I’ve been enjoying a welcome break from the computer over the last couple of months as we’ve been ‘on tour’ in Spain. My aim was to get to a few of the places that I’ve never seen during my years in the country as well as revisiting many old favourites. Strangely there are quite a few places that I’ve been to on various occasions but I don’t have any good photos of them because I was there in the pre-digital age and scanning a load of old photos for the website isn’t a lot of fun. Far more enjoyable going there again with my new Nikon! So now I’ve accumulated a load of fresh information and new photos which I’ll be adding to the site over the coming months which I’m looking forward to sharing with you.
Let me begin by describing our route which on this occasion began in the UK …
Portsmouth to Santander
After a night in Portsmouth’s Travelodge hotel we boarded the afternoon Brittany Ferries service bound for Santander on a cloudy Friday afternoon. So many times in the past we’ve driven down from Calais to Spain but this time we weighed up the extra costs of petrol, road tolls and overnight accommodation together with the additional ‘cost’ of having to sit at the wheel for so many hours (Calais to Santander is 1300km). The 24 hour cruise from Portsmouth to Santander on the modern Cap Finistère ferry was a real treat. We enjoyed a calm crossing and had a good sleep on board arriving refreshed in Santander on the Saturday afternoon at around 5.30pm. If you want to travel to Spain without flying, this is the way to do it.
The blue skies of Spain that we were looking forward to were nowhere to be seen as we drove out of the port area heading for Burgos. In fact the cloud was getting heavier as we headed inland and any hopes of camping that night seemed to be disappearing. Then all of a sudden as we reached 1002 metres on the A67 at El Puerto de Pozazal the sky ahead of us as we looked from Cantabria towards Castilla y León was perfectly clear. We pulled in at the first service station to clean some salt from the car windows as it had been parked on an outside deck on the ferry and was completely coated in sea salt. We arrived in the mid-evening at the excellent Fuentes Blancas campsite with just enough time to get our fill of tapas and cold beer at the camp restaurant.
On the Sunday lunchtime we enjoyed a wander around the many tapas bars of Burgos in the company of various ‘peñas’ who were celebrating a local fiesta each with their own lively band. As always a stop in Burgos wouldn’t have felt complete without yet another visit to its amazing Cathedral.
Palencia to Plasencia
Two of the Spanish cities which remained on my ‘to do’ list were Palencia (Castilla y León) and Plasencia (Extremadura). On leaving Burgos we headed south-west stopping off in Palencia to take a look at its Gothic Cathedral before heading on to Valladolid, Salamanca and Plasencia. Rather than stay in this small city we headed into Monfragüe National Park staying at Camping Monfragüe which turned out to be one of the main highlights of the summer (I’ll soon be writing an extended post about the park).
The park is absolutely stunning with amazing geography and birdlife. We did some walks from the ancient village of Villarreal de San Carlos which is central to the local tourism industry and took a fantastic half day birdwatching excursion with Alberto Rubio from En-Ruta. Alberto was so knowledgeable about the region and knew all the best spots to see the birdlife making this one of the best trips I’ve ever done on my many travels. Away from the park we visited the old city of Plasencia and took a day trip to Jarandilla de la Vera (its Parador is fabulous) and the monastery at Yuste where Holy Roman Emperor Charles V spent his final years.
Francisco Pizarro: Trujillo to Lima
Next year Kirsty and I are going to Peru so we were very keen to pay a visit to the birthplace of the Conquistador Francisco Pizarro who is famous for conquering Peru. He is buried in Lima Cathedral. It’s incredible how many Conquistadors came from Extremadura travelling from this barren land to play their part in discovering the Americas on behalf of the Spanish Empire. Some of the more famous names include Hernán Cortés and Vasco Núñez de Balboa. In fact, Santiago (the capital of Chile) was originally named ‘Santiago de Nueva Extremadura’.
An interesting anecdote here. Apparently the statue of Pizarro that you see above was originally created as Hernán Cortés with the intention of presenting it to Mexico. Not surprisingly the Mexicans aren’t all that keen on Cortés’s “achievements” and they refused to accept the statue. It was, therefore, presented to the city of Trujillo as Pizarro!
There are many places in the world where you wouldn’t be too upset at the failure of the air-conditioning in your car, Extremadura isn’t one of them! With no air-con we continued on our tour of the region with stops in Cáceres (thanks Liz for recommending Camping Cáceres) and Mérida where the Roman ruins just seem to get more impressive with every visit.
Onwards to Andalucía
After a visit to Zafra, where the Parador is highly recommended if you’re travelling through the region, we entered Andalucía. Staying at Camping Villsom in Dos Hermanas we had a couple of days sightseeing in Seville before heading down to Jerez de la Frontera and Conil de la Frontera on the Cadiz coast. As we were approaching the coast there was a noticeable increase in the wind and by the time we arrived in Conil it was blowing like crazy. We had a very nice paella at one of the seafood restaurants at Playa de La Fontanilla then spoke to one of the lifeguards who explained that the Levante winds had just arrived and were likely to continue for at least four or five more days. This made camping impossible so we decided to cut our losses and head back inland.
After a brief stop in Vejer de la Frontera we followed ‘La Ruta del Toro’ through Medina Sidonia to Arcos de la Frontera. This is the region of Andalucía where you’re most likely to see the enormous farms where Spain’s fighting bulls are bred. Now away from the oppressive winds of the coast we spent a few days touring ‘Los Pueblos Blancos’ before arriving in the beautiful town of Ronda which not surprisingly always seems to find its way onto my tours of Spain.
The El Sur campsite is a favourite of mine thanks to its great swimming pool and the terrace of its restaurant which is such a great spot for an evening meal or just a quiet drink as the sun goes down. There always seems to be something special about the colour of the sky in Ronda, it’s such an incredible blue. When I first set up Spanish Fiestas I used a photo of the sky there as the main part of the website’s colour scheme!
Discover the Alpujarras
Having lived on the coast of Granada for a number of years I’ve often felt a little guilty at how little time I’ve spent in the Alpujarras mountains so the campsite at Órgiva seemed a logical next stop. From this base we took a full day excursion out to the best known of the Alpujarran villages, namely, Pampaneira, Bubión and Capileira. What beautiful villages where a nice balance has been struck between the continuity of traditional village life and the growth of rural tourism.
There are plenty foreign residents in the area as well as tourists yet the villages manage to retain their traditional character. On another day we took a drive to Trevélez in the high Alpujarras (1486m) via the A346 followed by the A4130 and A4132. I mention the road numbers because it really is one of the great drives of Andalucía though not for the faint hearted as the climb to the village and the tight bends really are something! The village itself is famous for curing some of Spain’s finest hams. We wandered into the ‘Secadero Al-Andalus’ and asked the gentleman at the desk if we could see one of the curing floors. He was so obliging and showed us around, explaining the whole process of ham curing and what a sight to see literally thousands of hams hanging from the ceilings of these rooms.
Back to the Coast
It’s a few years since we last revised the Costa Blanca section of Spanish Fiestas so we decided to head for another old favourite at Camping El Naranjal in Jávea which again proved a great base from which to revisit some of the main resorts of the region. Some of the best beaches in Spain can be found along this stretch of coastline as well as a variety of resorts ranging from the essentially British flavour of Benidorm to the almost exclusively Spanish resort of Gandia.
There are some nice inland excursions to the likes of Xàtiva and Guadalest but the majority of tourists were there for the sun and beach, and who can blame them after the appalling winter endured by visitors from northern Europe. As much as I enjoy visiting this coast I felt that we were very much on a tour of the ‘real Spain’ as many guidebooks call it so I was itching to get back on the road after our Costa Blanca visit. Next stop was the city of Valencia which really is impressive these days with its City of Arts and Sciences a real highlight.
Hidden Jewel – La Sierra de Urbión
From Valencia we went inland to Teruel and Calatayud passing through some remarkable Aragonese villages in what seemed like a land that time forgot. Beyond Soria we headed for Camping Cobijo on the outskirts of the charming village of Vinuesa in the Picos de Urbión. Shortly after putting up the tent we were hit by violent thunderstorm with torrential rain completely flooding us. We had little alternative other than to abandon the tent and head into the village of Vinuesa where we stayed in the lovely Hostal Revinuesa.
This gave us the chance to enjoy some nice meals in the lovely old town at Plan B Vinuesa where we were welcomed as locals on our first visit. Whilst the whole area is a true hidden gem the highlight is a visit to the glacial lake called La Laguna Negra. There are loads of opportunities for hiking in these mountains with El Pico Urbión reaching 2,229 metres. La Cima de Tres Provincias is notable as it’s the point at which the provinces of La Rioja, Soria and Burgos meet. Far too strenuous for me I’m afraid so it was time to again hit the road.
A Glass of Rioja?
We left Vinuesa via a narrow mountain road that took us through Montenegro de Cameros and we were rewarded with some stunning scenery not least the incredible rock formations around Torrecilla en Cameros on the N111 approaching Logroño. Having tried more than a few glasses of Rioja in the tapas bars of Haro and Cenicero (in the name of research of course!) we paid a visit to Vitoria, the capital of the Basque Country before heading into San Sebastian at the end of our two month tour.
I never tire of these trips around Spain, in fact I think the more I travel the more I want to travel. This particular tour has now given me the idea to get a campervan one of these days and head for more of the ‘off the beaten track’ locations around Spain as well as timing visits to coincide with local fiestas. Although I reckon I’ve seen as much of Spain as just about anyone out there this trip opened my eyes to just how much is still out there. The time spent around Monfragüe, the Alpujarras and the Sierra de Urbión were real highlights of the summer yet I’m astounded at how many signs we passed for a ‘Parque Natural’ that I’ve never even heard of. No worries there, just lots more areas of natural beauty just waiting to be discovered.