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

Our Route France to Spain

Our Route France to Spain

Highlights from our France to Spain Road Trip

Winter is a season that calls us snow-birds south to the warmer climes of southern Spain, where we can shelter from the harsh realities of England’s unpredictable forecasts. Except the call of Español is far more than just a winter haunt – it’s an destination that us Brits have pretty much fallen in love with, especially so for lovers of life on the road with our trusty steeds.

There are so many routes to take heading south; the quick ones, the mountainous ones, the ferry ones or the meandering ones. Whichever path you may be considering, perhaps driven by budget, speed to destination or time constraints, we would like to offer one of our routes, taken this winter. With time on our side, we decided to follow one a meandering route that has granted us the opportunity to go off the beaten track, breathe in a few new places and plot a path that makes the journey all part of the experience.  So we hope that this gives you some options for your next trip to southern shores.  Check out our interactive map below by clicking on the dots for more information, camping co-ordinates and pictures of our highlights.

Our starting point – Southern France 

We had the advantage of already being in France after our adventures earlier in the year, in Eastern Europe. France is always a lovely place to come ‘home’ to and it truly feels comfortable and known to us. So after two months meandering around the south coast and the  Pyrenees for some housesitting, we were ready to hit the road and make our way to Spain, in readiness for a Christmas rendezvous with my mum.

Having crossed the French Border in 2016 via the east coast of Costa Brava, we wanted to try something new and, given our love for the Pyrenees, this seemed like a perfect road-trip for us. We had 10 days to reach Dénia on the south-east edge of Spain, so a bit of wandering pleased our nomadic souls. A number of ports of call found themselves on our very sketchy itinerary and the rest, we knew would be added along the way, based on other people’s recommendations and research that piqued our interest.

So here are the highlights of our Road-Trip south.

Mirepoix – Ariège

Our journey actually started close to Carcassonne and so taking the quiet roads through to the Pyrenees must include Mirepoix. We have been many times before and yet this quaint little village, with its delightful chocolate-box central square of quirky, wonky buildings, never disappoints. This medieval village looks like something out of an Dickensian novel and you will want to stop for a coffee or lunch and just watch the world go by. Caste your eyes upwards as the view is as beautiful as the one at your eye-line, as the detail in the shop signs and the colourful displays of their window sash are just so picturesque.

Lourdes – Hautes-Pyrenees

Taking all the minor roads rather than the speedy autoroutes, we meandered through the French countryside, keeping the snow-capped Pyrenees teasingly to our left. Little French villages in all states of attire imploring us to stay awhile. Although our destination was firmly in our heads; Lourdes in the Hautes-Pyrenees. It was a long hike, especially when SatNav took us on a circuitous route and we had to do a food shop and fill up with diesel. Still we arrived at Camping du Loup, a five minute walk from the famous town, ready for supper and bed.

Now Lourdes really does divide opinion. If you go in the Pilgrimage period, April to October then I sense it takes on a more sombre feel, as the town is filled with people searching for hope and a miracle cure to their ills. We visited at the end of November and loved the vibe and the lack of crowds. Whilst religion is of course Lourdes’ new identity, behind this are intriguing origins of its ancient market-town. The partnership between tourism and religion is a delicate one and as one of France’s most popular tourist destinations, secondly only to Paris, you may have to look beyond the shops selling bottles for the Holy water. After all, every book is more than its cover and we loved what the area had to offer in terms of activities, the possibilities of the funicular, the kayaking, the walking and the history. Whatever your religious beliefs, Lourdes is definitely worth checking out – especially out of season.  Here’s our full blog on our visit – Lordy Lourdes

The Pyrenees via the Somport Tunnel into Spain

Post Lourdes, we hot-footed it out of the Pyrenees as there was a threat of a big artic front coming in and the last place you want to be in a camper is in the mountains when the snows hit. Our route took us towards Oloron, just south of Pau, along the valley floor, which was so lovely especially with all the autumn colours. Then a turn left heading south through the Pyrenees and the Somport Tunnel. En route Red Kites flying on the thermals will distract your eye and the ever changing scenery of mountain communities will elicit the odd ‘ah’ from your delighted heart. Little villages clustered along the valley floor in the shadow of their towering protectors, prepare themselves for the harsh winter ahead. Smoke already billowing out from their chimneys, their wood piles strategically stacked in readiness for what will almost inevitably arrive.  And the paternal dominance of these snow-peaked pinnacles command respect as the ever-changing weather swirls around their heads. The Somport Tunnel is temporary respite from the overwhelming feast for the eyes as you adjust to the darkness. Opened in 2003, this 8.3km tunnel has almost a magical feel to it, as you enter it in France and you exit it in Spain. One tunnel, two countries and not a Border Patrol crossing to be seen.

Canfranc Estación  – The Titanic of the Mountains

Our main purpose for taking this route was to check out the intriguing abandoned train station at Canfranc. Myles had read up on it and its mystery drove us to explore. It’s so easily missed, as no sooner are you out of the tunnel you hit the signs for the station.  Blink and you will miss it.

Canfranc was put on the Spanish map when this out-of-place station with all its ostentatious grandeur was built in 1923, following the construction of the railway line and tunnel between 1912-1915. The station was formally opened in 1928 and it is the second largest in Europe; with its 240m long building, 365 windows, 156 doors and a platform of 200m. It remained open during WW2 as part of the Franco-Spanish International Convention, under which it was built, allowing some refugees to leave France into Spain.

Its life came to an abrupt end in 1970 when there was a derailment on a bridge on the French side and they could not afford to rebuild it. And so today, this glorious building stands in a sorry state, a ghostly station, where the faint echoes of passengers transiting across these mountainous giants can be heard through the wind, as it whistles through broken panes of glass. You can get guided visits into the station during July and August, although even when it is closed, just to stand and reconstruct in your mind how this station buzzed and thrived in its day, is enough of an experience. There are plans to turn it into a hotel and to rebuild the line, with the agreement of the French Government, so new life will be breathed into this town after fifty years.  It is definitely worth stopping off at.

Jaca’s Monasteries, Aragon

We love exploring the hidden depths a place has to offer us curious travellers. It is all too easy to travel too fast and miss the secrets that lie just off the highway. So the region of Aragon was our explorative teacher.  After a short stopover at Jaca, a ski-resort with its ancient hexagonal fortress, we headed for the hills. Taking our route west, our chariot guided us into the foothills of the Pyrenees towards the Monastery of San Juan de la Peña. En route we were enthralled by Santa Cruz de la Serós, with its honey-coloured stone buildings and two Romanesque churches, one of which was an all-female monastery in its day. Just to wander around this tiny hamlet and through its cobbled streets carved into the hillside, was a delight.

Back on the road, which snakes up through the mountains, gives you an incredible view of the Pyrenees, so stopping for a photoshoot is essential. And then you come to the beautiful old Monastery carved into the rocks with its brand new cousin about 2km up the mountain which will wow you as you take in its size and splendour. It’s like a magical kingdom with its dominant reign over the plateaus and valleys beyond – it is such an interesting destination. There’s plenty of parking up there and a place to stop over night if you want to camp and unless there’s snow coming in, a great place to stop awhile and indulge in some walking.

Laguna Gallocanta, Aragon

If there’s anywhere on the map that looks like a Nature Reserve then that becomes a magnet for us as wildlife lovers. And so when I found Laguna Gallocanta purely by chance, it was our chosen detour.  After doing some research I found that it is a winter stop-off point for Cranes and is the most popular destination for these magnificent birds in Europe.  So of course if became a beacon for us and in addition it was way off the beaten track, which had even more appeal.

So we headed on south past Zaragoza and turning off the motorway drove through some amazing countryside. At first it looks a bit bland although in fairness the snow did add a little more character. It didn’t take long though for us to take a few left turns and to see the whole landscape change dramatically.  Twisting roads around rotund hills and valleys that looked like something out of the Hobbit and with its red soil gave a really atmospheric and beautiful drive. And then you approach Daroca, a fortress encased village, which out of nowhere stakes in claim from the surrounding landscape. We didn’t have the time to stop, as we’d been driving a while, although with its honey coloured buildings and fortress walls is definitely worthy of an explore.

Not far from Daroca, you will enter the tiny hamlet of Gallocanta, which is at the centre for the Nature Reserve and there is an Information Centre from where you can do Guided Tours from November to March and you can also stop over night at in the car park, which has views across the Lagoon.  Now I will manage your expectations, as at this point of the year, sadly there was no water in the lagoon, so it looked a little sorry for itself, although the Cranes still came.  You can’t get close to them by road or at the Information Centre, although you will see flocks of them coming in to land and with good binoculars will see them on the sandpits. It is a beautiful place to come – peaceful and so incredibly rural. Your exit from this region takes you on a narrow yet characterful road, through small Spanish villages with their ornate churches and cobbled streets that transport you into an authentic Spanish culture beyond the tourist magnetism of the cities and coast.

Alberracín, Aragon

As short drive away from Gallocanta, is one of Spain’s most beautiful villages.  If it had a body like France’s Les Plus Beaux Villages, then Albarracín would most definitely be on it. From the motorway, much like so many places, you can’t imagine what it would be like and you are almost tempted to by-pass it, although the 20 minute deviation is definitely worthy of your turning wheels.

Once off the main plain, you turn into the mountains which are full of character, incredible sandstone eroded cliff faces and a gorge route that will have you enthralled. It is a superb drive. Yet strangely with the weight of expectation on its shoulders, as we approached Albarracín, we found ourselves disappointed. Surely this modern town with its industrial area is not all there is to see?  Alas our patience was rewarded as, when we turned the corner, rising in front of our disappointed eyes, is the very reason we travelled here. A church steel adorned with white and green mosaics, an archway where the road travels underneath the village and sandstone buildings that nestled amongst the rocks protected by a fortress that curves around the village. This sight had us feeling instantly humbled and apologetic for ever having doubted it.

For the best experience of 11th Century Albarracín, approach the archway and then turn left, climbing up to the far end of the village and then tracking back towards the main centre. There are so many alleyways to explore and vistas that take your eyes over the gorge below, where the winding Guadalavia river of emerald green gives a real sense of this village’s Alcazar and Moorish roots. And one of the best bits about this town, is that is hasn’t lost its soul to the tourists. For sure there are restaurants and a few shops, although its authenticity is clear to feel as you wander around the streets. We almost felt intrusive, as the lives of the locals continue regardless of the milling crowd.

One of the things I loved best about this tiny village, in the middle of nowhere, is how the views changed around every corner. From the view of the arcing fortress defending the village’s honour, to the perspective from the fortress heights; views over the village walls to the gorge below and out through the windows of the castle remains to the land far away. And that’s before you even wander the streets looking at the quirky buildings, the architecture, the roof lines and the cobbled streets that feel like a maze at times. It is an atmospheric experience and you easily need 1/2 day to wander, absorb and climb to see the full picture of this little hideaway.

N330 Teruel to Utiel, Aragon

After our little dalliance with Albarracín, we hot-footed it over to Teruel, which according to the Guide Books can be one of the coldest towns in Spain – hey we’re not scarred of a bit of cold. After all we’d just endured -11.  We did have a quick trip into Teruel given we were so close, although we were disappointed. It was one of those towns, where the battle between old and new rages on and somehow the ancient world seems to be loosing out with modern culture consuming its precious history. Whilst there’s no denying that the main Plaza del Tourico is very pretty with its unusual buildings and undercover cafe bars and restaurants, trying to capture Teruel’s Mudéjar monuments, isn’t easy despite not being far apart from each other.  You could almost do with having a Drone to rise up above the tightly packed buildings to really get the beauty of the cathedral and other iconic buildings that would have stood proud in their day.

Teruel needs to be visited as we’ve never seen architecture like it, although an hour will do perfectly well and then move on, as the countryside that is about to greet you is far superior, in our humble opinion. The N330 route is your travel guide for this part of the journey. Taking you away from the built up town and into the heart of a natural tapestry of ochre red and yellow rocks, filled with copious amounts minerals from eons beneath the sea. You could almost imagine yourself in a Spaghetti Western with the pillars of rock being akin to their American cousins and John Wayne galloping through the valley on his trusty stallion. Small villages, kilometres apart from each other, survive on the energy of the land and as the road winds around valleys, gorges and hilltops, you feel lost amidst its natural paradise.  Your journey becomes timeless and the vistas entice you to travel slowly and mindfully until you reach Utiel for an overnight stop.

 

N330 South from Requena to Cofrentes, Valencia Community

The final stage of our journey south was the route from Utiel to Requena with a short diversion south on N330 towards Almansa.  Here the vineyards create a patchwork across the countryside and then surrender to the pine-clad mountains. The road turns this way, then that, through the ochre walls and all we could see were acres of forest – oh and a couple of power station funnels! As our heart sank feeling that these blots on the landscape would ruin our experience – we held steady!

And patience brought us to the oasis of Cofrentes, which sits at the confluence of the rivers Júcar and Cabriel – hence its name, originating from the Roman name Confluentum. It is here you can try the regional dish of Gazpachos, eaten by many of the mountain workers and Orza which is a cured sausage. Food aside you have guided tours around Cofrentes’ Gothic Castle and El Cerro de Agras – the region’s only volcano, which still shows some activity by way of the Hervidieros Spa, where gas escapes from the chamber to a spring where the water looks like it is boiling. A river boat trip can be taken up the Júcar for 14km of the Júcar Route and if fishing is your thing, the pike and black-bass in the reservoir may appeal. January, May and August are their festival seasons where this tiny population gather as a community to honour their religious icons and celebrate together. For a tiny village in the middle of the mountains, this is where you can begin to experience, not only the mountain way of life, the true sense of inland Spain with its rituals and traditions. Walking, cycling, fishing – there’s plenty to amuse you in this mountain hideaway.

So this brings us to the close of our route from southern France into Spain, via the Aragon region. What a Christmas sack of gifts this was and how thankful we were not to rush through this area. Whilst we have by no means explored all its depths, we have at least a taster of Aragon’s presence and know for sure that we will return to uncover more of its delights. We hope that it might influence you to stop awhile and also unwrap its hidden depths.

Travel off the beaten track, drive slow, see much and learn plenty as you explore the land which has much to offer the curious explorer. 

 

Setting a Route for Greece

Setting a Route for Greece

Sitting in Spain at the beginning of the year, we started contemplating the next chapter in our Motoroaming adventures – our Greek Odyssey.  How best to get there?  Did we go overland and take two weeks to get there with the investment of diesel, wear and tear on the van and campsite fees or use the ferries, via Italy?

A conundrum indeed.  Even after a year on the road, we still feel like we’re building our confidence and we have plenty of green tendencies in our nomadic life. So the thought of travelling through Albania and Bosnia didn’t greet us with huge joy, especially given that our insurance wouldn’t cover us in those countries and we would need to reply on buying insurance at the Borders.

At this stage on our trip, we decided that going by ferry was the right option for us just now.  So we have documented our route, costs, camping spots and experiences so that if you have the same contemplation any day soon, this may help your planning.

Leaving Spain – It’s Grim all the way

Grimaldi Ferry Embarkation

After three months over winter in Spain, we wanted to get to Greece for springtime, given that the summers would most likely be too hot for us (read me – Myles was born in Cyprus so he’s a sun-baby).  So leaving end of March or beginning of April gave the weather enough time to warm up and yet not fry us to a crisp.

We decided to go from Barcelona to Italy, then cross the country to Bari, then catch a second sailing to Igoumenitsa, just south of the Albania border.  Barcelona offers two ferry operators; Grimaldi Lines who go to Savona and Civitavecchia and GNV to Genoa.  Barcelona is such a great option as before you sail, you could fit in a quick city tour, a visit to Monserrat up in the mountains and Sitges to the south has to be on the cards.  Here’s our Guide to Barcelona, without Blisters to help make the most of your visit here.

We took the Civitavecchia route so we would arrive on Italy’s west coast – just north of Rome.  Genoa or Savona are cheaper, although after nine weeks in Italy in 2016, we decided to short-circuit the Italian leg and save the bone-rattling ride.  Such is our eagerness to begin our Greek experience.  Sadly Grimaldi lives up to its name and it aptly describes both their ferry and service. We booked through Direct Ferries to get the best price, which was €410, far cheaper than with Grimaldi direct.

It is no cruise liner that’s for sure.  Sailings leave Barcelona at 2215, so there’s plenty of time to navigate through the rush-hour traffic, check in and have some supper.  Although be warned that as an Italian manned boat, embarkation can be flakey and disorganised at best.  That said we did get away on time, although I think we were lucky, having heard other stories.  The boat is tired and has no personality, although for 20 hours, if you can get your head down for a good night’s sleep, then a third of your journey will be over by the morning.  Our sailing was affected by 500 excitable and un-supervised teenagers running riot until 0100 and not having a working toilet due to a system problem, caused a lot of unnecessary stress.  Still a discussion with reception the next morning landed us a free lunch so that was some compensation.

You arrive into Civitavecchia around 1815 and depending on where you are parked, you will be off the boat within 45 minutes.  Again a bit of a free-for-all, although with no passport control you are through the port in no time at all.  So from here, where to next?

An overnighter outside Rome

If you’ve not visited Rome before, then this is a must.  It’s a beautiful city with an abundance of ancestry and religion to whet your whistle.  Having already ‘done’ Rome, we decided to get out into the country and I had earmarked Bracciano Lake, just under an hour away, east of the city.  There are a lot of camping options along the lake, a number of which are ACSI sites, although we had our eye on Blue Lake Camperstop in Trevignano Romano. ( Co-ordinates N42° 9.522′ E12° 13.441’)   This is a super site for €15 per night, out of season with hook up and only has 28 pitches.  You are right by the lake if you wanted to stop for some RnR, Trevignano is only a mile along the charming promenade full of restaurants, supermarkets and a dominating castle.

From Coast to Coast

Italy, Coast to Coast in 3.5hrs, click to enlarge

We decided to skedaddle cross-country to explore the east coast, which was new territory for us.  Knowing how bad the Italian roads are, we plumbed for the quickest and shortest route possible.  Now sadly this meant motorways, one of which was a toll, although as you’ll see from our route, our 150 miles took us through some stunning mountain scenery, only cost us €27.30, which was cheap at half the price. Within three and half hours we were looking at the sparkling Adriatic Sea with the promise of Greek lands just across the horizon.  Now we were in touching distance.

Petacciato Marina, Italy

Our overnighter was in Petacciato Marina, south of Pescara. ( Co-ordinates N42° 2.175′ E14° 51.078’ )  It was a dedicated Motorhome Parking area right alongside the beachfront and although there were some suspicious looking car manoeuvres that had me on edge, we actually had an uneventful night.  There is a railway not far although there are no trains at night and the views of the beach are to die for. Oh and it was free, out of season.  €3 during season when the Office at the end of the road is open.  There are no services, although for the night, that is ok.

From here we fancied exploring the peninsular that is home to the Gargano National Park, partly because on the map it is full of green – we like green. It was a bizarre journey because our destination for the night – Vieste was only 88 miles, although with a stop for lunch and a bit of shopping took over four hours.  Although you’ll understand why if you do the route.  There are more twists and turns in this road than Shirley Temple’s locks.  Hugging the coast, then up into the mountains, you weave around the peninsular being treated to some stunning scenery. It is totally worth the trip.

Be warned that out of season, i.e. before Easter, not many of the campsites are open and in fact, throughout the whole journey we only saw two with welcome signs outside. And there really are no wild camping opportunities around here.  Even the Apps indicate Sostas were open, when in reality they are not.  We found our welcome haven just the other side of Vieste – Camping Adriatico ( Co-ordins N41° 51.547′ E16° 10.453’ ) and for €16, paid in cash, we stopped a while to rest our travel weary souls.

The rest of the journey around the peninsular is wonderful, if not a bit hairy with full concentration needed.  Still it is a stunning part of the country and in fact we would go as far as to say that it is one of the better regions of Italy, especially the southern region.  In fact we are really drawn to the south-eastern region and will definitely return.

Alberobello and her Trulli

Our route then took us to Matera and Alberobello.  Matera is an iconic cave-dwelling town that has built up around a limestone gorge, carved by the river and perched on the cliff face.  This stunning place is full of rock chapels and houses that show you life before cement and timber.  An hour away, Alberobello is one of the most unique places that you’ll ever visit, with a whole section of the ‘old’ village still with their Trulli, (small, dry-stone buildings that are made mortar-free, the roofs of which come off to avoid paying tax).  Sounds sensible to me.  With reluctance, we headed off to Bari for our second ferry within the week, with hopes that this one would be better than the previous week’s debacle.

 Ship ahoy!  Bari, Italy to Igoumenitsa, Greece

Our second ferry crossing after six days in Italy, sailed from Bari on the south-east coast of Italy.  We sailed with Anek Lines and when we arrived at the port, seeing a burnt out ship didn’t give us great expectations.  Although we were pleasantly surprised, in fact highly delighted.  This firm is terrific.  You can sleep on board your camper, which is a bonus and on board the boat, it is just classy.  A whole different world than GRIMaldi Lines.  One recommendation we would make is, if you want to fill up your fridge/freezer before hitting Greece, don’t do it in Bari.  Trying to find and get to one of the supermarkets and then out again was a nightmare and added unnecessary stress to our journey.  So shop the day before en route, would be my suggestion.

Check-In, however is tricky as there’s no clear signs as to where you get your tickets.  The Greece embarkation is right at the end of the Bari Terminal and when you see a large blue building on your right, stop there.  This is the check-in.

We used a recommended travel specialist from Crete (as we’re moving on to here in May) who co-ordinated our Italy and Greece legs and so we managed to get some great discounts that I was unable to secure through Direct Ferries or the companies themselves.  Aria is seriously worth talking to, so very helpful;

Paleologos S.A
Shipping & Travel Enterprises
5, 25th August Str.
712 02 Heraklion – Crete – Greece.
TEL: (+30) 2810 346185

aria@paleologos.her.forthnet.gr

The best tip for 2018 is to book before 28 February for an extra big ‘early bird’ discount.  I would highly recommend using them to secure every discount you can, given that the prices are quite high.  So with our discounts, our trip from Bari to Igoumenitsa cost us €237.50, given our 7.5m van.  (They charge by the metre of your vehicle).  The sailing is 9 hours, leaving at 1930pm arriving in Greece at 0530 the following morning, which don’t forget is another hour ahead than western Europe.

It was the easiest disembarkation we’ve ever experienced on any ferry and, living on the Isle of Man for 20 years, we did our fair share.  You’re off in 15 minutes and out of the port, check-free and ready to hit the road.  There are two petrol stations just five minutes out of the port and they are open.  They also sell LPG there too.  The prices are marginally cheaper than Italy, at €1.32 – April 2017.

Wild camping, Drepano, Greece

So ready to hit the road?  Perhaps not, given the time of the morning, so if you want to just place your head down for some extra ZZZs and ground yourself in this beautiful country, then head over to Drepano, which is 15 minutes north of Igoumenitsa.  It’s on a road that separates a lagoon from the bay, so you have flamingoes one side, the sea the other and you can camp up right on the beach.  Although there are signs saying NO CAMPING, out of season when the ACSI site just on the corner is not open, camping seems to be tolerated.  Well at least there were four of us when we arrived first thing in the morning. (Co-ordinates; 39.515513  20.212752)  It’s such a beautiful place to start your Greek adventure and it’s great to watch the ferries move in and out.

And so there we have our route to Greece from Spain.  Obviously there are other routes such as taking the road, going through eastern Europe and other Italian ferries, although this was how ours panned out.  In addition you could check out:

  • Ancona – Igoumenitsa or Patras
  • Venice – Igoumenitsa or Patras
  • Brindisi – Igoumenitsa or Patras
  • Trieste – Igoumenitsa or Patras
  • Ravenna – Igoumenitsa or Patras

For a full break down of sailing options and the different ferry companies available, this is a good website, you can then make plans in the best way to suit your budget and your timescales.

http://www.greekferries.gr

We wish you happy Greece adventures and safe travels wherever you are.

The Motoroamers.

Greece Ferry options, click to enlarge

Drepano wild camping, Greece, click to enlarge