In our last week in Spain before heading to Morocco, we spent a few days in Cadiz, travelled on to the famously windy town of Tarifa before crossing the border to Gibraltar.
On the Rock, it was all change.
Our van Molly went for an overnight stay at a garage for a full once over. My son Conor flew in for a few days to join me in Gib while Stuart took the same plane back to the UK for his son’s graduation (congrats Callum). Then it was vice versa at the weekend. Stuart flew back to resume our trip and Conor took that same plane back, returning for work at 64 Degrees (the best restaurant in Brighton btw). Perfect symmetry.
And the highlights:
In Cadiz, we wandered through the narrow streets, lined with elegant, pastel-painted houses ..
…and strolled along the causeway to get to the Castillo de San Sebastian, meeting – but of course! – yet another bride-to-be on a photo shoot.
We also got our ‘bird of the week’ shot, though haven’t yet worked out which species as yet.
This Dragon Tree looked pretty grand in the city’s botanic garden Parque Genoves.
And we ate the most typical dish of Cadiz – a plate of mixed fried fish. This is what we ordered.
And this was what was served – a deliciously fresh mixed plate.
We didn’t actually stay overnight in Cadiz – we took the 40-minute catamaran in every day from El Puerto de Santa Maria. That’s a seaside resort which looks like this at sunset…
We ate in ‘Bespoke’ and among the many dishes we sampled over two nights (we had to go back for more), this migas. It’s the third version of this traditional Spanish dish we’ve tried and all have a slightly different twist. This was the best though.
It was soft and silky and and spongy and squidgy and tomatoey and garlicky – the ultimate comfort food. Oh for Nigella’s thesaurus to describe it properly.
And we enjoyed incredible Spanish hospitality thanks to Peter and Mariola – two locals back on a holiday from working overseas and very happy to sup with us till 3 am (at which point we discovered they’d covered our entire – and substantial – bar bill.
High wind in Tarifa:
It’s not exactly a fun fact about a destination but if you google ‘Tarifa’, chances are there will be a reference to it’s very high suicide rate. I’ve no idea whether this is, or was ever, true but whatever, the cause was apparently due to the psychologically debilitating effect of the continual wind.
Tarifa sits right on the bottom tip of Spain, facing Morocco, with the Atlantic on side and the Mediterranean on the other. With the warm levante coming in from the East, meeting the cooler poniente wind from the west, the winds are continuous.
So making the most of it, it has the biggest wind farm in Europe. It was mesmerising driving past miles and miles of these shiny windmills.
No surprise then that Tarifa is the place to go for kite surfers. We went to the beach and watched this loyal mutt wait for his master to come back to shore.
He waited patiently. Then the wind whipped up the sand….
Sod this. I’ll see you at home….
After two sleepless nights in Tarifa – not a terribly scientific study I’ll grant you – I’d agree there’s definitely something truly unsettling about continually being in a restless, buffeting, gusting wind.
Short break in Gibraltar:
The first glimpse of Gibraltar was impressive. There it is, this huge rock jutting out at the edge of Spain.
Walk down the main street though and it’s like you’re back in England.
That’s apart from the glorious blue skies, of course.
And the macaques on the rock, here’s mummy, daddy and baby…
There are clear warnings to say you shouldn’t feed them so I’m guessing this one paid for the Magnum himself.
And they have some interesting cuisine in Gibraltar.
Here’s a dish I’m definitely going to try out when I get back home – it mixes two types of pork meat with some grilled vegetables and an interesting way of serving eggs.
And it was great spending time with Conor…we followed the tourist trail, visiting the tunnels through the Rock…
..and up to the top of the nature reserve.
And Molly got the all clear:
We had booked the van into Rock Motors for a full check up. Slight flaw, she didn’t fit into their garage…
But they found us an alternative and happily, there are no problems to report and nothing to delay our journey to Morocco.
This week we experienced the food, fino and flamenco of Andalusia, staying three days in Seville – still not enough time to do the city justice – before heading south to Jerez.
We saw some curious sights on the way – the pilgrimage village of El Rocio in Huelva where the sand-covered streets are designed for horses, not cars, and the red water of the Rio Tinto river – once the centre of a massive British-owned copper mining operation.
The journey down to Jerez was the longest single haul we’ve done in the van so far on this trip. It was about 200 miles, sometimes up those long, steadily rising motorway inclines we – and the van – hate so much because there’s nowhere to escape if the needle on the temperature gauge starts edging dangerously into the red.
But Stuart’s new extra-cautious driving strategy of sticking on the hazard lights and taking these hills really, really slowly is working so far. Hopefully we can keep going without any dramas until we get to the garage in Gibraltar where we’ve lined up a mechanic to give Molly the once over before facing the Atlas Mountains in Morocco very soon.
And the highlights this week:
Exploring Seville by day:
Our bus into Seville dropped us up the road from this building. The photo doesn’t capture it’s size or splendour. It’s not what you expect a cigarette factory to look like.
But up until the 1950’s, this is what it was – the Real Fábrica de Tabacos which was built in the 1700’s and where at its peak around 4,000 all-female “cigarreras” worked, preparing and rolling the tobacco leaf shipped up the Guadalquivir river from the United States and turning it into cigars and cigarettes.
If that is sounding familiar, it’s the factory which inspired Bizet to write the opera ‘Carmen’. His fictional heroine is based on one of the feisty, free-spirited tobacco workers in Seville who have been described as pioneers of trade union rights. The rights they negotiated including an agreement they could bring their babies to work. Special cradles were provided so they could rock the baby and continue working.
The former factory is now part of Seville university and we cut through its corridors, now dotted with ‘No Smoking’ signs to get onto the street and make out way to Plaza de Espana.
One of the guidebooks described this square as one of the most beautiful public spaces in Spain.
Stuart, our resident public realm guru, had no argument with this description.
The elaborately decorated Plaza which, with terrible timing, was built to host the Ibero-American Exposition in 1929 just before the Wall Street crash. It was a wonderfully relaxing space to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon.
We joined the families strolling aimlessly round the water fountains and sunned ourselves on one of the colourfully tiled benches which frame the square. The painted ceramic azulejos tiles depict scenes from all over Spain so as recent arrivals from La Mancha, we had to choose one which depicted our friend Don Quixote…
But our public realm guru was less impressed with how they’ve used the space underneath Seville’s Las Setas ( the mushrooms).
That’s this enormous wooden construction.
That’s another public construction project built with terrible timing. It was due to open in 2007 but for many reasons, particularly technical ones – ‘See this design you’ve given us here? Looks really great guys but,em, it doesn’t work, can’t be built’ (ARUP)- it finally opened in 2011.
Standing underneath and looking upwards, the vast structure is astonishing. But, sez Stuart, the walk through it, housing some empty units and a cafe, had the look of a project that just ran out of ideas and money.
Yep – got it in one. When they eventually solved the technical problems, the ‘mushrooms’ opened massively over budget and at the tail end of Spain’s worst ever recession. So not much left in the coffers for even a couple of hanging baskets.
And then it had to be time for more tapas, and so we walked back through the narrow streets, interrupting this bride’s photo shoot.
We’ve stumbled into so many weddings in Spain! Actually what I’ve now discovered and find irresistibly fascinating to photograph (much to Stuart’s huge embarrassment) is that some of these wedding shoots are taking place a week or so ahead of the actual ceremony. So much for not letting the groom see the dress before the big day…
Anyway, we were on our way for tapas. We continued through streets lined with orange trees…
…and squares blooming with Bird of Paradise flowers …
…including this one, clearly named after his number one success with El Lady in Redos…
…past the Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza.
We knew we must be near a bull ring because all the bars and cafes we passed were decorated with matador memorabilia, including rather disconcertingly some where with a massive bull’s head stuck reindeer-style to the wall.
And finally we chose a restaurant filled with Spanish families settling in for a four-hour Sunday lunch. Five flamenco singers busked the tables as we waited for our food, encouraging this young diner to join them and demonstrate his prowess on the guitar while proud mama looks on.
The restaurant was a good choice. This dish of crispy fried aubergine sticks with a salmorejo dip (made of tomatoes, bread and oil) was pretty special. As were the slivers of iberico ham cut from one of these joints..
One night in Seville:
We felt we couldn’t leave the city without seeing flamenco.
The Museo Del Baile Flamenco in the Santa Cruz district seemed like a good option. They run one hour shows of flamenco dance, guitar and singing. The venue caters only for 40 or so and so felt quite intimate. There was also the additional bonus of being seated within eavesdropping distance of a Canadian tour guide with her three clients and being able to hear her expert commentary on the art of flamenco.
Sometimes the dancer will feel the ‘duende’ I could hear her advise her charges. (I think it means something like ‘having soul’).
I’m not sure if the savage kicks she gave to the frilled train of her dress to sweep it behind her counts as ‘duende’ but it was stirring stuff to watch close up.
And an additional bonus of seeing the show at the Museo, they threw in a free tour around the Jewish quarter after the show. Our guide was the charismatic Ismael…
His potted history of Spain was memorable and some facts stood out…like, for example, the Spanish inquisition lasted 400 years and the last execution was in the 1800’s. (Ok – cut me some slack here. It’s just been me and Stuart in the van for the past 7 weeks. I feel the need to share these nuggets I find interesting with someone who hasn’t already heard it!)
And for a night cap, we headed to this bar for more cerveza, vino blanco and tapas…
…and this dish was a surprise. It was aubergine, crisp fried, but deliciously sweet from a coating of honey.
When not either a) eating b) drinking or c) papping people’s wedding shoots, I did a solo visit to Seville Cathedral and joined the lines of people taking selfies with Christopher Columbas…that’s apparently his tomb.
And we both visited the Alcazar palace…
And Stuart wanted to include this photo for reasons best known to himself…
El Rocio – a town for horses:
It was at a campsite near Bilbao, at the start of our trip, that we first heard of El Rocio. In the chitchat at the communal dishwashing area, a fellow motorhomer chatted about their plans. They wanted to go to a village built on sand which was designed specially for horses.
We were intrigued and decided we had to go there too. This is it…
She was right. The streets are filled with sand and every building has a wooden rail outside to tether horses. It has a strange frontier town wild west feel to it.
But most of the year it’s empty of people. Then it comes to life after Easter for one of Spain’s biggest festivals. That’s when Catholic brotherhoods come by horseback and wagon on a pilgrimage to see the Virgen Del Rocio in the village’ church.
The pilgrims are all dressed in traditional cowhand clothes and flamenco costumes and they travel for days, crossing the Donana national park wetlands to get here.
It sounds an amazing spectacle and by all accounts is as much about partying as prayer.
Visiting the church of El Rocio, I came across, yes, yet another bride-to-be (getting married the following week). Here she is photographed at the altar of Virgin.
Outside, she was happy to indulge my fascination with Spanish weddings.
There were no people in El Rocio but next door, the Donana National Park had its fair share of flamingos. It was the closest we got to the park as it is protected very closely and only accessible by organised jeep tour.
Seeing the red water of the Rio Tinto:
The copper mine at Rio Tinto in Huelva is closed up and deserted now. Here are some photos which show the legacy of 80 years of open cast mining by the British-owned company…
And no, the photo above is not a stray from my gallery of favourite Surrey suburbs.
This is a snap of some of the houses in the Rio Tinto’s Bella Vista area. That’s the Barrio Ingles or English district which was constructed in the late 19th century for Rio Tinto’s expat engineers.
The houses were built with their backs facing the town, clustered around tennis courts and a village green. It was quite bizarre to see them – like a corner of Esher swept up in a vortex and dumped into Huelva.
And finally, we ended the week in Jerez, sampling fino sherry wine at the Sandemans bodega …
…and we went to see the Andalusian horses dance at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Jerez.
We weren’t allowed take photos inside but here is one of the riders snapped on his way to the arena.
If, like me, you loved watching Charlotte Dujardin in the Olympics dressage, then the choreography of the show would be right up your street.
If, like Stuart, you weren’t too excited at seeing horses jump on their two back legs like kangaroos, then maybe give it a swerve. But he was very pleased to come out from the show and spot this stork nesting on top of the Sandeman building next door to the arena. So here’s this week’s bird photo…
This week we travelled from Extremdadura where Stuart was able to get in a day’s fishing and on into New Castile. And in our own quest to see the flat plains of the Meseta, we followed in the trail of the brave knight Don Quixote of La Mancha before turning south to visit the beautiful city of Cordoba. It was also the week we experienced our first night of ‘wild’ camping’, the first of many hopefully.
And the highlights:
Belly Boating in Extremadura – Posted by Stuart
Trying to find some fishing in Portugal and in Spain has been a real challenge. In Portugal, each tourist information person shrugged or thought I was mad or both. Apparently fishing wasn’t possible although if we were really lucky and went to Porto we might get the official permit somewhere, somehow, from someone. Needless to say, given the bureaucratic mountain to climb, we didn’t see a single fisherman in our time in Portugal.
In Spain it seemed equally difficult but Helen Googled and found the answer- a company called Extreme Predator Fishing in Extremadura. With a name like that how could we go wrong? Nothing like catching an extreme predator to liven up the day. Several calls to Craig at EPF showed that it was indeed a challenge. He’s from the North of England but has been happily settled in Extremadura for the past 14 years – though is still known locally as el guiri (the foreigner). He knows the ropes for getting a licence but even still it would require his business to make a three hour drive to obtain the required permit. Of course we said yes and Craig trusted that even though there wasn’t time to take my payment in advance that – after he had gone to such lengths for us to get the licence – we would indeed turn up as promised to their base in Talarrubias, a tiny village in the middle of nowhere.
We were to fish nearby in Embalse Orellana, one of eight major lakes created in the 50s and 60s as hydro-electric schemes. In total there are more than 1500kms of lake shoreline in the area.
We met as arranged and after a couple of beers, the issue of where we could stay – given there are no open campsites – was sorted. Craig and his assistant Justo drove ahead of us in their landcover and led us, in the pitch black night, to a piece of waste ground outside the village saying we could camp there overnight. They thought it unlikely that we would be arrested (wild camping is illegal in this area) but if the guardia civil knocked we should just say we knew Justo. A slightly nervous night followed but it was all OK and we weren’t disturbed thankfully.
What I had signed up for was a day of belly boating. Wearing a pair of chest height waders, sitting in a giant inflatable ring. With the aid of flippers, (I kid you not) off we paddled into the middle of an enormous lake to catch bass and pike.
(More hands and all that)
I can’t say I immediately grasped what was required to head in the desired direction.
Although I thought my pirouettes were spectacular I was repeatedly told to ‘make like a mermaid’ and to ‘take it easy’. Easy for them to say.
Anyway we paddled up and down, tracking the fish on our echo sounders (really!). Craig’s exasperation with my technique was evident when he said I had the touch of a donkey- a little harsh there I feel.
Much of the fishing is done with short rods jigging small lures just off the lake bottom. Craig and Justo caught quite a number of fish before I finally caught a small pike followed a bit later by another. And that was it- no bass and no more pike although at one point Craig’s expletives were followed by an explanation that he had watched an enormous fish on his echo sounder head up off the bottom towards him like a torpedo until it surfaced between his legs- a large turtle. Apparently they can give a nasty nip!
The day in these amazing surroundings with the sun beating down, the bird life all around and Craig and Justo patiently shepherding my around was a great introduction to belly boating.
Craig and Justo were brilliant and their tales of 60 Lbs carp and 30Lbs barbel make me think I might do this again someday but I may need more mermaid lessons and learn to fish less like a donkey.
PS – And while Stuart spent the day fishing, I busied myself sorting out the van, making dinners in advance, doing a stock take on the kitchen cupboards….no that’s a lie. That’s what I thought about doing before becoming immersed in Series 1 of ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and having finally od-ed on DVDs, I finally started this knitting project (an inspired birthday gift from daughter Regan) below which is causing me some tension (geddit) because very soon now it looks like I’m going to have to start using more than one colour. Now that looks seriously tricky.
The challenges on this trip come in many forms.
The Not Quite Bird of the Week Photo –
And we nearly had our bird of the week photo op because as we pulled into the main square of Tallarubias, right up here on the bell tower, we could see the bright white outlines – stark against the solid blue sky – of three black storks standing up in their nests surveying the landscape around them.
It would make a beautiful photo and, bonus for the photographer, they were standing nice and still ready for their close up. We quickly parked up and dashed back to the bell tower. But they’d gone. To Africa for the winter probably and we had just missed them.
Seeing changing landscape – from the Dehesa to the Meseta:
We spent most of the last two weeks travelling through dehesa landscape – that’s the name given to the type of farming typical of this part of Extremadura.
The result is this distinctive man made landscape, pastures dotted with holm oak and cork oak trees.
It is the style of farming here – achieved by thinning out the heavy oak forests which would naturally cover these hills and fields to create grazing land for livestock, in particular the iberico pigs who feed off the acorns from the oak trees. The result of their diet of acorns and grass pasture is the famed iberico ham which we have been sampling regularly.
But from the early days of planning this trip, we wanted to experience a very different landscape in Spain. We wanted to travel through the Meseta – the vast plain which covers a huge part of central Spain. The tourist guides all warn against going there. Why? Because it is so boring they say. Just miles and miles of flat landscape. Nothing to see here folks. Move right along. Who wants to go there when there is so little to see?
Actually, in a strange way, we thought the more boring the Meseta was painted, the more interesting it sounded to us. Surely driving through here would feel like being in an American road movie – you know the sort where Ry Cooder plays along in the background.
We explained our quest to the guy in the tourist office at Ciudad Real. He understood. He likes this type of landscape too he told us and he sent us off on the trail of Spain’s great literary hero Don Quixote de la Mancha. We followed the road to Campo del Criptana.
The Meseta stretched out on all sides.
And then on the horizon we saw Don Quixote’s windmills….he mistook them for giants.
They are pretty gigantic up close..
And also very photogenic.
The best meal in Spain so far..
And because there really are no tourists around the La Mancha area – at least in November anyway – there were no campsites open and no aires around and so, tough this, we had to stay in a hotel in the small town of Alcazar. And here we had the best ever meal we’ve had in Spain so far….it was migas again but in a much earthier form than the sophisticated version in Caceres. Here it is, the traditional shepherd’s dish of breadcrumbs, chorizo and this time, some warm grapes thrown in..
…and this melt in the mouth pork with tomatoes and pimentons.
From reading the menu here, we also worked out that the meal Stuart had the previous week was bull’s tail. Not mutton after all.
The spectacular Cathedral-Mosque at Cordoba –
It was a long trek to get from La Mancha to Cordoba. But it was worth it to see this…
It is the Mesquita in Cordoba which was spectacular inside.
On a more modest scale, while we missed out on seeing the patios of the proud homeowners Cordoba – there’s an annual competition in May – the good people of the neighbouring towns do a nice line in tidy porches. Here’s one we sneaked a pic of.
And finally, we can confirm the rain in Spain does not stay mainly on the plain. It was pretty heavy in Cordoba this week. Our awning took a battering.