22 January – 4 February 2018
Having intended to stay a month at Vilanova we ended up staying nearly two and it was strange preparing to say goodbye to both the place and the people we had got to know. The last few days saw us having our last walk with the group, a last boules match (Danny lost every one of his 3 games) and an excellent lunch in nearby Cubelles with the walking group – Danny went for roasted snails followed by pigs cheeks on the bone, not bad for a man who avoids cheese because he doesn’t like the texture! We had promised ourselves a visit to Vilanova’s railway museum before we left but with our usual luck it was closed for refurbishment so we ended up going round the small but interesting Victor Balaguer Museum instead. Founded in 1884 it holds around 65,000 books in a large wood-panelled library filled with the distinctive smell of ageing leather and parchment. The rest of the building houses sculptures, paintings – including some by Goya, El Greco, Reubens and Bruegel – and ethnographic pieces from Egypt, the Philippines, Japan, and China. We rather liked the delicately carved ivory boat from China and the Samurai suits from Japan.
We celebrated the arrival of the SD card only to find that it was the one we had sent back to them but with the £150 update to 2017 maps erased. We will have to sort this on the move. That night, our satellite TV system gave up the ghost. What else can go wrong? We dread to think…. Luckily our box sets & Kindles are keeping us happy right now and we finally got in a game of cribbage, although we had to check the rules it’s so long since we played.
A better celebration was the arrival of another great nephew – welcome Odhran Martin James, we are sure your 2 sisters will spoil you ! We have 2 more ‘greats’ due in the next couple of months – a busy year for the younger generation.
We cleaned the van from top to bottom, inside & out, said our final farewells and finally we were off. We’d like to say it was just us and the open road but once again we were chasing repairs. Our first stop was an approved repairer for our satellite TV in Benicarlo. After nearly 3 hours they worked out the issue and ordered the part from Germany – the good news was all the work and parts were covered by warranty, the bad news that it would be 5-7 days to get the part. Our thoughts of visiting friends and family then going on to Portugal needed re-visiting. It was now Friday lunch-time and we decided to go ahead with the visits then head back for the repair and re-assess.
Using the boring but fast toll-roads we made it to Peter & Alison in Denia by early evening. Next day we went for a really nice walk, starting along the promenade – where we saw a lovely house being built, a snip at around €9M – and then heading up into Montgó National Park.
Part of the hillside had been deforested by fire some years ago and is now being recolonised by rosemary, rock lavender, thyme and cistus. Already dwarf palms and pistachio saplings are re-greening over blackened tree-stumps. The steep hillsides are terraced but no trace remains of what was once grown – olives perhaps? At the top we explored the expanse of the plateau with it’s scattering of dwellings and, on the far side, a row of derelict windmills, the lighthouse at Cabo de Sant Antoni and a view down to the small market town/resort of Xabia with it’s neat grid of houses and apartments, small marina and pleasant beach. Along the the cliffs past the Torre del Gero, one of the many watch-towers along the coast, before descending back to the campsite and an evening of chit-chat, wine and a warming chilli con carne in our van
Next day we headed off on our second visit, this time family – Kate’s second cousin & her husband who spend some of each year in Formentera del Segura where they have an apartment. We parked our van next to theirs and went up to join them on their balcony with it’s view over the orange grove towards the mountains. We normally only get to see them at family events so it was great to catch up. After enjoying breakfast with them next morning we set a motorway-free, scenic, inland route back to Benicarlo. We were on our own again and looking forward to seeing what else Spain had to show us.
We weren’t disappointed. Over the next 2 days we slowly followed a lovely route with only one really tricky bit – on the first day we wanted some groceries and turned into the town of Los Pinos and found ourselves in narrowing streets with parked cars and when a police officer directed us to take an impossible right turn we had an interesting 10 minutes – after nearly getting stuck and attracting a lot of attention, the patient officer directed us left instead then down a quiet pedestrianised area to get us to a ‘proper’ road. We won’t forget this place in a hurry :
We crossed the high plateau of the Sierra Mughrun to the hills of the Reserva Nacional de Muella de Cortes and were so enjoying the scenery that even 2 huge cooling towers belonging to a nuclear power station set amongst the green pines and orange earth of the Sierra Martes couldn’t spoil it. We left the valleys and entered a more open landscape where men pruned their vines in splendid isolation
then travelled into Castille La Mancha where we saw more and more signs of husbandry – long, low buildings with feeders for chickens and pigs – interspersed with vineyards and fruit orchards. We always wondered where the giant chicken breasts we see in the supermarkets come from !
Higher up, in the mountains near Santa Cruz del Moya we took the dead-end road down to our Aire just before the dead-end village of La Olmeda situated on the River Turia where it emerges from a narrow gorge. Deserted, close to the river, surrounded by trees and in the shadow of the cliff behind we liked the Aire straight away.
We went to explore, discovering strips of cultivated land, a bit like allotments, each clearly worked by a different person. Geese honked and a dog barked in warning as we strolled. No more than 70 dwellings climbed the hillside towards the cliff and the steep little streets were numbered rather than named – they didn’t go into double figures. The only sign of life was a boy on a moped and an elderly trio chatting at the back of a house.
Next morning the ground and the trees were sparkling with frost in the morning sun and the only sounds were he rushing of the river and scatterings of birdsong. Until we started our diesel engine of course. We drove carefully, wary of ice, through really beautiful countryside noting plenty of walking signs. Just past Las Rinconadas we crossed a bridge across the gorge cut by the River Turia with mist and sun combining to make us drop back into ‘wow’ mode.
We ascended to a plateau of scrub & pines interspersed with orchards of skeletal fruit trees, dusted white with ice, a freezing mist creating an ethereal feeling of travelling alone through a magical land.
At Aras de los Olmos we turned onto a long, straight road across another high plateau bathed in sunlight, letting us to look down on mist-shrouded valleys we had left behind.
Passing into Aragon, climbing up through the Sierra el Javalambre and Sierra de Gudar seeing the occasional shepherd or farmer, this least populous area of Spain was really casting a spell on us.
Throughout the drive we saw that the pine trees were covered with white, candy-floss-like blobs, nests of the caterpillars of the pine processionary moth, one of the most destructive species to pines and cedars in southern Europe. Looking closer we could see where the caterpillars, emerging from their nests at night in single file, had eaten the pine needles leaving bare branches. No wonder they spray against them on campsites.
We passed through La Iglesuela del Cid – a tiny village of 500 people dedicated to El Cid who apparently passed through in his campaigns against the Moors – the landscape here having lots of walls and small circular huts that reminded us of parts of Ireland. We were still over 4000ft above sea level and there had clearly been a good fall of snow here as traces still remained .
Back in Valencia we dropped down towards the coast, sorry to leave those high beautiful lands behind.
At Peniscola we located a site a 10 minutes drive from the workshop in Benicarlo and set up to wait on the only space we could fit, the overflow carpark. And waited. The part finally arrived Friday afternoon, too late to fit, so we booked in for Monday morning. It has to be said that Peñíscola-Benicarlo are not really our kind of place, a matter not helped by the arrival of the first rains in seven months. Three days of them.
We did however do some exploring on foot. The name Peñíscola is from the Latin peninsula, referring to the rocky promontory which has been inhabited for millennia and fortified for much of that time. Typical of the Mediterranean it has belonged to a succession of races – Iberians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians. When we visited the old town, on the peninsula, it was deathly quiet as the shops and restaurants were closed for the season. We found the small Maritime Museum with it’s sketches, plans and pictures of Peñíscola through the ages and displays relating to local fishing boats and practices, but the real attraction was the castle perched at the top of the outcrop.
A Moorish castle stood here from 718 until it was handed to the king of Aragon in 1233, then in 1294 the king deeded it to the Knights Templar who built the present castle. It was their last great fortress and they garrisoned it until 1307. The Templars were dis-established by the pope in 1312, but in 1317 James II of Aragon was allowed to create a new, similar military order, the Order of Montesa, dedicated to protecting Aragon from Moors and pirates and they garrisoned the castle for the rest of the 14th century. Later it became home of the Avignon pope, the antipope Benedict XIII, between 1411 and his death in 1423. From Aragon and christened Pedro de Luna, the castle became known as Castell del Papa Luna. It had some decent video histories, a small number of artefacts including some illuminated manuscripts, and excellent views of the beaches either side and the fishing harbour. It was not difficult to imagine knights and popes living there.
Our last day in Peñíscola was our anniversary and was cold and wet, far worse than our wedding day had been back in the UK. Reception had recommended a local restaurant, La Bodegueta, for our special lunch and we had to get a taxi it was raining so hard. A modern looking place in a back street amongst the apartment blocks, it was heaving with Spanish families when we walked in which we took to be a good sign. We weren’t wrong – the food was excellent, seafood a speciality.
Meltingly tender octopus, fresh anchovies, monkfish with prawns and clams in a gorgeous shellfish sauce and a huge, fresh tuna steak. We were absolutely stuffed and despite our best efforts had to take some away with us. Fortunately the rain had stopped so we were able to walk off some of our meal.
A good way to finish an unexpected week of ‘there and back again’.