The End of the World

9 – 14 October 2019

On the most southwestern tip of mainland Europe is a place once known as the End of the World. The rocky point of Cape St Vincent was The last known point of land in Europe for the seafaring explorers of the 15th century as they left on their voyages of ‘discovery’. (apologies to the “discovered”). Today it is the site of the 2nd most powerful lighthouse in Europe and a go-to place for spectacular sunsets. It is also where the 4-day Birdwatching Festival was based so we set up at a campsite a couple of miles from the Cape, just outside the small harbour town of Sagres.

The constant wind at the End of the World has created a landscape of low spiny shrubs and wind-sculpted pines. The campsite is in a dip that creates a wind shadow, allowing a small wood of taller pines to grow, providing shade and shelter for campers.It has its own surf school and a lot of young surfer-types with their tents that made us feel old just looking at them. Danny put up the hammock for the first time this year amongst a small stand of firs. It was peaceful, relaxing and a good base for our explorations.

The annual October birding event is timed to make the most of the mass migration heading south for winter. Thousands of birds of prey, seabirds and small landbirds are on the move and can produce an amazing spectacle. Sadly not during our 4 day visit. We went to various observation points and each time were told by the specialists that the unseasonal weather was disrupting the normal migration and the wind direction was unfavourable. But we had a relaxing time and still managed to see some ‘firsts’.

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Dawn Seawatching from the cliffs at Cabo de São Vicente

The highight was an early morning boat trip from Sagres harbour to look for seabirds. The weather was grey and windy and there was a 2m swell which made for an exciting ride in our RIB. We went 12 miles out, beyond the continental shelf where the waters mix and more abundant food attracts shearwaters and storm petrel, giving us great views, although wallowing around the swell was not good for photos. Near to a trawler were lots of gulls, and gannets were diving and flying close over our heads.

That would all have been great, but to make it perfect a pod of dolphins decided to accompany us part of the way back in. Briliant. 

It wasn’t all cloud and birdwatching though. The sun shone more than it didn’t and we had a good time exploring.  As well as the lighthouse, the Cape has the old convent buildings that housed the relics of St Vincent and are now a nice cafe selling excellent cake and 2 gift shops. But it’s the cliffs and sunsets that are that are most impressive, although we saw a couple of nice sunrises there as well (yes – a shock I know). It’s a lovely spot.

We explored Fortaleza de Sagres that sprawls across the neck of the Sagres Promontory, a peninsula of limestone pavement and steep cliffs rising out of the sea. The Promontory was a key location in the “Age of Discoveries” being the base of Henry the Navigator who built his seafaring school here – famous navigators such as Magellan and Vasco de Gama trained here before heading out to redefine the world. Most of the fort was rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake but the gatehouse was undamaged.

In 1919 a huge ‘Wind Rose” was unearthed within the walls – 48 stone tiers in a 50m radius thought to be a mariner’s compass, although others suggest it is a huge sundial use for study and naval & military activities. Interesting regardless. 

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WInd Rose at Fortaleza de Sagres

We walked out round the promontory past local men fishing precariously from the cliffs. Nerves of steel!

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Look closely – in the middle. Mad fisherman!

Even at this time of year on this windswept finger there were lots of interesting plants amongst the rocks and looking back we could see the aspiring surfers learning their craft in the bay.

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Surfer Beach

At the end of the promotory is a small automatic lighthouse and a curved modern art ‘installation’ surrounding a blowhole where you can sit and listen to the sea rushing below.

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Lighthouse & “Installation”, Sagres Promontory

The sun was shining and it was lovely. Cold and wet at home – each time we think we miss it we just think about the weather.

Sagres is a low lying, slightly scruffy town of surfer shops, small bars and cafes, and out of season at least is very relaxed. It grew on us – the whole area did – and we will be back. Our last night we watched another sunset at the Cape and wild-camped just down the road after the crowds had gone, with the full moon streaming in through one window and the lighthouse flashing in through the other, surrounded by stars and silence. Perfect.

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Wildcamping at Cabo de São Vicente

 

Unexpected Luxury at Luz

29 September – 8 October 2019

Having recovered fully from the Aguadente, we said our goodbyes and headed off westwards. We were booked into a birdwatching festival at the SW tip of Portugal from 10 October so had time to take things easy and explore the Algarve. The only problem was that we were lacking inspiration. Undecided what to do we satisfied ourselves on the first day with stocking up on shopping and visiting the motorhome bodywork specialist who had been recommended to us by Ian. Although he couldn’t do the whole job we needed he is definitely a good contact.

Remaining clueless we over-nighted at a campsite outside Olhãu with decent internet, did some research and in the end opted to make the most of the sun. We booked into a nice-looking campsite with pool that had been recommended to us and headed off next day through the outskirts of Olhãu, admiring the work of its Street Artists on the way and continued west across the Arade River towards Lagos.

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Arade River, near Portimao

The campsite was situated on the main road just outside Praia da Luz but that was the only downside. Nicely landscaped with lovely swimming pools, excellent modern showers and, for Danny, double bowls in the washing up area. It even has a gym and a spa and it felt like we were on holiday. No wonder so many people appeared to be installed for the winter!

The “chill out” nature of the site and the busy main road meant we didn’t explore too much but we did get the bus into the nearby town of Lagos a couple of times. Bigger than we had thought with sprawling, apartment-filled suburbs, the old town was nevertheless very nice to wander round. 

The river – Ribeira de Bensafrim – that joins the sea with the marina and fishing harbour has plenty of activity to watch, with fishing boats, yachts and a wide variety of tourist trips to watch as they head to and from the sea. This is where many of the great Portugeses seafaring explorers left from and moored in the river is a replica of the 16th century caravels used by Prince Henry the Navigator and Portuguese sailors on their voyages of “discovery” across the Atlantic Ocean and along the coast of Africa. It is a tiny 23.8 metres long and not something we would like to go across the the Bay of Biscay in, let alone the Atlantic.  

We really wanted to see the Mercado do Escravos, Europe’s first slave market which is now a museum of slavery but of course the day we went was the one day of the week they are all closed – Monday.  Still, the place had plenty of historic buildings – some falling apart – and was very pleasant to explore. There is a relaxing square, the Praça Infante dom Henrique with a statue of Prince Henry the Navigator, an old Marketplace, and plenty of little shops and restaurants mostly aimed at the ex-pats and tourists that flock to the old town. 

The small fort guarding the entrance to the river – the Forte Ponta da Bandeira – was built in the 17th century when despite it’s size it was considered one of the most advanced of its time. It formed part of the once impregnable defences of this ex-capital of the Algarve. Most of the town was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake and Faro then took over as capital but the imposing  Islamic town walls, built in the 14th century, largely remain including the the São Gonçalo Door, a fortified arch which was once the main entrance through the walls.

We enjoyed our wanders there – Lagos old town grew on us.

Praia da Luz was only a mile from the campsite, a gentle 15 minute stroll downhill.  We found it to be a low key place, not particularly pretty but not “Kiss me Quick” either. There were some very nice looking aparments and villas, some in complexes and some in clearly long-established areas.  It seems to be a place of expat homes, second homes and holiday apartments with the remnants of a small village around the old church. The old fort is now a restaurant.

The main attraction is the beach, which is small but beautifully set with the granite cliffs of an old lava flow providing a dramatic backdrop for the surfers and body-boarders playing in the surf.

Coffee bars, cafes, restaurants and gift-shops a-plenty, but again, all low key. On the outskirts we found a row of crumbling traditional one-storey houses, each with an aging satellite dish, clearly still lived in (we heard the TV going in the end one). What a contrast with the neighbouring villas.

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Old houses, Praia da Luz

Next to the campsite is the small, traditional Portugese village of Espiche, a complete contrast to Luz. With it’s sleepy alleyways, garden vegetable plots, small market building and primary school, it was a different world.

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Autumn Fruits in an Espiche Garden

Contributing to the feeling of being on holiday was the campsite’s “animation” – stage shows put on 4 or 5 times a week.  We tried them out – Latin music and dance one night, a Magic show (Danny’s favourite) another, and our first experience of Portugal’s famous “Fado” music – soulful singer accompanied by a guitar (called a viola de fado in Portugal) and a guitarra – an arabic lute with 6 pairs of steel strings.

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Fado Performance

We had to wrap up in the evenings but the daytime temperatures were lovely and watching the UK forecasts made us feel very lucky – we hope it lasts over our long birdwatching weekend.

 

Beach, Booze & Birds at Ria Formosa

20 September – 28 September 2019

Abandoned by Trevor & Maggie we lapsed into laziness. The weather turned grey and cool for a couple of days and we took advantage to get some jobs done, much to the fascination of our British neighbours who kept coming over to check out what Danny was making or repairing. One of these neighbouring vans contained Ian & Patsy from Macclesfield and we recognised each other instantly. After talking through our respective danderings we remembered we had met and chatted in Greece in May. Small world, bad memory.

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Kate doing the housework

When the sun came back out we cycled into Tavira, left Kate’s bike in for repair, and caught the ferry downriver and out to Ilha de Tavira, one of the barrier island of the Ria Formosa nature reserve. We followed the boardwalk across the islet to the beautiful, broad sandy beach where we extravagantly paid for a couple of sunbeds and installed ourselves, only taking a break for lunch at one of several seafood restaurants catering for the healthy numbers of people still enjoying sea and sun at the end of September.

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The beautiful Ihla da Tavira Beach

Later in the afternoon a really noisy family – 1 Australian, 2 Irish & 5  Aussie kids but it was only the Aussies who were loud –  installed themselves next door and made things pretty unbearable. We got a break when they went for a swim but when they came back full of energy and volume we finally admitted defeat and packed up.

We also did some birdwatching around the salt pans, cycling out to the channel between Tavira and the Ihla da Tavira where a number of motorhomes were contentedly wildcamping and making our way slowly back amongst the saltpans.

It was nice to get our eye in again, and as well as the ubiquitous Spoonbill and Flamingo there were a decent number of waders including plenty of Kentish Plover.  Kept us happy anyway.

The day before our planned departure we spent a couple of hours at the campsite’s dedicated washing area getting our ‘baby’ white again before treating ourselves to another Happy Hour and a curry in Cabanas. All very nice and so far so good.

The only problem was that on the way back we called into the campsite bar for a nightcap and ordered some Aguadente. The waiter turned up with the brown stuff they usually serve but we weren’t having any of it. Oh no – we insisted on the clear local stuff. He was delighted and duly brought us two large helpings. Which we followed with another two before returning contented to the van.

Next day was painful. Our neighbours waiting to wave us off watched anxiously until we finally could face daylight. It was only on checking the internet that we realised that that stuff can be up to 80% proof, and my word, were, our bodies objecting. Needless to say we went nowhere that day. The only positive to come out of it was that unable to face cooking, we visited  a small restaurant just up the road for an early dinner and discovered a gem of a place which introduced us to the concept of ‘Steak on a Stone’ – a really thick piece of raw steak placed on an intensely hot piece of granite.

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Steak on a Stone

For the uninitiated, you slice off pieces and cook them as much or as little as you like on the hot stone before eating. The granite didn’t seem to cool at all and the steak was so thick it only seared on the bottom. Delicious. But we will be staying away from Aguadente for now.

 

Trevor’s Tours

13-19 September 2019

We had a great 7 days with our friends Trevor & Maggie who are motorhome veterans compared to us and familiar with the area. They showed us round Cabanas itself, a small town of about 1200 whose population swells considerably in the summer with tourists. Once a fishing port, it is named after the cabanas or fishing huts that lined the beach – there are still a few left. Whilst the front is a long, low strip of cafes, bars and restaurants, behind there are still plenty of traditional houses to wander between.

And Trevor nobly led us on cycle tours familiarising us with the potential of the place we will be spending a month at over Xmas. And getting us a bit fitter in the process.

The nearest town, Tavira, straddles the Gilão River which then flows through the inlets and lagoons of Ria Formosa Natural Park before reaching the nearby Atlantic. We liked the town’s traditional tiled buildings, attractive squares, Moorish castle and relaxed feel. And the sheer number of Indian restaurants.

The Natural Park between Tavira and the sea also contains lots of salt-pans and scrubland and is a great habitat for birds.

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Gilâo River & Saltpans from Tavira Castle

Trevor & Maggie patiently waited when we stopped our bikes yet again to look at another feathered object through our binoculars, although we really didn’t need them to identify the Greater Flamingo that occasionally flew overhead. We explored both sides of the Gilâo River, cycling down to the Cais das Quatro Aguas where the ferries leave for the beaches of Ilha de Tavira. They were still busy with passengers, but we opted to stay on the mainland and visited a small Italian on the riverbank for a lunch of pasta and seafood. 

The Ilha de Tavira is a 10km long barrier island that protects Tavira from the worst ravages of the Atlantic. The day we visited we cycled out along the coast to Pedras de El Rei where we left our bikes and crossed the small floating bridge that connects to the island. We walked a kilometre or so across it to the white sands of Praia do Barril – we could have taken the cute miniature steam train that runs alongside the footpath but it was nice to stretch the legs and made us feel less guilty about the lunchtime beer and Portugese toasties.

Praia do Barril was once the location of a small tuna fishing community, and its remnants have been turned into tourist facilities for the beach – cafes, restaurants, boat-sheds  etc. The Anchor Graveyard in the dunes is a rusting memorial to a dangerous profession that died in the 1960’s due to over-fishing.

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The Anchor Graveyard

At the easternmost part of the Ria Formosa we explored Cacela, another ex-tuna-fishing place. It is protected from the sea by the long narrow strip of sand and dunes that is the Ilha de Cabanas, serviced by a flotilla of small boats that ferry people to its beaches.

They were busy deserting it when we were there as the black clouds trolling in looked ominous. Cacela itself has a scattering of fish restaurants and an attractive church where a wedding was taking place – we assumed it to be local until we heard the Irish accents. So at least they were used to grey skies. 

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Hoping it doesn’t rain !

But Trevor’s longest tour took us all the way back into Spain. A 15-mile cycle up the coast to Vila Real de Santo Antonio where we anchored our bikes and took the ferry.

It was a short trip across the Guadiana River to the Spanish town of Ayamonte for a tapas lunch and some tasty jamon iberico.

On the cycle back Danny hit some deep soft sand and came off, grazing himself and hurting his knee. He also banged his head but because of Trevor & Maggie we were wearing our helmets and no harm was done – a lesson to us really, as we had got out of the habit of wearing them. 

Being from the island of Ireland, Trevor’s Tours did, of course, include a good selection of bars and restaurants,. One evening we had a good time at an Irish music night at a local bar/restaurant where a lad from Achill Island (off the west coast of Ireland) charmed the the full house with a mix of traditional Irish, folk and some classics which went down a storm. But our favourite was a little gem that Trevor had found for us, a quiet local bar run by a little old lady. No sign outside, one side a shop, the other side the bar where we sampled cold beers and Aguardente (burning water) which despite her lack of English the owner managed to convey should be drunk with coffee in the winter months. Great little place. 

The week whizzed past, and we’d just like to say a big “Thanks” to T&M for making it so enjoyable..

Our Winter Migration – Dandering down to Portugal (Part II)

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.

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The Plains of Spain

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.

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UNESCO World Heritage Avila

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.

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Spanish Dehesa

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

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Jerez de los Caballeros

.. 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.  

 

Our Winter Migration – Dandering down to Portugal (Part I)

2 – 8 September 2019

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Crossing the Rhine

Following our fascinating but rather noisy & full-on time at Düsseldorf we crossed the Rhine and found a nice little campsite just into the Netherlands where we hooked up to deep-charge the batteries and do some repairs. No planes roaring overhead or trains going past, just peace and quiet. We sat still for a couple of days and got stuff sorted including fixing the gas hob which we were rather pleased with.

We were booked into a campsite in Portugal from 14 September so had 10 days to do 1700 miles, avoiding highways and toll-roads to see more of the countryside. Our first day took us through 4 countries despite our leisurely pace – from the Netherlands into Germany and through urban Aachen into rural Belgium where the scenery reminded us of England with rolling hills and fields edged by hedgerows punctuated by oak, then on into France. The cool grey skies were inclined to rain and we were glad we were heading south.

It took us 4 days to cross France and we soon settled into a routine of heading off around 10am and mooring-up on an aire early evening, driving anything from 180 – 280 miles a day depending on the roads. Entering the country via the Ardennes we followed first the River Meuse and then the rather odd directions of the satnav – her definition of “highway” is bewildering and her attempts to avoid any decent road took us on interesting lanes through places we wouldn’t otherwise have seen. A bit of a French Lucky Dip.

Our first aire at Corbeny was a good start – it overlooked a pretty carp lake on the edge of the village and we woke to  a sprinkling of fisherman already in place. Good to be on the road.

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Aire at Corbeny Carp Lake

We were in war graves territory and not far down the road from our overnight spot was one with a strange looking tank in pride of place – the French National Tank Memorial on the site from which the first ever attacks with French tanks were made in April 1917.  No time to stop though or even get o photo.

The van felt small as we drove through huge bare fields that created a chequer-board of drab gold-and-brown, dotted with massive grain silos.

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It was a landscape we were glad to leave behind as we travelled into Champagne with its green woods and vineyards. Through busy Reims with all its contrasts – from run-down social housing to the gleaming white walls of the Taittinger champagne house – and on to the champagne-making capital, Epernay, surrounded by rolling chalk hills covered in green vines laden with grapes ripe and ready for picking. Oh for a tasting session!!

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Here it is still done by hand, and convoys of caravans passed us carrying the itinerant pickers to their next job.

Pretty villages with their fairy-tale chateau and attractive old towns gave interest to a grey afternoon – even the sunflowers were depressed, leaves yellow and limp, heads black and bowed. We encountered the Seine and then the Loire as we drove south west, overnighting at a small and slightly depressing aire.  Next day we crossed the river at Sully sur Loire where it’s lovely big chateau was hosting a hunting & fishing festival, picketed by noisy animal rights protestors being watched by bored-looking cops. 

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Chateau at Sully sur Loire

We noticed that many of the rural villages, whether pretty or not, seem to have real civic pride, their communal planters overflowing with flowers, bright in the autumn sun, and hand-made signs advertised village fêtes . We envied that every village seems to have an artisan boulanger or boulanger-patissier – not a Greggs in sight!

The weather seemed to be responding to our southern trajectory and we had a gorgeous crimson sunset at an Aire next to a reservoir on the Charente river, then a sunny Sunday that had us heading towards the Atlantic coast via Bordeaux. As it was church day there were people out and about in the villages, some carrying bowls full of eggs or baguettes, others gathered round the church chatting. Okay, so there’s probably all sorts going on beneath the surface, but it did seem very idyllic. 

It would appear that Sunday is also hunting day at this time of year and we passed many temporary signs and men at the roadside in orange vests carrying brass horns, as well as the occasional hunter with his gun. What were they hunting –  deer, wild boar, game birds? We like to think all for the pot. 

Failure by Kate to check the satnav closely and a closed road saw us lose an hour by going through the middle of Bordeaux itself rather than taking its ring road, which didn’t do much for harmony. Road traffic, cyclists, trams and pedestrians conspired to make it as difficult as possible to navigate the narrow streets and we were glad to emerge the other side. It made for a longer day than we had wanted.

We reached our target aire on the Atlantic coast just after 7pm and slid into a gap next to a 1989 version of our van occupied by 3 surfer-types who looked younger than their van and had obviously been there a while. In fact there were a few old and battered vans there that looked like they belonged to surf-loving people.

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Soustons Plage Aire

A walk was needed to remove the kinks and as it was a beautiful evening we climbed the dune for a beautiful at sunset over a peaceful ocean and a bracing breeze. Spain tomorrow.

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Atlantic Sunset

Mostly Motorhomes – Polch & Caravan Salon

27 August – 2 September 2019 

Somewhere between the Rhine and the Moselle we got caught driving out in the open in another sudden and violent hailstorm. It was really quite unnerving, particularly when we saw cars stopping under cover that we couldn’t. We were both relieved when the hail turned to rain and the electric storm passed away. Then we drove over a line in the road and everything was dry, untouched by the storm. Weird.

We spent a night on the banks of the Moselle on an unwelcoming and unappealing campsite with freight trains passing by every 15 minutes. We left in short order the next day. We were only a short distance from Niesmann & Bischoff at Polch, the factory that made our van and where we had an appointment the next day. We headed over there, parked up on its stellplatz and spent the day looking at new motorhomes and wandering round a nearby camping supplies shop! How the time flies when you’re having fun!

 

The staff at Polch were great and we resolved a few things including the horrible noise the new fly screen was making and a software update for our satnav and reversing camera which were playing up. We left happy and headed up towards Düsseldorf spending the night on a nice quiet stellplatz – a car park with 8 spaces for vans – just outside Bergheim. Next to a nice park – the grounds of pretty Schloss Paffendorf -where  we had a nice dander in the late afternoon sun.

Before Düsseldorf, we had important business at the Leatherman centre at Ratingen. Their doors were shut as this, the first Leatherman premises outside America, isn’t officially open yet. But they were lovely, replacing not only the missing tool but 2 damaged ones, serviced it and provided a new leather holder and 2 bottles of Leathermans craft beer – now thats what we call service!

The Caravan Salon at Düsseldorf is Europe’s biggest motorhome show and launches the new ranges for the forthcoming season. We visited in 2015 before becoming motorhomers and had great memories, but then we had stayed in the city and travelled out to the arena by train, wide-eyed innocents in the camping world. This time we were motorhomers staying in the special motorhome parking area for 3 nights on the first weekend of the 9-day show. We weren’t sure what to expect, but were amazed at the sheer scale of it. Huge car parks packed with motorhomes parked nose-to-tail,, stewards everywhere, and we really didn’t there were that many big motorhomes on the road – it was a real shock to see so many of them together. Hundreds of top of the range, massive, luxury things – Morello, Concorde, some massive Cruzzer’s with pop-out sides that we had never heard of before, the dry-land equivalent of “gin-palaces”. We parked up, went for a walk round and explored, then got the chairs out, sat in the sun along with everyone else and sipped on our ice cold Leatherman beers. 

There is a ‘Caravan Centre’ where the showers, toilets & service point are, as there is overnight parking there all year round for all the events. But for the Caravan Salon, when they have 70,000 motorhomes staying over the duration of the event, there is events catering, a bar & a stage with live music every night. We were aware that the motorhome world has it’s jamborees – in the UK there are regular outdoor shows with camping area and hospitality – the Malvern Show for instance is famous for it’s weekend of country & western music. Being a bit anti-social we had always avoided them and now we were in the moddle of the biggest of them all. There was only one thing to do – go to the bar and enjoy!

Cold German beer, a nice chat with a Dutch motor-homer who gave us tips on touring Scandinavia, and  the first time Kate had seen Danny watch a live rock band – okay, so they were definitely targeting the over 50’s but it was still a rock band. The grey pound, en masse – a great night!

Caravan Salon is huge – it absolutely dwarfs the annual NEC one in the UK. Day 1 we did accessories – yes, a whole day walking our flip-flops off looking at accessories. It was hot day and a couple of extortionately priced beers were definitely needed to help us get round. But it was Day 2 we had been anticipating – motorhomes! It was cool, grey and drizzly outside but in the massive halls exploring the huge array on offer it felt more like Christmas.

We started in the “Premium” hall with a bewildering array of the most expensive motorhomes in the world. Morellos had our favourite van of the show in our ‘type’- their smallest at a manageable 8m but with a starting price, before the many necesary ‘extras’ of €157,000 it remains in the “when we win lottery” realm. Continuing in fantasy land we moves on to the big Morello’s with their garages containing Porsches, and then real luxury of the Concordes whose motto seems to be “Bigger and Better”. Jaw-droppingly plush – and huge – and then there were the Cruzzers with their pop-out sides which we didn’t have the nerve to queue to explore. 

There are a surprising number of people able to afford these but we worked out that the reason we don’t really see them on the road is that they generally can’t get to the places we can – we are at the extreme for those at nearly 5 tonnes and just under 8m. These monsters, upwards of 15 tonnes and 12m make for a somewhat different travel experience. Oh, and you won’t get much change out of €500,000 (without the Porsche)

We also came across Kate’s new favourite – the monster trucks we sometimes see and have always wanted to look inside. A company who does adventure tours had some – they do tours of places like Morocco, and Iran-Azerbaijan, where you turn up with some clothes and they provide the vehicle & kit. Up to 13 vehicles travel together, often off-road, meeting at set points at the end of the day with experts available to help at all times. Sounds absolutely brilliant, the only catch being it’s around €1000 a day without the air-fare. Shame. But at least we got to see around inside a couple.

Not luxury, but solid and completely self-sufficient on both lithium batteries (24 of them) & solar, and a water purification system so you can suck it up from anywhere. Brilliant. The bigger one had just been round Mongolia for 6 months. Absolutely awesome – and again in the €500,000 range.

After the Premium hall everything else seemed reasonably priced! We explored caravans and trailer tents, mini-motorhomes and budget motorhomes, the only thing missing was British representation! We stayed until closing and still hadn’t seen it all. What a show!

Back at the van we found that one of the big trucks we like had parked up opposite – it just needed some scratches like ours to look properly tough.

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Danny had been in touch with N&B Owners Club member Martin who has been very helpful in the past and was coming for 5 nights.  The website was playing up but we knew the van model and parking area so, given the distinct lack of GB motorhomes, we went looking equipped with a bottle of wine. Sure enough we found Martin & Jen sat outside their 9m van chatting to another couple they had just met up with from the Motorhome Fun internet forum. We joined them and had a lovely couple of hours sipping wine and sharing stories – very sociable. Danny even got to inspect Martin’s huge garage – amazing what keeps you happy when your world is a motorhome. We toddled back to our smaller abode, happy but with a touch of garage envy. Tomorrow we head south.

 

More Black Forest Danderings

25- 27 August 2019

Danny went to Belchenblick reception to pay and a casual question about the name of the site (translates as Belchen View) had us changing our intended route to visit the subject. We drove up the valley further into the Black Forest and parked on the slopes of the mountain. We took the cable car up to it’s terminus and joined other Sunday walkers on the gentle ascent to the top of Belchen.

Sun shining, pleasantly warm and great views right back down to the edge of the Black Forest and beyond, across the huge flat plain of the Rhine. Freiburg, Staufen, and the hill we had climbed 2 days earlier were clearly visible, and we were glad we had made the detour – a really nice part of the world.  

Back down at the bottom and Danny found a vehicle he would love to own :

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We drove north up through the middle of the Black Forest, up over Feldberg where the number of parked cars indicated it’s popularity with walkers, and along the slopes above pretty Titersee, its lake filled with small boats.

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Triberg was a bit of a surprise – it appears to be the tourist main town, much bigger and busier than we had anticipated. Full of shops with wood carvings but we couldn’t find any parking, which was probably a good thing.

Further on, standing alone at the side of the road next to the river, was a cuckoo clock shop. We had to stop as we believe they originate in the Black Forest. It was only as we parked that we realised the shop itself fashioned as a large cuckoo clock, with a water-wheel on the side powering life-size wooden figures doing things like sawing wood and hammering. Brilliant. Inside there were, unsurprisingly, masses  of cuckoo clocks- over 1000 – of every shape and type ranging from €100 to nearly €2,000. The sound of the cuckoos was great. We couldn’t fit one in the van, so settled for a cuckoo clock fridge magnet as a reminder.

Unsure where we wanted to stop, we ended up following the Wolf River upstream to Camping Alisehof, a pretty little site next to the river. And, as we found next morning, next to a sawmill! But we liked it so decided to stay 2 nights and have a final walk in the Black Forest.

We didn’t have a map so decided to use the signposts up to Kupferberg, a pretty plateau and hamlet on a hill above the campsite.

When we got there we were still fresh so headed further up to the top of Teuscheneck, because it was there. The woods up there were full of fungi, although sadly we didn’t know what any of them were.

We got back down to Schapbach just too late for lunch in it’s only cafe and considered returning to the campsite but instead decided to do without lunch and go up the opposite side of the valley. Higher and longer than we thought, we really enjoyed it including the views across to the morning’s walk, but after 10 miles and nearly 2,500ft we were glad to get back and relax – not perhaps as fit as we should be.

That evening we had our first experience of German hailstones. The sky darkened, some large spots of rain hit the awning, and within a couple of minutes large hailstones at least 1cm across were battering down. The noise was tremendous. Followed by torrential rain, thunder and lightning. We felt so sorry for the people in tents, particularly the family with 5 kids.

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Family Holiday – Before the Storm

For half-an hour it battered down, then stopped abruptly. Campsite staff came round to make sure everyone was alright, and assured us this was normal! 

As if to compensate for it’s bad behaviour the next day was beautifully sunny. We headed further up the Wolf River  then took the Schwarzwaldhochstrasse (Black Forest High Road) north, finally leaving the Black Forest behind at Baden Baden. We were glad we had visited. It is not spectacular like parts of Switzerland and Austria but it is very pretty with real charm, lots of hills and walking trails, and well worth a revisit. 

Footpaths and French Steam

22- 24 August 2019

The parcel from Dusseldorf stubbornly refused to oblige us by arriving. We stayed an extra 3 days to give it every opportunity but in the end arranged to pick up the part for Danny’s beloved Leatherman from the firm’s premises on our way to Düsseldorf. The upside of the wait was that we got in a couple of walks and a trip on a steam train. 

The weather decided to settle temporarily into warm afternoons without the usual rain  which was nice. We took advantage and walked up to the ruined Castle Staufen on the vine-clad hill overlooking the town. Famous grapes such as Riesling and Gewürztraminer were ripening invitingly and the whole thing was very picturesque.

Built around 1100 on the remains of a Roman fort the castle was abandoned in the  1600’s and has been slowly decaying ever since, although recent work does allow a climb to the top of what’s left of a tower for the views – west to the Rhine and France, east to the wooded hills of the Black Forest. We rewarded ourselves with some cake back in the village – the Germans do really wonderful, artery clogging but irresistible stuff.

A longer leg-stretch took us on a 10 mile circular walk to Sulzburg – it was supposed to be shorter but we took a couple of detours (unintended).  We climbed up wooded slopes through a mix of conifers, beech and oak to the summit of Katzenstuhl  then higher to Enggründlekopf (great name) where, at just over 700m, we stopped at a break in the trees for the views across the Rhine flood-plain to the Vosges mountains in France.

 

A long slow descent through the shade of the forest where delicate woodland flowers were still blooming down into sleepy Sulzburg. 

We finally found somewhere open to satisfy our hunger and had a traditional lunch. Flammenkuche – the German version of pizza, made with soured cream, smoked bacon and onion – is surprisingly tasty and Schnizel is….filling. Danny describes it as a German KFC (with pork) but not as tasty.

The route back was largely through sloping vineyards with enough of a climb to work off a bit of lunch before dropping down through pretty little Grunern with it’s massive 16th century wine press. It was a lovely day’s walk.

 

Our last day before leaving Staufen we  drove the short distance west across the Rhine and into France, to Volgelsheim’s restored railway station for a steam train journey & Rhine cruise. 

With the 248 other pre-booked passengers we were eventually allowed to enter the station and pass through their rather chaotic system onto the platform where we got chatting to a guy with a Dublin accent – born in Malaysia, married to an Irish woman and now an Irish citizen and IT consultant. Small world.

Eventually we were settled in the old carriages, the black engine had a full head of steam up, loud  “choo choo’s” were sounded and we were chugging along the tracks, first towards the Rhine then down stream. 

We had a short visit to the sheds where the steam trains and their carriages are restored by the volunteers and where the real enthusiasts were in absolute heaven. Off again and we couldn’t resist hanging out of the window despite the soot that landed on our faces and stung our eyes. Finally we were ushered off and across the Colmar canal, up the steep Rhine levee and onto our 2-storey cruise boat. 

After queuing in the sun Danny opted for inside with aircon and soon we were off on an 80 minute cruise back up-river. The German side was well tended with small marinas and a well-used cyclepath-footpath all the way. People were messing about on boats and swans dabbled for food. On the French side a was scrubby and unused strip separates the river from the canal and the railway line. 

At Breisach the river forked round an island with a sandy beach where people were sunbathing and swimming and a weir, flood controls and a lock block further progress. We disembarked at the entrance to the Colmar canal, rejoined our train for the short journey back to Volgelsheim and finished our train & boat ‘fix’ in lovely early evening sunshine.

 

Busy Doing Nothing in the Black Forest

7 – 22 August 2019

We ended up spending an extra day at Stockach as the nice people at Caramobil completely failed to live up to the German stereotype of efficiency. We were indeed booked in for 7th August but despite us turning up a week early to check all was in order and get extra parts delivered, they had failed to order the fly-screen door we were booked in to have replaced. And then they had ordered the wrong fridge door. And failed to order the window catch at all. After seeing the look on our faces they hurriedly arranged to get a fly-screen there the next day and fit it as soon as it arrived.  

So a day later than intended we headed from Lake Constance to the Black Forest (Schwarzwald), an area of rolling hills with dark conifers cloaking their slopes. On the flatter ground, fields of maize and, surprisingly, tobacco (although we have seen a lot of cigarette machines around, we haven’t noticed a lot of smoking). The small town of Staufen im Breisgau is on the western edge of the Black Forest close to the French border and has a small campsite just 10 minutes walk upstream from the centre.

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Camping Belchenblick reception, Staufen im Breisgau

We had booked in for a while, Danny being convinced that German summers would be lovely and we would get in lots of cycle rides and walking.  

The day we arrived the sun was indeed shining and the town’s outdoor swimming pool next door to the campsite was buzzing. But the greenness of the landscape should have given us warning and we soon found that Britain is not the only place with unpredictable weather. The general tone was grey skies, regular periods of heavy rain and occasionally glorious sunshine which inevitably resulted in a thunderstorm – quite spectacular at times.

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The good news was that it was generally warm and once we managed a whole 8 hours without rain. The bad news was that sometimes it was colder than London.

The campsite is set between the river, and the railway & main-road. Given that our pitch was separated from the railway line and automatic crossing by just a privet hedge, we can report that the train service runs like clockwork.

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Our pitch, with  level crossing behind!

Thankfully the trains are short, electrified and only run every half hour. It surprised us how quickly we got used to it. Okay, it’s not as quaint as the cuckoo clocks that originate around here but pretty much as good for keeping track of time. 

Staufen itself is a pretty small town with an attractive old square that hosts a Saturday market, and a main street with small water channels (bächle) either side. Supplied by the river, these medieval runnels originally supplied water for drinking and for fire-fighting but today their main use appears to be for children to sail small wooden boats along. The town has a really nice feel and the buildings in the centre are very traditional in style although many are showing some big cracks. This is the result of a geothermal drilling operation in 2007 to provide heating for the town hall that went badly wrong. The old town has since risen several inches causing significant structural damage to 270 different buildings – two had to be torn down entirely. Tasteful protest signs are painted by some of the worst cracks. It’s a very polite kind of a place.

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Staufen Altstadt (Old Town)  – Town hall on right, red protest sign centre-left

The Neuman River that runs through the town has been contained within a pretty tree-lined channel with foot-and cycle-paths along it, and on the outskirts is an attractive old ruined castle on a small, vine-clad hill. Nice.

For Danny’s birthday we made use of the free regional public transport pass provided by the campsite by taking the train to the ‘capital’ of the Black Forest, Freiburg im Bresigau, where we dropped our bags at the Holiday Inn Express and headed off to explore.  

Freiburg is an old city and its position as a strategic transport hub led to it being badly bombed during WWII by the RAF – and also the Luftwaffe, by mistake! The centre has been rebuilt on its medieval footprint and many buildings round the Münsterplatz (the main square) look genuinely old. At it’s centre is the impressive red-sandstone cathedral with intricately carved spire, gargoyles and statues that took over 300 years to complete. Despite it’s size the bombers somehow missed it.

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Freiburger Münster (cathedral)

Impressive as it was, Danny refused to visit a church on his birthday. Instead we dandered around the bustling daily farmer’s market that surrounds the cathedral, filling the square with delicious smells. 

Like Staufen, the streets of the old town have bächle running alongside them, the gurgle of the water adding to the charm of the place. But even outside the old town centre there is a relaxed feel. The “most environmentally friendly city in Germany” has very light traffic with trams powered only by clean electricity and thousands of cycles making for minimal traffic noise.

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A busy street in Freiburg – with bächle & tramlines 

On a more sombre note Freiburg commemorates its Jewish citizens who were shipped off for extermination by way of bronze plaques set in the pavement outside their houses, and the site of the old synagogue, burnt to the ground by the SS in 1938, now has a shallow, reflective pool of water in it’s footprint. But it’s difficult to be sombre in Freiburg when the sun is shining and you are surrounded by the hum of people enjoying themselves – shoppers sampling the farmers produce, students sitting on the warm pavements chatting, and children playing in the fountains near the old synagogue.

In the evening we visited the Zirbelstube restaurant for a Birthday meal, a pine-clad place with crisp white tablecloths and waiters in traditional dress. We had finally discovered German food that didn’t involve some sort of pork with potato. Delicious. 

Back in Staufen we spent our time bouncing backwards and forwards to Camping Hentrich in Bad Krozingen to finally get the refrigerator door – a remarkably expensive item – and in-between that dandering round the village (it has and amazing cake & chocolate shop) or wimpishly sheltering from the rain and storms. 

Despite the weather we stayed longer than intended, waiting for a couple of parcels to arrive. As we had no TV reception – an inconsiderately placed birch tree saw to that – we had time to catch up with lots of reading, a couple of box sets and 3-months worth of The Archers. And in a break in the rain, a group of Alpenhorn players visited the campsite and provided an evening’s cultural entertainment – we find it’s the unplanned and unexpected that often provide the most memorable experiences.

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Alpenhorn Players, Camping Belchenblick – a memorable experience