Viva España

Viva España

Travelling through Spain over the last two years has been an enlightening experience that has taught us plenty, surprised us consistently and captivated us completely.  Ever since our first steps on these shores, when we set out on our nomadic adventure in March 2016, each of our three return trips to Spain have opened up our eyes to a rich culture, a diverse landscape and an enthralling history. Above all Spain has wriggled its way into our affections and allowed us to see beyond its ‘Costa’ reputation.  A deep respect for this fascinating and bountiful country has grown within us and leaves us wanting more.

As we have completed this year’s exit from this delightful country, it feels appropriate to track back our Spanish travel trilogy – three visits in three separate years – in the vein hope to capture some of our adventures and highlights as we uncovered this much misunderstood southern European country.  The Interactive Map below represents the Spanish adventure that we have embarked on and whilst it still remains an incomplete jigsaw, it has created enough intrigue for us to return each winter to put a few more pieces into our Spanish Masterpiece. Click on the map for an extensive compilation of Points of Interest, campsites, wild spots, co-ordinates, images and links to old blogs and videos that we have taken during our time in this land of fiesta and passion.

To accompany that we have offered a short write up on each of the seven regions we have allowed our wanderlust to play in the hope that it might inspire you to return to the map to pin point exactly where we’ve been and called home. Enjoy this Spanish Compilation and let it whet your adventurous spirit.

Aragon’s special three!

This landlocked region of north-eastern Spain cries out for attention as so many flock for the coastal fringes of Spain’s Costas. Although the sun seekers’ loss is a traveller’s gain as this northern territory offers history and scenery in poetic partnership.   Aragon’s very first offering as you drive through the Somport Tunnel is the once grand, Canfranc Estacion, calling for you to rest your eyes upon its 365 windows and half a mile long platform. A ghost station that demands your respect even in its abandoned state.

The mountains beyond offer you monasteries and chiselled hamlets with religious acclaim, not to mention the panoramic vistas across to the Pyrenean foothills. And of course you can’t pass by en route south without calling in to see Albarracín with its medieval wall-city, Moorish fort ruins and its 16th Century Cathedral.  Perhaps a night in Teruel, Spain’s highest town will tempt you to observe its Mudéjar architecture, a fusion of Gothic and Islamic styles that is unique to the area.

Andalucia – Home to Bullfighting, Flamenco and so much more…

This is Spain’s second largest region stretching from its south-western most borders with Portugal right across to the south-east fringes. It is one of the most diverse regions as it binds together mountains, coast, wetland and dunes, embraced by the most enthralling historical wrapping you can imagine. With Christians fighting against the Moors, who from their North African neighbour, set out to conquer the whole region within four years. The Moor’s dominance is clear to see throughout the region with Cadiz, Granada, Seville and Cordoba show-casing their Moorish dominance and architectural influence.

Although don’t be bewitched by their impressive buildings at the expense of Ronda, for its precarious habitation above the stunning El Tajo gorge is a sight to be seen. The iconic arches of the Puente Nuevo bridge built high above the valley floor, connects the old and new town and its atmospheric prowess certainly commands your attention.

Deep in the mountains north of Cadiz, you will find the Pueblo Blancos – villages of built entirely of white stone, most of which are nestled within the heartland of the Sierra de Grazalema National Park. Grazalema is our favourites with its steep, cobbled streets and authentic village ambiance, you feel humbled by its beauty. And just further east, past Granada the Sierra Nevadas provides humble abode to the isolated mountain retreats of Las Alpujarras – the most authentic place to experience Spanish artisans. The journey through the mountains is a delightful step back in time which will pique your cultural curiosity.

To the far west, mention must be made to the diverse landscape of Doñana National Park – an important wetland area for wildlife in particular the protected Iberian Lynx and Imperial Eagle. Twinned with the Camargue region of southern France, Doñana is of significant importance and has become a UNESCO World Heritage site and whilst no doubt impressive – it is the draw of the eclectic, Wild West-style town of El Rocio that captivates many explorers with its cult status pilgrimage in late May.  El Rocio defies description and is just one of those places you have to visit and see with your own eyes, although be warned if you go in the festival season in May (or to be more precise 50 days after Easter Sunday), you will be sharing the experience with 1 million other people intent of participating in this unique gathering of brotherhood members.

Whilst many descend upon the Costa del Sol with Marbella, Torremolinos and Malaga at its heart – it is beyond the sprawling mass of high-rises, villas and Golf Courses where you will find the truest and finest mountain experience. 50km from Malaga and the Guadalhorce National Park – Spain’s Lake District entices you into to hike this mountainous region. With special mention of course to the infamous El Caminito del Rey, one of Europe’s most dangerous walks through the canyons of the Garganta del Chorro, which is something that simply must be done. The Land Beyond Malaga is something else and must surely be witnessed by us.

And last, and by no means least – if getting off the beaten track is an important part of your travel ethos, then the Sierra de Cazorla, Segura y Las Villas is the cherry on the cake. In the centre of Olive Grove central just east of Jaén, this mountain region which represents the largest National Park in Spain, is one of those places that has cameras clicking and visitors muttering the immortal words of ‘Ooh’ ‘Ah’ and ‘Wow’ several times a minute. So much wild beauty that the sandy beaches of the Costa’s simply can’t compete with – whilst pretty in their own way if you can see beyond the concrete jungle. Andalucia – the most diverse and wondrous region of Spain.

Castilla y Leon – the big UNESCO three

Having high anticipation of our Spanish exploration when we arrived early March to snow, we were somewhat amused. Where was the iconic sunburst that we had planned on enjoying? Where was that illusive blue sky that Spain is so famous for? It certainly wasn’t in this northern region of Spain. Still, regardless of minus temperatures, we were determined to enjoy our virgin experience of this mighty country and especially as there are three major UNESCO sites in a golden triangle.

First of all you have Burgos, capital to this Castilla region and packing a mighty punch with its ‘still in tact’ medieval Cathedral. Still in tact is a gross exaggeration as this architectural feat defies the laws of erosion. This is a fine example of Gothic design and is most famous for its tomb of El Cid. Entry is only €7 and to walk around this stunning piece of art – whether you love churches or not, quite honestly is irrelevant. You cannot walk away from this experience without being humbled by its prominence.

2.5hrs down the road you will find your second UNESCO site and this was our favourite of the three. As from the moment you walk from the origins of the immaculate Roman aqueduct down the steps towards the old town, you realise that Segovia is full of historical splendour. Cobbled streets that wind their ways uphill give you a great vista across the Spanish landscape and within the city walls, every corner you turn is yet another throwback in time. You could almost imagine yourself in a Dickensian novel. And whilst the cathedral is undoubtedly a work of art, it is the Disney-style Alcazar that truly owns the town and our affections. Whilst it has been renovated and in fact is still work in progress, this is a wonderful sight that goes well beyond the crass Instagram pose. Segovia’s buildings and her resident storks that often do a flypast, are just mesmerising and a day is simply not enough – just a flavour. Spend more time here if you can as its history and architectural charm will render you speechless.

Just two more hours west towards the Portuguese border you will find the third UNESCO, which if you’re not already sensationalised-out, will leave you with warmth and charm. Salamanca different yet again to its siblings with the river and its bridges creating the first impression. With the somewhat sprawling new town on the other side of the river, you wonder whether the inner sanctum will stack up and that is a big resounding YES. Within the city walls you have a blend of cosmopolitan energy mixed with historical prowess that as you climb the steps towards the fortress gives you a bird’s eye view of the town below you. It is full of character and with its sandstone walls will entice you to stay awhile.

 

Catalonia

Receiving big media coverage in 2017/18, this north eastern region of Spain has been, and continues to battle for independence. Catalonian’s passion for their unique identity is evident around the region as their express their feelings with flags, posters and yellow ribbons. Irrespective of what the world may think about the politics, Catalonia is host to some seriously beautiful countryside, cities and culture. It packs a real punch when you look at Barcelona! What more could you ask for from a city?  Art, class, history, architecture beauty, coast, texture.  However you feel about cities, Barcelona will impress.  And that’s before you look beyond Barcelona and see the richness of Monserrat and the limestone pinnacles that rise out of the earth, housing the most incredible Monastery. And what of the charming seaside town of Sitges? These are just some of Catalonia’s gems that need our time and admiration.

The Costa Brava region is delightful – a craggy coast with hidden bays, peninsulars and a classier waterfront than its southern cousins. Secret villages that provide a creative retreat like the charm of Salvador Dali’s home Cadaques and L’Escala, just around the bay is another delightful place. If you are looking for more of a city vibe then Girona might fit the bill, with its young community, music and flower festivals, we’re sure that its chic streets might lure you.

If it’s off the beaten track you long for, then the likes of hiking in the Monserrat mountains or even an exploration of the small yet beautifully formed Peralada and Besalu could well appeal and it is tucked away in these countryside hamlets that you will find hidden history of warriors defending their land and diverse locals looking to live in harmony together. Not much has changed over the centuries.    No tourists, just the ghosts of a time past and a few locals on a day out from the city.

Catalonia is rich in landscape and history – both ancient and modern and all we can do is to watch their evolution and enjoy their offerings.

Extremadura – land of the Raptors

The highlight for us of this land-locked region has to be Spain’s largest and newest National Park – Monfragüe (pronounced Monfrauway). Tucked just east off of the highway, this vast Park is home to the most incredible wildlife; most significantly its raptors and other birdlife. Monfrague with its reservoirs and rolling hills and mountains play host to 9th century castles with history seeping from every stone of its remnants to cave dwellings showing us a life way back when. And if that isn’t enough, the park is home to many protected breeds of birds such as the majestic Black Stork, Egyptian Vultures, Imperial Eagles and White-bellied Swifts. You can take a bird-watching tour and be guided around the birds’ safe havens, although taking your own tour will give you amble opportunity to see clouds of raptors take to the sky and nest up in the craggy rock faces.

Whilst these region has undoubted other highlights, for us this was the stand-out and is a very special place to watch wildlife thrive in an unthreatened environment. It’s a timeless landscape that will have you enthralled.

Murica – Jewels amongst the Greenhouse Mecca

Murcia at first glance feels like it is one of the least explored regions we have visited. And yet as I pin-pointed our highlights I was surprised by how many amazing little gems we found. Beyond the sea of Greenhouses, which is central to Murcia’s economy, your wanderlust will be seriously exercised. For example how about the delights of the craggy Cabo de Gata coastline where the rocks look like they have been hand-chiselled?  Or the architecture from the Romans through to modern day designs in the vibrant city of Cartagena? Or the mesmerising display of Aguilas during its February carnival period that will have you feeling like you’re in Rio de Janeiro or somewhere in a Mardi Gras?

Perhaps something more tranquil and authentic would better suit your needs, if so then look no further than the Ricote Valley, just an hour away from the region’s capital Murcia. This quiet, off the beaten track valley is donned with citrus orchards that omit their mesmerising aromas and blossoms in early spring. Authentic Spanish villages where no English will be spoken, allow you to be transported into a period where life has been untouched by modern technology. Bodegas, with their home-made liquor and markets full of local produce will make you feel like you are in the heart of traditional, old Spain, leaving behind the images of the greenhouses and hotel strewn coastlines.  Murcia is a little bundle of delights and not just a region to be passed through to get to the resorts east and west. Charm, history and genuine Spanish life will magnetise here and ask you to stay awhile.

Valencia Community – Rich in Fiestas and Traditions 

Reaching down to Benidorm and the Costas in the south, through to Denia and Castellon in the east and north of the region, the Valencian Community has tradition and fiestas at its heart. In the region’s capital, Valencia and Denia in particular, the greatest spectacular is in March where we defy you to not be engaged in this region’s atmospheric celebration of Las Fallas, where massive statues are built for St Joseph’s day on 19 March and then burnt a week later. With processions, traditional costume and a party vibe, March in this region is one of the best places to be in Spain.  And that’s without the Semana Santa celebrations. 

Valencia as a city satiates every single sense and appetite. For those who love the modern scene, then the futuristic museums will wow you and as you walk through the yoga filled parks that place themselves in the old river bed, the old town and ancient bridges will delight too. Valencia really has it all and is a wonderfully sensual city that I imagine you simply can’t get enough of.

All things Spain in one place

24 hrs in Girona, Catalonia

24 hrs in Girona, Catalonia

The first thing that struck us as we arrived in this Catalan city was how quiet it was. I suppose we have comparisons of London, Birmingham, Paris even to benchmark it against. Few cars lingered at the lights and few people were rushing from street to street. It was lunchtime and a Friday in mid-winter, so perhaps the Spanish siesta was dawning or may be this was just the city’s quiet heart-beat.

As our exploration began, only the deep resonance of the Cathedral bells that vibrates through your veins and the odd fusion of seagulls and parakeets seem to pierce the silence. And yet Girona could so easily be missed off the travellers’ agenda in their haste to head south to coastal retreats or in the mad dash north with their luggage crammed with Rioja and Chorizo. And it is true for us too, as it has taken us until our third Spanish road trip to drop in and say ‘hi’. So what is our view of this proudly Catalonian city after our brief sojourn ? Let’s see if we can give you a flavour of our experiences and then may be it will prompt you to go and make up your own minds.

As with most cities we’ve visited in the last two years of being on the road, there’s the old and new. And of course it is generally the ancient face we come to admire, as the outer fringes of industry and high rise where people create their homes and their business, has little to offer the curiosity seeker. Girona in that respect is no different. Nestled just below the foothills of the Pyrenees, Girona is blessed by stunning surroundings however your entry to the city is made. We came from the south west, Manresa to be precise, and our route through the snow-capped, densely forested mountains was a great set up for our city tour.

In the Spanish guide books there is little space dedicated to Girona. Barcelona and Seville certainly win the competition on that score. Although don’t be fooled by its lack of representation, as when we made our way from our inner-city camper park along the edge of the Devesa Park with its plethora of larch trees, I felt the anticipation grow. Despite the railway that dissects the old from the new, yet again we were struck by the lack of noise and buzz. A quiet station, few trains, only its metalic presence gave it away.

And then our first real sight of this unassuming city, carrying a historical weight on its shoulders, emerged as we approached the river.  With copious bridges that span a trickling River Onyar before the Pyrenean snow melt fills the riverbed, we felt immediately transported  into Girona’s soul. The colourful five or so storey buildings proudly hang their Catalan flags, propaganda and washing from their balconies like it’s a natural part of their decor, giving it an almost scruffy, yet lived in feel.  It reminded us a lot of the Pontevecchia in Florence just on a smaller and quieter scale.

Crossing the bridge felt symbolic as little did we realise that entry through the archway would take us into the heart of this somewhat somber city; the facades of the river-fronted buildings belying its inner sanctum. I’ve been trying to think of an adjective that best describes Girona’s historical old town and I think somber real does it for me. The streets, whilst full of Italian-style shops selling sumptuous clothes, shoes and leatherware are generally narrow and dark. I felt as though I wanted to sand blast the streets to bring it back to its former glory. Although in the darkness lies the truth of its history, so to remove it would be to strip away some of its legacy.

The dakness aside, in contrast the city’s cathedral and monuments are almost albino white, matching the distant Pyrenean mountains that provide the backdrop to the cityscape.  With a minimalist style to their exteriors, simplicity shrouds this city. It is not out to wow you in the same way Seville does. It invites you to enter its inner hub and engage with its historical tale that spans back some one thousand years.

The main thing I learned from my guide book was to head for the Passeig de la Muralla – the city walls – as this offers a terrific bird’s eye view. And indeed what a great piece of advice. So often visiting cities we feel like ants as we try to get a full experience of the majestic buildings, somehow missing part of the jigsaw by being on the ground. Yet from above we were able to see the full picture emerge and the city’s modern day identity trying to converge with its historical father-figure.

There are a number of entry points to this upper fortress passage. We started at the Cathedral end and worked our way south. En route to its maze-like entry, we passed the Banys Àrabs, the Romanesque Baths, which is very much intact and for €2 you can gain entry to this ancient masterpiece. A point to note, during the winter this is only open from 10-2 so be warned if a visit is on your list. Sadly it was shut for our city tour. Still, onwards we climbed up the seemingly never-ending stairs that lead to the walls, where towers positioned in battle readiness gave us a lofty view of the streets below.  The walls have been lovingly and sensitively restored allowing us to walk in the footsteps of warriors who were set on defending their realm. What a terrific way to experience this compact old town.

Back down at street level, we found the river again, where still few people graced the pavements. Yet a handful of hardy Catalonians brave the crisp winter’s grip that has taken Spain by surprise this year, sit outside for their early afternoon beer. Shops selling an enticing array of pastries more suited to a French boulangerie border the streets, reminding the visitor of its neighbour’s influence on its language and culture.  Having thought we were finally getting to grips with Spanish vocabulary, arriving in Catalonia is another challenge altogether for our foreign tongue. So many variants remind you that the locals here are set on creating individuality and independence even if they have been ruled against it.

The Jewish quarter was one of the largest communities in Catalonia back in 13th century, living harmonious alongside their Christian neighbours. Although after racial attacks, a massacre and persecution, the Jewish population either converted or were expelled from the country. Their community is called the Call, translated as the ghetto and museums today tell of their harrowing story whilst the street, with its intricate alleyways and cobbled lanes still hold their sombre secrets. It is a street with little light, which somehow seems befitting and symbolic of their story, with buildings leaning precariously close together as if in some sort of constructive solidarity.

It felt odd to me as we left the solemnity of the street’s ghostly past that the faint and gentle sound of a street musician should break the historical spell, as he played to his unappreciative audience on the steps of the Cathedral. Except for me who felt compelled to offer him rapturous applause for his musical talent.

The Cathedral like so many, regales in its architectural glory with steep steps climbing to its doorway, as if forcing you to make the commitment to reach its religious sanctuary.  Sitting strangely alongside its Jewish neighbours, this city paradoxically shows how two different factions of the community can coexist.

One final pièce de resistance, if my French isn’t completely out of place in a Spanish write up, is La Plaça de Independence, just on the other side of the river. A huge square with café-lined archways that set the scene for a small yet power symbol of the fight for independence back in the early 17th century. Whilst today dogs walk, cycles create wheel-track patterns in the sand and Instagramers look for the ultimate pose, there is a strange message carried through the ages about fighting for your right for liberation. A fight that still is very much alive, if not yet a battle won.

And so this university city with its throng of youngsters, musical festivals and weekly markets does have plenty to offer for a day’s visit. Modern one side and ancient the other, an eclectic mix that offers the visitor an day of intrigue, good quality walking and an insight to city holding onto its historical identity.

So how would we sum up Girona? Whilst it may not sparkle like its Spanish siblings, Girona has character and with its compact streets and bird’s-eye fortress promenade, it offers up a unique perspective of a yester-year that gently asks to be remembered. We are glad we came and we would definitely would recommend a visit here, although it did leave us sadly wanting. Whether it was the austere feel, the dark streets or the quietness, there was something missing for us. That said, come make up your own mind – it must be experienced even if only for its city walls.

Our Recommendations for a visit to Girona

  1. Come in spring or autumn as there will be more life to the place and it will certainly feel warmer.
  2. Start your visit in the morning when you will experience the smell of Girona from the plentiful Boulangeries.
  3. Do tie your visit into a Saturday as the market in Devesa Park is one of the largest I have ever seen with hundred of vegetable and clothes stalls. Markets are always a great way to experience the ‘real’ city and its locals. And Girona’s population is incredibly diverse.
  4. Do the City Wall walk first so that you can gain a real perspective of the place.
  5. Experience at least one of the many restaurants as Girona is famed for its classical Catalonian fare.
  6. Visit museums before 2pm as they tend to close for siesta.
  7. Avoid using the ATMs in town – every one I tried wanted to charge me commission. So come prepared with plenty of cash.
  8. Hotels are just on the outer edges of the old town and are within walking distance.
  9. If you come with your camper as we did, then there is a dedicated and secure car park right in the centre of the city within 10 minutes walk of the old town. For €12 you can stay for the night and it has full services as well.  41.983905 2.813767
Travel’s Classroom – Conquering Fear at Caminito Del Rey, Spain

Travel’s Classroom – Conquering Fear at Caminito Del Rey, Spain

Travel’s Classroom

Conquering my fear at El Caminito Del Rey, Spain

Integrity is so important when you write about your travel experiences; and even more so when you proclaim the importance of living life beyond fear – as we do. So when I had the chance to walk my talk I took up the challenge!

El Caminito del Rey in the Malaga region of southern Spain is a notorious gorge walk, which is famous for perhaps all the wrong reasons. Once crowned one of the most dangerous walks in the world, with death-defying climbs, 100m + impenetrable gorge walls and narrow, suspended boardwalks with only a small piece of concrete and a few planks of wood supporting you. It all sounded pretty frightening to me as a girl who loves to feel safe and not take un-calculated risks. Although, you know the sensation you can get when, however scary something is, there is a perverse desire to do it irrespective of what is going on in your stomach? Call it ego, call it foolhardiness, call it what you wish, although there is something inside of us all that just wants to conquer and accomplish. Perhaps it’s just that insane human trait that needs to push ourselves beyond our comfort zones to feel alive.

On first viewing, from the safety of the road, you can look up to the famous Eugenio Ribera’s Aqueduct and get a sense of what the walk would be like. And from afar the boardwalk paths that hug the magnificent rock faces of the Desfiladero de los Gaitanes – Gorge of the Throat, look too incredible for words. Tiny lines that seem to decorate the rock, with ant-like images of walkers who have taken up the challenge of hiking El Caminito del Rey.

I felt a mixture of ‘OMG I couldn’t possibly’ to ‘Yes, come on! I’ll have me some of that’. In truth I’m not sure which one came first, the fear or the anticipation, although one thing is for sure, my desire to try the walk was greater than my fear – at that point!

Later that night I started to do some research to identify what was involved and whether I was fit enough to do it. I found this great website which is full of information, images and a place to book up your tickets.  The pictures looked incredible although strangely they started to engage my fear with their terrifying suspension, boardwalks seemingly hanging in mid air, without any visible anchors! Except  I rationalised that hundreds of people do this walk every day, so surely it must be safe.

Still there was something inside of me that still wanted to do it. So I pitched it into my hubby who took one look at the website and fuelled by his vertigo said, ‘Not a chance in Nelly’ or words to that effect. So there was my dilemma – I could do it, although I’d be doing it alone.  When my mum offered to buy it as part of my 50th Birthday, I jumped at the chance. We love to buy experiences and not gifts that will hide away in a cupboard unused.  So what a perfect present.

My fears were three-fold; was I fit enough, was I courageous enough and how would I fare alone? Myles and I have been travelling Europe in our camper full-time for two years now and it has been an incredibly enriching experience for this little Miss Safety girl who used to like her roots. In that time I’ve learned the basics of seven languages, toured through US on the back of a Harley Davidson, driven up and down mountain passes and kayaked down rapids. Surely my confidence was great enough that I could tackle this walk – which is after all only 7.7km (that’s about 5 miles in UK money).

Although having made a commitment to myself – and my mum, I was determined to give it a go, as life is just too short not to have amazing experiences. So I tentatively pressed the send button on my €18 online ticket purchase and preparations for my walk began. As always, I knew that the journey would be so much more than treading the boards – it was about overcoming my fears.

The day arrived and we found a great wild spot to camp for the night, only 10 minutes drive away. So with my body strapped and wrapped as if I was about to climb Kilimanjaro, Myles dropped me off at the entrance for the walk. Not being completely clear as to where I would meet my group, I set off to the anticipated rendezvous point. It was strangely emotional as I saw our camper drive off, leaving me there. I was so used to doing things together – being alone left my inner child feeling vulnerable, although in truth I had little time to indulge her as my first challenge was slap bang in front of me. A low and seemingly long tunnel with no lights and a no Torch App on my phone. It felt so symbolic. I was in the dark, not knowing where I was going and with a long path ahead of me.  And yet contrary to that, the pinhole light some 1/2km away really was ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’; hope that my darkness would soon end!  With affirmations running in my head about how ‘I am strong, confident and capable’, I forged ahead, talking nervously into my GoPro that would record my journey.

With the tunnel nailed, it took just another 10 minutes to find my rendezvous point at the main Control Centre. I’d chosen to go for a 10.00am Guided Walk, so that I was guaranteed to be with others and have the relative safety and humanity of like-minded souls. Donned with safety hats, which I must admit didn’t fuel my confidence, and a Ref-Link radio and ear phones, we were ready to start our journey.  Now there was no going back. With Marcelo, our Spanish Guide who translated into English for me, we were on our way, into the depths of this little known Caminito, whose soil had been blessed by a King almost 100 years ago.

The boardwalks – of which there are two sections both of which are about 1.5km each and have been skilfully reconstructed after the death of five people. A complete refurbishment of the walk took place between 2000-2015 making it a safer place to walk.  Whilst the height is breathtaking and the views beyond adjectives, the catwalks are very secure, wider and more robust than I imagined. The wire fencing and cables keep the suspended paths secure and there is simply no way you can fall or wobble. The website photographs certainly conjure up a walkway from hell in your imagination, which is simply not the reality. With each step I grew in confidence and my nervous chatter into the GoPro subsided into a mindful silence as the scenery in front of me took my breath away.

Hundreds of vultures circle overhead, gliding on the thermals and the sound of the river coursing its way thunderously through the narrow gorges makes the walk an orchestral symphony for your senses. My fears simply didn’t have any space to control me.

With a glass viewing platform to test your nerve, tales of 19th Century sailors who worked in the gorge to satiate your inner historian and the sight of 23 million year old fossils – your anxieties soon disappear.  The blend of ancient and modern Caminito stories are mesmerising and make your efforts to tackle this walk, so worth it.

And what of my fears? They evaporated within 30 minutes when I saw how easy the walk was both in terms of safety and my fitness. The most strenuous part of the hike is actually the 2km after leaving the gorge to El Chorro. And given that even with a few stops along the way for drinks and photos, it’s no more than a two hour walk from one Control Centre to another. And I would add, this is done at a gentle amble rather than a Rambler’s purposeful stride.

Then there is a strange sense of disappointment when I reached the final bridge as I realised it was over and that my return from the hidden canyons of Narnia meant I was back in the real world. And then I reflected on my feat – not my feet that had trodden the boards with the deftness of a gazelle – no the feat of my achievement and completing this incredible walk whilst learning about its secrets.

Fear paralyses us in so many ways with its deep-seated presence somewhere in our guts. It holds us back from living our life to its full potential and from doing things that could bring us joy, happiness and untold riches. Fear is only a figment of our imagination, developed into scenes of horror by our minds and is so rarely the reality. When we push beyond our fearful voice we can experience beauty beyond words. What is life, if not to embrace all of its faces and to learn about the extraordinary story that the world has to offer. Movies and encyclopaedias have their place, although they cannot begin to replace our participation in all that this magnificent place has to offer.

El Caminito del Rey? Come! It’s amazing.

 

Recommendations for your trip based on my experiences

 

  1. My visit was in January 2018 and it was cold although quite sunny. You are in gorges for 2/3rds of the walk, which don’t get much sunlight, so do wrap up in layers. The paths were dry, although if there has been rain, ensure you wear robust footwear.
  1. I suggest that you book your tickets on-line through this website rather than buying at the Control Centre, as you may risk not getting the time slot you want, as it does get booked up. Then you’re having to wait around.
  1. You can choose half-an-hour slots, from 9.30am up until 3.00pm.
  1. The earlier times are good, as you can park more easily and get a quieter experience, although the trips are scheduled in 15 minute slots so you are never on-top of one another.
  1. Only take a small rucksack with water and snack bars. You have a couple of short stops for refreshments, although there are no facilities (including toilets) once you are in the gorge. There are though toilets at the Control Centre office and again at the end of the route in El Chorro.
  1. Your phones have no signal in the gorge until you reach El Chorro, although there are plenty of people around if you decide to walk alone and you need help.
  1. If like me, you are walking alone, going with a group with your own Guide is great as you get to learn so much more and ask questions. It felt like a more rounded experience than just simply just doing the walking. Tickets for going alone are €10 and with a Group are €18.
  1. The walk is one way – north to south and not circular. It STARTS at Ardales – North Entrance and finishes in El Chorro – South Entrance.
  1. This North Entrance though is NOT where you meet up with your Group. You have two routes to take to get to the main entrance, where you present your ticket and rendezvous with your Group. You can either go the 1.5km route, which takes you 20 minutes where you go through a long tunnel of 1/2km. Alternatively you can go on the 40 minute route which is about 2.7km and it has a shorter tunnel. So if you dislike the dark and feel claustrophobic, then you will need to factor in the longer route or simply take a torch with you.
  1. You need to rendezvous with your Group at least 15 minutes before your scheduled slot, as you need to register and go through a safety briefing. So make sure you allow enough time to walk there and arrive in plenty of time.
  1. When you arrive at El Chorro there are scheduled buses that run throughout the day that will take you back up to your car, if you parked it at the North Entrance. Alternatively you can park at El Chorro and catch the bus up to the starting point. It costs an additional €1.55 for the bus.
  1. Your Guide will leave you at the bridge at the end of the Gaitanes Gorge and you will walk the final 2.1km back to the Control Centre alone. Strangely this is one of the more strenuous parts of the walk with lots of steps to negotiate. Refreshments and toilets are available at the end.
  1. And finally, if you’re in the area for a couple of days – I would strongly recommend doing it for a second time to really appreciate the walk. I was aware of my sense of awe and photograph taking and I think for a second trip, I would certainly have a more connected experience.
  1. If you travel with a camper, there are a number of spots you can stop for the night that are close by. There is an official campsite and a number of wild spots you can stop at safely for no cost:
  • Ardales Camping – official campsite a few minutes south of the walk’s Northern Entrance. It didn’t look very open when we visited in January 2018.  (36.919983 -4.80424)
  • Olive Branch Camping – El Chorro. Official camping close to the Southern Entrance – just for tents.
  • Wild camping for camper vans at Tajo de Encantada reservoir – Bobastro. 15 minutes away from the Northern Entrance (36.898139 -4.774677)
  • Wild camping at El Chorro – Southern Entrance, beside the river and in shade. Requires either driving to Northern Entrance or getting the Shuttle Bus in El Chorro (36.906272 -4760189)
  • Wild camping at the Guadalhorce Reservoir just 10 minutes away from the Northern Entrance – (36.945964 -4.789012)

Check out our bird’s eye view video of this stunning walk. Amazballs.

Beyond the Beaches of Malaga

Beyond the Beaches of Malaga

Spain; the image of its Costas, tavernas and golf courses, enticing holiday makers to indulge in the heat of the summer and the warmth of winter. So many flock to her southern shores and soak up the Spanish rays and revel in the delights of her sandy beaches and rocky coves.

Although we are learning with our latest visit to this beautiful country, how diverse her land is beyond the Costas.  For sure the gently lapping waves of the Mediterranean that play their melodious tune – even as I write this blog – it is appealing. I love being by the sea and have this eternal swing of affections between mountains and the coast. Although there is so much more on offer as we stepped back from the romance of the sparkling blue waters.

We have had the last week in the mountains just north of Malaga – an area completely new to us and what a joy it has been. My love affair with these geological genius was nourished wholesomely this week and what a Christmas Tree of gifts it wrapped up for us.

Below we have created one of our interactive maps that reveals our sojourns and offers you a glimpse into what lays behind one of the most popular holiday destinations in western Europe. Click on the map to explore what stands behind the veil of mountain majesty.

Mijas – Pueblo Blanco

A stone’s throw from Torremolinos and Fuengirola the authentic air of Spanish customs fills your lungs. Not more than 30 minutes from the coast, this white village (although really more of a town these days) clings to the mountain-side.

Centuries of history fill the quaint cobbled streets, that in the sunlight blind you with their whitewashed walls and blue decorations, so typical to this region of Spain.  In fact evidence of prehistoric fortifications can be seen in the town’s walls. Ocre tiled roofs frame the vista as you look out to the sea beyond and step inside the defences built to protect them from rebels back in 800AD.

The Mirador view-points that are positioned around the outside of the town give you a coastal fix, if being away from the beaches feels like torture. It offers a reminder of how close you are to the golden sands, yet still in the heart of authentic Spanish culture. Perhaps your visit could coincide with the roars from the semi-circular Bull-Ring that is pretty unique or you simply wish to watch the mosaic fountains rise and fall to the sound of the wind.

Simply walking around the maze of alleyways that the town offers you, will have you reaching for your camera to encapsulate the image of this historical civilisation away from the high-rise. The main square is filled with cafe-culture bars with their obligatory sunshades and Sangria or perhaps just a cafe-con-leche will suffice. Either way, walking around this charming village is a delight and one of those must visit places.

Mountain Route – Circular tour

From Mijas you can then take the route directly into the mountains with your focus on the tranquility that these off-the-beaten-tracks offer the curious explorer. Heading up towards Álora, this white town and dominant fortress resembles a camel with its humps. With the fortress on one side and a church on the other, the town has settled in between the protective space of the valleys. We didn’t stop although it seems like an interesting place to look at depending on your timescales. For us, the call of Mother Nature was in the air and so we motored on through the Valle Abdalajis towards Antequera. This is a beautiful drive on twisty, turning roads through gently rolling hills full of olive groves.  Whilst Antequera itself was not a destination, it did give us the gas we needed, so it was a necessary diversion and offered some historical interest with its castle.

Laguna de Fuente de Piedra – Wetland Paradise

Our ultimate destination was Laguna de Fuente de Piedra, the largest lagoon in Andalucia, where it is said that this natural inland lake crystallises because it is fed by underground springs that pass through mineral deposits. And so, because the lake is saline it has become a haven for birds – the Greater Flamingo especially where they use the wetland to breed.

Now we’ve seen some sanctuaries for these magnificent birds through Spain, France, Italy, Greece and Romania, although there was something adorable about this place. Our stop for the night was in a parking area for a Mirador, which offered staggering views of the entire lake over to the town of Fuente de Piedra although we couldn’t really get up close and personal to the birds. That required a Guided Tour from the Visitor Centre.

Although what it did offer, which is something unique to all the places we’ve visited, was the sunrise and sunset ritual of the flamingoes. As the sun begins its daytime journey the flamingoes have an inbuilt trigger that sets them off south – to where, we never did learn – although the cacophony of the flock as they set to the skies was incredible. And then the same at twilight, their return followed the same path – almost as if returning to the roost after a day of play – somewhere, who knows where.

Andalucia’s Lake District

After tearing ourselves away from this wetland haven, we ventured south west through Campillos and into the Guadalhorce Natural Park. Think England’s Lake District and you have an image of what this region looks like. Three massive man-made reservoirs that are nestled in the bosom of the mountains with their azure complexion is a sight to behold.

Winding your way through the mountain passes with water on either side of you just begging you to stop for a while and take a picture or two – with bridges across the dams and restaurants imploring you to visit for a cerveza, this is a lovely place to drive.  From the direction of Campillos, you can access the famous Gorge walk of Caminito del Rey and take the route downhill to El Chorro. Alternatively you can start at El Chorro and do the path the opposite way.  You need to book a visit here and you can walk with a group from one entrance to another, with a shuttle bus taking you to your starting point. If you want to camp, then there is a wild camp option at El Chorro (36.906272 04.760189). It’s a short, up-hill walk to the entrance and we saw plenty of campers here when we visited January 2018.

Bobastro Fortified Village

Although we took a little diversion before reaching El Chorro. Off the main road, there is a sharp turning right towards Bobastro Village ruins. This road is a dead-end drive although it is absolutely worth the deviation and we found an amazing wild spot up by Tajo Encantada. You wind your way up through the mountains, reaching the entry point to the ancient 8th Century fortress remains of Bobastro.

This has amazing history, which for €3pp in season (it was free for us), you can climb up to the pinnacle and see the remains of the village.  In truth until you get to the church there’s not much evidence of buildings per se, although the church is particularly interesting and amazingly its arches are still in tact. Information boards in Spanish and English tell you about the rebel stronghold and how they lived on and in the rocks.

Moving on up the road you continue to follow a snaking path until you discover a reservoir hidden deep in the mountains and it is here you will find a couple of wild camping opportunities. The first is as you arrive at the reservoir and the second is further up the hill on the right-hand side. The views over the valley are stunning, as are the sunrises. Don’t be surprised to find a wild goat or two nibbling around your van as this is their home too. Out of season this was a very quiet road and the restaurant at the far end, where there is a viewing point, was shut. We suspect that in the high season that there is more traffic and passing places, the further up the road you go, are few and far between.

El Chorro and Caminito del Rey

After a windy although otherwise peaceful night, we continued on our journey through the mountains, passed the Hermitage and then on towards El Chorro. Whether you decide to do the Caminito Del Rey walk or not, looking at the gorge bridge from the safety of the road side, is still a sight to behold. One day we will do it – in fact more like – one day I will do it – Myles’ vertigo would have something to say about his attempt at this epic walk.

The drive from El Chorro back around to Álora is delightful, if not a little narrow at times and coaches are inevitable on this main road into the mountains. So do drive with caution. Still the landscape of the valley floor with its mountain backdrop is gorgeous and lemon groves and olives trees litter the countryside with the neatness of a patchwork quilt.

This circuitous route up through the mountains has been a delight and we would highly recommend it as a detour from the high-rise seaside resorts of Costa del Sol. Sunny it might be and beaches galore, although nothing as authentic as history, wildlife and raw nature at its best.

If you love to get off the beaten track and go where few others go, then this is a route extraordinaire.

 

Republic – Restaurant Review

Republic – Restaurant Review

 

Republic Restaurant, Dénia Marina, Spain

So imagine this… It’s winter and the archetypal seasonal blues are hibernating right now as we sit watching the crystal blue waters rolling into the coast reflected against the brilliant blue skies. The boats, on the other side of us, clink with a mariner’s melody all of their very own and the sun shines brightly through the enormous glass windows of our restaurant as we set about celebrating an early family Christmas. And not a hat, scarf or jumper in sight as this is south eastern Spain….Dénia to be precise.

 

We chose our desired eatery for our special family meal with care; the ambiance and good quality food needed to be in partnership and Dénia’s Republic restaurant had the perfect solution for us. The elegance of Denia’s marina on the one side, the shadow of the magnificent Montgó mountain on the other and to top it all off, the regal castle, casting its eye over the town, creates a stunning setting for our meal.

Our eyes are drawn to the simplicity of the restaurant – a warm environment that has crisp white tablecloths and purple glasses to create an elegant affair without feeling stuffy. The sun pouring through the windows, that in the summer I imagine are open to the elements, allowing the smell of the sea to penetrate the senses as the sun warms even the coldest heart. Although even in the middle of winter, this restaurant has a cosy charm that creates an expectation of an experience not just a meal.

Welcomed by a team of beautiful waiters and waitresses we take our position at the glass fronted windows with the best view in the house – in truth though, every table has the luxury of that vista, so there’s no elitism happening here. And before we know it our tastebuds are being tantalised by a Menu del Dia, for a mere €21.50. That in itself may not sound too spectacular, although when I tell you that it includes six courses and a complementary digestif to finish off your culinary delights then it may well impress.

 

The Republic is one of the those special establishments that gives a unique combination of warm and friendly staff, great food, super views and an rare attention to detail applied lovingly to each plate. So if you love great quality food with a tinge of fine-dining to it, without the pretence (or price tag), then you must visit. Don’t expect huge plates of homely stews – you can get that in the bistro next door. What you will get are carefully composed dishes where flavours are fused together in an orchestral harmony that just make your tastebuds want to sing with joy. Now don’t get me wrong, we’re not by any means demanding clientele, we simply enjoy food that has been lovingly prepared and not messed with and the Republic gave us just that – food composed with a blend of art and taste as their primary drivers.

To whet our appetites we are treated to an appetiser, consisting of a shot glass filled with salmon, a mirepoix of vegetables and a light lemony sauce. What a great entrée.  What on earth would delight us next?

The stage was set and course two would soon have the audience gasping with an ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ with effortlessness. A carpaccio of swordfish with fennel strips and a brilliant yellow curry dressing and orange segments dressed with peashoots and a single strand of chives. The thought and delicate balance of flavours and textures was exquisite and I would not class myself as a connoisseur, yet to appreciate the art was very easy.

The main course was still some way off, as we had yet another dish to satiate our intrigued palates, in the shape of a vegetable velouté which seriously lived up to its French ‘Mother Sauce’ label.  This was no ordinary soup, it has to be said. This was dressed with smoked duck slices that had been delicately cooked, partnered with a couple of leaves of spinach. The design was sublime, the taste delightful – the lightness of touch that only an artist could perform. No effort was required to demolish this bowl of divine sauce.

At last you think the main course is arriving – the piece de resistance – or whatever the equivalent is in Spanish. Yet no! Before that a delightful palate cleanser – a Mise-en-bouche de menthe.  A shot glass of lightly iced sorbet that is so much more. Just perfect to get our mouths ready for the guest appearance – the star of the show. As if what we had eaten so far wasn’t red carpet treatment enough. Now we were ready!

Here it comes! The star of the show.  Now for those of you who really love a good plate of food, you will not be disappointed. Although this is no Christmas Day stuffed!  And the main course options for us; a crispy-coated pork steak on a bed of crushed potatoes and courgette crisps, decorated with the signature vibrant sauce making you serious not want to touch it, it was so pretty. Or two tuna steaks on lightly steamed peppers and a triangle of polenta. Stunningly delicious.

With bellies dancing in delight at the main feature, what more could tantalise our eyes and our bellies?  I’m not a great dessert person in truth.  The idea of dessert always seems more appealing that the reality. Although this work of art certainly made me rethink my attitudes towards puddings!  Our final course was a light sponge cake that had been soaked in a liquor and dressed with praline, sugar work and strawberries. And of course, however I feel about puds, I of course did it justice by demolishing it without discussion or question and it was very pleasant. Not my favourite dish, although still very, very nice and definitely pretty.

Well what a meal, with flavours that tickled our tongue, a vision that was a feast for our eyes and in place that gave us just a touch of class and simplicity all at the same time. And then to be offered a glass of complementary Muscadet over ice was just the icing on the cake. And not a bill to shock the system. The only really expensive bit is the bottled water at €2.50 although the rest of the meal feels like an investment and thoroughly enjoyed by each and every one of us.

Surrounded by gorgeous staff, talented chefs and an ambiance that makes you feel special, the Republic is a restaurant that needs experiencing if fine dining is your cup of tea. A great way to celebrate with special people. Why not give them a whirl – and put yourselves in the hands of gastronomic experts?

Contact these guys at www.republicdenia.com  or telephone them at 00 34 966 430123

 

Republic Restaurant review, Denia, Spain