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.
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.
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.
￼ But some of those white houses are clinging to the top of the staggeringly high gorge which divides the town in two, like so:￼
Stuart overcame waves of vertigo to poke his camera over the bridge…
Meanwhile, when he was taking photos like this…
…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?
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.
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…
…pointed in the direction of snow capped mountains and set off on the next leg of our trip.
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..
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…
And here are some of the visitors from the Spaghetti Western era…
And more recently…
Walking around Fort Bravo is like stepping back into a little town from the Wild West…
…or a Mexican pueblo…
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….
Isn’t this guy straight from central casting as the baddie who tries to steal the gold from the goodie?
…but he always gets caught by the good guy…
..and here they all are, ready to slug it out…
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.
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…
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….
…buzz off kid. These are my nuevo, mucho besto compadres…
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..
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
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..
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.
But we discovered it is also in the Guinness Book of Records for the record breaking graffiti project along the river bank.
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.
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…
…to finally taste the paella billed as the “best in Spain’?
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.
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..
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.
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…
..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..
..like it’s a surprise when you wake and find at sunrise you were right beside a bridge all the time.
This was the week when the driving has been the most challenging….we were back on never ending steep slopes….
…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…
And then it was time to cross into France, the fourth country we’ve visited since starting our big trip.
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.
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.