Thursday, 31 January 2013

Things Hot Up

Leaving the cork oaks and vines behind the Serra da Monchique hills were an almost deserted rolling landscape of umbrella pines and eucalyptus with evidence of the damaging wild fires that hit the area a year or two back rapidly disappearing under a swathe of luxuriant new growth. The sandstone fort of Silves dominated the landscape whilst further on the sleepy border village of Alcoutim belied its former role as a smuggling centre for goods boated across the Guadiana.
The town of Riotinto was a former source of mineral wealth with a huge expansion in to opencast mining as a result of RTZ's development which included the construction of a British style Victorian housing estate with tennis courts, bowling greens and a polo field that sits bizarrely to this day in the dry Spanish hills. 
Heading south towards Seville I stopped to explore the walled town of Niebla where the storks were making seemingly precarious use of the fort turrets and church towers to construct their nests - smaller bird then build theirs in the ramshackle collection of sticks and debris.
Seville was the largest city seen this year and the sat nav took me swiftly and accurately through the network of  roads - in contrast to rural Portugal when on a couple of occasions I had been merrily led in to the middle of horticultural units or unmade dead ends.
Vejer la Frontera sat high up on a hill was pleasantly cool and refreshing as by now the weather had turned to hot sunshine and clear blue skies in marked and welcome contrast to the last fortnight.
Down at Tarifa I pulled in to Rio Jara - Europe's most southerly site -  having already had a rather awesome view across the Straits of Gibraltar to the Rif Mountains of north Morocco. The huge expanse of beach gave way to a narrow stretch of water through which an endless line of enormous vessels were slowly threading their way between the Atlantic and the Med. Amazingly the van had passed this way to and from Australasia and I well remember following the container online as it headed towards Suez.
A cycle in to Tarifa enabled me to price my ticket and watch one of the large cat ferries arrive after which I, returned to the site to give the van a discrete oil and filter change, check over the bike and service the genny.
The following day I purchased my tickets and explored the old medina quarter behind Tarifa's old walls - the remnants of Moorish rule very evident here with a maze of back streets, shaded squares and a strong whiff of the changes to come as spices, herbs, incense and oils were on sale in many of the small shops. Back at the van I completed the Moroccan vehicle import forms online and then printed them off which should make life easier on arrival. Two last loads of washing were done and hung out to dry - at 2pm the temperature was sitting at a rather comfortable 30 degrees with a gentle cooling breeze coming off the Atlantic
Today - Thursday - has been a day of exercise with two bike rides in the cooler parts of the day exploring the local hills and beaches : at one point the council were dealing with a huge drift that had put 60' of sand across the road for a mile or so between lines of the distinctive umbrella pines - no schools were closed though.
My ferry sails at midday on Friday giving me time to do a major food shop - mostly non perishables as back up - with a journey time to Tanger Ville of around an hour which given the prevailing conditions should be perfect. Around the site are a few other vans heading the same way - perhaps most intriguing a 6' Italian in a small Renault Kangoo kitted out as a rather compact camper with, according to his stickers, Mauritania his destination. Another somewhat dented VW T5 has a Camp Gambia sticker so clearly there is potential for further adventure on a return trip.
For now though I look forward to a fact finding month with the usual flexible itinerary and a return on my 53rd birthday in March. I have no idea what internet access will be like so monitoring my progress will rely on clicking here to see what should be daily Spot messages. 
Pictures are up to date here but as to the next blog update - well watch this space.
Last but not least HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my brother and our father who celebrate over these last days of January - save a beer for me!

Friday, 25 January 2013

Storming South

Camping Asseiceira is one of those places where life sits so comfortably that moving on takes something of an effort. Well serviced and maintained it sits in a peaceful part of traditional rural Portugal with much to do in the surrounding area - thus my planned two nights drifted in to four. At the Sunday social gathering  I spoke at length to a couple who had sold up in Kent and now run the main campsite on Mull but hope to travel full time at the end of that contract - as proud owners of a large and thirsty Winnebago with an  'A' frame car towed behind it will be rather a different style of trip to my compact arrangements.
On the Monday a meandering bike ride through rural lanes and tracks passing cork oaks, olive groves and grazing goats brought me round to Beira whose unused station walls display a remarkable collection of painted tiles displaying local scenes. I saw these four years ago and was pleased that they still survive although I wonder for how much longer as the tracks are unlikely to spring back in to life. Lunch in the sun by an old ford was followed by a number of punctures as the strong winds had brought down thorny debris from I think the oaks but all were swiftly dealt with and I returned to the site on a warm afternoon after five hours in the saddle.
A blustery Tuesday saw me drive round to Castelo da Vide for a shop before it cleared up in time to walk that afternoon and then do some hand washing.
A wild Tuesday night saw trees down when I left on Wednesday heading for the coast passing orange and lemon trees in full fruit and almond trees in blossom - early spring flowers were also blooming and it turned noticeably milder as I clocked up the miles. A rare L'Eclerc supermarket enabled me to buy 4 inner tubes, a pack of patches and a spare pump so I can resume exploring again - for the Portugese these large and sophisticated malls are totally at odds with their traditional retail outlets - tiny non descript shops with limited stock and opening hours.
The pounding Atlantic breakers rolled in as I parked up at Vila Nova de Milfontes for lunch and later they could be seen crashing far below as I parked up just south of the Cabo Sardao lighthouse a few miles down a cliff top track for a memorable night as the sun set way out west.
Following the coast south I visited Zambujeira Do Mar and the many small coves and extensive beaches that  are reachable by rough tracks. West of Aljezur I stopped again for the night high above the sea and walked south to an abandoned cliff top village before another very wild wild pitch as the strong winds persisted.
After calling in at exposed but dramatic Cape St Vincent I have headed inland to the Serra De Monchique and will continue to head east over the next day or two - progress can be followed by clicking here and a few piccies - limited by the unsettled conditions are here.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Any Port(ugal) in a Storm

Leaving the Galician coast I cut across to the impressive Garganta de Cil and followed a narrow road winding its way high above the swirling waters. Eventually I picked up the motorway to head swiftly east and arrive at Sanambria just north of the border. A site that claimed to be open 'todo el anno' was unsurprisingly shut so I tucked away in a lakeside picnic area as it was getting a bit dark to be moving on. Breakfast after a peaceful night was interrupted by the arrival of first one and then a second police car - apparently the area was a national park and camping not permitted. I pointed out my 2013 guide listing the supposedly open site and confirmed I would be moving on soon which seemed OK and after taking my personal and vehicle details off they went. An hour later I spotted them in the local town and received a friendly wave so all was well.
Crossing in to Portugal on a minor road in to the Montesinho National Park subtle changes rapidly became apparent - smaller villages with narrow cobbled streets, mostly traditional stone cottages, donkeys standing patiently with carts and even more obscure shops and businesses tucked away unsigned behind door curtains. Braganca's mighty castle and walled old town provided interest whilst in the empty church excitement was provided by a large candle in the nativity scene which had toppled over and was in danger of setting the whole place on fire - disaster was swiftly averted!
The upper reaches of the Douro form part of the 'port' producing vineyards with small terraces of vines clinging to the granite strewn countryside but very little in the way of dwellings or populace. A good vantage point at Lagacoa looked across the Douro in to Spain whilst Castelo Rodrigo provided another walled old town of considerable character and the star fort at Almeida a defensive structure of considerable size before I passed a quiet night tucked away in an old loop of the recently straightened  road. 
Heading towards the Serra Da Estrela a smartly dressed guy was hitching a lift so I stopped - he had missed the only bus that day to Guarda which was on my way so a rather stilted conversation about football ensued - my knowledge of Portugese exceeds my knowledge of football so it was something of a non starter.
Outside Manteigas a site looked closed but the girl in the adjacent ski slope's reception seemed happy to open it up and I took off in to the mountains reaching the summit of Torre (Portugal's highest mountain) at just under 6000' with plenty of snow and a thick mist. Dropping down the remarkable glacial Zezere Valley I returned to the site where the power but not the hot water was on - and even then  the power was only sufficient to run the fridge and lights as switching on the kettle or fire tripped the fuses : hey ho!
An unsettled day dawned making further exploration of the mountains pointless so I headed out on a circuit to explore a succession of old walled villages with a variety of castles, forts, keeps and churches : Belmonte, Sortelha, Sabugal and Penamacor arriving finally at Monsanto. Here on a wild night I tucked away in a small car park as the heavens opened in the heaviest rain of the trip so far.
The following morning roof tiles were on the ground and branches down as I headed south east at one point rounding a bend to meet an HGV lying on its side with its pallets spilling out of the curtain sides. The driver was OK and on his phone so there seemed little point in stopping lest football became the topic once more and I continued cautiously across the Beira Baixa landscape of olive trees, granite boulders and some pasture where sheep and cattle had their backs turned to the surprisingly strong wind. In many cases shepherds were tucked in to boulders or walls as here they still follow their flocks during the day - a lonely and tough occupation at this time of year.
Briefly re entering Spain I stopped for lunch by the large graceful bridge across the Tajo before picking up the return route in to Portugal's Ribatejo Alto and a familiar route in to Marvao.
I last visited 4 years ago and was pleased to see that Camping Asseiceira was as unspoilt as ever tucked away in the quiet countryside of olive groves and tiny farms. Gary explained that the stormy weather had been affecting most of central Portugal but was due to abate soon and I was soon pitched up with 4 other campervans - the first I have seen since leaving the Picos, apart from, bizarrely, two ladies from Carmarthen parked up in Belmonte and heading for the Dordogne.
The power was out locally but the excellent new facilities block still had plenty of hot water from its solar array and after a couple of hours the lights also flickered back in to life and all was well. It would be very tempting to stay here for a few weeks as the site, host and surroundings are all excellent and indeed I plan to return this way after Morocco as it would be good to do the Estrela properly, take a nose at the Peneda - Geres NP and then cross the Cantabrian ranges for another dip in the Picos.
However for now it's chill time - a few tweaks to the bike, a service of the genny, some online research and imminently a social gathering in Gary's cosy house on a slightly damp but mild and overcast day.
I became aware of the startling variety of doorways in the old villages so apologies if they rather dominate the pictures to be found by clicking here but no such quirks affect the eye in the sky found by  clicking here.
Onward plans include a return to the unspoilt Atlantic south west coast of Portugal for a few days wild camping before a whiz east via Seville to Gibraltar to book my ferry and possibly a diversion to Salobrena if time permits.
Snow bound Wales seems a long way away but surprisingly my trip as far as it is planned is already one third completed - ooeerrr.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Summits to Seas

Reluctantly I left the Picos behind with plenty to do on a return visit - a final climb up to Covadonga Lakes passing the beautiful church reaffirmed what a superb area this has been and indeed the final departure through the Desfiladeros de Los Beyos was a fitting climax with tiny Soto de Sajambre's access through a tight tunnel adding a final flourish.

There : bet that woke you up -  a random image from the past!

Anticipating something of an anticlimax I was soon somewhat in awe of the rest of the Cordillera Cantabria as I descended in to a lonely high mountain landscape of remote villages, isolated farms and endless snow capped craggy summits. Travelling as I was east to west involved numerous tortuous climbs to cols around 4000', as the valleys generally run north to south but the van seemed to take it all in its stride and I made good progress. Reluctant to get stranded if it snowed I found a low level spot to spend the night and was pleased  I had as the little drizzle that fell would certainly have put a thin layer of ice on the remote top roads that would be unlikely to see the attention of gritters any time soon.
Another vias verde - the Senda De Oso - passed a large bear sanctuary whose occupants are normally hibernating at this time of year in observation pens alongside the 40,000 square metre compound. However the mild weather had woken them from their slumbers and one was idly mooching around in the paddock - an impressive sight. Rather too good a lunch saw me wobbling back the last two hours before a quiet night was spent in the village square of  San Martin.
Crossing more dramatic scenery with tiny hamlets and farms clinging precariously to the steep rocky landscape took me across to the Navia Valley and a descent to the coast from where a quick blast along the motorway had me in Galicia where the Roncadoira lighthouse  provided another memorable wild pitch with numerous small boats out in the bay and a few larger vessels riding at anchor.
Following the coast round included a series of beautiful beaches, rocky headlands, sublime views and a lonely cemetery containing the graves of British sailors lost with the sinking of  HMS Serpent in November 1890 off the treacherous Costa De Morte . 
A suitably dramatic burst of squally weather marked my arrival at Cape Fisterra after which I  turned up at a small campsite near Muros. Although supposed to be open all year it seems deserted but I have pitched up as the wifi and water are on although the hook ups and showers are not. Thus the genny is purring away quietly as after quite a few nights 'off grid' my leisure battery needs a top up - it isn't dark here until 6pm but similarly doesn't get light until well after 8am so keeping amused takes a fair old toll on its capacity. DVD's have been watched, local TV, news and weather forecasts consulted and the blog, diary and photos edited regularly - these tasks combined with the planning of routes and activities plus all the usual domestic paraphernalia fill the evenings whilst I still have a day once every week or so to do laundry and just rest a little - something I have had to adapt to over the last year or so.
Anyway piccies acqui and locations acqui tambien - Portugal beckons mid week - now that really will be a linguistic challenge....... 

Monday, 7 January 2013

Off Again

VW Garage Sarasola in Hendaye were able to confirm my diagnosis and remarkably instructed me to return the next day for the work to be done so with a spare sunny day ahead I walked the coastal ridge above Hondarribia over in Spain enjoying the superb views and rocky coastline.
Courtesy of the friendly manager and efficient mechanic the issue was resolved at a fraction of the anticipated cost and I was on the road again deciding to stay above Hondarribia as it was evening time - the lights of the town twinkling way below preceded a quiet night and I was awake early to enjoy the sublime dawn changes.
At Andoain I completed the other half of the vias verdes down to Leitza passing through empty mountain scenery and many more tunnels - this time without incident. It was market day in the village so I bought a few treats to get me back and sustain me on the couple of hours of motorway across to Santander. Using the peage alone was a hoot as I had to jump out to collect tickets or pay tolls - all the time hoping that the barriers would allow time for a fat old bloke to nip round and get going again - they did!
Santillana del Mar was a real treat with its traditional balconied houses overlooking the narrow cobbled streets but I soon turned south for the Picos de Tres Mares to find a spot for the night. I climbed ever higher through an impossibly narrow valley above Tudanca with numerous tight hairpins before finding a viewpoint with panoramic views that was just right for a quiet night.
On the descent through empty villages from Piedrasluengas I saw hunters out on the mountains (and later two with a large wild boar in their pick up) before turning west to follow a picturesque road that passed two reservoirs and gave the opportunity for a good two hour walk that provided the first close up views of the jagged Picos mountains.
A steady climb to the Puerto de San Glorio proved that the van is still up to demanding roads and at 5000' a side turning took me to a quiet viewpoint where I just had to stay the night. All around snow capped peaks rose another 3000' whilst way below the few lights of  Camaleno were all that confirmed that there were other humans on the planet. Despite the altitude and odd patch of snow it was a comfortable night - no lower than 5 degrees and again I rose by 8am to enjoy the sunrise.
A swooping descent on an empty road to Potes was followed by a drive through Camaleno - now slowly waking up - and arrival at Fuente De where the cable car was running for the last day of this season. The almost silent ascent with the stunning crescent of sheer faced mountains on 3 sides was awesome. Having only planned to take pictures from the top I was bitten by the desire to complete a four hour walk back down following a PR path through the lofty summits and returning via steep chestnut woodlands. Despite having no lunch with me and the wrong boots on  it was a good decision with amazing views, hot sunshine, a few deer and the odd lizard scurrying away.
These mountains were far exceeding my expectations and I will return soon to do more of the excellent walks and perhaps get to some of those lofty summits.
From Potes the road through the narrow Desfiladero de Hermida took me round to Avin on the north side where a small campsite provided a pitch, power and a shower for £9 including a somewhat erratic internet connection and I settled in after a few excellent days out in the wilds.
Today has seen more amazing scenery and remote villages - Sotres the highest village  in the Picos at 1045m was reached by another narrow serpentine road (even at 11am it was quite icy in places so care was needed as the drop offs were somewhat alarming) and was the starting point for a four hour walk down to Tielve and then back passing some summer only hamlets where cattle and goats grazed quietly. A coffee down in Tielve was enjoyed with an old local couple - the warm sunny terrace overcoming any language barriers as we took in the impressive vista.
Finally I descended to Poncebos and took the funicular railway that pierced the mountain to reach Bulnes - once the most isolated village in Spain with no road access. The 7 minute journey through the tunnel was rather like a steeply angled London tube line with the other descending car passed on a midway loop before I emerged in to the bluey shade of late afternoon. I doubt the hamlet sees more than an hour or two of sun at this time of year and very few people live here permanently these days but it was an inspiring place with chickens scratching around, a large pig asleep in deep straw and goats wandering around waiting to be hand milked. The huge bulk of Urriello was visible way above through a nearby col and again there are plenty of challenging walks to return to one day. Wary not to miss the last carriage down I tore myself away from the humbling scenery and was the sole occupant as we descended headlong.
Back at Avin I did a load of laundry, planned tomorrows walks at Covadonga and decided reluctantly that I will then leave the area for another time as I really need to be down at Gibraltar 3 weeks today. The clear sunny settled weather has been a real privilege as often these mountains are shrouded in mist and fog and I am aware that I have been very fortunate. Thus the scenery of Asturias awaits so meanwhile enjoy more than a few piccies here and if you wish nose after me by clicking here

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Ooops and downs.

The spectacular cathedral in Pamplona was well worth a visit - the large cloisters quadrangle in particular with its air of serenity whilst the main building was a remarkable tribute to the skills of  workers from a previous age.
Another bygone relic has seen new life in the form of a disused railway line now seeing a role as a cycle track - the Plazaola - that runs north to the coast. It includes a number of tunnels - lit in theory but not practice and at the darkest apex of a curved one I collided head on, unexpectedly and dramatically with a Spanish rider. We were both dazed, winded and a little bruised and bloodied but it could have been far worse as we were both travelling at speed. Returning to the van I made use of the torch app on my phone to prevent a similar occurence and of course saw nobody! The longest tunnel was almost 2 miles, pitch black and as straight as an arrow - it reminded me of the long, dark and unnerving ride under the Himalaya to reach Kashmir I had undertaken in 1986 - is that really more than a quarter of a century ago?
The north coast heading west to Bilbao was sublime - unspoilt Mutriku had a new sea wall against which large waves reverberated dramatically - their noise cleverly enhanced by vanes incorporated in to the structure. Later I walked in some awe around the Guggenheim Gallery in Bilbao whose exterior and interior were inspiring although I confess much of the high art content went way above me although a clever display of LED messages was mind boggling
As I left town I detected a gear linkage fault evident in the availability of only 3rd and 5th gears : not good in evening rush hour in a hilly city. I limped to a quieter area and inspected the situation using a recently purchased powerful torch - a bush and plastic ball bearing had disintegrated ( a theme of many a  VW T4 forum post ) so I effected a temporary repair with 2 heavy duty zip ties and tucked away on a patch of waste ground to await daylight.
The sat nav found me the nearest Mcdonalds to get wifi and find a local VW dealer but they were shut and aware of my limited Spanish I decided the best course of action would be to head back in to France. The fix  has held up well but of course the timing has been poor - a weekend followed by New Year so I hope the VW commercial branch in Bayonne is open tomorrow Wednedsay although it could be a fair bit longer before they source the cheap parts and carry out the easy fix. However I can still drive normally and safely so yesterday enjoyed a ride up the Atlantic coast in warm sunshine and have bought the map to plan some more walks in the foothills of the Pyrenees should I need to remain in the area for another week or so.
The arrival of the New Year was heralded by local fireworks although the first rain for ten days put a slight damper on the celebrations - indeed today it has rained heavily on and off but it was forecast so I am on a site with internet access and power - 25m of French 3 core and a few minutes with a screwdriver has given me a usable cable once more and a bag of laundry has been attended to!
The forecast for the next ten days is good with a return to blue skies and warm sunshine so staying around will be no hardship and should not eat too deeply in to my loosely outlined schedule.
Anyway the rain has eased so it's time to stretch my legs - photos from the last week available ici and Spotty Spot's latest monitoring ici aussi.

Whilst cycling back yesterday I saw perhaps the most remarkable sight of 2012 - awesome :

Sums it all up really : life's a beach and I'm having a whale of a time....................