It’s the end of October and time to head south again for the winter. This will be the twenty-fifth winter when I’ve spent some of the months caravanning in Spain. Our early visits were comparatively short: the first one being only four weeks. But gradually, they have lengthened, so that now, I stay for the maximum time my insurance will allow – 122 days. Over the years, we’ve stayed at several popular areas from Alicante on the Costa Blanca round to Albufeira on the Algarve, but our favourite has always been the Costa del Sol. So it will be to El Pino at Torrox where I’ll be going after a slow meander through Central Spain. In the early 1990’s we flew to Malaga and stayed in an apart-hotel so that we could explore the possibilities for caravanning. It was during that stay that we discovered the site at Torrox. However, we didn’t stay there during our first years because the lack of a decent road made it very inaccessible. By the end of the ‘90s, as the area began to be developed, the approach road was somewhat improved. Now that I caravan on my own, I look forward to arriving at El Pino where I know I will meet lots of friends from previous years.
The ferry I’m booked on this year is the Baie de Seine; it’s what Brittany Ferries use for their “Economie” Service. The ship is smaller than the two cruise ferries, so the facilities on board is not as great. However, cabins are comparable on both services. Bunks and en-suite bathrooms are the same. The only difference is that one has carpet on the cabin floor whilst the other has wood laminate. The Economie ferry has a self-service dining room with a limited range of reasonably priced meals, whilst at least one of the cruise ferries has a waiter-service dining room.
For me, one of the plus points of the smaller ferry is that unloading is done in much less time. Being parked in the ‘wrong’ position on the big ships can mean a wait of up to an hour between doors opening and driving off. The second plus point of the “Economie” sailing is that for my sailing dates there is an approximate saving of around £60 each way.
All the crossings from Portsmouth to Northern Spain take between 30 and 36 hours. For the first time traveller, both departure time and arrival time should be carefully considered. A convenient departure time will not necessarily be followed by a convenient arrival time. For instance leaving Portsmouth at 17.30 means arriving in Spain in the evening by which time, in winter, it will be already dark. On the other hand, a departure from Portsmouth at 22.30hrs gives an early arrival at 07.00hrs, with a good day of traveling time ahead of you.
On Tuesday morning the departure time from Portsmouth was 08.45hrs and whilst I could have managed by leaving home at around 5am, there’s always the chance of early morning fog, and I do like to have time in hand for contingencies, so I left the evening before and spent the night on the dockside. When I arrived at the port, there were six other towed caravans and motor vans already there, so I parked where the marshal indicated. Having ascertained that I wouldn’t be required to move before morning, I wound down the legs, settled down for dinner followed by an evening of DVD’s in the caravan.
Vehicles ready for boarding.
Tuesday morning started early with check-in opening at 05.45. Having been there over-night, I was one of the first through. I was immediately met by Border Control. Maybe because it was the start of their shift, the lady assigned to my outfit was conscientiousness personified. After many questions regarding my car and its contents, she then asked for access to the interior of the van. This was followed by an examination of the underside of both car and caravan with mirror and torch. Finally I was allowed to proceed to the loading lines. From being almost first to check-in, I became almost last to board, and found myself with some other tourers down below the water line on deck 4 among the solo trailers and HGVs. My cabin was on Deck 8 and in an ideal position for both restaurant and reception. In fact, it was so close to reception that I was able to get on the internet in the cabin.
A glimpse of HMS Victory.
Rounding the Isle of Wight.
The crossing was made in good weather with only a mild swell as we crossed Biscay.
The ferry docked on time and within twenty minutes I was heading towards passport control and the exit. Border Control took a quick look at my passport and I was soon out on the road leading up to the A8.
For several years, when arriving at Bilbao I’ve wanted to stop to see the Hanging Bridge which is built close to where P&O used to berth their “Pride of Bilbao”. I’d already researched on Google Earth a likely stopping place for the car and caravan, so with coordinates entered, I headed for the spot and unloaded the bike. I cycled around the harbour for a couple of miles and arrived at the mouth of the river where the Vizcaya Bridge was built to connect the two sides. The builder, who was a student of Gustave Eiffel was given the brief to build a bridge that wouldn’t disrupt the river traffic, but would also not need long ramps to gain height. He came up with a design for a hanging bridge.
The bridge was built in 1893 and is made of iron. It uses twisted steel cables with a gondola hanging below which can carry six to eight cars and maybe a hundred foot passengers, The crossing takes less than two minutes. I would loved to have made a crossing on it as a foot passenger, but already the first few drops of rain were starting so I headed back to the car.
By the time I’d reached the A8, the rain was really hammering down. It was time for a review of my plans. Instead of heading west towards the Pico de Europa, I turned for the A68 and set off for Burgos – just over 100 miles away. It rained all the way.
A topic often mentioned on forums is about how to keep the caravan fridge cold on the ferry. My method is to turn on the caravan fridge the day before the travel date. At the same time put items in your home freezer. I put three 1ltr cartons of orange drink and I already had two fruit loaf cakes prepared a week ago. In addition I prepared a large chicken casserole and doled it out into meal -sized cartons. On the afternoon of departure, all the frozen stuff was taken from the freezer and packed into the caravan fridge, together with packets of ham and cheese, plus other necessary items. For my night on the dockside, the fridge was operated on gas. By not opening the fridge door too often, by the time I arrived in Burgos, my chicken casserole was still frozen and only required several minutes in the microwave.
The rain petered out during the night and the morning was giving a promise of a lovely day.
A nice start to the day at Fuentes Blancas
I was already beginning to regret my change of itinerary. But what’s done is done! For the present, the most important thing was to get to the local Mercadona and stock up on some essential items – most urgently some rolls for lunch. The store was only 6 or 7 minutes away by car, so it was to there I headed. Even from some distance away I could see the car park was empty. My suspicions were confirmed when I saw the shuttered entrance. It was closed. It was a Bank Holiday!
I continued on into town and Tomtom directed me to an underground car park close to the Cathedral. Having parked, I crossed the road and onto the bridge which leads up to the Arco de Santa Maria – the most impressive of the dozen gates which in the 12C were built into the wall surrounding the city.
Bridge across the river.
The Arco de Santa Maria
Through the gate, is a plaza in which the Cathedral is built.
Work started in 1221 on the orders of King Fernando of Castilla. It’s built in the form of three naves surrounded by 19 chapels. To one side is what is reputed to be the finest Gothic cloister in Spain, decorated with sculptures from the 14th Century.
At the centre of the Cathedral is the tomb of Rodrigo Díaz – better known as El Cid.
He has become a Spanish folk hero; especially in this part of Spain because he was born only a few miles down the road at the village of Vivar. Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar was born around the year 1040 into a family of the Spanish nobility. He became an important general administrator fighting against the Moors but when his King died, he was caught up in a Royal family squabble and was exiled. He worked as a mercenary-general fighting for other leaders, both Moor and Christian. It was the Moors who gave him his tittle – ‘El Cid’. Later in life he captured the City of Valencia, ruling it himself until his death in 1099. After leaving the cathedral I went to see his statue in one of the town’s squares.
Later I walked through shopping streets hoping to find a bakery open, but there was nothing. I returned to Fuentes Blancas for a very late lunch. Thank heaven for a few baking potatoes in the car together and a tin of beans. Mercadona will have to wait till tomorrow.
To reach Burgos from the port at Bilbao, one needs to take the A8, then the AP68, then finally turning to the AP1. The road is a dual-carriageway toll motorway with several service stations along its route. Drivers take a ticket shortly after the start of the motorway and payment is made by cash or card at the exit. The final peage is situated just before the exit for the Burgos campsite. For the 100 mile tow, the toll charge was €21.50
Fuentes Blancas at Burgos is a popular site used mainly as an overnight stop-over on longer journeys. But there’s sufficient places of interest around to warrant a stay for two or three days. At the site the pitches are laid out on either side of three parallel roads through the camp. Close to reception are the caravans and bungalows which are semi permanent. Further through the site are pitches for tourers and motorvans. Open air sink units are situated every 100 yards or so but in the winter, the water is turned off because of freezing. Similarly with the electric bollards. They are placed every 50 yards. The electrical connections are of the two pin continental type, which are showing their age. During the winter months two of the four toilet blocks are open – one is heated, one is not. Both are clean and functioning with hot water in sinks and showers. From past experience, I know the pitches tend to become water-logged during periods of heavy rain. As it was raining when I arrived, I reversed the caravan on to the pitch ensuring that my front drive wheels stayed on the road way before unhitching.
The site has a good internet connection which is free to log on to. Logon details are available at reception. The ASCI discount card is also accepted.
By Thursday evening the rain was back again and continued through the night and into the next morning. But by lunchtime it had stopped and the sky was clearing so I got into the car and headed off to Burgos. On the road leading to Fuentes Blancas there’s a turning which is signposted “Monastery of our Lady of Miraflores”. I decided to explore, so I turned off and drove to the top of the hill. The gatehouse was open with a few visitors coming and going. I joined them. The building is home to monks of the Carthusian Order, and this monastery was founded in 1442 by King Juan II of Castille & Leon. Carthusian monks wear an oatmeal coloured habit and hood. But none of them were to be seen, because they live a life of silence and solitude, with each monk living in his own cell. The first service of the day begins at midnight, followed by eight others throughout the day. Carthusian monks are only allowed two visits per year by members of their immediate family. The French members of the Order are the producers of the cocktail ingredient, Green Chartreuse.
Once through the gatehouse, there is a small area with cloisters on two sides. On the third side is the church with the coats of arms of King Juan and Castille over the arched doorway. Like all religious houses in Spain, this one is highly ornate with gold leaf decoration everywhere.
However, it is to the wood that my eye is always drawn. Here there is wood carving in abundance.
Two banks of choir stalls are arranged down either side of the chancel. They are all intricately carved from walnut and were completed in the 1550’s. In a side chapel, three sides of the room is taken up with massive chests of drawers containing vestments and altar frontals.
These too were constructed in the 16thC using walnut.
Saturday looked to be a promising day so I packed some lunch and set off back towards Santander, but by the old N-623 road. On a forum recently – maybe the C&CC – someone asked about towing on this road. Well yes! it’s possible, but there are several hilly, multiple S-bends on the route, so why would anyone want to when the toll-free A67 is just 15 or so miles to the west. However, I was on it because I wanted to visit the medieval village of Orbaneja del Castillo. The village was built during the Moorish occupation of Spain and the thing that makes it unique is that it’s built into the side of the Ebro Gorge. In the cliff, towering above the village is a cave from which spring water flows. The water runs into a culvert through the village, then cascades down the cliff face before reaching the river in the bottom of the gorge..
On the way back to Burgos I detoured slightly to stop in the village of Vivar. It was in this village where the Spanish hero, El Cid was born. At the centre of the village is a rather neglected memorial to him.
This is the route I have planned to follow through Spain for this year.
I was ready to leave Fuentes Blancas by 9am and being Sunday, the roads were quiet. Very soon I’d reached the start of the A1 which is a toll-free, two lane motorway which goes all the way to Madrid. You won’t find service areas on the road but there are many filling stations, some with large parking areas alongside them. However, most are entered from a service road, and some of them are long. One of my favourite stops is at KM150. And another, just before the Madrid ring roads at KM27. At both, service roads are short; pumps are caravan-friendly and there’s a large carpark for meal breaks behind the shop.
A few weeks ago, when I was researching my present route with the aid of Google Maps, it gave me three choices for the journey from Burgos to El Escorial. One was via Segovia using the toll motorway, the second, a longer route via Madrid and a third – the shortest, using a 30 mile section of local road from KM50 on the A1, across to the A6. Looking at Street View, the road seemed fine for towing.
So when I reached the foot of Puerto de Somosierra, I disregarded Tomtom’s instruction to head for Segovia, and instead, continued on to the top of the pass. After several attempts to have me turn round, the device reset it’s self for a new route. But from the new ETA details, I realized it had chosen the long route via Madrid. It didn’t seem to want to consider the local road. Was I about to make a mistake? The exit came up…………… and I decided to take it. The road was as I had seen on Street View. An undulating road through the mountains, with some beautiful scenery. Yes – there were a couple of small towns to go through with a few speed bumps, and one of them where the whole population seemed to have turned out to attend a Sunday street market. Eventually, I met up with the AP6, but the short distance I had to travel meant that I left it before reaching the toll-booth. Ten minutes later, I was checking in at Camping El Escorial.
It was just around lunch-time when I arrived on a lovely Sunday afternoon. The place was heaving with Spanish weekenders. I drove around the lanes of pitches with not a vacant pitch visible anywhere. Eventually I realized I had got into the area for semi-permanent caravans. A few minutes later, I found the ‘parcelas’ where there were lots of spaces. I pitched close to a water tap and within a reasonable distance of the toilet block.
With water and electric connected, I took a walk around. The activity and noise, mainly from young teenagers was horrendous. It was back to the caravan to put the kettle on.
As if by magic, two hours later the place was as quiet as a tomb. Some caravans had towed off, but many had just been locked up and left. Now, as I look around, this part of the site looks busy, but nearly all of the vans are deserted. And as the crowds departed, so the rain began. It continued throughout the night.
Monday morning – and the rain was still hammering on the van roof. According to Meteo it would continue all day. And they were right! But with the Royal Palace and the Valley of the Fallen being closed on Mondays, it was no great hardship. So the high point of the day was a visit to the local Mercadona.
Tuesday started as a dull, dismal day and so it continued throughout except for just a few periods of broken cloud. If I were to visit the Valley of the Fallen, it would have to be today because more rain is forecast for tomorrow. The complex is situated within a huge pine forest only five or six miles away from the site, but high up in the Guadarrama mountains.
It was built between 1940 and 1958 and is a monument intended to commemorate all those who died of both sides during the Spanish Civil War. About 40,000 soldiers are buried here. However, because Franco was the one who ordered its construction, and because he has his tomb close to the high altar in the Basilica, the complex is inevitably associated with the Dictator’s regime. Then there is controversy regarding the labour used in its building. Some say it was built by the forced labour of prisoners of war. Others say the work was carried by criminals on parole who were working to reduce their sentence. Suffice to say that it became such a political hot-potato that in the late 2000’s, the place was closed to the public. Even now, security is tight with outer-clothing and pocket contents having to go through an X-ray scanner.
From several miles away the huge cross is visible.
It stands on top of a cliff, approximately 4500 feet above sea level. The cross itself is nearly 500 feet high and the arms have a span of 154 feet. Around its base are four colossal sculptures of the four evangelists. Down below on the esplanade is the entrance to the Basilica which has been cut deep into the mountain – and it’s huge. Unfortunately, the authorities have chosen to ban photography – although I did manage to sneak one shot.
There is a funicular which carries visitors up to the cliff top alongside the cross but today, it was closed. The view from the top must be superb.
The large entrance door to the Basilica.
A close up of one panel.
My next stop was at the Royal Palace of San Lorenzo. It was King Philip II who ordered the palace to be built in 1557 to commemorate the Spanish victory over the French at the Battle of St. Quentin. His idea was that the complex would serve as a burial place for his parents and himself. In fact, many of the Spanish monarchs are buried here.
I was here some years ago so for today I settled for a view from the outside and a walk through the gardens.
By late evening, the rain was back again, and the weather forecasts make depressing reading. Talavera and Merida, my next planned stops look awful for the next three or four days. Maybe it’s time for some replanning.
The weather was determined to make my departure from El Escorial as unpleasant as possible. My plan was to drive 90 miles to Talavera, but to detour slightly and visit the archaeological park at Carranque where there’s the site of a Roman Villa and mill. Then later I wanted to visit the site of the Battle of Talavera which was the Duke of Wellington’s first major victory of the Peninsular War. For followers of Bernard Cornwell’s fictional character, Richard Sharpe, it was at Talavera where Sharpe captured the French Eagle. But with more rain forecast, and the fact that the windscreen wiper blades were thrashing to and fro, my plans were out of the window. Therefore, instead of heading off along the A5, I continued round the M50, and took the familiar A4. I thought perhaps by heading more easterly, I might get away from the rain. However, I was wrong. I arrived at Camping Santa Elena, and I took the rain with me.
Camping Santa Elena is a useful stop-over site because it’s very close to the motorway. I’ve stopped here several times and a review of the site can be found in some previous years blogs. This time, I hadn’t unhitched, so getting ready to leave was quicker than usual. I followed the A4 all the way to Cordoba and beyond then took a cross country route for 50 miles to arrive at Olvera – having taken the rain with me. Camping Pueblo Blanco at Olvera is a large site situated on a hill, about a couple of miles from the town, which stands on another hill across a valley. Roads within the site are well surfaced and lit during darkness, as is the approach from the main road. Every pitch has been levelled and each pitch has a capped grey water drain. Water taps and electric bollards are within easy reach of each pitch. Shower and toilet blocks are clean and well maintained. ACSI cards are accepted out of season. Wifi connection is available but at an extra cost.
Once I’d got settled, I texted forum-friend, Jim who is already at El Pino. As I’m likely to arrive there earlier than planned, I wanted to know if my usual pitch was empty! Apparently, they too were having a rainy day.
This is more like it! ……………A clear sky at last bringing the promise of a good day. This is the 08.30 view from my pitch across the valley towards Olvera.
With breakfast done, I packed some lunch and a beer and set off towards Ronda. Several times in the past, I’ve stood on the New Bridge at Ronda looking out over the landscape far down below me and thought how it must look from down there looking back at the cliff top. Using Google Earth and GPS Coordinates I planned to try it. After munch searching I found the back lane in Ronda that I needed to get down there. Very quickly I was off smooth tarmac and on to uneven cobbles. The road twisted and turned down the cliff side. I would like to have turned around but that was out of the question as there was nowhere to turn. Finally I reached the bottom; then parked to get my picture.
When I saw a couple of tour company’s people wagons getting ready for the journey back to the top, I took the opportunity to keep in convoy with him. Back in the town, I was lucky to find a parking place close to the town gate.
When the Romans came to Iberia they built two towns in this area. One they called Arunda and its near neighbour was Acinipo. Acinipo was much the more important. Its trading influence grew so much that it was authorized to mint its own currency. It also had a theatre which would seat around 2000 people. But with the gradual retreat of the Romans, the two towns declined. Acinipo virtually disappeared where as Arunda continued to flourish. Then along came the Moors and rebuilt Ronda surrounding it with a protective wall, making the place their own, complete with public bathhouses.
Later I walked to the New Bridge – which isn’t new because it was built in the 18th Century but there’s also an old bridge which was built in Roman times.
From Ronda, I drove down across the valley then up onto the next escarpment where the once flourishing Roman town stood. This is Acinipo. The area is full of heaps of building stone with the remains of the theatre standing high up on the skyline.
The seating has been cut into the limestone rock. Three archaeologists were busy in different areas around the theatre. I returned to the site via the cross country roads.
Sunday had all the promise of a good day, so I packed up lunch and set off along the A384 towards Antequera. After 30 miles, Tomtom directed me to turn left and go across country. The traffic free road took in some beautiful scenery. After several miles I could see the lagoon which was the purpose of my visit. It’s known as Fuente de Piedra and is home to a range of water-fowl including vast numbers of flamingoes. As I drove along the flat landscape I couldn’t help but notice the large expanses of flood water standing on the fields. Before long I went round a bend and ahead of me was a flooded road with three abandoned vehicles standing with water reaching the door cills. A tractor was in the process of removing them. I had no alternative but to reverse a considerable distance and try to find another way – with Tomtom throwing a wobbly – until I switched it off. After several miles of following signs for Antequera, I reached the Seville/Granada motorway and before long I saw an exit for Fuente de Piedra. The carpark and visitors centre is just beyond the town. At the visitor centre there are several rooms telling the history of the lagoon, then another describing the water-fowl which may be seen. Unfortunately there is no English language version. Binoculars may be hired at the centre.
Two circular walks are laid out with observation ‘hides’. Sadly, I am unable to walk very far these days so I regret to say that the only flamingo I saw was the model in the visitors’ centre. And probably the birds prefer to congregate as far away from humans as they can.
After lunch, I set off back to the site, but before I got too far along the road, I detoured and followed the signs for the Moorish village of Teba.
During August in1330, King Alfonso of Castilla, was busy trying to dislodge the Moors from the castle in Teba. At the same time Sir James Douglas, commonly known as Black Douglas was crossing Spain on a crusade. His task was to carry a jeweled casket containing the heart of his recently dead King, Robert the Bruce and deposit it in the church in Jerusalem. Not being a man to miss out on a fight, Douglas offered his assistance to Alfonso. Together, the two armies defeated the Moors, but in the thick of battle, Douglas lost his life. A commemorative stone in one of the plazas has been raised in his memory.
To be continued.