Monday 29th Feb – Monday 7th March
Monday 29th February marked our day of departure after our mini sabbatical in Loulé. After a morning of packing, cleaning and sprucing up Heidi (which took rather longer than anticipated); saying our farewells to Jackie, Art, Nick and Chez (our kind hosts for the winter)… And a final hairy descent down the precipitous drive… we were at last on our way.
The route was a fairly simple one; head down to the A22 and keep driving until we hit Spain.
After consulting our newly acquired Camper-stop book (a recommendation from Matt and Jo, who we had managed to catch up with just before leaving) we picked Marchena, a small town just east of Sevilla as our first destination.
The aire at Marchena was a gravel carpark, over looking a huge municipal playground with an assortment of sports pitches marked out on the tarmac, separated by lines of pretty orange trees that smelt amazing. There was also a sandy area, which upon closer inspection looked as though it was used for riding, (a theory that was proven the next day as we witnessed proud looking Spaniard putting two very fine looking horses through their paces with some fairly tricky dressage manoeuvres).
Feeling very happy to be back on the road, we did the Motorhome-r thing, got out a couple of chairs and sat outside enjoying the last of the sunshine, before tucking into a tasty coffee chilli con carne.
During our stay in Loulé, I had been inspired by Jackie to join her for a brisk hour’s walk each morning. After succeeding in doing this religiously every day over the winter, I was determined to keep it up now we were back on the road. Matt, somewhat surprised at my new found enthusiasm for exercise, was a very willing accomplice. So the next morning we came back after completing a big loop of Marchena, feeling invigorated and a little self-satisfied.
For the next few days the driving was incredible as we came closer and closer to the Sierra Nevada. Matt was blown away by the vast, almost alien-looking terrain and although I had already taken this route a few weeks before (on the way to a two week Artist’s residency), the impact of this stunning landscape was equally astonishing. The Spanish word ‘Sierra’ originally referred to a ‘saw’, and as we wound our way through the jagged ridges of the mountains, it was easy to see the metaphorical significance of this name.
After driving through undulating rock formations, snowy peaks in the distance, we wound once more off the main road to spend the night in the hillside town of Alhama De Granada.
Alhama was a lovely town surrounded by canyons which weirdly reminded us of a rural ski resort, I think due to it’s walkable-round yet well-accommodated size, combined with the fresh feel of the mountain air. We arrived just after lunch and parked in a huge carpark overlooking one of the canyons, which was in turn overlooked by the layers of houses rising up on either side. Being the only ones in the car park (except for a small van) we were slightly nervous leaving Heidi there at first, but after walking around the town and sampling one of the bars, the Carnicería and the local Supermarket, we began to feel very much at home.
The next morning we did our brisk morning walk, which revealed even more beautiful parts of the town and more views down into the deep canyons which framed it. But we resisted the urge to linger, as our 1pm slot at the Alhambra awaited, so by 11am we were back on the road and heading for Granada.
As we came closer to the Alhambra, indelibly-etched memories of an awe-struck eight year old began to resurface and I was overwhelmed with excitement. I wondered what Matt would make of these extra-ordinary palaces.
Despite it being the low season, the Alhambra was swarming with tourists and as we walked along the paths to the Nasrid Palaces I hoped that I would not be disappointed, and that my childhood memories would remain in tact.
For those of you who are not familiar with the Alhambra, it is an walled citadel built upon a hill overlooking Granada comprising of a Fortress and a series of Moorish Palaces set amidst elaborate gardens filled with ornamental pools and fountains. The name Alhambra (or Al-Hamrā) meaning ‘the red one’ and the first thing that really hits you is russet red walls.
Walking within the citadel, you could still be forgiven for thinking that it was nothing overly impressive, after all we had already glimpsed the outside of a number of smaller castles of a similar ilk during our travels so far. And as we stood in the long queue waiting to enter the Nasrid Palaces, I almost wondered if I had imagined the images in my head, the square, reddish exteriors giving away nothing of what was hidden within.
Once inside however, the indescribable beauty of the palaces came alive in the thousands of carved plaster tiles that adorned the walls, their geometric patterns creating a kaleidoscope of shapes and patterns that weaved up the walls, around the framed archways and across the vaulted ceilings in every direction. Even whilst en-thronged within a surging crowd of spectators, these elaborate carvings still retained their magic.
I became engrossed in taking photos of the coloured tiles, the carved script and particularly the passage of the light through the ornate doorways, illuminating the people as they walked through. For Matt, the experience was somewhat marred by the loud groups of tourists that encroached from every quarter, but he still found the craftsmanship and beauty of the interiors impressive.
On finishing our journey through the Palaces we came out into a garden and paused for a brief interlude, listening to the murmur of a tiny fountain at the end of a large rectangular pond and watching a small shoal of tiny dark fish attempting to hide from the bright sunlight, before making our way to the other main areas of interest within the Alhambra. The romanesque palace of Charles V with its large circular courtyard, the imposing barracks heralding impressive views across Granada, and the tranquil bath houses with their multitude of gentle fountains and water features.
After five hours of walking, I was seriously flagging, so we made our way back to Heidi and headed out of Granada. We had found another free aire in which to stay the night, right on the main A-92, in the carpark of a large petrol station next to the tiny village of Dolar. The petrol station itself, was set in the middle of a plain surrounded by mountains and wind farms and provided a very good (if not slightly chilly) resting point for the night, and after our exhaustive day at the Alhambra not even the manoeuvring of massive HGVs could wake either Matt or I from our supine slumber.
The next morning we trundled Heidi across the bridge over the motorway and parked up on the outskirts of Dolar for a pre-drive walk. After a quick flick around the town, we began to draw comparisons with the small villages on the Lizard in Cornwall. It was obviously a fairly isolated village, whose main source of work seemed to be farming and we imagined that many of the occupants had lived there for generations and generations. Unlike some of the villages in Portugal, however, we felt very comfortable walking around and enjoyed experiencing rural Spain first hand.
From Dolar, we headed South East to the coastal ‘Sierra’ of Cabo de Gata, (a place that had come highly rated from Simon and Donna who I will introduce to you respectively when I am able to make more headway into catching up our missing weeks. Suffice to say they are two very inspirational artist who I had the pleasure of staying with in Andalusia for a couple of weeks). Our road took us between the edge of the Sierra Nevada/ Sierra de Gádor and the Sierra Alhamilla through a strangely industrial looking landscape, where miles upon miles of polythene green houses stretched as far as the eye could see. We were in the heart of the tomato region, although the strange-looking, plastic-wrapped shells (built to keep in moisture and protect their precious fruit from the relentless sunshine) conjured up images of Silicon Valley rather than that of rural farmers tending their crops.
We by-passed the town of Cabo de Gata in the hope of finding a more secluded spot, instead aiming for the San Jose, which eluded to having more possibilities for parking Heidi. As we traversed the sun-kissed terrain, we began to see clusters of flat-roofed houses glowing white in the bright sun-light and interspersed with palm trees. San Jose had the sense of an alternative touristy town, which you could imagine attracted more than it’s fair share of surfers and artists during the summer. Though we found one of the parking areas listed on Camper Contact, overnight stays were not permitted, and after having a search for the second spot (which we realised had long since morphed into a fenced hotel car park) we decided to move on to the beach of Agua Amarga further along the coast.
Here we had more success, finding a place where we could drive right onto the beach and though there were signs deterring overnight parking, we decided to take a punt after seeing the row of other motor-homers who looked as though they had settled in for the week. After picking a premium spot with only the sea in view (possibly to the slight annoyance of those behind us), we parked up to enjoy a very relaxed evening, briefly popping into the little beach bar for a drink.
Falling asleep listening to the sea is one of my favourite things, and a couple of times during the night I couldn’t resist lowering the blinds for a peek at the moon reflected on the rippling waves (whilst trying very hard not to disturb the sleeping Matt).
The next day we enjoyed a morning stroll along the beach and a quick coffee at the bar before setting off again. I wanted Matt to get a glimpse of the area I had stayed in during my two week residency in Andalucia, so we headed North to Velez Rubio to the beautiful mountains of the Sierra de Maria Los Velez with a view to topping up on some tasty fruit and veg at the bountiful Saturday Market.
Before reaching Velez Rubio, we paid a quick visit to Velez Blanco, it’s smaller neighbouring town, as I was keen for Matt to see it and experience the stunning hill top views on the road into town. Knowing how narrow the roads were we parked up on the outskirts opposite the Velad hotel (where I had first met Donna) and did a loop around the town stopping for a quick drink down in the gorge that separated to two sides of the town. It was great to be in the mountains. There is something about the cleanness of the crisp dry air that makes it seem as though you are breathing in the landscape itself.
On reaching Velez Rubio we found a tree-lined gravel car park which to our surprise was obviously quite a favourite with the Brits as the few spaces that were occupied were predominately GB plates. We got talking to the occupants of a couple of the neighbouring motorhomes (somewhat flashier ones than Heidi) who seemed to be regular winter-ers in Portugal and Spain, before going for a quick walk to the local Dia to pick up a few minor provisions (aka beer).
The next morning I struggled hard to contain my excited anticipation for our trip to the market, and was even ready before Matt (a fact that almost sent him delirious with shock). Suspicious as to this total transformation, he soon discovered that one of the reasons for my eagerness was the Pollo Asado stall which sold delicious rotisserie chicken and chips which I knew to be both exceedingly tasty and gluten free!
The market was absolutely stunning, brimming with activity and a sumptuous array of fresh veg. Rather than being in a municipal carpark or market square, it wove through the narrow streets carrying us with it, from one stall to another. For anyone who has not experienced this type of market it is hard to describe how different the veg is, being refreshingly ‘mis-shapen’ (by supermarket calculations) and so fragrant that you can actually taste these vegetables through their feel and smell. The ripe aromas beckon you to certain stalls where the produce is particularly ripe. One of the stalls with an abundance of tomatoes was surrounded by people, buying them by the kilo, and Matt and I enjoyed imagining the different incarnations they would take, from salads and sauces to chutneys and preserves that would last throughout the year. The last stop was of course the rotisserie chicken stall which took ‘finger-licking’ good to a whole new level. Matt and I sat on benches in a sunny square with foil containers balanced on our lap each filled to the brim with half a chicken and freshly cooked chips in Asado gravy… yum, yum, YUM!
Back at Heidi with our fridge, cupboards and stomachs fully replenished, we prepared to depart. I was really keen to visit Allbarracin, a moorish citadel built into the mountains that had been another of Simon and Donna’s recommendations. This however was a good 500 Ks away, so we had planned to break up the journey with a stop in Ibi (a small industrial town) and then Segorbe (where we could then assess how we were doing time/distance wise).
Though not as pretty as many of the previous towns, for an industrial town, Ibi still swept the floor with Crawley (our local equivalent) and during our one hour morning march we even discovered a beautiful old town hiding behind the apartment blocks and industrial estates.
The only down side from Matt’s point of view (and therefore mine too) was the it did not provide a peaceful night. Noisy motorbikes till 3am and endlessly barking dogs from 3am, seeped into his consciousness and made for a very frustrated Matt. At about 6am when he suddenly rushed outside. I though that maybe he was sick… perhaps too much Pollo Asado?… but he had actually gone to have a silent conversation with the two little dogs who had been barking incessantly for two hours, who he stood and stared pointedly at until they eventually succumbed to silence. After this unspoken stand off he returned to Heidi in a last ditched attempt to grab a final hours sleep. Amusingly enough, when he next emerged from Heidi, he was greeted like a hero, by the two little dogs who had obviously been equally sick of their own voices. I think after his dog whispering efforts they saw him as some kind of reassuring presence and seemed to be a little forlorn to watch us depart.
The next day we made it to Segorbe in great time and so Matt, feeling encouraged by the deserted Sunday roads, decided that we would press on to Albarracin. The landscape had changed dramatically from the white limey coloured stone of the Andalusian mountains and had instead taken on the colour of deep rust. I was pondering as to whether this may be due to iron in the rocks, when we passed through the red city of Teruel, which Matt informed me had been the heart of Spain’s iron industry. After Teruel, we found ourselves driving across a huge plateau before eventually winding our way through pretty forests up to the little mountain town.
The sight of Albarracin was an impressive one, the red stone buildings glowed in the winter sun like charcoal embers on a fire. After a few failed attempts, we managed to find a place to park Heidi for the night in a newer part of the town, before driving back to visit the old (or rather) ancient town. I was in my element, overawed by the beauty of the old narrow streets with the ancient buildings leaning over them on either side, touching in places like gnarled old trees arching over a road.
We had originally meant to leave the full exploring for the next morning, but I got so carried away trying to chase the light for ‘the perfect’ picture, that before we knew it we had been all around the town and right up to the Fort and back (sliding down the steep banks for some of the way). At first Matt had been slightly disapproving of my deviating from our original plan, as it had been a long day of driving for him, but he soon forgave me and joined me in the spirit of exploration….
…And it was lucky we did!! That night, when I awoke at 3am (regaled in full bobble hat, gloves, pjs, jumper and sleeping bag) to see my breath, I had contemplated that this was perhaps our coldest night so far, but really hadn’t thought anything of it. It was only the next morning when I peered out into the grey and caught a glimpse of the first tiny snowflakes floating down from the sky, reality dawned on me and I suggested to Matt it would perhaps be wise to high-tail it out of there.
A single glance out of the window and Matt readily agreed, spurred-on by the fact that (due to our glitchy inverter) we were out of electric and therefore unable to ignite our boiler. This was definitely not the time to get stranded! Sure enough we had made a lucky escape, as after only fifteen minutes we found ourselves driving headlong into a full-on blizzard with snow coming on thick and fast. I was hugely impressed though as a very calm Matt deftly navigated us back passed Teruel, un-phased by the diminishing visibility and within an hour we were back down to 1000 metres above sea level and ready for our next adventure.