Week 15 – Back in Spain – Almeria, the Ebro Delta and up to the French border

This week we celebrated the start of the new year in the historic hilltop town of Ronda before travelling up the east coast of Spain to the French border.

dsc_2101

We went in search of “the best paella in Spain” and fittingly followed up with a visit to the rice fields of the Ebro delta.

 

dsc_4498

And this was also the week we enjoyed a taste of the Wild West Hollywood-style and separately had our most challenging driving experience so far.

And the highlights this week were:

New year in Ronda:

We had intended to ring in 2017 with hordes of carousing Spaniards whilst joining them in the tradition of eating a green grape with every one of the 12 strokes of the bells  to midnight.

We chose Ronda as our base thinking we’d see amazing scenery by day and then it would be midnight at the bodega.

We were right about the scenery. Ronda is spectacular. Here it is from a distance.

dsc_4321 But some of those white houses are clinging to the top of  the staggeringly high gorge which divides the town in two, like so:

dsc_4324

Stuart overcame waves of vertigo to poke his camera over the bridge…

dsc_1898

Meanwhile, when he was taking photos like this…

dsc_4326

…I amused myself by visiting a couple of the town’s small museums. One told the story of some of the infamous 19th century bandits who plyed their illegal trade from the nearby mountains, preying on travellers journeying along the trade routes from Cadiz and Gibraltar.

The other, located in the former private home of a collector with most eclectic tastes, comprised a weird mish mash of objects ranging from Hollywood memorabilia, to antique typewriters to instruments of torture used in the Spanish inquisition.

I left feeling nauseous, but probably still a little less queasy than if I’d spent the time looking into Ronda gorge.  I mean look at how high this is…where is the ground for goodness sake?

dsc_4340

 

And as for our happy hogmanay spectacular? It turned out to be a very quiet affair – just the two of us in the van, a remoska stew and a bottle of red. Apparently we’d left all the party and grape action behind on the coast and the annual tradition for the local folk of Ronda is to stay home and ring in the new year with family.

‘Ah noooo….but there is no ambience in Ronda”, the French-owner of the campsite exclaimed when we first checked in and optimistically asked which bar she’d recommend for our big night out. “You must make sure you get to the supermarket before it closes to make sure you have food for your own party”, she advised us, heartwarmingly anxious on our behalf.

dsc_1907

From the sign on the campsite entrance warning that ‘silencio total’ was required after 23.00, it looked like the chances of conga-ing round the site with fellow campers belting out choruses of ‘auld lang syne’ weren’t looking too promising either.

And so we took her advice and our 2017 came in with a whimper and not a bang, if you’ll pardon the expression.

Almeria’s desert landscape:

On New Year’s Day,  with the sun shining in a clear blue sky, we drove past the gardens of lemon trees in Ronda…

dsc_4344

…pointed in the direction of snow capped mountains and set off on the next leg of our trip.

dsc_1931

You know the Alhambra? That’s the Moorish palace in Granada renowned throughout the world for it’s beauty and grace…well, we drove right past it and came here..

 

dsc_1946

It’s a Wild West-style theme park set in the desert landscape of Almeria where back in the 1960’s so many Spaghetti Western films were made like, eh,  Sergio Leone’s ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ to name but… the only one I can actually name. Anyway, quite a few I believe.

Here’s a shot of the landscape where the climate is the hottest and driest in Spain…

dsc_4380

And here are some of the visitors from the Spaghetti Western era…

dsc_4374

And more recently…

dsc_4375

Walking around Fort Bravo is like stepping back into a little town from the Wild West…

dsc_4388-2

…or a Mexican pueblo…

dsc_4404

It was fun to stroll around for a bit but really the cheesey cowboy shows staged there are the only reason to go. Stuart wasn’t that keen on going but when he had a gun to his head, he agreed.

Yes, I do mean an actual gun….

 

dsc_2025

Isn’t this guy straight from central casting as the baddie who tries to steal the gold from the goodie?

dsc_4356

…but he always gets caught by the good guy…

dsc_4370

..and here they all are, ready to slug it out…

dsc_4418

 

dsc_4441

The two shows we watched (I’m still playing the ‘you got a whole day’s fishing card you understand Week 6 – Extremadura to La Mancha  )    were all the more entertaining for being totally in Spanish. We hadn’t a scooby what they were talking about – nada.

But I gather from the way the cowboys kept smirking beneath their stetsons, we’re not talking Beckett here.

dsc_4432

I was elsewhere when this group of Spanish tourists, complete with their packed lunches from the same hotel, were leaving after the last baddie had been gunned down and just as the loudspeaker started blaring out ‘Achy breaky heart’ .

I understand that to a señor and a señora they broke into a perfectly synchronised line dance like so…

 

dsc_4455

The photo doesn’t quite capture the magic of the moment, according to Stuart. He reckoned it was the best bit of the day.

I really, really don’t agree…

…this was the best bit….

dsc_2023

…buzz off kid. These are my nuevo, mucho besto compadres…

…Alhambra schmambra.

On the trail of the best paella in Spain:

We couldn’t leave Spain without having a good paella and according to the Rough Guide to Spain, the place to go is El Palmar, a small seaside resort on the outskirts of Valencia.

We left Almeria and headed up the motorway driving past signs for Med resorts which have been holiday package destinations since the term was invented – Fuengirola, Torremolinos, Roquetas de Mar, Benidorm..

dsc_2071

For miles and miles, we drove alongside what’s been called the sea of plastic. That’s the term given to the vast expanse of polytunnels used for growing vegetables in this region. It was a bit like that scene in The Martian where (spoiler alert ) Matt Damon works out how to grow potatoes.

This article though shed a more sinister light on what lies beneath the greenhouses – the clue is in the headline.http://www.ecowatch.com/europes-dirty-little-secret-moroccan-slaves-and-a-sea-of-plastic-1882131257.html

 

dsc_2113

And on the way, we passed another sight which has attracted, I confess, our prurient interest as we’ve travelled through Spain.

That club beside the garage in the photo above – so that’s a brothel. (snicker snicker if you’re English; bless yourself if you’re Irish)

It’s one of many we passed on our travels through a country where prostitution is legal.  Some have been in the middle of the countryside, in the middle of absolutely nowhere. We’d see them usually recognisable by a giant neon flashing light of a reclining female with cartoon proportions on the roof and wonder where on earth do the customers come from?

Giles Tremlett’s book ‘Ghosts of Spain’ has a good chapter on this particular club scene and he has an interesting perspective on how the Spanish themselves view legalised prostitution…apparently it’s all to do with an expression of individual freedom post-Franco. The backlash is so strong against this repressive era such that any criticism or suggestion that there’s anything untoward about these clubs is given short shrift.

I had my own experience with this Spanish matter of fact attitude when I asked Mariella about them in the course of our long night socialising. Week 8 – Cadiz to Gibraltar

She shrugged at my questions and looked at me, so seemingly baffled at my ‘oo er missus’ curiosity that I very quickly shut up. Clearly it was a non-subject.

As we leave Spain after a total of 6 weeks here, that was a side to the country we hadn’t expected.

…palms before paella..

 

dsc_2081

 

dsc_4465

So where was I…on our journey to El Palmar for the mythical ‘best paella in Spain’, we stopped for a break at Eche. It’s known for it’s extensive palmerie, planted in the days of the Moors.

dsc_4460

But we discovered it is also in the Guinness Book of Records for the record breaking graffiti project along the river bank.

dsc_4461

And finally we were at El Palmar…..like any seaside resort in early January, it was pretty bleak. The only colour came from the banners hanging from houses marking the big Christmas celebration for many Spanish – not 25 December but the 6 January when the wise men eventually get there.

dsc_2098

 

dsc_2091

The place is likely heaving in Summer..but in Winter we didn’t have much choice so opted for the restaurant called ‘El Palmar’ where the waiters having a pre-service fag enticed us in as we passed by.

 

Close by, there was a good bakery so we stocked up on squash pudding before going in…

dsc_2100

…to finally taste the paella billed as the “best in Spain’?

dsc_2101

Hmmm, the mussels were delicious, you could taste the sea, the rice was beautifully cooked but the shrimps disintegrated like dust….still what did we expect as just two of four customers on a cold, rainy January night in the off season.

Visiting the Ebro Delta – eventually

We got horribly lost on the way to the Ebro Delta.

That’s the flat expanse of land in the Spanish province of Catalonia where rice is the main crop. Book early to avoid disappointment – this whole region is so flat that they reckon more than half of it will be under the sea in 50 years.

 

dsc_4497

The landscape is mesmerising but finding it proved a challenge.

Stuart had keyed in the coordinates to the campsite in the GPS…except turns out they were wrong. Very wrong.

I was busy knitting. This VW bedspread is at a tricky stage just now you understand but every now, to show interest in the navigational aspects of this trip, I’d look up, see the Aragon mountains getting nearer and nearer and higher and higher and comment ‘this is a strange route’.

And it was certainly pretty landscape..

dsc_4477

But I think it was the ski station sign that was the giveaway we weren’t going anywhere near the coastal flatlands of the Ebro Delta.

dsc_2121

We turned back, having driven four hours in the wrong direction to nowhere. So it was my turn to find somewhere to stay for the night. I keyed in the coordinates of a different campsite.

We finally got there when it was dark and circled round and round it. It seemed strange none of the gates were open…

dsc_2132

 

..but not so strange when by torchlight I checked the guide book and spotted the not-quite-so small print. It doesn’t open till March.

I reckoned we were quits now on the screw up front so nowt was said…we keyed in the coordinates for an aire, one of those car parks with services where vans are allowed to park overnight. We followed the smooth tones of the GPS navigator (the manual calls her Serena) ” turn left, turn right, turn left…. We kept going for 20 km across the delta’s narrow bumpy roads in the pitch dark…till the final instruction: ‘Now take the ferry…”.What??

There was nothing left in the metaphorical tank. We stopped exactly where we were, by the riverbank and settled in for an unplanned night of wild camping.

Our rule that we always get to the campsite or aire before nightfall had been broken but sometimes there are benefits..

dsc_4480-2

..like it’s a surprise when you wake and find at sunrise you were right beside a bridge all the time.

 

dsc_2135

 

Road challenge:

This was the week when the driving has been the most challenging….we were back on never ending steep slopes….

dsc_2114

…but they were chickenfeed compared to the strong winds coming in from land which gusted at the van for large parts of the motorway up the Costa Brava. The wind socks along the highway were blowing horizontal and at the worst point, our van was pushed by the wind into the other lane just as another motorhome was coming up behind us.

If Fort Bravo was a theme park, the motorway up the motorway towards France was a white knuckle ride. We were very relieved to get off when we finally arrived at Playa D’Oro, near Girona,  for our last overnight stop before leaving Spain…

dsc_4500

And then it was time to cross into France, the fourth country we’ve visited since starting our big trip.

dsc_2651

PS:

This week was also the first time we’ve seen another UK registered T25 ….it was at Cabo de Gata, a campsite at Almeria where we stopped overnight and had a great welcome from the resident ex-pat community there. (Thanks Lisa and Mark!)

Here she is….It’s older than ours but significantly faster thanks to a new Subaru engine.

DSC_1936

 

We indulged in some geeky van sharing with owners Matt and Anna and were especially impressed that in their travels, they are accompanied by Gus. He’s an Italian something or other, can’t quite recall the breed but he’s huge and a very cheerful placid companion for their trips.

 

DSC_1937

14 Comments


  1. // Reply

    Hello you two! I see that all is good…..looks like you had a cracking Christmas and a somewhat “quiet” New Year! Sarah’s grandmother used to live near Ronda….it is lovely. Angus has been reading all the posts from Morocco with interest…he’s off on a mountain expedition in the High Atlas later this year. Helen, did you have your eyes shut while knitting? Sorry you’re going to miss my 50th Party….you would have fitted right in…..its a 60’s Hippie themed night!!
    Cheers,
    Gavin H


    1. // Reply

      Hi Gavin. Best of luck for the 50th. Us….hippies?….! Sorry to miss it though- have a blast. Stuart and Helen


  2. // Reply

    Once again, really interesting post. Looking forward to welcoming your nuevo besto compadres to New Malden. So the litter blowing up the high street yesterday wasn’t exactly tumbleweed but it would only take them a very teeny stretch of imagination to feel right back home in the Wild West. x


  3. // Reply

    Great trip Sorry about the “New Year”


    1. // Reply

      We’re getting used to mis-timing things by now – still can’t quite get the hang of the long lunch break when everything’s shut…


  4. // Reply

    Very interesting blog especially when things don’t always go according to plan, I see that the navigation skills are , what shall I say, variable . Snowing heavily here at the moment and enjoy France.


    1. // Reply

      Hi Colin. I entered the coordinates on the website for the campsite (checked before and after we discovered we were almost in another country) – what I didn’t do was check that they actually went to the right place. Doh! Stuart


  5. // Reply

    Did you go to Girona for some Game of Thrones scene spotting?


    1. // Reply

      Skirted around Girona so didn’t see anything related to Games of Thrones but they seem to have been everywhere so we’ve already seen a few places. Not helped by the fact that we haven’t actually watched much of it (yet)! Stuart


  6. // Reply

    Hey Guys

    Great to see Gus making his international debut!

    Sadly our trip home didn’t go quite so smoothly, the clutch went just outside of Vineros and we were towed to a garage that typifies the Spanish ‘Manana’. 4 days later no parts had been ordered so Anna flew home, another week later and i gave up and Gus and I drove back in a hire car with Anna picking us up in Calais. Finally finished the repair yesterday, 17 days after we broke down.

    Enjoy the rest of your travels.

    Cheers
    Mat & Anna


    1. // Reply

      Hi Mat & Anna (and Gus of course!)

      Great to hear from you but OMG what a nightmare…you must have been spitting tacks by the end of it. What a shame your holiday was knocked by that. Hopefully you will get a chance to get away in your van again soon.
      We’ve got some funny lights coming on now and then in our van but – don’t want to jinx anything – so far so still running…

      All the best and thanks for getting in touch,

      Cheers,
      Helen & Stuart


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *