Week 5 – Salamanca to Extremadura


This week we strolled around the beautiful honey-coloured sandstone city of Salamanca, travelled south to Extremadura to see the wildlife of Parque Natural de Monfrague. And we travelled to Caceres for the food – it was Spain’s gastronomic capital in 2015- and stayed on for the fleadh. By luck, not planning, we had arrived just as a three-day festival of Irish music was about to kick off. All travel plans were put on hold while we stayed on to enjoy the craic.

And the highlights:

In Salamanca – finding Franco. Since Spain passed a law a few years back that all public statues of the fascist dictator be removed, you’d be hard pressed to see his image anywhere. We tracked him down in one of the few places he is still on show – here he is overlooking the city’s main square Plaza Mayor.


Visiting the Museo Art Nouveau y Art Deco – To use an expression my mother is fond of, Stuart is a man who doesn’t go near ‘church, chapel or meeting house’ so the splendours of the Catholic Church on show in Salamanca remain as a closed book to us. It was heresy surely not to have gone inside any of them but they will have to keep for another trip.

The secular compromise for a tour was Casa Lis which was constructed as a private palace in the early 1900’s and now houses the city’s Art Nouveau and Art Deco Museum.

The building itself, with its spectacular stained glass windows,  was as much of interest as the collection it is home to.



Busking on the steps of Salamanca Cathedral


Seeing the wild life of Parque Natural de Monfrague -Well this blog wouldn’t be the same without a vulture photo, would it? And here’s this week’s featured bird…




We followed one of the walking trails to the top of this hill…




The air was clear which explains why this lichen was thriving…


The following day, to ensure we saw the best of the park’s wildlife, we took a 4×4 tour with guide Valentine. Here he is…


Our guide at Monfrague National Park
Our guide at Monfrague National Park

And a fantastic guide he was too. We saw so many birds that for a man initially excited at the sight of a single chough, Stuart now won’t remove his lens cap unless there is a flock of raptors tearing open the carcass of a baby deer at his feet.

Actually according to Valentine – and look away now if you are eating – that’s exactly what they do. If a cow is injured and dying, the vultures will fly overhead and keep watch until they are dead – popping back every few hours to check on progress. Sometimes magpies get there first and will tuck into the eyes and mouth of the dead animal. But then they need the bigger birds to break open the carcass so will flap wildly over it to let the vultures know it is dinner time. Between the raptors taking the first course and the smaller birds finishing off the remains only the bones will be left. That suits the farmers very well as it saves them the cost of disposal, according to Valentine. ‘It’s the park’s sanitary system’, he said. Excuse all the gory detail here but as someone whose knowledge of the natural world draws heavily on The Lion King, I for one found all this fascinating.

So here are some of the sights in the park as shown to us by Valentine, sometimes screeching his brakes to a halt when he caught a glimpse of something, like this vulture perched on a rock..


…or this red deer hind…

Wild deer

..and this blue spotted lizard on a log…


…and – goodness knows how he managed to spot this from the distance we were at- an otter on the river bank.

We were so far away this photo was taken through telescope.

But this beast we were able to spot for ourselves…



… a bull being bred for fighting. ‘Leave your red rucksack in the car’, Valentine warned as Stuart went to take the photo.

And as for the flora of the region, there are cork oak trees like this one which had recently been harvested…


…it takes 10 years of growth to reach this depth. Just enough to make a wine bottle cork.


And this turpentine tree…


And finally, this unexpected crop. ‘Is that spinach, Valentine?’ Nope – it’s a tobacco plantation. Philip Morris is a big customer for the local produce of Extemadura.


The food in Caceres for the cuisine – We worked our way through a few of the taperia in Caceres – this is a gastropub of the local speciality migas – it’s a mix of breadcrumbs, egg and chorizo.


Roasted suckling pig is another speciality of the region though the way it was served, just in chunks on the bone, crackling and all, wasn’t as appetising as it sounded. Here it is..


This very simple dish of roasted mushroom, aubergine, peppers and onion was perfect though…


Caceres for the craic – So on the Friday night, we decided to pop into a bar in Caceres for one for the road before heading back to the campsite. We followed the sound of Irish music  to a bar thinking it was more likely to be Galician. We had made the same mistake in Las Madulas where it sounded like every cafe was playing Irish folk as it sounded so similar. But this time we were right…it was indeed Irish and a a three day Fleadh was starting the following day. There would be free concerts every night in the old town . No question. All our travel plans were postponed to stay for the duration.

We saw the likes of Rick Epping play with New Road..


…and Cathy Jordan …


…and Frankie Gavin and De Dannan.


..and some great singing from Edwina Guckian though, until I work out how to upload video, you will have to take my word for it.



Edwina Guckian – taking a break between songs

Week 4 – Porto, Coimbra and back to Spain

This week we spent a few days in beautiful Porto while waiting for the new van part to arrive, travelled south to Portugal’s leading university city Coimbra and just when we’d finally worked out our ‘obrigados’  from our ‘obgrigadas’ *  we have crossed the border back to Spain.

And the highlights of week 4:

Exploring Porto and the Douro Valley:

The 80 mile drive down into Porto was challenging, following narrow, steep roads with frequent switchback turns round the vine-covered hillsides which overlook the Douro river.

We travelled past acres and acres of terraced vineyards which seemed to cover every slope on the hillsides, like these:


Views over the Douro Valley snapped en route


…and we finally arrived into Porto. It was dull and misty when we got there so it was very hard to capture on camera just how beautiful the city looked.

Grey mist hanging over Porto

Over two days, we tramped up and down the hills and through the atmospheric back streets of this gorgeous city where slum homes are crammed in topsy turvy fashion against elegant mansions and designer shops and the number of decaying and derelict buildings was truly startling.

These sharp contrasts have been a striking feature of our experience in Portugal so, for example, we had wifi on the bus from our campsite to Porto where the signal was so strong, we could download country maps quicker than our home wifi. But soon after,  we could see people seemingly living in conditions of real poverty and it was like stepping back 100 years.

A kitchen break in Porto
A kitchen break from one of the many restaurants in Porto’s Ribeira district


Cat nap in Porto
Cat nap in Porto


Porto university students – in their standard outfits of black suits with capes

Up near Porto University, where these young students gathered, we had another glimpse of the mix of traditional and modern Portugal.  The group in red in the background were doling out ‘free hugs’ – a freshers week event probably and we willingly obliged.

The others, clustered in their black capes and suits, cut very formal figures. First we thought it was for a special occasion, a graduation ceremony perhaps. No, it turns out these black suits and capes (called traje) are frequently worn by the students at Porto and also at Coimbra university where the tradition originated. And if they somehow look familiar – think Harry Potter. Apparently JK Rowling who worked as an English teacher in Porto for a few years was influenced by their outfits for the Hogwarts uniform,

Do please excuse the quality of the photo above which was taken from a distance by mobile phone and then cropped. It is clearly not up to the standard of our resident photographer. This is because Stuart resolutely refused to take a photo of the young female students as requested on the grounds it may have led to him spending the afternoon having an interesting discussion in the local El Nick trying to explain himself.

Learning about Port production in the Douro valley:

There aren’t many ‘must sees’ on our wish list for this trip but going to one of the port houses in Porto was always one of them. I guess because the story behind port production in the Douro valley has so many elements. Apart from the practical stuff like how it’s made, there is the romance and adventure in the stories of those English merchants from the 1600’s making their way over to the Douro valley to secure wine supplies for their home market.


Then there are the standout characters you want to know more about. Like, for example, John James Forrester, a Yorkshire man, who in the 1800’s became a leading light in the development of the port wine production as well as being a noted cartographer of the Douro river.

There are about 60 or so port lodges in the Vila Nova de Gaia area of Porto. All are open to visitors but how do you choose which one to tour? The Sandeman port house was right on the river front near the town centre and looked like a massive, slick tourist attraction. We thought something more olde worldly would offer a more authentic experience and headed to Taylor’s where we followed a self-guided tour through the cave where the vats and casks of port are stored, finishing up with a tasting session.

Chilled white for me, late bottled vintage for Stuart


The archive film shown during the tour which showed how the port was transported down the Douro before dams were constructed and it was still a wild and dangerous river was awe inspiring.  Special flat bottom boats had to be constructed to navigate the waters which ironically ultimately did for JJ Forrester mentioned above. He drowned in the Douro when his boat was hit by rapids.

Anyway, have a look at this archive film I found on You Tube and you get the idea. Skip to the middle to see the rapids – it’s like white water rafting.




And not quite the highlight – what can we say about Portuguese food?

We saw a queue for this place and like pre-Glasnost Muscovites joined it…


…it was for the Cafe Majestic,  a popular eaterie for the Porto bohemian set since the 1920’s and this week our destination for dinner. And now that we are here, is this a good time to raise the sensitive subject of food in Portugal?

The food critic Giles Coren created a social media ruckus a while back when he dubbed Portuguese food as ‘the worst in the world’. Well, we are not quite saying that but let’s say we haven’t struck lucky so far.

Ok so there’s bacalhau a plenty but really, there is only so much salted cod a person can eat. It’s everywhere you look. Here it is on sale when we were at Barcelos market…


It’s also on sale in every shop and supermarket and on every menu. But it was surprising – though maybe it should have been obvious given depleted fish stocks – that this Portuguese national dish is not home grown but is actually imported from Norway.

After that, the only other option offered in the restaurants we’ve been to was frango (chicken) with rice and chips- but in all cases the chicken’s breast appeared to have been served to someone else so all that we got were the legs and thighs with a teeny bit of flesh on them. Fair enough we were generally in very small towns where the choice of restaurants was limited and maybe we just didn’t do enough research to find the right places to eat. Anyway, back to the Cafe Majestic, we ordered pasta.

Portugal’s Cambridge – a visit to Coimbra

In the film ‘A Room with a View’, there’s a joke told about the American father on the European Grand Tour who is asked by his daughter what they saw in Rome. He answers something on the lines – “I guess that was where we saw the yellow dog”.

There’s a risk that my memory of the medieval university city of Coimbra – ancient seat of learning in Portugal for  some 500 years – will be on the lines ‘oh that’s where I managed to order a cheese and ham toasted sandwich for breakfast for the third time’.

Sadly, due entirely to my failure to communicate effectively my order for toast and jam has always resulted in a cheese and ham toastie. I thought I’d cracked it in Coimbra with the aid of the guide book language glossary together with vigorous nods to convey I most definitely did not want ham or, indeed, any cheese with my toast – many thanks obrigada (*thank you when addressing a woman). No joy.  It’s porridge from now on.

And aside from the trivia of my breakfast, what of Coimbra? It was magical at night…




And more gritty by day, especially up by the student accommodation where the political graffiti was everywhere.



Coimbra was also where we had the opportunity to listen to fado music and despite guide book warnings which made it sound like  this mournful music was to be endured rather than enjoyed, it was a good evening’s entertainment, especially the guitar accompaniment. Think of Radio 2 crossed with the Ukranian Eurovision entry with a blast of Christy Moore.


Back to Spain

And so we have left Portugal – possibly to return again – and crossed the border back to Spain. Our first destination was the beautiful border town of Ciudad Rodrigo. Here is yet another photo of picturesque Spanish town artistically shot through tunnel..(bear with us – there are lots more of these to come).
Scenic Spanish town photo no. 407 – this time it’s Ciudad Rodrigo
The view from Ciudad Rodrigo’s city walls


And the photo above was another view – oh look we thought an overgrown bullring. They must have stopped all bull fighting, possibly due to an EU directive. Actually no, a 20-year old American tourist was gored and severely injured by a bull at a festival in Ciudad Rodrigo only last year. So not quite over the sport as yet.

And from Ciudad Rodrigo we headed north where the hills of the Douro valley are far behind us and now all we have around us are the flat plains of the Meseta. What a relief for our van.







And finally, an update on the van trouble:

We had diagnosed that the problem was that the radiator fan wasn’t coming on when it should hence the regular episodes of boiling over.

We ordered a new switch from JK Kampers.  So there it is below, newly installed by Stuart and the offending one sitting on the bumper.

At the same time to help with steep climbs in the future,  we dropped some weight i.e. only had half a tank of diesel, half a tank of fresh water and dumped the bag of BBQ coal.

And the verdict? The jury is out on whether the new switch has actually sorted the problem because we’ve yet to hear the fan actually switch on.. We have been adopting a more cautious driving strategy which has also helped i.e. only driving at 25 miles an hour in 3rd. gear and 35 MPH in fourth, rather than forcing the engine. Fingers crossed!


Week 3 – From Galicia across the border to Portugal

This week as we travelled through Leon into the province of Galicia in rainy Spain, we dared to ‘aire’ it for the first time and we recovered our lost hour of GMT when we crossed the border into Portugal.

And, oh yes, we had some more van trouble. Apart from reversing into a careless tree thus splitting the bumper in two, the boiling radiator saga continued but we’ve now ordered the magic bullet to fix it and it is currently winging its way from JK Kampers in Hampshire to a campsite near us in Porto. But that’s a story for another week.

And the highlights for us this week were:

We dared to Aire:

For us relative newbies to the world of campervanning, staying at an Aire overnight and away from the safety of a campsite was a daunting prospect. Aires are designated areas in Spain and Portugal where motorhomes and campervans – not tents – can park overnight for free or for a nominal fee. There are usually no or few facilities and they – in our limited experience so far – are in quite unlovely parts of very small towns which would not be on the typical tourist trail.

And so here we are in the aire at the Spanish town of Ponferrada beside a hostel for camino walkers.

Parked up and ready for an overnight in the aire in Ponferrada- dwarfed by the big white motorhomes



And here we are parked at the Aire in Amoeiro – basically it was the kerb beside the village green. Having studied the owners of our neighbouring van from a judicious distance, we reckon it’s a mobile meth factory.

Our theory was confirmed the following morning. We spent the night parked behind it but at 7 am they started their engine and kept it roaring and running for ages and ages (no doubt cooking a new batch), spewing fumes from their exhaust straight into our van. We couldn’t get their attention – they were probably busy with a big order – so had no choice but to pull off the front screen night blind from our van and re-park upwind.

We saw some more dramatic landscape in Spain like:

Las Medulas – we walked up the steep hill past lines of sweet chestnut trees…


…to view this dramatic landscape which is, in fact, manmade.  Back in the day, the Romans blasted these hillsides asunder  with powerful jets of water when strip mining for gold, leaving this red earth still exposed many moons later.

There was gold in them thar hills – the  strange red peaks of Las Medulas – ravaged by the Romans


The marks of strip mining for gold on the hills

We enjoyed a few treats in Galicia like:

  • a hot spa in Ourense – this was fabulous. Just outside this town on the Minho river, there are natural hot springs where the water bubbles out of the ground at 70 degrees celsius. There a few places you can go to enjoy the thermal springs for free. But we went for the extravagant option and paid 5 euro each to spend the afternoon at a riverside spa where you work your way through 13 different hot pools and waterfalls in a zen-like state.
  • despite visiting Vigo when virtually everywhere was shut in honour of Our Lady of the Pillar or Hispanic Day (memo to selves – do check for national public holidays before visiting a country), this street of restaurants was open so we enjoyed oysters and octopus…
6 oysters for 10 euro in Vigo
6 oysters for 10 euro in Vigo


Washed down with vinho verde
Washed down with vinho verde, these oysters were deliciously firm and very unlike the, um, snot-textured variety previously tasted at home


Plateful of octopus
Plus a plateful of octopus – truth be told this looked prettier than it actually tasted.


whitebait and pimentos patron
and finally some whitebait and pimentos padron to finish.

…all to the tune of ‘Strangers in the Night’.

Being serenaded in Vigo
‘thankyouverymuchladeezngenelmen…and for my next number’  – being serenaded in Vigo

A new country – crossing the border to Portugal

Spain to Portugal - borderless (don't mention Brexit)
Spain to Portugal – borderless (don’t mention Brexit)

Crossing the border from Spain to Portugal is remarkably uneventful. One minute you are in Spain and – zoom – 60 minutes earlier you are in Portugal.  Time to put your watch back. Portugal is an hour behind Spain which seemed most odd given how geographically close they are. At the same time, it was good to reclaim the hour of our year away we’d lost leaving GMT.

And now in the second country of our big trip, our first  stop was at the small town of Barcelos where every Thursday there is a massive market, selling everything from chickens…


Funny but I’ve just gone right off Nando’s

…to roasted chestnuts.


Next stop was  the Parc Natural da Peneda- Geres where we wandered through the tiny hillside village of Lindoso (pop. about 500) and…

The narrow vine covered streets of Lindoso, one of the villages in the Penedes Geres national park

…and we enjoyed a chat with Nuno who runs the interpretation centre there. He explained these intriguing constructions we had seen around the village….



…no, it’s not a cemetery. These are espiguerios are stores for maize. They are on stilts to keep the rats out.


The gaps between the slats of wood allows air to dry the corn.

Of the 60 or so of these stores in Lindoso, only about 15 are still in use for storing maize. Each one is owned by a different family or, as he explained it, in most cases ownership is split between members of a family. Where, as is typical, the family has been dispersed around the world by emigration, that presented a particular challenge when the owners’  consent was needed to move a few of the stores  to make room for the visitor centre. ‘We had one case where the store itself was owned by 7 brothers and the land beneath it owned by another sibling..trying to get signatures from all of them to agree to the move was very, very difficult.”

And more van trouble leads to an overnight in a hotel…

On the motorway from Barcelos, our van’s radiator boiled over – again. It was raining heavily and getting dark. Here we go again. I felt like this.

One of the fountains at Bom Jesus near Braga - the resemblance was uncanny
One of the fountains at Bom Jesus near Braga – the resemblance was uncanny

We waited on the hard shoulder for the radiator to cool down.  Stuart donned his high vis jacket and kept watch at the back of the van to ensure other motorists  didn’t plough into us. I did my bit from the passenger seat – calling out the occasional word of encouragement whilst working through a packet of salt and vinegar crisps (large) and light holiday reading (Valley of Dolls).

Finally, we were back on the road but the night and the mist had rolled in like so…


There was no aire apparent and no campsites around and no other choice  for accommodation in manageable driving distance except a 4* hotel in the middle of a national park – tough eh? Thankfully as it had just opened, the rate was 70 euro for a room with breakfast so the damage to our daily budget wasn’t too severe. Also we justified it to ourselves by applying the formula – two nights in a car park for free = one night in hotel.

And so it was that we found ourselves later that night, much relieved to have found a bed,  and in the hotel restaurant ordering wine. We’ll have rose for a change, what have you got that’s local, we asked the very keen young waiter.

He returned and presented with a flourish his top choice – it was Mateus Rose. Yes, Mateus Rose – there it was the distinctively flask shaped bottle you last saw in your mother’s house with a lampshade stuck in the top. Good grief we thought – what would he have brought if we’d ordered white wine? Blue Nun or Black Tower?

Well, it seems we are just not savvy enough about current wine trends to know that Mateus Rose has moved on from the  1970’s when it was sweet and sickly and served alongside platters of cheese and pineapple on cocktail sticks.  Our waiter was determined to put us right – this was one of Portugal’s best wines and as for a local connection, why just look at the picture on the front of the bottle, that’s the beautiful Palacio at Vila Real which is just down the road.

And so he won us over that night anyway. Mateus Rose was light and slightly fizzy and most drinkable. Of course, maybe it was like those holiday drinks – wonderful when you are away but don’t quite travel well home. Like that bottle of ouzo that sits in your cupboard untouched till you finally donate it to the school tombola.

Continuing the theme next day, we decided to make a detour and visit the Palacia Mateus which is actually in the village of Mateus.

The Casa de Mateus, near Vila Real in Portugal – recognise it from the wine bottle label?

Case de Mateus is an elaborately ornamented baroque house with striking French-style parterre gardens complete with tunnels of cypress trees.

We took a tour of the house along with two Dutch couples who were impatient to get to the wine tasting bit. So when do we get to try the Mateus Rose, one asked our guide. ‘But we don’t make that wine here’ he explained patiently. It seems the winemaker used the picture of the Palacio Mateus on the bottle but that’s all they have in common. ‘That’s industrial wine – we make our own artisan wine here’, he added a bit sniffily.

Our fellow tourists were aghast. “What? Nothing to do with  Mateus Rose – but that’s the only reason we came. Can we have our money back?”

We think she was joking.

And for a photo finish, some more scenes from our travels this week:

The Romans are some boys – this is part of the road which once led from the Peneda-Geres national park (as is today) to Astorga in Spain. We walked some of it.


One of the milestones still left on the Roman Road


Still on the Roman Road


Strawberry tree in Peneda-Geres national park
Penedes Geres National Park in Portugal
Approaching Penede-Geres national park as the sunset hit the mountain


The scallop shell symbol to mark the Camino pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela - you see them everywhere (on the route that is)
The scallop shell symbol to mark the Camino pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela – you see them everywhere (on the route that is)


The very ornate steps at Bom Jesus, just outside Braga. The pic was taken in the nano second when it wasn’t swarming with tourists – and this was October. The summer must be unbearable.


Quite macabre sculpture in the pool in the reflecting pool in front of Casa de Mateus
Quite macabre sculpture in the reflecting pool in front of Casa de Mateus
Poignant sculptures at Vigo station to reflect the high emigration from Galicia
Poignant sculptures at Vigo station to reflect the high emigration from Galicia
Leaving Vigo
Leaving Vigo

And finally the weather…

We’ve had a lot of rain this week but (van geek alert here) it has given us a reason to try out our new awning. And very cosy it is too.

Our Fiamma awning in action
Our Fiamma awning in action

Week 2 – Cantabria to Asturias

This week we started out in Cantabria and visited one of the few examples of Gaudi’s architecture outside of Catalonia. We sampled the cider and cheese of Asturias, did some people watching in Oviedo. Pushing on south we have seen the Spanish landscape change from the dramatic, high peaks of the Picos de Europa, to lush green valleys and then to the red earth of old Castille.

Oh, and we almost saw the glacial lakes of Covadonga. Almost – more van trouble this week.

And the highlights:

Gaudi’s Villa Quijano in Comillas, Cantabria

Seeing beautiful architecture: 

We could pretend we knew about Gaudi”s El Capricho in Comillas and that we had made a special visit to the town on a mission to see one of his earliest works. The truth is we stumbled upon it. Staying in nearby San Vicente de la Barquera, we were only in the town to buy washing powder.

But there it was,  just in sight as we walked back to the van from the supermercado. It looked like something from a Grimm’s fairy tale and we couldn’t ignore it. Thankfully we didn’t.

Gaudi’s folly is, in fact, a mini palace he designed on commission for a music loving bachelor lawyer recently returned from Cuba. At least that’s what it must have said in the design brief.

So Gaudi is thinking, here’s a guy who likes music, just back from the Caribbean, wants to be reminded of home and likes to entertain. I know-  I will create for him a ‘U’-shaped house where every room bar the bathroom connects to a greenhouse filled with tropical plants and – genius idea here – the sunlight will follow him around the house all day. Sunrise will see light streaming into his bedroom  and by sunset, the light will shine into his study where he repairs to enjoy his evening cigar.

What an inspired design – why hasn’t Barratt Homes thought of this?


Close up on the exterior wall of El Capricho, translated as the Folly


I believe the historians report the architect’s handover to client as follows:

Gaudi – So here you are. Here’s your house. What do you think?

Client – Great stuff Antoni. Love it – especially the greenhouse. That’s a corker. But maybe next time, go easy on the sunflowers? Maybe mix it up a bit, throw in a few dragons or a lizard. Just a thought. Hey, I know I’m a lawyer but no charge for the ideas here.

Stained glass window inside El Caprichio
Stained glass window inside El Caprichio

Sampling cider in the Sidreria 

In  the Asturias town of Nava and then in Oviedo again, we idled away a happy few hours in bars specialising in the local cider, enjoying the theatre of it as much as the drink itself.

The theatre of pouring cider - at a Sideria in Nava, Asturias
Pouring cider – at a Sideria in Nava, Asturias

The waiter presented the bottle to us, then took it away and stood beside what, to our untutored eyes, looked like an individual urinal. He then held the bottle high above his head and seemingly without looking at the glass held at waist height, poured a fountain of Sidra Natural into a large glass. He then returned to our table and formally handed each of us our glass with a small amount of still, cloudy cider.

The same ritual happened with every refill. He would come back to our table to take our glasses away and if you hadn’t quite finished your last glass. Unlucky. The dregs went straight into the, em, urinal and a fresh fountain of cider was poured into each glass and handed straight to you, never on to the table directly.

Cider with snacks
Cider with charcuterie

In Asturias, it seems even the graffiti has a cider theme.

Cider with Banksy?
Cider with Banksy? (Or maybe Roy Keane has found a more rewarding job than football punditry.)


And to help wash down the cider, we had platefuls of fabada –  a kind of stew with haricot beans, chorizo, blood sausage and pork.



The beautiful changing landscape we saw:

We started the week exploring the high peaks of the Picos de Europa. Our starting point was the small town of Potes.

The Picos as seen from Potes
The Picos as seen from Potes

Potes had the feel of a modern ski resort feel and at first wasn’t hugely appealing.  The back streets were more atmospheric.


Little street in Potes
Little street in Potes

We took the funicular up into the mountains.  It only takes 4 minutes – that’s not too long to travel with your eyes shut.


The 4 minute funicular to the top of Picos - is this photo Spain's version of that Empire State Building poster?
Is this photo Spain’s version of that Empire State Building poster?


The funicular to the top of the Picos
The funicular to the top of the Picos


We walked part of the trail round the mountain top, had a picnic lunch of the local cabrales cheese with a dripping, juicy peach and saw more vultures.




Getting better Stuart
Getting better Stuart


Mountain top lunch - on reflection cabrales cheese is probably best eaten in the open air
Mountain top lunch – on reflection pongy cabrales cheese is probably best enjoyed in the open air


When we left the Picos, we thought we were leaving the mountains behind.


Through the gorge, out of the Picos.

But in Spain we are learning you can’t avoid the mountains. On the motorway heading towards Leon, we watched nervously as the GPS elevation went to 4,100 feet, the engine groaned all the way and then boiled over. But after a short coffee break, we could get moving again, now going downwards and able to breathe easily again.



Within a few hours, we travelled through the lush, green valleys of Asturias to the red, wonderfully flat, earth of Old Castille.



…and the landscape we missed: 

We hear the Covadango lakes in the Pico de Europa mountains are beautiful. Unfortunately we never got to see them though it was not for the want of trying.

The starting point to get to these glacial lakes is a small road out of the tiny village of Covadanga which is on the tourist map as a religious shrine.

The basilica at Covadonga - eh that's all we know. We were just passing.
The basilica at Covadonga – eh that’s all we know. We were just passing. The lakes here we come.


Setting off from the village, there were no warnings about how steep the road was.  If there had been any, we wouldn’t even have attempted the trip, so battle scarred are we still from our early experience of an overheated radiator Van trouble.

With every upward bend, our enthusiasm for these apparently magical lakes started to wane. The signs now appearing to say the incline was 10%, then 15% killed it completely.

We did try stopping every few minutes to allow the now furiously bubbling water cool down but no joy. With the radiator about to blow, we had no option on the narrow slope but to pull over to the ditch on the left handside of the road, partly obstructing the cars coming back down the mountain from lakes.

And there were a hell of a lot of cars. For somewhere we thought was in the wilds, it must have been like Penn Station up there. It was now 7 pm, they were all heading home after their day out and were very irate to find two idiot foreigners in a clapped out yellow van (Timor Beige actually) part blocking the road which meant they had to stop and take turns to pass with the cars now coming up the slope. As the traffic jam lengthened, we remained stoic in the face of the wildly gesturing drivers.

The only bright spot amid the embarrassment was when a young German guy in a T25 slowed down as as he came up the hill behind us and leaned out his window to ask as he passed us if we needed any help. Oh the kindness of strangers…of course, there was nothing he could do. We shouted our thanks,  waved him on his way and then watched with admiration as his van – the same age as our’s  – made its way steadily up the steep hill until it was only a small dot across the valley, looking like a pac man munching its way up the side of a triangle to the mountain peak.

So how did he manage to get to the lakes when our van failed? (See Stuart’s theory below)

(We may be carrying too much weight inc a full tank of water and it would be nice if the electric fan would kick in before it boils over rather than afterwards- investigations underway-Stuart)

When the traffic jam finally cleared, we found a space where we could manoeuvre a turn and point back the way we came but not before waiting for a herd of cows go ahead of us down the mountain, on their way home.  That’s fine cows, no hurry. We weren’t going anywhere.

No lakes for us...pointing back down the hill
No lakes for us…pointing back down the hill

A Saturday morning in Oviedo:

Trying to unravel recent Spanish history is a challenge – especially who was fighting who in the Civil War. These books are helping.

Part of the van library
Part of the van library

In Oviedo last Saturday morning, this recent history became a bit more real. In the Cathedral, there was a beatification mass for these men.

Los Martires de Nembra - some of the Spanish Martyrs executed during the Civil War, now being beatified.
Los Martires de Nembra – some of the Spanish Martyrs executed during the Civil War, now being beatified.

Crowds had arrived for it and there was a buzz of activity in the main square in front of Oviedo’s cathedral. The police were out in force.


Security duty at Oviedo Cathedral
Security duty at Oviedo Cathedral


Inside the Cathedral, the full pomp of the Catholic church was on display. A choir in full voice, the altar manned by the cardinal and flanked by priests and the pews were packed, some holding up iPads to record the ceremony. It’s probably on You Tube by now. At the back were 5 smartly suited bouncers with ear pieces keeping us curious onlookers in check.

Mass over, now back to the office

And on a happier note,  just passing by on her way to be wed in the church behind the Cathedral, this bride and her mother holding her dress. Well, I guess it was mama because of the family resemblance and the fact that every few minutes, she kept having to stop, drop the train and dab tears away with a tissue.


Proud mama




And here comes the bride again


And here are the glamorous guests..(ok that’s enough wedding stalking)


Adding to the festivities in the Cathedral square, this local pop combo

So what else was nice about Oviedo? Good line in statutes. Like this one:

One view of motherhood
One view of motherhood

And this..

Botero’s view of motherhood


Week 1 – the Basque Country

Our first week in Northern Spain is over. In glorious sunshine and teeming rain, we’ve experienced the city life and sampled the pintxos  of Bilbao and San Sebastian of the Pais Vasco province and travelled south, still in the Basque region, into the depths of rural Navarre.

Aside from one scare (Van trouble), all vital signs with the van are good although we are now especially cautious at any risk of a steep incline. So when the temperature gauge started to creep up as we travelled up the motorway rising sharply between San Sebastian to Pamplona, that was our cue to pull over for breakfast and a chance for the van to calm herself.

And the highlights:

The Guggenheim up close

The Guggenheim Museum inside and out – Overtaking the hordes of Rapid Vienna footie fans marching through the centre of Bilbao, bellowing chants familiar to the terraces at home, we turned the corner to reach the Guggenheim. The first glimpse of the building is an ‘oh wow’ moment – as Brian Sewell would not have said. And as it was almost closing time, having the Richard Serra ‘The Matter  of Time’ exhibit hall to myself was also pretty cool – another phrase I’m sure Brian would have avoided. The pieces are massive and eerie. One curiously reminded me I should see the film ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ again to see if it is as good as I remember.

Meanwhile Stuart enjoyed his wandering outside, though not so much the scarily high steps down from the bridge across the river. He balked at taking the six storeys of steps down and opted for the lift inside instead. (Though not as bad with heights as I am, he did also have to sit through the first seven songs at the Elbow concert in the O2 with his eyes firmly shut.)

Keeping guard at the Guggenheim
Keeping guard at the Guggenheim
The Guggenheim from across the river
The Guggenheim from across the river

Food Glorious Food: In Bilbao, we ate pintxos (the Basque equivalent of tapas) and rationes (bigger portions) at a few of the bars near the Moyua metro, from simple ones like anchovy and olive on a cocktail stick to more elaborate ones like this dish of calamari, chorizo and peppers.

Calamari, chorizo and peppers

In San Sebastian, we started off with pintxos in one of the more sophisticated bars where the counters are piled high with colourful mouthfuls and followed up with another dish at this crammed busy bar which served only calamari or mussels with different sauces served with big platefuls of patatas bravas.

La Mejillonera - fast food San Sebastian style
La Mejillonera – fast food San Sebastian style

Being Outdoors: We’ve walked for miles this week. In truly beautiful San Sebastian, we walked to the top of Monte Urgull, the steep hill overlooking the city and visited the English cemetery where lies Colonel Tupper resting in peace overlooking the grand sweep of the bay.

Here lies Colonel William Tupper - on the high hill overlooking San Sebastian
Here lies Colonel William Tupper – on the high hill overlooking San Sebastian

And in Parque Natural Urbasa Andia, 40 miles from Pamplona, we walked across meadows carpeted with autumn crocuses up to the cliff escarpment.

Parque Natural de Urbesa
Parque Natural de Urbasa

The only sounds were the bells on the sheep grazing – yes definitely bells on the sheep – the humming of bees and the squeals of a delighted nature lover who has just spotted a chough. (That’s Stuart – I wouldn’t recognise a chough even if served to me on a plate with watercress).


This is a chough - apparently. (Stuart's career in wildlife photography gets off to a modest start)
This is a chough – apparently. (Stuart’s career in wildlife photography gets off to a modest start)

But this sighting was crowned for him when, the next day,  we followed a trail through the Parque Natural de Valderejo at Lalastra. Way up high on the cliff tops, we saw what looked like three chamois perched on the edge together. Not chamois at all – they were Griffon vultures, sitting in companionable silence.

Three Griffon vultures perched high on the cliff above us
Three Griffon vultures perched high on the cliff above us
Taking flight
Taking flight
Dear Santa, Please bring me a long lens for Christmas. Yours ever, Stuart
Dear Santa,
Please bring me a long lens for Christmas.
Yours ever,

On another day, we walked the countryside around the village of Villanane, past the nodding ripe sunflowers and the 14th century castle and church.

Sunflowers ready for harvesting
Sunflowers ready for harvesting


The countryside near Villnane
The countryside near Villanane

Surprise discovery – Other than working out a general direction of travel, we haven’t planned too much about this trip. We want to be open to the surprises and here was one – it was the salt farms at Salinas de Anana in Navarre. We took the 1 hour tour to find out more about this fascinating place which used to be farmed by up to 1,000 individuals with their own holding and is now a local co-operative, farming and selling Anana salt to, among others,  Michelin-star chefs and the occasional campervan kitchen. Every year, on the same day they are running the bulls at Pamplona, the local community gather here for what is apparently a spectacular sound and light show. I know which I’d rather be doing.

The salt farms at the Salinas de Anana
The salt farms at the Salinas de Ananausuario

Van trouble

The directions to Camp Igueldo overlooking San Sebastian expressly said that motorhomes shouldn’t follow the GPS directions but should take a different, longer and suitable route along the coast.

But we ignored that – our’s is a campervan, not a motorhome so we’d be fine we thought. So when we got to the start of the ‘unsuitable’ route, we also thought this sign somehow gave an exception to camper vans. It looked like the red circle was only around the bigger vehicles and so we set off and started climbing.

Recovering at the side of the road following our descent
Recovering at the side of the road following our descent

But it was so steep and narrow, we thought this can’t be right but the local farmer we asked gestured to us that the campsite was in that direction and, looking sceptically at our van, shrugged us on our way upwards.

And so we kept climbing and climbing round more and more twisty, steep turns, in first gear all the way with the engine straining and the temperature gauge showing the engine getting hotter and hotter and neither of us were saying a word because it was now sheer will power keeping us going up this steep, unending climb till finally the van could not take any more.

Stuart thought the temperature is so high we can’t go any further and pulled over on the hillside just as the radiator boiled over and clouds of steam came hissing out of the back of the van. And so our dream of a restful afternoon lunch in the campsite went up in smoke and we had visions of an unplanned night of wild camping and having to be rescued by ADAC,  the German rescue company we’ve signed up with, to tow us off the mountain.

But after pulling everything out of the back to check the engine which was red hot and clanking loudly, nothing appeared to have burst. So after a 40 minute or so wait, we set off again tentatively to coast back down the slope, with the lid off the engine and the van heater on full blast to help cool the engine down.

And so the van survived to drive another day and this time following the directions in the book and not ignoring any signs, we made it to the campsite.

It was a tense time but thanks to our local garage M & D motors, the van is in good shape. Here’s a photo of the team…

The team at our local garage who helped get us on the road.
The team at our local garage who helped get us on the road.


And we also have the reassurance that if we do find ourselves stranded somewhere needing a spare part, we will be able to call Just Kampers who assure us that they can ship what’s needed within a day or two.

Just Kampers in Hampshire - our first stop en route
Just Kampers in Hampshire – our first stop en route

Over the two years since we had the van, we’ve bought most of our bits for the van from this Hampshire specialist in VW parts. We took the precaution of calling to see them en route to Portsmouth to pick up a final batch of useful spares to carry with us. Ideally of course, we never want to have to call them again.

Maybe we won’t if we just accept that road signs apply to us too.