We spent the first two weeks of February still bunkered down in Peniscola, enjoying the winter sunshine. The mornings and evenings were cool to cold and often in the morning it was cloudy or had some fog. Usually by lunchtime the sun came out and it was warm, if not hot. However, it was often warm enough to put on shorts and a t-shirt and sit in the sun for an hour or two or go for a bike ride.
We spent far too much time having lunch with people we met! Some lunches we cooked at home using our Weber BBQ and the oven & cooktop in the van. Other times we went out to restaurants or ate food cooked by other people in their kitchen tent or trailer.
With all the eating and drinking we were doing Sue decided to join a local exercise group, conducted in German. She was a bit worried when one of the ladies turned up on a walker and everyone was dressed in coats and scarves. The exercises turned out to be outside, and were all about stretching, balance and strength, rather than being aerobic. They were still quite challenging. Sue has been going twice a week and has learned some new words in German, other than the rude words and how to be polite.
One highlight was our friend Moni’s 68th birthday on February 2nd. She and her husband Waldemar invited 16 people for lunch and cooked up a wonderful meal. We started with her famous lentil soup that also included sausage and lots of other vegetables. Then they had a ‘smorgasboard’ where you helped yourself. There was a choice of about 5 dishes. Our two favourites were a brilliant salmon salad and slices of goat cheese marinated in a spicy mango dressing and served on a bed of greens. This course was followed by a delicious apple and almond cake that was light as a feather, cooked by Moni’s friend Angelika. We had fun trying to talk German with all the people who came. Necessarily the conversations were pretty halting and superficial, but we did have fun.
As had become our habit, we spent some lovely sunny days walking for about 40 minutes up to the castle and the Old Town surrounding it, to sit in the sunshine at a lovely restaurant simply known as the ‘Vermouth Bar’. They make wonderful chicken wings and spicy mussels, have 2 good vermouths and fabulous views. The port has a very active fishing fleet and a good fish market, which makes it interesting to wander around and admire all the traditional skills, such as net repair.
We also enjoyed riding ours bikes along the promenade bicycle track to nearby Benicarlo, which has good restaurants in the sunshine at their port and some good supermarkets, butchers and greengrocers on the way home.
Another highlight was the Peniscola Carnivale, which happened on February 15th and 16th. It was a street parade surrounded by a party. The people in the parade met early and indulged in a few drinks to get warmed up. They had put a lot of thought into their costumes and makeup. Then they paraded through the town where lots of people lined the streets to cheer them on. There were often quite long breaks between the ‘floats’, caused by the necessity to stop for photo shoots, drinks and cigarettes and to talk to the people they knew. It was quite chaotic and so much fun! The kids got right into it, even the little ones. We found them very entertaining!
Michael unfortunately also got right into it, drinking with the locals into the small hours and then suffering for two days afterwards – he’s getting too old to party that hard!
Our friend Samantha from England finally got operated upon for the growth in her brain, which was discovered while she was in Peniscola. There was a 20% chance that something would go wrong, but a 50% chance that she would die if she didn’t have it removed. These were percentages we didn’t like at all! Unfortunately she was one of the 20% and did have some complications. The operation went for over 16 hours, but she has pulled through and is now on a very slow road to recovery.
Eventually we tore ourselves away from our winter retreat and headed to the colder climes. We stayed overnight in Valencia before driving to Aranjuez, 42 km south of Madrid. This area was a summer palace and a winter hunting lodge for the royals. The beautiful buildings included royal apartments, as well as related accommodations, which were quite extensive given their huge amount of courtiers and hangers-on. The Palace itself was built around a series of courtyards surrounded by huge open spaces that were used for equestrian events.
Sue went for a tour inside the Palace. It was as opulent as the Real Madrid, but on a smaller scale. It was full of gorgeous textiles and high ceilings filled with decorative chandeliers. The Porcelain Room was a favourite, with walls and ceilings decorated in a Chinese/naturalist theme. It was so 3D! Unfortunately, they don’t allow photos and don’t have any for sale either. It will just have to live on in Sue’s memory.
There were also acres of formal gardens, one of which was established in 1506. Imagine, a garden over 500 years old!
The camping ground was having their own Carnivale and so was full of Spanish families having a wonderful weekend.
We left early in the morning to drive through the outskirts of Madrid to Segovia, where we first ran into the winter problem of campsites being shut and limited aires. After we couldn’t find anywhere to stay we continued on to Avila – same problem. We eventually ended up in a campsite on the edge of Salamanca. While Sue was busy talking with a lady from the Netherlands, Grubie managed to wind her leash around Sue’s feet. She went down heavily! Luckily Sue landed on her ass, so nothing was broken but walking has been a bit limited for a week or so.
We were still headed towards the Atlantic coast of Spain, so continued to Leon, where we made a brief stop to investigate a problem with our fridge door. The man did a temporary fix - with a rubber band! - while he ordered parts to properly fix it when we returned through there in a couple of weeks. He spoke no English at all – how we love Google translate and Michael’s wonderful skill at charades!
That day we drove over 500kms, finishing up in Santiago de Compostela in the far northwestern corner of Spain. This is famous as the finishing point of many of the pilgrimage walks in Europe. The main Spanish trail, the Camino de Santiago, crosses 677kms from near San Sebastian to Santiago. The trail finishes at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, which houses the purported remains of several apostles, especially those of St James the Evangalist. The chest with the ‘remains’ has been lost twice – once when it was first transported and then again when it was hidden from the ravages of Sir Frances Drake and was lost for 200 years.
The cathedral was being extensively restored both inside and out when we visited, which was a little disappointing. There were many other gorgeous churches, public buildings, convents and Catholic administration buildings. Lots were built earlier and then decorated in the Baroque style later on. The gardens were also stunning. Spain thought it was early spring (we disagreed as its still cold!) and the gardens were full of crocus, daffodils, camellias and azaleas. Otherwise, the town was pretty ugly. Sue went to the Museum of the Pilgrims, which was very interesting. Michael asked ‘Why? Why would you walk all that way?’ There have been pilgrimages for most religions, for similar reasons. It is meant to increase spirituality, by focusing you on your god, similar to a retreat. Other people do them as a penance or atonement. These days, many people also do the trails as a tourist activity. For whatever reason, it has been a big business from the middle ages, as can be seen from the pilgrim’s museum and the registry.
After a few days in Santiago de Compostela we headed only 75km to A Coruna, staying in an aire on the marina for 5 days. After weeks of sunshine, the weather had turned and we had several days of grey clouds, rain and very strong winds. When we were in A Coruna the winds gusted well above 50kph and the van was rocking!
A Coruna is a wonderful small city. It’s a vibrant town set around an industrial and fishing port, but is done in such a way as to be quite attractive, with promenades and parks. Many of the buildings are painted white and have sun balconies that are latticed and filled with glass, very pretty.
Michael loves all things nautical so he visited the Castle de San Anton, the nautical history museum. This was first a defensive fortress, then a prison. Now it’s an archeological museum about the city and the Gallicia area, with artifacts dating back to their Roman history and the especially important iron and bronze ages. There was even an underground well in the building.
The old town is full of laneways with nice shops, restaurants and tapas bars. There are very few tourists here at present, or at least hardly any foreign tourists, so we had lots of fun mixing with the locals. As you would expect, most restaurant menus are full of seafood, so we indulged our love of grilled scallops on the shell and octopus, both of which are local specialties.
Dining out on the weekend with extended family is very big in Spain and on Saturday we tried several restaurants that were fully booked. Eventually a man at a family run restaurant squeezed a table in by the bar and we enjoyed home made chicken noodle soup and a crumbed steak, along with a delicious bottle of red – all for 38euro. The ‘menu del dia’ was three courses and a glass of wine for 10euro per person. How to live cheaply and even cheaper if you don’t drink much!
We are gradually making our way back to France, with our main stops being in Gijon, Burgos and Haro, the capital of the Rioja wine region, where we plan to do a thorough tasting. We’ll keep you informed!