After our extended stay in good old Australia, we made our long awaited return back to The UK just as Covid restrictions were lifted.
We enjoyed a good Summer catching up with friends and family in Hampshire, Kent, Yorkshire and Wales. We did some house sitting in The New Forest looking after Steve’s best friend, Rupert the Working Cocker Spaniel, and did some walking in The Yorkshire Dales and Peak District.
Having missed several celebrations during our time down under we were thankful that we were back for Steve’s mother’s 80th birthday. We spent a fantastic few days away at a couple of locations in Hampshire. We stayed in some great hotels with plenty of character, we ate in some super restaurants, we saw some beautiful sights, but most of all we had a really fabulous time together with plenty of laughs.
Also, while in the UK, Steve put all that training to good use and managed to get in a couple of Ironman races. He didn’t do too bad considering he is getting on a bit. In fact, he came third in one and missed out on winning his category by just a few seconds in the other (he put his defeat down to stopping too long for a pee!).
So, although it wasn’t a spectacular Summer as far as the weather was concerned, we felt we made the most of our time in Blighty.
We also managed to get our Covid vaccinations which allowed us to resume our travelling. However, although the World is slowly opening up, our choice of destinations was somewhat limited. Taking into account the time of year and the weather we decided to head to Spain.
Spain had never really been featured in our original plan but then neither had a Worldwide pandemic! We have visited Spain many times in the past, predominantly to the Canary Islands and Majorca, mainly for some Winter sun and to cycle away from the UK wind and rain. Previous visits to mainland Spain had been a similar scenario but with stays of just a week we had never had time to venture too far from the major airports and tourist destinations. So our experience of Spain was limited and to be honest neither of us had fallen in love with the country. With approximately eight weeks to explore, maybe this time would be different.
We packed our car (with all its electrical issues) and jumped on a ferry to Bilbao in Northern Spain. We had a plan to head West through the Galicia region to Santiago de Compostela and then continue around the country anti- clockwise as far as Barcelona.
We are getting used to our plans going array but even for us this time was a record. We drove off the ferry, checked the weather and saw a week of storm clouds covering our planned route. So we turned East and headed for the foothills of the Pyrenees instead.
Our first stop was a campsite near the town of Balaguer. A beautiful location next to a lake and close to some seriously good walking. Probably the pick of the bunch was in a place called Congest de Mont Rebei. This walk had to be seen to be believed. Sheer drops only inches from the path which was carved through the rock, rope bridges across rivers, and an incredible decent on a rickety wooden staircase straight down the cliff face. Incredible.
Our campsite was also pretty good but we did wonder why there weren’t that many tents around. In fact, at one point, we were the only tent on the site. We quickly discovered that camping in Spain, especially the further South you travel, is predominantly campervan and motorhome based. The hard, sparsely vegetated ground is not conducive to comfortable and easy camping under canvas.
For our next stop we travelled South East towards the coast. We passed through a lot of rural Spain, with small towns and villages where the main occupation seemed to centre around farming. The places we passed through appeared relatively poor and we commented how it was sometimes not that easy to determine if buildings were being constructed, demolished or renovated!
We arrived on the coast at a place called Calpe, not too far from Benidorm but far enough for it to be out of sight and mind. We were trying to avoid the well known places along the various ‘Costa’s’ and see a different side of the country. Steve knew Calpe was a good area for cycling, but what he didn’t know was how good. When he found out that half of the professional cyclists in the World spend time here over the Winter, Sarah knew she wasn’t going to see much of him!
The hills and villages around Calpe were beautiful and Steve couldn’t let Sarah miss out, so she rented a top of the range electric road bike. This allowed her to keep up and on many of the steeper hills even leave Steve behind. We spent days out and about exploring, stopping for coffee in the villages, struggling up the mountains and flying down them.
The mountains were nearly always above 3000 feet and occasionally over 5000 feet. We did two or three a day and that is a lot of pedalling. Initially Sarah was understandably very hesitant about descending down miles of steep hairpin bend roads but by the end she really looked the part, full gas, knee out banking the bike around the bends, and she even overtook a couple of cars!
The next six weeks followed a similar pattern as we drove South and then West through Andalucía. What a place. We loved it. Beautiful town after beautiful town. They are known as the ‘Pueblo Blanco’, White Towns, and they stand gleaming out in isolated pockets, sometimes in valleys, sometimes perched atop a hill, sometimes clinging precariously to the side of a cliff and on one occasion built into the cliff.
We twisted our way through Mojacar, Orgiva, Arcos de la Frontera, Grazalema, Zahara, Frigiliana, Bocairent and numerous others. Sometimes we camped, sometimes renting an apartment and occasionally staying in a hotel. We would always cycle, often walk, and sometimes just relax in the beautiful surroundings and amazing weather.
We also visited Granada, where the Alhambra Palace is. This palace is just too incredible for words. We walked around Ronda with its famous bridge, a favourite of many, and Jerez de la Frontera, the home of Sherry and also a centre for Andalusian horses.
We went to a display at the riding school to see the impressive horsemanship and Sarah was in her element.
Sarah found us some beautiful places to stay and with it being towards the end of the season, and tourism volumes still low, she was always able to find a great deal. One stipulation for accommodation was that we needed relatively secure parking. Unfortunately our aging car has a developed a few electrical problems. The long and short of it is, the battery drains overnight, and the dashboard lights up like a Christmas tree, which is obviously a problem! We know what the issue is, but in this world of supply chain issues we have been unable to obtain the part. So for now, in order to get around the problem, we have to disconnect the battery if the car is left for more than about 6 hours. This means we can’t operate the central locking and a separate issue means we can’t lock it manually.
As I am writing this it sounds ridiculous that we would embark on a 6000 mile trip, but we have just got so used to it, the whole process has become second nature. It is a little disconcerting sometimes when you are driving along with the warning lights on, there have been seven in total, but only ever a maximum of five at one time. Oh, plus the fuel gauge does not work and you can only open the boot from the inside!
Anyway back to the secure parking. Campsites and apartments are generally fine but hotels in cities where space is a premium can be a challenge, especially when they were built with much smaller cars in mind. A twelve point turn in an underground car park to get out was the record. That in itself was eclipsed when we turned up to a place with an underground car park with no ramp. You had to take the car in a lift!! We were crying with laughter as Steve maneuvered our bigger than average car into the small space as Sarah squeezed into a corner as she guided him into the lift. The front bumper had to touch the front lift door in order for the rear one to close!!
We clung to the last rays and heat of the Autumn sun in a place called Torrox. But as the second week in November started we decided to head North and start our long drive home.
The last eight weeks had completely changed our view of Spain. Admittedly it had mainly been in Andalucía but it is a place we will undoubtedly return to…. many times.
Our time in Spain however was not over. In fact we still had another three weeks before we planned to return home. Before that we were due to visit our friends, Mark and Lisa, who we met in Australia. They live in the North of The Netherlands and that by anyone’s standards is a long drive from Torrox which sits on The Mediterranean in Southern Spain.
Here is a short precis of our stops and route:
Cordoba. Fabulous cathedral, small old town, a little touristy but worth a stop on any itinerary. We found it quite traditional when it came to restaurant eating times. If you want to eat dinner between 5pm and 8pm we suggest you take some sandwiches. As is the case in a much of Spain outside the familiar tourist areas, the evening doesn’t even start to get going until after 8pm.
Toledo. A top drawer place. Amazing. We loved it. It is visually striking both close up and from a distance.
It has a beautiful old town and a friendly atmosphere, good bars and coffee shops, and a lovely walk along the river below the city.
San Sebastian/Donostia. Food heaven! The town sits on the Bay of Biscay and has two main beaches. One is sheltered, huge, sandy and perfect for relaxing (unfortunately we were there in mid November so could only imagine it). The other beach was a surfer’s paradise and even at this time of year well over a hundred wetsuit clad surfers lined up like an army of seals jostling for position on the perfect wave.
Cognac (we are now in France). We thought we would stop here just for the sake of it. This small town in South West France, as its name suggests, is the home of the famous spirit. The town has several well known distilleries which even we had heard of. It is a pleasant place for a stroll along the river and if you are a Cognac fan there are tours of all the famous brands are on offer.
Montargis. Where? Sometimes you just have to stay somewhere to spend the night and then move on!
Epernay. Where? Well you may or may not have heard of this tiny French town in the North East. But you will certainly have heard of its main export and more than likely, on a special occasion, sampled its main export. Epernay is the epicentre for the production of Champagne. All the big Champagne houses and dozens of smaller ones are located in or around the town, including Moet et Chandon, probably the most famous one of all.
We visited Mercier and did a fantastic tour which took us underground into the 18 kilometres of caves and storage rooms. Where we were transported around on a little train as the history and workings of the company were explained. The tour finished off with the obligatory Champagne tasting.
From Epernay we drove across Belgium and on a grey November day it was nothing to write home about. Our impression was one of a dark, closed in, cramped, cold place. However, as we crossed the border into the Netherlands we encountered a world that appeared clean and modern. The grey graffiti covered concrete surroundings and old industrial units and works, were replaced by open green spaces, light and airy new commercial premises, and a fresh clean feeling and we were struck by the stark contrast.
We couldn’t pass through The Netherlands without spending a couple of days in Amsterdam. We walked the entire city, what felt like at least three times, did all the tourist things, and had a really good time.
However, that pesky old Covid thing was starting to loom again. Case numbers were starting to rise and the Dutch Government had installed an 8pm closing time on non essential shops and restaurants, bars and entertainment. This restricted Steve’s time in a certain part of the city!!
Finally, we made it to Friesland (where the cows come from), home to Mark and Lisa. In fact, they have two homes as they were renting a place on a farm and had also just got the keys to their new house which they are about to renovate. Now Sarah loves a good renovation project, having done a bit of it ourselves, and we were more than happy to help out for a few days. So armed with a sledgehammer, chisels, wallpaper strippers and such like we set about their new abode.
We had a great time, laughing and joking, talking about our time together in Australia and although it was over a year since we had seen each other, it really did only feel like yesterday.
It wasn’t all hard work, we did manage some time out to see the local area and while visiting a market Mark persuaded Sarah to try a local delicacy of raw whole salted herring. It was a sight to behold, how she wasn’t sick we will never know. The sight and sound caused a few passers by to stop and watch!
Steve and Mark also managed a cycle together. It wasn’t quite the same though as cycling in the 30 degree heat of the Far North Queensland rainforest!
We left Mark and Lisa to continue with their substantial project and promised to return in the Spring to see the progress. “I hope it is finished by then”, joked Steve, as he examined the cuts on his hands! We can easily see Friesland being a regular stop on our travels. They really are a lovely couple.
So it was back to Dunkirk and the ferry to Dover. But we had one last stop to make. We had heard a lot about Bruges in Belgium and had decided to see what the talk was about. We were a bit dubious having not been overly impressed with the look of Belgium as we had driven through previously. But Bruges was a gem of a place. The weather was pretty cold with a few showers around but it is one of those places you can enjoy at any time of year.
We strolled around the cobbled streets and alleys, soaked up the sights (literally) and gorged ourselves on beer, chocolate, waffles and other delicious treats. “Hey, come on Sarah. We have earned this on those mountains in Spain. One more waffle please….. with extra chocolate…. white AND milk!