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Safe Haven

23 March – 9 April 2020

After a smooth crossing to Belfast we only left our cabin to return to our vehicles. Danny had the surreal experience of being the first off the boat – a good omen, we hope. Kate had the more normal experience of being one of the last and we drove down in convoy to our safe haven in the ancient Kingdom of Mourne.

We were greeted to our new temporary home by Anne, Martin and our nephew Neal and, most energetically, by the family member whose home we were to share – Bella, the cocker spaniel. We parked up and on the advice of Martin and Neal started to fortify our home against Bella. This may seem a bit extreme but Neal had once kept his bus in the compound and Bella had happily chewed away at anything she could reach underneath – it was never the same again! We have a few vulnerable bits underneath so we built our defences carefully – or so we thought.  A mix of concrete, wood and chicken wire that Martin scavenged for us. She broke through them 4 times the first day and it took another week before she called a truce, although she keeps an eye (and nose) out for any change that would justify a renewal of attacks.

We ordered fencing materials that first day and are still waiting. There has been a huge surge in demand for DIY deliveries as people on Coronavirus shut-down start doing all those jobs they have been meaning to, and for some reason deliveries to Northern Ireland are proving problematic. The fence is much needed – we made the mistake of leaving our camping stools unattended for a couple of minutes outside the van and she removed a bite-sized chunk from one of the fabric seats. 

Our safe haven is a hard-cored, fenced compound about 120ft x 60ft. We look out across a quiet country lane to fields and each morning we awake to the songs of wrens and blackbirds. Up the road are the Mourne mountains and half a mile down the road is a rocky beach, so plenty of scope for our daily exercise.

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Our Safe Haven

This consists of walking Bella whose efforts to pull arms from sockets are strongly resisted! Down on the beach there are seals who lie on rocks poking from the water and lazily watch us, and it is rare to see any other people on the beach. When we walk the lanes there are lots of new lambs and calves in the fields and the daffodils and gorse are still splashing the countryside with yellow. And of course there are miles of Mourne walls. Built with boulders reclaimed from the mountain slopes they are a very unique type of dry-stone walling – we have certainly never seen them anywhere else.  

It feels very odd having to keep such a distance from our family, but we chat at a distance and have developed a routine. First thing we put the car outside the compound and let Bella, then empty waste and top up fresh water over the second coffee of the morning. Kate spends a bit of time trying to teach an old dog new tricks (Bella that is) and we take her for a long walk at random times of day. In the evening we put Bella to bed before bringing the car back in the compound. We shop every 5 or 6 days which allows us to enjoy the scenery with the roof of the car down, weather permitting which unusually for Ireland, it has. We feel secure and the lovely scenery, fresh air and walks with Bella are doing a good job of keeping us sane in lock-down.

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Lock-Down Rush Hour in the Mournes

 

We feel very lazy and really enjoy getting updates from friends and family, particularly some of the funnies that circulate on t’internet. We monitor what is happening elsewhere with full-timers but at the moment give no thought to future plans. Oh, and without any effort at all, we acquired another ‘great’ so congratulations to Becca & Ben on producing such a lovely little girl. We await our next ‘great’ – due in May – with a slight feeling of unreality as we don’t know when we will be back in England to see the new little ones, or even when we will be able to visit our family over here.  Strange times. 

Keep well everyone.

Coronavirus Exile

11 – 23 March 2020

We collected our eerily empty home from the body-shop – she looked great – and drove her straight over to our dealer for a couple of days of checkups – MOT, service, habitation check etc – enjoying the excellent hospitality of Kate’s brother and his family for the duration. We needed new brake pads – hardly surprising after some of our exploits in Greece – but otherwise came out with a clean bill of health. A month after dropping her off we had our home back and headed up to our storage unit to start re-stocking. 

We had made the mistake of making a plan. We had 3 weeks booked on a campsite not far from our rented-out house and intended to catch-up with friends and get ourselves fully MOT’d – eye tests, dentists, doctors etc. Then we had a Tunnel crossing booked for early April, intending to drive down to Greece through Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Albania. A tour of Northern Greece, a return to the Peleponnese and then a ferry back to Italy at the start of July for a return to the UK where we have a canal holiday booked in July – a bucket-list item for Danny for his significant birthday. Wow – that is organised for us!

Our first inkling that things may not go to plan was the state of the supermarkets. We checked in to our campsite and headed to Tesco and the sight of rows of empty shelves. Our last shop had been back in Cockermouth over a week earlier when things had been completely normal. Not now. We toured a number of supermarkets and were completely unable to get dried pasta. Bizarre. We tried – and failed – to understand the panic buying of toilet rolls. Well, everyone will have seen it so we don’t need to describe it further but we were shocked by the panic buying and by how packed the supermarkets were whilst everywhere else was getting more quiet. With limited storage we need to shop every 3 or 4 days and seeing the quantities people were stocking up on was rather shocking. A request for hand sanitiser was routinely greeted with a look of incredulity and we resorted to buying the basic ingredients for the WHO make-your-own recipe. Danny was inclined to take it more seriously than Kate – we both have underlying conditions – but being in the motorhome seemed to insulate us in a way and we were confident we’d be able to weather it either on a campsite or wild-camping.

Our Green Cards arrived as we received notification after notification of travel warnings and borders closing. Five days after arriving came the Friday announcement of Coronavirus restrictions. That evening as we walked on Thurstaston beach a large gathering of youngsters enjoying the start of the weekend seemed an odd counterpoint to the government’s social distancing direction. Everything felt strange and uncertain but we were comforted by the thought we still had over 2-weeks on the campsite in which to see how things were going. Except that on Sunday morning the campsite staff told us the site was closing with immediate effect.

As full-timers with no bricks & mortar to return to, we – and the other 3 full-time units on the site – were allowed to stay on for a short time awaiting a decision from the Caravan Club. The almost empty site felt strange, a feeling accentuated by the beautiful weather and glorious sunset. What were we to do?

We watched the news – caravan sites closing across the UK and motorhomes not welcome in Scotland and Wales. We realised that communities normally welcoming to motor-homers were becoming wary of these strangers who may carry the virus or prove a burden on local services. Public toilets were being shut, and with the closure of caravan sites we would no longer have access to facilities to dispose of our waste or top up with fresh water. All of a sudden we realised how illusory our independence was.

We considered our options, fortunate that we had some. Friends offered lifeline’s to us but we didn’t know how long the situation would last and were reluctant to impose. We visited a furnished apartment available on a 3-month let but realised that apart from the high cost we would be homeless again after that and would probably go slightly mad as well. Our best option was provided by Danny’s sister and her family, who generously offered us the use of a fenced compound next to their house with access to an outside tap and drains. Plenty of fresh air and beautiful scenery. What you would call a “no brainer”. In Northern Ireland. 

Anxious about a travel ban we boarded the overnight ferry to Belfast on Monday with both the van and the car. It felt really strange boarding separately then going straight to our cabin with plentiful supplies of Dettol, wipes and hand-wash. We were in time to watch Boris announce the lock-down – only leave home to exercise once a day, travel to and from work when”absolutely necessary”, shop for essential items and for medical or care needs. Closure of shops selling non-essential goods, no gatherings in public of more than two people who do not live together and, particularly pertinent to us, the compulsory closure of all campsites. As we sailed away leaving the Liverpool skyline behind we felt as if we were fleeing the country and going into exile, not knowing what would happen before we returned.

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Four Weeks, Three Cottages & Ireland

11 February – 11 March 2020

Temporarily homeless, we headed first to catch up with Nat & Ian in the chilly and windswept North East. Never able to resist the opportunity to make a mere 3-hour drive last for 7-hours we drove north via the Peak District and the Yorkshire Dales. There had been some snow higher up and occasional spells of sunshine made for magical views. We did take a scenic route too far at one point though, a minor road which climbed into the snow forcing us to retreat to clearer roads. On the way we saw a traditional mole-catcher’s work tally hanging from a fence, something we hadn’t seen in years.

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The other car turning round is a 4WD!!

We had planned for this period by renting AirBNB cottages in 3 different locations, a week each. We didn’t care how small they were – the only criteria were a bath and a real fire! After catching up with Nat & Ian we headed off into the teeth of Storm Dennis for the lovely little village of Dent in the Yorkshire Dales – a cobbled main-street, 2 pubs, a village store and a coupe of tea-rooms for walkers. Our cottage next to the store had lovely views down Dentdale and across the flooded football field to the river.

It rained all week, at one point cutting the village off for the day, but we still braved a couple of walks, safe in the knowledge that a hot bath and cosy log-burning stove awaited us.

From Dent we drove south to Tideswell in the Peak District, marvelling at the flooded Ribble valley on route, the tops of telegraph poles just visible above the water. Tideswell turned out to be a bigger but still pretty village, well situated between Bakewell and Buxton and home to the Cathedral of the Lakes which still has bell-ringing practice on a Friday night. And yes of course we visited Bakewell to sample some of its favourite tart. The weather ranged from bright and sunny, through torrential rain to a fall of snow.

We managed a nice walk, sampled some lovely local real ale in traditional pubs, and best of all, had a visit from Trevor & Maggie who parked overnight in a nearby pub Britstop on their way from Portugal to visit family in Glasgow.

Last of the three cottages was in a tiny village of High Lorton near Cockermouth on the edge of the Lake District. Nat & Ian joined us for a few days. We discovered the joys of Turkish food in Cockermouth and got in a couple of decent walks despite the wet February weather – although Nat & Ian outdid us by venturing onto the icy tops for their own mini-adventure.

We drove over to Ambleside to visit our very favourite pub where Danny & Ian had a local pork pie each, a ritual of theirs.

We also made the most of the deep bath and our last log burning stove for a long time.

At the end of our three wet weeks of rural bliss we drove to Liverpool airport for a flying visit to Northern Ireland for a quick family visit. Concerns about coronavirus had been growing and we were fortunate enough to get some hand sanitiser and antiseptic wipes at the airport, things  we had been unable to get anywhere in Cockermouth. It all felt a bit weird. 

We had just enough time in Ireland to meet our next-to-newest “great”, the incredibly cute Olle and managed to fit in a pint of Guinness in a pub preparing for what is likely to be the quietest St Patrick’s night in history.

Then we travelled back through an abnormally quiet Belfast International airport. Needless to say the antiseptic wipes were well used.  After a packed flight we picked up the car and booked into a Premier Inn for the night 2 miles from our rented-out house. Why, we have no idea ! Next – Coronavirus changes everything. 

Rovings, Repairs & Relationships

11 January – 11 February 2020

From the moment we landed in the UK we seemed to be in constant motion. We reacquainted ourselves with friends and family starting with with those in the South East. It was great to see them all but it took us some time to recover from our shock at the price of a pint!

We visited RoadPro in Daventry where we had Lithium batteries and an extra solar panel fitted as well as a re-wire so that our ongoing problem with individual batteries draining down at different rates should be fixed. As an added bonus we got to visit nearby Bletchley Park, something we had wanted to do for ages and well worth it. 

We wanted to spend a couple of weeks testing our new system so took the opportunity to visit friends and family, try some Britstops (the closest thing the UK has to Aires), and check out a couple of places we’d always wanted to visit together – Bath and York. The drive to Bath took us through the South Downs National Park with its pretty villages and shocking house prices, and the Mendips.

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Clifton Suspension Bridge, on route to Bath

Our campsite was only the second we had been on that had individual bathrooms – shower, sink & toilet – which was a bit of a treat, and was also only a bus-ride from Bath. We loved exploring the Roman Baths and our self-guided walking tour, Kate finally getting to see the places she had read about – Royal Crescent, the Assembly Rooms and Milsom Street in particular – all famous during the Regency Period so beloved of novelists such as Jane Austen. And of course we visited Bath’s smallest pub.

A leisurely and scenic couple of days driving – we were never going to take the short route – took us to York. The sun shone for a whole day and the very thought of our riverside campsite flooding seemed extraordinary. A short walk took into the York centre where we walked the walls, visited Jorvik and Clifford’s Tower (were we forked out for English Heritage membership), and had a couple of excellent lunches.

We sampled local brews in the city’s oldest pubs and discovered the rather trendy area of Bishophill with 2 excellent 1930’s Heritage street-corner pubs and possibly the best Indian we’ve had. Bizarrely the waiter’s cousin owns the Indian restaurant in Kate’s home town and did when we frequented it nearly 25 years ago. Small world. 

We found some lovely wild-camping spots on our travels and saw some gorgeous scenery as we zig-zagged back and forth across the country, exploring the Yorkshire Dales and the Peak District which neither of us were familiar with.

At one of our overnight spots we woke to find ourselves surrounded by hunting dogs which soon headed off onto the fells, for exercise, training or a hunt – we never quite worked it out. A succession of locals turned up to watch their progress.. The only fox we saw was wisely running in the opposite direction unseen by the hounds.

We tried a 5-star campsite in Lancashire intending to do some birdwatching but despite the facilities it was more set up for static caravans and families and the weather was foul so we left in short order. Instead we headed nearer to home, celebrated our anniversary with a fantastic Chinese banquet at Chows in Parkgate – never disappoints – and caught up with Daryl & Rachel in Halsall having our first night in a ‘real’ bed in 9 months. Next morning  real British bacon on soft baps were a real treat for us – some things you just can’t get abroad.

Then it was down to the weird task of emptying out the motorhome into our storage unit before we hand it over for a month. It is amazing how much ‘stuff’ we have accumulated and we hoped that we would remember where everything went.

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How did we fit it all in????

We drove down to Kate’s brother’s – conveniently close to our dealer – and stayed a couple of nights having a lovely catch-up and enjoying the luxury of a bath before dropping off the van for 3-weeks of body-work, repairing the damage caused by the stop sign in Greece last summer. All our clothes for the next month were now packed in our only other vehicle, an old MX5  that belonged to Kate’s dad which we keep in storage when we are away.  It felt really odd saying goodbye to our home and driving off for a month without her . 

Cameraderie on the Costas

1 – 10 January 2020

This first post of 2020 is a bit late as we seem to have been constantly on the move since New Year. The repairs needed for our home-on-wheels led to a change of plan; our return to England brought forward by  a couple of months. We had intended to spend January & February exploring the Spanish coast but now we had just over a week before our ferry from Bilbao giving us just enough time for a couple of quick catch-ups with friends on the Costas. 

First we headed along the coast to the Costa del Sol and deliberately drove through Marbella – horrible one-way-system – and Malaga to see what they were about. Then we escaped the traffic by heading inland

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Mountains and olive groves inland from Malaga

We found an overnight spot at Villanueva de Algaidas, a quiet agricultural town in olive country with an interesting line in Xmas decorations – the largest cross-stitch we have ever seen! 

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Homemade Xmas decorations – the pictures are huge cross-stitch embroidery!

The morning brought beautiful mists that lingered in the valleys as we rolled through troglodyte country around Guadix and carried on east towards the Costa Cálida.

Just before Mazarron we parked up outside Phil & Denise’s home and settled in for a good catch up, which it was. They looked after us a treat and we’ll just say that any night that ends up with uninhibited singing and dancing in the kitchen has got to be a good one!

We were all a little delicate over an excellent full English breakfast the next day but while they could relax we had some serious miles to do. Given the state of our batteries we aimed for an Aire with electricity at Calpe but hadn’t factored in that it was the Three Kings weekend and everywhere – including the campsites – were full. So we looked for a wild-camp. Which led us on to some interesting roads, one of which we had to give up on as it just got too bad. 

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An interesting “road” in search of an overnight spot

We did eventually find a nice secluded spot – only to be joined 10 minutes later by an interesting Dutch rig with a young couple and their 2 children who also live on the road. The bit we didn’t envy was the pop-up tent for sleeping in on the roof – a bit too chilly at night for that. 

Next day we joined Peter & Alison on a campsite on the Costa Blanca near Denia and had a thoroughly enjoyable couple of days with them. We went into the town for the Three Kings parade which was good fun, the adults as well as the children gathering in as many of the sweets thrown out by each of the Kings’ floats as possible.

We also got in nice a walk in, making the most of the sunshine before the inevitable grey of an English winter.

We left Peter & Alison as they headed out on an energetic bike ride and set off to cover the 500 miles to Bilbao. The drive north through ever-changing countryside through the expanse of Spain was really enjoyable. Spain is so big, an its constituent parts so varied, that it is an endless source of fascination for us. We love it. And we found a couple of lovely, isolated overnight spots where we were able to run the engine when the batteries needed topping up. One of them was near an observatory and gave us a lovely sunset as well as great dark skies for star-gazing.

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Wonderful Wildcamp

Finally we were at the ferry. The sun was shining and it was a lovely day and we were completely baffled to find that our ferry would take 12-hours longer because of bad weather in the Bay of Biscay. Luckily we aren’t superstitious (much) but it still felt odd to be leaving the mainland after 8 months. And yes, the weather was rough and sleep impossible given a cabin in the prow of the ship, But we rolled onto the shore back in the UK just before midnight on Friday 10 January. Next stage – repairs and re-connecting with family & friends.

Our Reflections on 2019

Our danderings this year took us 11,507 road-miles across 12 European countries- UK, France, Italy, Greece, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Portugal in that order.

On one negative side we have witnessed first hand the effects of global warming in our travels – extended droughts, other extreme weather events causing damage & floods, the late arrival of spring and unusual summer weather, the retreat of glaciers, and from local people everywhere, “it never used to be like this” We have shared the bewilderment and sadness of our European neighbours as the UK slowly and painfully tore itself apart over Brexit – there are times when not getting British TV can be a blessing! And of course there were our ‘van problems – the fridge, the batteries, the blocked plumbing and resultant flooding, and of course our painful encounter with a ‘Stop’ sign in Greece leaving scars that need attention.

We have also missed our family and friends and are still adjusting to the loss of Kate’s mum.

But on the positive side we have loved continuing to exploring new places. Looking back through our photos which Kate is finally getting round to sorting, our highlights included

  • Brittany, which even in March is quite lovely. We loved the St Patricks “Day celebrations, and the standing stones at Carnac are an amazing sight whatever the weather.
  • Getting to spend some quality time at the Normandy invasion sites and finally visit the Bayeux Tapestry.  
  • Spring in Greece. We loved the wildflowers, the walking and exploring the fantastic archaeological sites, particularly Delphi, Mycenae, Mystras & Acrocorinth, and wandering round some excellent museums, but the highlight in Greece has to be the scenery and stopovers as we hugged our way round the coast of the Peleponnese, all senses heightened by the ‘interesting’ road quality and sheer drops. 
  • When we fled the heat of Greece in July we travelled up Italy and met up with friends and family which was absolutely lovely. And our detour to Florence gave us the wonders of the Galileo Galilei Museum and Uffizi gallery as well as some excellent food.
  • We discovered Switzerland. Okay, it’s too expensive for us to rush back, but the scenery lived up to every expectation and, after Greece, the roads were a delight. And we had possibly the best experience of the year, which was walking on the Jungfrau in the snow – once we got away from the crowds. 
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On the Jungfrau
  • In Germany we finally got to visit Hitler’s Eagles Nest, then moved on to discover the Black Forest by foot, bike and ‘van’ before taking a steam-train trip & Rhine cruise. We also learned that there are places in the world with weather as temperamental as in the UK.
  • Three months in Portugal where we had a great 2-weeks with friends, enjoyed the wildness and birdwatching at Sagres with a brilliant bird/dolphin-watching boat trip, celebrated Kate’s birthday in Lisbon, and found that our favourite part of Portugal so far is Alantejo with its white towns and villages and traditional agriculture. 
  • And in Spain we finally got to Ronda and Cordoba and found Ronda to be a little gem.

It’s been a year for good year for eating too. We saved up enough to do some fine dining in Belfast, Brittany, Athens and Freiburg in the Black Forest and although the seafood at Patrick Jeffroy in Brittany was superb it has to be said the winter’s night offering at Ox in Belfast was probably the tastiest menu we sampled.

But really some the stand-out meals were more simple fare prepared with love in small places, like the tapas in the tiny bar in Evora that closes its doors once all 12 seats are filled. There was the ham, cheese and egg galettes in Brittany and the perfect Greek salad in Drepano, the frogs legs in Bayeaux and the pork & clams in Faro. Kate took to Flammenküche in Germany and Danny developed a real taste for Portuguese custard tarts.

With Brittany, Spain, Portugal & Greece in the mix it was an excellent year for sampling seafood with Danny finally getting to sample the hideous looking goose barnacles popular in Spain & Portugal which of course he took to straight away. And in our experience to date no-one grills like the Greeks, and my word they know how to stuff a squid! And of course the tortillas de camerones at Romerijo’s amazing seafood place in El Puerto Santa Maria which is now a “must” for us if we are in the vicinity.

We haven’t cycled as much as we would have liked, a side-effect of carrying the bikes partially dismantled in the garage, and we have pined for a good British hill-walk at times with a cosy pub and real ale at the end. We still miss hot-baths and roaring fires, the company of old friends and Christmases the way we used to spend them. But are we ready to trade it in? Not likely! Sitting in the sunshine on New Year’s Day in 22°C while we chat about where to go next is a good persuader of the joys of travelling. Ideally we’d like a base at home, but letting out the house lets us do this, and for now at least we’re going to keep on rolling. We don’t know what effect Brexit will have so we intend to make the most of next year. 

New Years Resolutions? The usual ones – drink less, lose weight and do more exercise. But also to wild-camp more (once the batteries are replaced) and, of course, explore more. Happy New Year!

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Christmas at Cabanas

28 November – 29 December 2019

When we arrived at our Xmas stop-over site at Cabanas de Tavira the Xmas music was playing as we entered and decorations were up all across the site. Our favourite were those at the end of our “road” where a French couple had decorated the oleander shrub with beer cans & tonic cans and as well as a snowman outside their awning, they had a full grotto inside and fabulous lights all over both ‘van and awning at night. Someone sure likes Xmas! It made us smile every time we went by. We managed to resist putting ours up until December – just – when Kate draped everything with lights and the small wooden Xmas tree from the Black Forest took pride of place on the table.

We spent our time walking, cycling, birdwatching and otherwise relaxing and enjoying the novelty of being in one place. Having been shown around by Trevor & Maggie in September helped as well. When the sun was out we really appreciated why the Algarve is so popular in winter as its warmth often brought the temperatures up above 20C and enticed some hardy people to sunbathe by the pool.

We took the train into Faro to explore and found an excellent restaurant down a back-street, Tasca do Ricky, where Ricky was a genial host and his wife an excellent cook. We went fully traditional – clams “a bulhao pato” (with garlic and coriander), pork & clams, and a magnificent main course of seafood cataplana. Cataplana is the name of the traditional pan, shaped like two clamshells with a clamp on either side which is used in the Algarve for cooking seafood. It was superb, with razor clams, mussels, clams, various sizes of prawns, tomatoes, peppers, garlic and coriander all combining to produce the most fantastic broth which we soaked up with bread until we were stuffed. Can’t recommend it highly enough.

One Friday night we took the train into Tavira to sample local nightlife and found it so low key you could have missed it, but the decorations were lovely. And we did get a nice curry.  On the theme of Xmas decorations, apparently there is a tradition for local communities to help their children make a nativity scene in their street every Xmas, and we found one near to us in Cabanas, enhanced by a snowman and multi-coloured tinsel Xmas tree. A lot of TLC had gone into it and we couldn’t help, rather sadly,  wondering how long it would survive in many English towns.

We found that out-of-season Cabanas has a full campsite but a quiet night-life which suited us but made us realise that many of the apartments must be for holidays rather than residential. However there are some real “locals” places which never close. One night we revisited the tiny bar with no name up the road in Conceicao and had a lively Google-translated conversation with the 76-year old owner who remembered us from our September visit. This time we sensibly stayed away from the Aguadente!

We endured 8 or 9 days of grey, wet, cold and windy weather as the rains finally arrived in Portugal over a month late and all at once. We may have hated it – Kate was heard to mutter “could get this at home” – but the ground really needed it and greedily sucked it up. Green shoots started appearing in no time and the local’s heaved a sigh of relief. To stop ourselves going slightly mad trapped in a tin box with rain beating heavily on the roof, we hired a car for a few days and explored a bit which made us appreciate the area inland, and allowed us to do a good Xmas shop in Tavira.

One morning the staff came round with a sleigh and gave a gift to every pitch which was a lovely surprise and really got us in the mood. The very next day the grey vanished and the sun came out and stayed out for the rest of our stay. It did feel a little odd to be sunning ourselves on Xmas Eve! We broke open the box of mince pies Dave & Sandra had kindly sent us, whipped up some brandy cream, and slowly worked our way through them. Now that really did  feel Christmassy!

Being new at this it felt even more odd to do a long walk in shorts and tee-shirts on Xmas Day, but please don’t think we are complaining. It was lovely. And unlike Xmas Eve when everything closes early in Portugal for family time, midnight mass and gift-giving, Xmas Day seems to see families out promenading in the afternoon sun and visiting the local bars for a glass of wine or nibbles. We were helped along in the Xmas mood by friends and family sending us pictures of roaring fires, real ale in lovely pubs, and their Xmas celebrations, and the campsite internet even got us through one or two FaceTime chats before giving up the ghost.

Later, after a full roast chicken dinner with all the trimmings and Xmas Pudding (again courtesy of D&S) we joined another English couple, across the way from us, in the great British tradition of playing silly games, whilst drinking, before rolling contentedly back to the ‘van’. Christmas Day had seemed so long coming and passed so fast!

The Friday after Xmas our near neighbours took us to John’s Bar where the English proprietor runs a weekly quiz. Fortunately, John put us together with a young couple from London who, despite being a few drinks ahead of us were able to save us from crashing and burning during the music round. We won a bottle of warm, sea-sweet Asti which we promptly shared in the warm glow of success. Our first pub-quiz win, ever!!

The day before we were due to leave we cycled out through the orange groves and bare persimmon trees, their orange fruits scattered on the floor, to Cacelha Velha. The sun was warm and we sat outside and had oysters, clams and brown crab as a ‘farewell to Portugal’ meal – yes, we know, any excuse will do.

And on our last night, we just had to go down to the front to watch the sunset over the Ria Formosa. We don’t know when we’ll be back, but we surely will.

 

Last Road Trip of the Year

27-28 November 2019

On another grey day we said goodbye to our lovely hostess and the “wettest part of Spain” as declared by the noticeboard outside the campsite. We had 2 days to make it to our Christmas quarters in Portugal and although we could have done it in one, we wanted to do some back-roads travel.

We headed out and onto the scenic A372 – why does “scenic” so often go along with disintegrating, narrow roads with crumbly edges? Well, it all adds to the interest and Kate took up “spotter” duty, calling “clear, clear, clear” on the left-hand hairpins as we twisted our way up amongst the oaks in the Sierra de Grazalema national park.  

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Sierra de Grazalema

It’s a lovely area with Grazalema village itself (pop. 2,205) nestled beneath cliffs in the valley carved by the Guadalete river. We noticed a complete lack of air conditioning units which could be down to its altitude (800m) or shade from the surrounding mountains, and it has the most spectacularly situated football pitch we have seen to date – and we’ve seen a few on our travels!

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Grazalema Village

We followed the road up through pine trees into the clouds and over the watershed where the  Guadalete river rises and a viewing point was barely visible through the mist. 

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Watershed in the Clouds

Going down the other side men with buckets were collecting acorns from the ground – free food for their animals perhaps, although we are told they can be used to make flour or coffee from them apparently.  

Approaching El Bosque we looked down on our first covered bull-ring – we assume a testament to unpredictable weather.

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El Bosque Bull-Ring, Sierra de Grazalema

As we left the mountains behind the sun came out turning the stubble on the rolling arable fields to light gold.

We spent the night on the quayside at Puerto Santa Maria just outside Cadiz where we sorted out our New Year plans and revisited Romerijo’s where Danny re-acquainted himself with the best Tortillas de Camerones in the world and had his first Percebes (Goose barnacles) which Kate couldn’t bring herself to try but mastered the art of preparing – holding the tip, twisting and pulling so the leathery sheath comes away to reveal the red flesh. Danny really liked them.

It was foggy when we woke and it lingered over the coast as we headed off to fill up on LPG which we had just run out of. Not so bright of us! We took a detour at Seville to Autocaravanas Hidalgo where we managed to get a replacement heating relief valve – ours is leaking – and mid-afternoon we entered Portugal and headed straight to a car-wash where we finally got the caked-on orange muck off. All bright and shiny we drove to our home for the next month. The entrance was festooned with Xmas decorations and playing Xmas music and it was beginning to feel a bit like Christmas 🎄🎵🎶🎵🎄

 

Ronda : Lunch & Local Stuff

24-26 November 2019

Sunday lunch at a restaurant is a thing, but not something we ever do. Inspired by the nice feel of the San Francisco quarter we booked ourselves in to a recommended restaurant on the corner of Plaza Alameda, a nice square with a fountain where locals gather to gossip and people-watch. 

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Plaza Alameds, San Francisco Quarter, Ronda

We were not disappointed. The tuna tartare was the biggest we had ever seen, and the scampi wrapped in filo served with a curry-infused sauce was delicious. Kate played safe with fish but Danny went for the local Rabo de Toro – the best he has had – and he sucked away happily on the bones until there wasn’t a thing left, much to the appreciation of the staff who rewarded us with a complementary dessert wine. Another great Rough Guide recommendation. The only difficulty was waddling home up the hill!

We needed to walk it off and although the weather wasn’t giving us the beautiful sunshine that would have set off the scenery to perfection we did do some exploring. One day we planned a circular walk, taking us up along a ridge through olive groves carpeted with small yellow flowers and sumac bushes in autumn colours. Small birds flitted about and the rain just about held off. When we reached the Ermita Virgen de la Cabeza – a chapel built next to a group caves where a small group of monks once lived and worshipped and where annual pilgrimages are still made – we found the gates firmly chained and padlocked, although the place is clearly well tended. 

We did however have great views across the Ronda basin to the town perched on the cliffs and we could appreciate again the gorge of El Tajo and the Puente Nuevo across it.

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Rainy Day view of Ronda

We had intended following a footpath down the ridge and walking to Ronda across the basin before climbing up the gorge to the bridge. However our plans had not taken into account the difference between MapMe.com and reality. The track was gated, barred, and marked as private. We tried to assess routes down but everywhere we looked there was either barbed wire or dogs guarding stock. We had to go back and enter town the normal way.

On a rainy afternoon we visited 2 of Ronda’s museums. First the Bandit Museum, small, cheap and mildly interesting. This is the Spanish version of the Wild West combined with Highwaymen, and is immortalised through rose-tinted glasses in films and TV series. Easy to see where Zorro came from. Next the much more eclectic and eccentric Lara Museum. The private collection of a local grandee it’s an extensive collections of all-sorts including : clocks, weapons, phones, pipes, typewriters, musical instruments, scientific instruments, knives, bullfighting, cinema and photography, witchcraft and torture Instruments from the Spanish Inquisition. Fascinating, and only €4 each. 

The only way to finish a damp, dark day like that was churros and hot chocolate before a last look at the bridge before walking back to camp. 

 

Ronda – The Bridge & The Bullring

21-23 November 2019

The rainbow on the day of our arrival was a false promise and we sat on our pitch listening to the rain drumming on the roof for 2 full days. But it was a nice site with piping hot showers and decent enough wi-fi and we were snug waiting it out.

On our 3rd morning the weather started to clear and we took advantage to walk into Ronda.  The clouds lifted for a while to show us the surrounding mountains of the Serrania de Ronda which were quite lovely and looked great for walking. Another day. 

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Serrania de Ronda

We entered the old city, the Ciudad, through the Moorish gate at the southern end of town where the huge medieval Iglesia del Espíritu Santo towers over everything.

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Moorish Gate & Iglesia del Espíritu Santo

We liked Ronda straight away as the Moorish maze of old streets drew us up through town to the main event, the Puente Nuevo.  We ignored the crowds and peered over the edge.  The Rio Guadalvín has cut sheer cliffs that plunge down 130m and this gorge even has its own name – El Tajo.

The famous 18th century Puente Nuevo spans El Tajo. Both the bridge and its setting are as dramatic and beautiful as we had heard and more than justify the constant flow of day-trippers.

We had a great lunch at a really traditional hole-in-the-wall tapas bar tucked inconspicuously away in the tourist area. Lucky to get a stool, our welcoming host insisted on us trying the house speciality, meltingly tender beef cheek, and Danny sucked happily on pieces of pork ribs. Spain is a bit of a foodie favourite for us.

After lunch we visited another 18th century building, the Plaza de Toros, built in 1871 and one of the earliest in Spain.

To our surprise, beyond the stockyards we found a very grand dressage arena lit by chandeliers where the RMR – Real Maetranza de Caballería de Ronda – trains riders and instructors in classical dressage.

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RMR Dressage Arena

The RMR started in the 16th century as a brotherhood of horsemen charged with defending Ronda. They developed the teaching of military equestrian arts and merged Moorish & European techniques to create a unique style, then with the emergence of bullfighting as spectacle they also developed techniques for handling bulls from horseback. For those interested in horses, it is the oldest riding school in Spain and 2nd oldest in Europe and specialises in the beautiful Andalusian thoroughbred horse. Sadly there were none in evidence although the stables are next door.

Putting its purpose aside, the bullring is elegant and attractive with a double arcade of sandstone columns. In the area underneath the tiers of seats is a display relating to RMR as well as a 19th century harness & livery collection.

Danny declared it all well worth the €8 entry fee. 

A copa of sherry and a tapas of Iberico bellota made a nice end to our first foray into Ronda. 

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Salud!