say we monkey around

We don't quite know what to make of Gibraltar, but it diverted us for a few hours. We have caught glimpses of the bulk of the rock over the past week and were intrigued to see what lay around it. Walking down Gibraltar's Main Street felt like being in a UK high street; with M&S, BHS and Next, familiar fake victorian street furniture, red Royal Mail postboxes and pounds and pence. We treated ourselves to chips and curry sauce and bought M&S teabags.

We took the cable car up to the top of the rock to see the Barbary Macaques that live here; no one is sure if they were introduced or are a remnant of the African population. However, unlike the Macaques in Morocco and Algeria, where habitat loss has reduced populations, the Macaques in Gibraltar are thriving, with 230 living in six groups. As a tourist it is illegal to feed the Macaques, they eat leaves, olives and roots and are given supplementary food and veterinary care by The Gibraltar Ornithology and Natural History Society, who also monitor and control the population with contraceptives, as they have no natural predators on the rock. There is controversy surrounding the Macaques; some disruptive individuals have been culled in recent years, much more severe than a ASBO.

We have moved on to Tarifa; leaving the calm Mediterranean behind, we are now facing the Atlantic breezes and surfer dudes. The campsite here claims to be the most southerly site in Europe and it is certainly our most southerly point on this trip.

On the way here we drove past the wind farms of Tarifa. The chip shop owner in Gibraltar said that all Tarifa's power comes from wind. We've not managed to confirm this on the world-wide-web, but there are claims that Europe's largest windfarm is above Tarifa and that it produces enough power for a small town, like Tarifa, so in theory it is perhaps true.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

'Cause it grows stronger, like a river flows

The campsite in Jimena de la Frontera is mostly permanent caravans for the Spanish and Gibraltese. There are only three of us here as touring campers; our neighbour is German, he greets us with the peace sign, has a small tent that leaks, a pink scooter and long hair. He thinks Germany is ‘scheisse’ nowadays and has no time for Angela and her policies.

There is no shortage of way-marked walks in this area and our third day of walking in the Alcornocales should have been an enjoyable stroll, but became another epic day out. The 11 kilometre walk started out well; after walking through the white-washed houses and the steep, narrow streets of Jimena and crossing the river on the bridge we walked up a steep hill with a view of the straits of Gibraltar and the snow capped Moroccan mountains beyond and followed a switch-back track down the other side, joined by a large herd of goats, shepherded by a young man on a motorbike. Down at the river things got more complicated once again; in places the path had disappeared under silt and flotsam bought down by the river in flood. The guide book suggested you cross the river three times, but as this was impossible we were only occasionally actually on the footpath. We scrambled, crawled and slithered our way, getting muddy and scratched by vicious thorns, eventually emerging tired and battered back on the road into town.

We left the green and pleasant land of Jimena for the washing machines and wi-fi of the coast, but not before counting the twelve Griffon Vultures sat menacingly in the field next to the campsite. We passed storks nest after storks nest along the road to Algecircas, we haven't seen these fascinating birds since Austria and it cheered us to see them standing in pairs on their lofty nests watching the blue bus travel below.

I don't pop my cork for every man I see

From Ronda we drove through stunning craggy mountain scenery to the Parque Natural de los Alcornocales, Spain's most southerly park. This is an area of higher rainfall than you might expect by its latitude and this results in a much less arid landscape with green fields of chestnut brown cows and long-legged sheep, wooded hills of wild olives and maritime pine and gushing rivers.

We walked through woods of cork oak, you can see in the photograph the cork has been recently harvested; cork is a sustainable crop that is harvested by cork cutters every nine to twelve years for up to twelve times on one tree. The cork cutting is carried out in the winter time when the sap is down and the cork is taken off in large sheets which are baled locally for sending to manufacturers. Cork stoppers in wine are not the only product this fantastic material is useful for; dartboards are useless without cork and according to the cork industry federation website it is used in gaskets for cars, expansion joints in bridges, in cricket balls and many other items.

From the camp site in Jimena we walked in the sunshine, enjoying seeing Asphodels coming into flower and wild daffodils and watching the Griffon Vultures languidly flying overhead in gangs of four or five. The ground was damp with thick clay soil that stuck to your walking shoes; we haven’t had to do more than dust the sand off them for so long it felt like a novelty. We had planned to follow a walk that involved crossing the river, but when we arrived at the bank it was clear that after the rain we have had over the past few weeks this could only be done by swimming and we re-traced our steps back to the van.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Flowers in Spain

It is surprising how many flowers we have seen in Spain, considering we are visiting in winter months. These photographs are all of flowers we have seen in southern Spain in January.

Bright yellow cotton lavender flowers are fairly common. The pretty pink Cranesbills flower on the edges of woods and farmland and the daffodils are a cheering spring sight.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Well, Ronda you caught my eye, caught my eye and I can give you lotsa reasons why

After getting the van window fixed in Marbella, we drove into the mountains to Ronda despite the poor weather forecast and were rewarded in two ways.

It was raining heavily when we arrived at the almost deserted campsite in Ronda and we were set for curling up in the van for the afternoon and evening when there was a knock on the window. Teresa and Mike from Australia invited us round to their (larger) van and many hours of wine, good company and shared food was our first reward for leaving the bright lights and mild weather of the coast; the conversation meandered through places we'd visited, immigration, music (from Jake Thackray to Green Day) and climate change.

The next morning we said farewell to Mike and Teresa; they are heading for Morocco for six weeks and then Portugal, where we're sure we'll meet up with them again and we headed into Ronda. Having seen the weather forecast we took all our waterproofs and were very pleased to enjoy occasional sunny spells and only light showers as we mooched around the pleasant town.

Three bridges cross the rocky El Tajo gorge; the newest of these is the highlight of the town and built at around 120m above the river, the view as you cross takes your breath away when you first look down. The gorge splits the town in two, but it has remained a manageable size to explore on foot; the old part of Ronda has pleasant streets, impressive city walls from the Moors occupation and well preserved Arab baths, the new town has some beautiful ornate buildings, shops, cafes and a hardy busker. In cool January weather there are few tourists about and at lunchtime we had to dodge the restaurant staff who hang around in the doorway and try to entice you into their establishment.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

... how to bend not break the rules

The long-term campers we meet are generally courteous and friendly and will share their experiences of different camp sites in Spain. If they have chosen a site for 6 months, they are, not surprisingly, most enthusiastic about that site; the atmosphere of these sites is like that of a small village, with lots of activities and social occasions to take part in. Arriving for just a couple of nights we can feel like incomers who don’t know the rules. Fortunately, there is usually someone that wants to help you feel at home, explaining how things work on a particular site; where you take your rubbish, which shower is the best, where to swop books, how to get hot water for washing up and all the other necessary parts of camp site life.

At the site near Marbella a friendly couple from Nuneaton took on this role; they have been staying on the site every winter for seven years and certainly know the ropes; we first met them when Anthony was plugging in our electric cable and they wandered over to tell us that no one locks the box where all the cables are plugged in to the mains, as this makes re-setting the power easier when it trips, and it always does.

We drove out to the Parque Natural Sierra de las Nieves, just inland from Marbella. This is a beautiful mountainous and tranquil area, where it is difficult to believe only a few kilometres away cars are jammed in a long queue for the Centro Comercial parking, now the January sales have started. We walked around the picturesque village of Ojen whose central square was lively with a small market, pretty fountains and bustling cafes and along paths through various pines, juniper and gorse up to a spectacular viewpoint for a colourful view of the green hills, the white village and the blue sea.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Look at those cave men go

The Megalithic Portal is one of Carol's favourite websites. It is not the smartest website, it has a cluttered and home-made look to it; with adverts for moon stones and books about energy healers, photographs of sites and menu and search subjects all crowding for space. This said, it is one of those sites that make the world wide web so fantastic and useful, set up by a volunteer it relies on contributions from other enthusiasts and so is always individual and often quirky and provides a growing database of information on pre-historic sites in the UK and Europe.

We found out about the dolmens near Antequera through the Megalithic Portal and visited on our way from Cordoba to Marbella. There are three dolmens around the town, including the Menga Dolmen which is thought to be the largest in Europe. The structure of this 5,000 year old dolmen is monumental in scale; the walls and roof are built of huge stones that would have taken some shifting without a JCB. It was a wet day and we were lucky to be able to explore this interesting and enigmatic site on our own.

From the Costa del Sol we got our first glimpse of the continent of Africa, but don't let the photograph fool you, the elephant is on the beach in Marbella, looking longlingly across the Mediterranean.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Once upon a time you dressed so fine, didn’t you

The 6 January is the day the Spanish celebrate the arrival of the Three Kings in Bethlehem and give presents. On 5 January people were queuing in the shops to buy a Roscon de Reyes, a ring-shaped cake decorated with glace fruits, these large cakes are boxed and carried home carefully.

Among the narrow winding streets of the old town of Cordoba we found the Arab Baths and we treated ourselves to an afternoon of pampering, an experience that took us back to Roman times. We spent time in the warm bath, the hot bath and the steam room and lay on the warm marble table before dipping a toe in the cold bath. Anthony remarked that all we needed was a bath bomb! Fortunately, no one overheard. We drank sweet peppermint tea served in a silver teapot and relaxed in the dim lights, surrounded by stone columns and arches with gentle music and the smell of incense in the air. All the better for being the first bath we’d had in nine months!

We have not ironed any clothes since we came on this trip, partly because of lack of the required equipment and partly because we had bought clothes that don’t need any ironing. Sometimes we might look a bit scruffy, but fortunately on a camp site no one judges you on how pressed your clothes are. One of Carol’s birthday presents was a beautiful new top, which was worn, washed and dried; it isn’t Rohan or Alpine Lowe and emerged from this experience rather creased. The house in Orgiva did have an ironing board and iron and Carol mused over ironing the top and breaking the self-inflicted abstinence from this activity. She was stopped by a horrified Rachel who was determined that we managed 12 months without using an iron; so we hope the creases disappear while its folded up in the cupboard.

For I must be travelling on now, ‘cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see

It was time to hit the road again. From Orgiva we drove to Cordoba through fields of olive trees spreading up and over the hillsides in every direction. December is olive harvesting time in this part of Spain and we would usually have seen plenty of activity, but the wet weather over the past two weeks had delayed the work.

We came to Cordoba to see the Mesquita and found a lovely city that had more to offer than that one stunning attraction. The Mesquita was built as a large mosque between the 8th and 10th Centuries; inside it has rows and rows of double arches sitting on 856 marble columns. With the return of the Christians to Cordoba, the Mesquita was re-used, rather than destroyed and chapels were built around the inside walls and eventually a cathedral was build among and in the centre of these arches. The two very different styles, the simplicity of the Moorish architecture and the cluttered fussiness of the 16th Century church both merge and clash.

We sheltered from a shower in Cordoba in a café by the Roman Bridge. The café was busy as people were gathering for a procession and 10 Policia Local were also keeping out of the rain and drinking coffee, chatting on their mobile phones and socialising with other café clientele. In Spain this is not an unusual sight; the campsite café in Cabo de Gata was frequented by the Guardia Civil for their morning coffee and the police are generally much more visible than we are used to at home.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Let's move before they raise the parking rate

Driving in Spain seems fine and generally an uneventful experience. However, the Spanish do have entertaining parking techniques. The first rule is never park more than five metres from any shop you wish to patronise; if this involves double parking or leaving your car at an interesting angle to the road/pavement, so much the better and blocking a main road is an essential aspect of this parking technique. The most exciting parking formations may require hazard lights, but this is only necessary in more extreme examples. In Frigiliana we parked the Blue Bus in the bays along the road and walked down the steep path into the fantastic gorge below the village, shown in the photograph, and around the pretty town. We returned to the van to find that someone had parked within millimetres of our front bumper; getting out required some effort!

Over the Festive period the van was vandalised while parked in a busy town centre street. It looks as if they tried to prise open one of the van side windows, which are double-glazed, with something sharp and when they found they couldn’t do this they scratched the drivers side window in a series of swirling patterns. This damage is annoying, rather than a catastrophe and will test the claim we have from our insurers that glass damage can be fixed in Europe.

We waved Matthew and Rachel off at Malaga airport; it has been fantastic to see them and they made our festive season and birthday celebrations. Having decided to turn native, Anthony triple parked in the queue by the arrivals area while they unloaded their cases and no one batted an Iberian eyelid! We are back on the road again tomorrow, after two weeks stationary and in a house. We feel blessed that we were here while the rain came down and also pleased that the weather improved for Matthew and Rachel; they left a sunny and warm Malaga and arrived in a cold and snowy Manchester a few hours later.

Friday, 1 January 2010

On New Years Day

When the Moors were expelled from Granada, many fled to the Alpujarras, around Orgiva. They left their mark on this area in the agriculture and irrigation systems; to us their influence is most noticeable in the white mountain villages, with flat roofs of schist blocks covered with slate shards, round capped chimneys and narrow winding streets with covered walk-ways.

We celebrated the start of 2010 by driving up to 1,300 metres to the attractive village of Pampaniera and walking along the footpath to Bubion, through Chestnut and Eucalyptus trees, the smell of woodsmoke drifting in the air, views of snowy peaks. We met lots of other groups of walkers out enjoying the breezy sunshine. A stream had washed some of the path away at one point to make the walk a little more exciting and we returned on a different route and had a Spanish-time lunch in Pampaniera's pizza restaurant.

Staying in the house in Orgiva has been a fantastic break from camping in the van for two weeks and just what we needed in the damp weather we have had. We can recommend the house if you fancy a holiday in this beautiful area; Sheila and Jack are extremely welcoming, the house has been cosy and warm and there is no shortage of things to do. You can find rental details on and search for property ID 7463.