Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Just quickly...

The comments section on my blog has not been working, but I seem to have fixed it now. Not sure how I did it, but there you go.

Also - if you click on the photos, they come up in lightbox and are much easier to see.

We are in Salamanca - and it's raining, sob sob. Will report soon.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Returning to the Scene of the Crime

After leaving our winter bolt-hole of El Puerto de Santa Maria we headed to the Extremadura region and camped in Merida. This is, of course, where I fell off my bicicleta and broke my ankle. We really wanted to return to the region as the Roman ruins and historic towns are unbeatable.

Merida itself has a 5km medieval aqueduct, 12th – 14th century Alcazabar, a 700 metre Roman bridge, the most intact Roman theatre in Europe, Roman amphitheatre and temple. Of course we saw none of this last time.
Incredible Roman Theatre in Merida

Again, we hired a small car and drove to Elvas in Portugal. You may remember (although I doubt it) that we had coffee here last year.  It was such an interesting town that we booked a hotel for night so we could see the area. The hotel was a 17th century convent, beautifully restored and within the city walls. 60 euros for one night including breakfast (bacon butties, what a treat!!), WIFI and parking!!

Elvas is protected by star shaped fortifications, the double walls cleverly designed to allow the inhabitants to take pot shots at would-be intruders. The walls are completely intact and further protection is provided by outlying forts.

Elvas Fort

Elvas Aqueduct - note ominous grey sky!

Driving back to Spain the weather was terrible. It was the kind of heavy rain where you wonder if you did something really bad in a past life and this was payback time. We managed a decent lunch in the pretty hill town of Monsaraz. With only 2 streets and only a couple of alleys, we managed to see the whole town without getting wet.

We arrived back in Span with a bounty of wine and olive oil.  Not that there is a shortage here, but we love the Portuguese stuff and it is so cheap and the quality is brilliant.

We also spent a day in Trujillo, another town we saw briefly when I was on crutches. It’s one of those classic Extremadura towns. Beautiful plaza, mediæval palaces, churches, alleyways and a wonderful Castle at the top of the hill.
Trujillo Castle

Rick Stein recently said of this region “it’s like Provence pre Mayle”. Now, I didn’t see Provence before Peter Mayle wrote his best-seller, and there’s no lavender to be seen, but it does have an untouched, ‘untouristy’ feel to it. At times you need to ignore the urban sprawl, but there are very few places where this is not the case.

We are now in Caceres, which seems to be the epitome of Extremadura towns. The small city centre is jam packed with palaces, churches, towers, plazas all in a charmingly haphazard layout, complete with nesting storks.  

A real highlight has been the food (Maggie, you need to stop reading now). We found a wonderful restaurant in the main square that serves really innovative Spanish food. We generally like mainstream Spanish food, but it can become a bit dull, a bit ‘same same’. This place serves a tapa with every drink, of great variety. The first visit was great fun - ordering wine by the glass (2 euros) and wondering what little treat would arrive. We only needed to order one thing off the menu. However, day 2 we decided to be more serious. Pork cheek cooked in Pedro Jimenez, Patatas Brava and Pimiento stuffed with black pudding, accompanied by local white wine made from grapes we’ve never heard of.  We were in Foodie Heaven, we hadn’t had food this good since San Sebastian.

Happily we’ve had 2 days of sun to enjoy all this, but the forecast isn’t good. The plan was to head to Monfragüe National Park for Easter but that doesn’t appeal in the rain so we may just stay here and eat ourselves to death.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

It’s Friday night and we’ve been in the Canary Islands for 2 days. I’m sitting on our balcony watching the ocean and the passing parade, drinking an unremarkable local wine.

We arrived very, very late Wednesday night and after getting lost, inevitably, we found our apartment and went seeking food and beer. Tired and hungry, we weren’t fussy and found a dodgy bar that had an atmosphere of cigarette smoke and salmonella. We survived.

On waking we realised that our El Cheapo apartment was rather ghastly and have now upgraded to a sea view with balcony. The ocean and promenade are brilliant for people watching and indulging in our favourite game – ‘guess the nationality’.
Breakfast in the balcony

The Poms are obvious, dressed for 45 degrees. The Spanish are dressed for winter. The Germans are dressed in their sensible clothes as though about to head off on safari. The Finns are strutting about with their suntans and Barney Rubble haircuts drinking beer for morning tea.

This is Tourist Central.  You may wonder why we chose Gran Canaria.. It was simple, the flights worked, it was cheap and we could get accommodation, AND the sun was shining. Our apartment is conveniently located above a Finnish Karaoke Bar. This is really not our kind of place, but certainly an eye opener.

Day one was simply spent pottering about, buying some cooler clothes etc. We found the weather we were looking for.

Day two we ventured out on the road looking for some walking trails and some interesting scenery. Well, we found it.

This is going to be a long blog I’m afraid. I normally try to be succinct, but this one will be wordy. I suggest you go and pour yourself a decent glass of wine and get a bite to eat. Are you ready?

Come on a journey with me. We head to what we thought would be an interesting jut of land in the north west. Now, I need you to use your imagination. Picture a moonscape, and then add seriously bad apartment developments. In your picture you can see that financial crisis has hit and most of these were have never been built. The land, however had been prepared, therefore ruined irretrievably. Turn a corner and you can see acres of poly tunnels growing bananas. Some abandoned and left to fall to shreds where they stand, most still producing. 

Now picture a nuclear holocaust and lay that over your image. Next put in some wind turbines, some ugly flat tumbledown buildings, and then add a feeling of abandonment and despair. Do you see it??

Bear with me, we are about to take a couple of hairpin bends. Close your eyes, if you will, and drive around the long bends. Now open them to take in a coastline of such staggering beauty and drama that it takes your breath away. The scene is so dramatic we feel giddy. The road is a master of engineering and we wonder how it was ever built. We stop whenever it’s possible to take in the extraordinary beauty of this coast. Photos cannot do it justice, but we try.
The Coast

We drive and drive exclaiming at what unfolds before us, and then, the next town appears. Our hearts sink, a beautiful valley filled with acres of plastic. Try to recall this scene next time you are inclined to buy out of season fruit in the supermarket.

After leaving this dreary town we head into the National Park with the intention of driving across the island.  Once again the road is something to behold and we hold our breath on the single lane track each time we need to pass another car. Once again the scene before us is astoundingly beautiful but incredibly rugged and harsh as a result of its volcanic ancestry.
National park - thank goodness it's protected
 We gasp, we exclaim, try to stop for photos but it’s really impossible to capture. Once over the highest pass we are suddenly in green hills and natural pine forests. This is an island of contrasts.

As we head down towards the coast, we are once again struck by the dreariness of the towns.

Day three saw us back into the centre of the island to do some walking.  We did a lovely 7km walk in a natural pine forest dotted with flowering azaleas and bright yellow daisies.  A teasing mist accompanied us on our ramble, allowing us glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean far below only to snatch them away again. We didn’t mind as yesterday was so extraordinary that our minds were all ready full.

Lunch was enormous and I have to tell you that we ate our favourite black pudding! It’s so delicious, flavoured with aromatic spices and filled with nuts. YUM!

Day four and we are on the road again. We head south via the coast and try to ignore the miles of hideous development interspersed with falling down plastic ‘greenhouses’. The environmental vandalism that has been allowed is astonishing. We drive right by more ugly ‘tourist resort’ towns and finally climb our way into the mountains from the south coast. Accompanying us this time are 100s of cyclists wending their steady way up the road. Such determination on their faces!  We climbed to almost 2000 metres through more incredible landscapes, stopping for more black pudding (Morcilla Dulce) for lunch.  Once again we drive home through dreary coastal towns and enjoy a beer by the beach.
Black pudding again for lunch

I’ll let you get back now to whatever you were doing before reading this dissertation. We are back in El Puerto de Santa Maria and it’s raining and windy and muddy. Sun is promised tomorrow and we’ll pack up Hilda in preparation for heading north through Extremadura.

View of Las Palmas beach from balcony

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Heading for the Hills

We’ve been back from our side trip to the Sierra de Grazalema for a few days and are not impressed with our weather. Hurrumph!!

However our sojourn in the mountains was wonderful. The hotel was an absolute delight. Typically Spanish, it was tastefully decorated and run by a wonderful man called Andres. Our view of Grazalema was perfect, only improved by the blanket of snow on the second day. Snow was forecast, but we didn’t really believe that we would get 4 inches.
aVERY white 'pueblo blanco'

We did a marvellous walk on day 1 – about 4 hours - sweeping views, craggy outcrops, steep pointed granite peaks. Our planned walk for the second day (you must book ahead as they limit the numbers) was not to be, as the snow had blocked the access road. Instead, we did the walk close to town through the snow – such a strange feeling in the south of Spain.
Day 1 walk
Day 2 walk

We ate so much for lunch on the first 2 days that we couldn’t eat dinner – they really know how to feed you here. All delicious local produce and fabulous wine from down the road. On the 3rd night we tried really hard to do ‘grown ups’ dinner and eat late with the Spanish, but when we left after 10.30, we were still the only people in the restaurant. I don’t know how they do it. The wild boar was worth it anyway.

We drove home through one more pueblo blanco Zahara, another dramatically located white town.
Lovely Zahara

Back in El Puerto it has been raining, raining, raining. So much so that we had to move pitch as we were in danger of floating away – fortunately in the direction of the bar. Anyway, in a fit madness we booked a flight to Gran Canaria and we leave tonight. 5 days in the sun and some good hill walking is just what we need.

We’ll return on Monday 11, and head to the Extremadura area on the 13th.