9-12 September 2019
We said goodbye to our surfing neighbours and headed out of this strange flat land of sand, lakes and forests. Brown patches mottled the oak & pine woodland and an avenue of plane trees had turned to dull olive – the colours of autumn creeping in as we try to stay a step ahead. We are still new enough at this to be surprised how cool it is in south west France in early September.
A morning’s drive took us into French Basque country in the Pyrenees where we stocked up on duck breasts and Confit de Canard. Espelette near the border was advertising its annual chilli festival where the mild Espelette Chilli – a new one to us – is celebrated. Dried and ground, it replaces black pepper in the region’s cookery.
The Pyrenees, older than the Alps, formed when Spain pushed into France 150 million years ago, lifting rocks laid in coastal basins to form a significant natural barrier with few passes. We were in the foothills, and as this western part gets the rain coming in from the Atlantic the slopes are green with woods and pasture-land for horses and cattle. We thought it was lovely, reminiscent of parts of Wales.
Passing into Spain, the Otxondo Pass took us to a mere 632m before leading us south towards the famous “Plains of Spain”, an immense highland plateau surrounded and cut-across by mountain ranges. The plains seems to go on forever, as do the long straight roads that cut across them. We trundled across Soria province’s huge chequer-board of orange and gold, where the bare earth of tilled fields contrasted with the gold of wheat stubble, occasionally lifted by a massive field of sunflowers desperately seeking a sun hidden by black clouds.
Dusty, poor, sad-looking villages along the way showed the scars of 50 years of emigration, as their people left in search of a better life elsewhere.
In Rioja, we saw plum tomatoes being mechanically harvested and – of course – plenty of vines. There were olive trees and fruit orchards, ripening peaches and apples giving a much needed splash of colour, but it was when we saw the black horned cattle grazing amongst cork-oaks and the temperature rose to 26°C that we knew we were really back in Spain.
In Segovia on a straight road in the middle of nowhere, having not seen another vehicle for 15 minutes, we pulled over to swap driver. Before we could move off again a cop car appeared from nowhere, its lights flashing, to scold us for causing an obstruction. But they didn’t give us a fine, just irritably waved us on.
In Avila province’s sandy-yellow landscape of sunflowers and earth we almost missed the city itself as we sped past, which would have been a shame – its intact medieval city walls with more than 80 crenelated, semicircular towers looked impressive.
We noticed the villages we passed through looked more communal and less down-at-heel although they obviously have issues – at tiny La Aldahuela the balconies of all the houses were draped with sheets made into protest signs about the loss of the bus service – in this vast landscape it must be very isolating for the inhabitants.
At El Barco de Avila the road started to twist and turn, woodland appeared on the slopes and suddenly we were at the high pass of Puerto Tornavacas and entering Extramadura. Twisting and turning the road descended through terraces of the area’s famous cherry trees – which must look amazing in spring – past the sobering sight of a crashed car teetering above a steep drop and through the town of Tornavacas to follow the Jerte river.
Further down it provided us with a lovely quiet spot for our second night in Spain, and it’s reservoir provided birdwatching opportunities. Interrupted only by the occasional “splosh” of a fish breaching the water. Blissful.
The sun kindly kept shining as we drove through land carpeted with cork oaks, big green dots on a background of green-gold autumn grasses. The Iberian peninsula has 20,000 square kilometres of this “dehesa’ (“montado” in Portugal), a system of land management where oaks are spaced out to balance soil moisture, provide enough light for the grasses grazed by cattle, goats and pigs; and pruned for acorn production for the famous Iberian black pigs (we are very partial to a bit of Jamon Iberico) as well as game such as wild boar and red deer which are hunted. And of course, where the oaks are cork oaks, they also produce cork.
We passed plenty of stork nests, huge masses of sticks perched on church towers, telegraph poles and electricity pylons before eventually leaving Extramadura behind and entering Andalucia and the hills of the Sierra Aracena.
Sweet chestnuts lined the roads loaded with spiny fruits, and pine trees, beech and tall oaks jostled for position. Jerez de los Caballeros – once owned by the Knights Templar – looked sttractive and interesting from the road with its Moorish wall and church towers
.. but we were headed to a wild-camping spot at La Granada de Rio Tinto. We knew we were close when we passed a huge red gash in a hillside then a cutting through the rock that shone with Fool’s Gold.
The Rio Tinto area has been mined for 7000 years and Rio Tinto © is one of the world’s largest metals and mining corporations, founded when a multinational consortium bought the mine from the Spanish government in 1873. For a place that spawned such a massive enterprise, La Granada de Rio Tinto was unexpected – a “blink and you miss it’’ kind of a place. Our van felt like an alien beast trundling down the small street of flat-roofed, whitewashed buildings. Just beyond, a small bridge took us to a picturesque picnic area with nice views across the dry riverbed.
It was a lovely 28°C with a nice breeze and we sat at the picnic tables and enjoyed our third and last evening in Spain before Portugal.
Driving past the Rio Tinto mines next morning we saw close-up the devastation that millenia of mineral extraction has caused – water turned orange by the minerals and huge open pits in the earth with monstrous trucks moving in them like ants.
And just as suddenly we were out of it, with plenty of time to raid a Spanish Carrefour – a 1.5L bottle of Larios gin for €13 brought a smile to the face – before crossing the bridge into Portugal.
We were 2 days early arriving at Cabanas de Tavira and had enjoyed the changing scenes of our migration, but now we were in winter quarters and sitting still for a couple of weeks with the added bonus of a week with friends. We walked down to the pretty front for a beautiful sunset, a Happy Hour and our first visit to a curry-house since May. Good food, good company, happy teddies.