Two Ports, one lemon

You know when you turn up somewhere and it’s a bit scuzzy and you think ‘Oh well, it’ll do for the night’? That’s how we feel when we arrive in El Puerto de Santa Maria, and yet…

There’s a lot of shabby ribbon development along the approach road, loads of graffiti, the campsite is arranged in closely packed rows that look like battery hen cages for camper vans. But the point is that the more we get to know it the more we like it and end up staying eight days instead of two. It’s not gorgeous and alluring like its neighbour just thirty minutes across the Bay of Cadiz, but it’s interesting and easy and a place where people live and work, not just spend their holidays.

We visit the Osborne Bodega, the headquarters of the famous brandy and sherry company (if you’ve ever been to Spain you’ll know their big black bulls which dominate the skyline up and down the country.) We buy fabulously fresh shellfish from the counter at Romerijo then go to their restaurant next door with our paper cones of langoustine and crab and tip it out to eat at a freshly laid table with china, glassware, bread. We wander the narrow streets of the old town and begin to get to know it. We find a favourite bar with a great waiter. We cycle to the ferry and spend a lovely day in Cadiz. We make friends with the slightly odd Spanish couple camped next door. We are sad when we leave and know we’ll come back one day.

After leaving Puerto we head for Almuñecar, tricked by reviews on our Camper Contact app that a ‘quirky, easy-going campsite you’ll love’ awaits. It isn’t. We don’t. We move on. The nearest alternative we can find is eight kilometres away at Motril, in our minds an unlovely place at the junction of the busy A44 to Granada and the A7 to Almeria.

We arrive at Puerto de Motril to find a palm tree lined oasis of peace and tranquillity. The campsite is friendly and relaxed and we find a spot with views through the palms to the sea. There’s a buzzing beach bar a short walk away with a Spanish version of Fat Boy Slim where we enjoy spectacular sunsets and giant gin and tonics. It’s lovely. Who knew? The only downside is that the sand is dark grey, not golden, but it acts like sand, feels like sand so…

Notes for campers: At El Puerto de Santa Maria we stayed at Playa las Dunas, an ACSI site. It’s touted as being close to the ferry to Cadiz but people with mobility issues should know that it is in fact a thirty minute walk away. There’s a really nice, friendly restaurant on site.

At Motril we stayed at Playa de Poniente, another ACSI site. The entry says the swimming pool is closed from 30th September but actually it was open, but without a lifeguard. The water was freezing in November!

The site at Almuñecar which we rejected was Camping Tropical. It’s right on a busy dual carriageway, tatty, full of discarded junk and has very small pitches with hardly any room to manoeuvre. Gertie is seven metres long and it was pretty challenging getting in and out. Inexplicably, it gets rave reviews from Camper Contact users.

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Chicken pie in El Puerto

The gas feed to our fridge stopped working a couple of weeks ago and we got it fixed in Anglet, near Bayonne (details below of the highly recommended Dometic engineer). The unexpected bonus is that the ignition for the gas oven and grill now works (we used to have to light it with a match and it took ages to catch) and it seems to be more efficient, so I decide to bake a chicken pie.

We camp near the wide, sandy beach of Playa Puntilla on the west side of El Puerto de Santa Maria. It’s 23 degrees with a cloudless blue sky. We do all the things that people on holiday do… have lunch at a beach side bar, sunbathe, swim in the still-warm sea. It’s lovely for a while, but what we’ve found we really really like is the feeling that we’re not so much on holiday as moving our home (Gertie) from place to place with a different view each time we open the door. Eating home-cooked food definitely reinforces this feeling and we cook at least four days out of seven. Gertie is equipped with a gas grill and oven and a three-ring gas hob. We also have a slow cooker and a Cadac barbecue, with griddle, hotplate, wok and pizza stone. In Burgos we bought a good, heavy paella pan for six Euros which fits the Cadac perfectly (Cadac’s own brand paella pan costs £45.75. Ha ha! Smug or what?)

El Puerto de Santa Maria is more interesting than it looks at first sight, by the way. The quirky Museo Municipal has some interesting archaeological exhibits and there are two sherry bodegas which offer guided tours. Plaza de Espana is in the heart of the old town and is dominated by the Iglesia Mayor Prioral. It’s a pleasant place to while away an hour or so, people watching.

So, back to the chicken pie. What with a potentially erratic oven, the use of an empty wine bottle as a rolling pin and the consumption of two large glasses of delicious Tinto de Verano (summer wine, recipe below) it’s something of a miracle that it’s edible. Luckily, we’re both ravenous by the time I get it to the table and although the pastry is a bit burned in places, it’s tasty.  I think the trick is to rotate whatever’s being baked a quarter turn every few minutes, so cakes are off limits.  Should do a good roast though.

Notes for campers:  The fridge was repaired by Save’Me, 4 Rue de L’Industrie, Anglet. We found them on the Dometic website.

We stayed at the Camping Playa las Dunas campsite at Playa Puntilla. They’re in the ASCI guide. We paid €18 per night including electric hook up. It’s a very large, popular site but this is probably because there’s no competition. It suited us for a few days but we wouldn’t have wanted to stay any longer. The restaurant and snack bar are good. Warning: The site is touted as being very convenient for the ferry to Cadiz but you should be aware that it’s a good twenty-five to thirty minute walk to the terminal.  Possibly a problem for those with mobility issues.

Tinto de Verano (Summer wine): One third cheap red wine, two thirds gaseosa or lemonade, a slice of lemon and lots of ice.

A tale of three cities (sort of)

Burgos: Arch of Santa Maria

On leaving St Jean-de-Luz we decide to travel across the interior of Spain to get to Cadiz on the southern coast.  We’re flexible about the route but about 350 kilometres a day is the maximum we want to travel. Using the tried and tested approach of putting your index finger on one bit of the map and your thumb on another, we decide to head for Burgos in Castilla y León for our first stop.  That’s the only reason really.  It’s about  ‘that far.’

Santa Iglesia Catedral Basílica Metropolitana de Santa María de Burgos.

OH/MY/GOD, as irritating people say in US sitcoms. What an incredibly beautiful city.  At 2,818 feet above sea level, it’s 4°C and there’s a clear blue sky.  The banks of the river which run through the centre of the city are a masterpiece of town planning, with plenty of room for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists.  The planting and landscaping is stunning, and beautifully cared for.  There’s a real sense of civic pride about the place.  We visit the Museum of Human Evolution and Burgos Cathedral. We roam and stare and eat and stare some more.  We love it and decide to stay a couple of days before moving on to our next finger/thumb destination, Plasencia.

Yes.  Hmm.  Well, it’s a bit different.  There’s a rumour that Plascencia has a Roman aqueduct and a medieval  walled centre but they keep them well hidden.  Try as we might we can’t find anything to gawp at.  The Tourist Office is so well concealed that an hour of Google mapping produces nothing. Nada.  Finally we find a ‘You are here’ map but it’s so covered with graffiti that it’s unreadable.  We do find a souvenir shop though, decked out with bras, plastic flower pots, sacks of potatoes, brooms.  Then we strike lucky and stumble onto the Plaza Espana, a teeming, lovely example of Spanish nightlife.  Children playing, families eating, lovers strolling, tapas, wine…after a couple of the last, Plasencia doesn’t seem so bad after all.

Teatro Romano Merida

Next morning we head for Mérida, the capital of Extremadura, completely unaware that it’s home to the most impressive and extensive  Roman ruins in Spain.  They are sprinkled around the town in unexpected places, like the Temple of Diana, which sits in an unremarkable side street.  The Roman bridge which spans the Guadiana river is the longest surviving structure of its kind, both in length and antiquity, in the world.  The jewel in the crown though is the Roman Theatre, part of the archaeological site of Mérida, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Every summer the theatre is the venue for the performances of the Mérida Classical Theatre Festival.

So, in just three hops we’ve crossed Spain and arrived in Cadiz, but we’ve fallen in love with the beauty and variety of the interior of this huge country.  The exploration will continue…

Notes for campers:  In Burgos we stayed at the Fuentes Blancas campsite a short distance from the city centre along a dedicated cycle path.  It’s an ACSI campsite with good facilities and an excellent restaurant.

In Plasencia we stayed at La Chopera campsite. It’s a quiet place with shaded pitches under trees.  Very pleasant with good facilities. Bike path into Plasencia.

In Mérida we stayed at Parking Teatro Romano, a dedicated motorhome aire in a public car park in the centre of the town.  24 hour security, very helpful attendant.  Electric hook up, grey waste, chemical disposal and fresh water available.

Battle of the pavement in Saint Jean-de-Luz

The harbour at St Jean-de-Luz

It’s been some time since I cycled extensively in France, and in the intervening years there’s clearly been a move to get cyclists off busy city streets by creating dual use pavements, pedestrians on one side, cyclists on the other. What a good idea, yes? Well no, apparently.

Picture the scene. Perfect blue sky, wild, surf-strewn sea, totally beautiful Saint Jean de Luz a mile or so away around the bay, a very wide pavement with clear dual-use markings and signage. It’s France, right? France is the cyclists’ friend. Cars understand the need to take care around us. Everyone rides a bike here. Cycling is easy in France.  Unless, apparently, you have to share a space with pedestrians.

On they come on the cycle side. Babies in pushchairs, joggers, lovers snogging, toddlers, women chatting, hoodies looming. I ring my bell. I smile. I politely say ‘excusez-moi’. They either ignore me completely or reluctantly move at the very last moment. What to do? In the end I give up and weave backwards and forwards through the lovers etc, across the whole width of the pavement and guess what? No-one cares or even seems to notice. No-one tuts or shakes their fist at me. Of course. I’d forgotten. I’m in France.

Bittersweet symphony

Lily

On Thursday 12th October, John retired and our beloved Border Collie Lily died.  We’ve waited so long for this time, the beginning of the rest of our lives, but we are now on our first long trip in Gertie with just two of us instead of three.

Our first stop in France probably shouldn’t have been St Valery sur Somme. So many memories of places she loved to run, restaurants she was welcomed in: ‘Yours is the best-behaved dog we have ever had in here’…and she was.  She gave us 15 years and 9 months of love and fun and we were so very proud of her.  But she has gone and life continues.  We’re on the road for the next seven weeks so here’s an update of the first bit.

After St Valery we head first for a place called Durtal in the Pays de la Loire, where a huge 17th century chateau dominates this little town, perched on the Loir, a tributary of the Sarthe.  Next day we head for Saintes, on  the banks of the Charente.  The town is amazing, stuffed full of stunning architecture. There is an incredibly well-preserved Gallo-Roman amphitheatre built in the time of the Emperor Claudius and a Unesco World Heritage site, the 11th century basilica of St Eutrope, including the crypt where he is supposedly buried, an important piece of Romanesque architecture.

Now, four days after leaving England we are in St -Jean-de-Luz, near the Spanish border.  In our imagination, this part of the journey was gong to be bathed in southern sunshine. Instead we are lashed by the tail end of Storm Brian. Better weather is promised for tomorrow.

Notes for campers:  The aire de camping car in Durtal is between the post office and a school.  It’s full around school drop off and pick up times but otherwise fairly empty.  The Raclet aire de service is not currently working.

The aire de camping car at Saintes is very popular so if you’re intending to visit it’s best to arrive early.  Some road noise.

 

 

William the Conqueror meets Thomas the Tank Engine

Corfe CastleWhat a lovely way to say goodbye to Dorset, travelling on the Swanage Railway to Corfe Castle. Astonishingly, we’ve never visited this part of England before but we’ve fallen in love with this beautiful county. We’ve walked some of the South West Coast, Path (at 630 miles, the longest national trail in the UK) and cycled around the quiet lanes and thatched villages. We’ve never been far from the sea and my only frustration is that my photography skills aren’t good enough to do the views justice.

The Swanage Railway is a great way to approach Corfe Castle and its village. It’s run by volunteers, who rescued the Swanage to Wareham line after its closure in 1972 and since then have lovingly and painstakingly restored it to its former glory. We left Gertie at the park and ride at Norden station, and boarded a carriage originally in use in the 1950’s. I don’t know why this was so pleasing, but it was.

The castle is owned and managed by the National Trust, so there are the obligatory idiot-proof information boards, tea room, medieval dressing up booth etc, but once you get past these, the ruins of William the Conqueror’s iconic castle are impressive and strangely atmospheric. It dates back to the 11th century and commands a gap in the Purbeck Hills on the route between Wareham and Swanage.

Corfe village

Apparently, the name Corfe derives from the Old English ceorfan, meaning ‘a cutting’, referring to the gap. From the top (a pretty steep climb on a very hot day) the views are stunning; rolling hills and a glimpse of the sea in the distance.

So, a journey back through the history of this place, both distant and comparatively recent.  What a fascinating country England is.

Westward Ho

Kimmeridge BayWell not that far west, more west-ish, in Dorset. The weather is glorious and Kimmeridge Bay is laid out in all its Jurassic glory. Today we cycle (well, I cycle and John walks as years of neglect have taken their toll on his bike) to the pretty thatched village of Kimmeridge to have lunch and visit the Etches Collection, a ‘multimillion pound’ museum of fossils.

Luckily, lunch is excellent. Luckily because Clavell’s Cafe is the only place to eat for miles around. We don’t visit the museum, entry £8 each. We’re not mean or anything, but £16 to look at some old fossils seems a bit steep. Instead, we spend the £16 on coffee and sticky toffee pudding back at Clavell’s. Oh stop it. We’re on holiday.

Clavell's CafeWe are staying at a site on the Smedmore Estate and it’s incredibly peaceful here. Pheasants poke about in the grass like chickens and the only sounds are natural ones; wind, sea, birdsong, oh and the odd crack of a shotgun which usually signals the disappearance of one of the pheasants. There’s no shower block, no loos, just a fresh water supply and somewhere to put nasty, smelly stuff. And very efficient recycling bins. Simple, quiet and surrounded by beautiful rolling countryside.

The corollary of all this peace and quiet is that as well as Clavell’s being the only place to eat, the nearest place to buy food supplies is a Spar in Corfe, an exhausting six mile slog by bike up and down a hilly, narrow lane,  or all the upheaval of going in Gertie. So we do what all wild campers do. We order a delivery from Sainsbury’s. We don’t need much so to get the order over £40 we are forced to buy a bottle of gin. And tonic. And limes. And lemons. Goodness wild camping is tough (that’s a joke, by the way.)

Clavell's Tower and Kimmeridge BayNotes for campers: We stayed at Smedmore Caravan Site, a Caravan Club affiliated site. Seven nights with electric hook up was £105. Don’t follow a satnav for the last few miles as it may lead you down a very narrow lane with no passing places, with a 1:5 hill with steep drops to the side. Ask for directions from the site office when you book. It really is a  bit remote so it might be a good idea to bring adequate supplies of food and drink with you, or you too may find yourself compelled to buy gin…