Spain January to May 2021

We remained in Peniscola for the four and a half months from January until mid-May, trying our best to be sensible and to avoid catching the COVID virus. We stayed in Peniscola from October, the longest we’ve ever stayed in one place – seven months! Unfortunately we haven’t learned Spanish, as we’re in the midst of the German snowbirds. However, we have picked up lots of German vocabulary.

There was another big storm in early January. They’d just finished cleaning up after last year’s terrible deluge! This time it wasn’t so bad and was quickly cleared away.

Initially, before Christmas, the COVID numbers were good in this part of Spain, but as infection numbers in the Valencia Comunidad rose – in fact they quadrupled - restrictions began to tighten. The curfew was brought back to 6:00pm. Given that shops in this part of Spain close between 2 and 5pm and then re-open, the curfew effectively meant that shops and businesses only operated in the mornings from 10am to 2pm. However, bars and restaurants were still open until 6pm.

The weekend of the 9th and 10th of January saw infection numbers across Spain climb to a record of over 60,000 - the worst ever seen. Then on the weekend of January 16 & 17, history was again made, with infections of over 82,000!

The Valencia Province responded on January 20th by closing bars and restaurants.  Schools and universities were also closed, although junior schools remained open, so parents could work. The provincial borders remained closed and the clear intent of the latest restrictions was to allow most people to go to work, but to limit social interaction as much as possible.  The mask restrictions tightened even further and we even had to wear them riding our bikes! Michael received a warning notice from the police before we found that out.

The new restrictions didn’t affect us a great deal. We usually did all our shopping before 2:00pm anyway and hadn’t planned on travelling anywhere. It just meant that we couldn’t go out to lunch anymore! Michael had already stopped his habit of sitting on the terrace of cafes with the locals, enjoying a café solo and pastis in the sunshine, while people watching.

We had access to great food through the ‘supermercardos’ and the weekly market. We had a 3-burner gas hob, a gas oven, an electric halogen oven and the Weber BBQ. We also had access to the wonderful cooking of our German friends, Waldemar and Moni. The only thing limiting our gastronomic experience was our own energy and creativity!

Luckily the restrictions were very effective and only lasted for 4 weeks. We were then very excited to get back out and about, enjoying seafood cooked by someone else. We do like to support the local economy!

We continued to monitor the Covid numbers. In the second wave of Covid there was much better access to information, with government websites reporting by region the number of infections, the number of deaths, the cumulative total of infections for the last 7 and 14 days and the R number. 

There were lots of advantages to staying in one place for so long. We got to know some of the local traders and artisans, who were all desperate for business. We continued to improve our camping car, with new bedding, curtains and blinds and even going so far as to have a satellite dish installed so we could watch free to air TV.

Michael discovered a great seamstress in the village who altered clothes and re-made the new bedding to match our weird bed sizes and shapes.

Quite out of the blue, we bought ourselves new electric bikes because ours were a bit exhausted from doing over 4000km and travelling all year on the bike racks. The man at the bike shop wouldn’t take them as a trade-in, he reckoned he’d never sell them and we wouldn’t either. He said we should just give them away. However, we sold them for 150 euro each in less than three hours!! We advertised them at the campsite and on the local Gumtree-type platform called Wallapop. Job done! Our new bikes are great, with much better suspension and gears. We’re flying around the place now and have done 25kph into a headwind on the way home from Benicarlo.

We were lucky to see the birds flying south for winter, both those in formation like the geese and the super large flocks of smaller birds, too. We stayed in Peniscola so long we got to see them return in Spring as well. There’s lots of birdlife around Peniscola, including the geese at the roundabout!

Unfortunately, because of the Covid travel restriction we didn’t get to sightsee with Moni and Waldemar as much as we had all planned. Instead, we cooked for each other and we got to try many traditional German recipes.

There were two episodes of ‘Sahara sand rains’ where the camping car was covered in red mud after wind, sand and rain blew in from Morocco. Michael’s water hose and ladder were in hot demand, as everyone started cleaning up the mess.

On March 3rd Michael got a call from his sister in the early hours to let him know that his father, Geoffrey had died. This was a blessing really because Geoff was 92 and in the advanced stages of dementia. It was very difficult for Michael not to be able to go to the funeral and to support his mother and siblings. However, thanks to technology we were able to film a short video that was played at the private funeral and then later at the memorial service at Kooyonga Golf Club. We got up at three in the morning and watched the funeral live, which made all the difference. Also, thanks to internet calls, Michael was able to speak to his mother, sister and brother on a daily basis and that helped him a lot.

There were just a few sites in Camping Eden that were occupied; perhaps 30 of the possible 400 and most were German. We soon got to know them, thanks to Michael’s gregarious nature and our friends Moni and Waldemar. We also met a lovely British couple, Kevin and Sue who visited here for a couple of weeks on their way back to the UK. It was great to meet and chat to someone whose first language was English and to share experiences and ideas. They were superb curry cooks and not only cooked us a superb meal of several curries, they also very kindly left us with all their curry spices. We’ve been trying, but haven’t achieved their level of expertise yet.

Even though Covid limited us all, there were many campground parties. Some were Bon Voyage as people left to return to Germany and twos special one were Moni’s birthday on February 2nd and then Waldemar’s 70th birthday.

At the end of March Moni and Waldemar left to return to Germany, for medical reasons. Germany had gone into lockdown so they were a little reluctant to leave but were also keen to get a vaccination. We felt very sad to see them go, after spending 5 months together.

Michael missed his ongoing ‘cork gag’ with Moni, so started a ‘gag-fest’ with a new German friend he made, called Maxi. They were always playing pranks on each other. Maxi and his wife Gudren were very creative and took delight in ‘decorating’ our pitch whenever we left. Michael responded by ‘decorating’ the camping ground with wanted posters and clever messages about Maxi. They both played pranks on each other with water pistols. Some big boys never grow up, but they did provide the other campers with lots of laughs!

After so long being among just a few people and feeling very safe, we were a bit worried about the Easter holidays.  Santa Semana (or Holy Week) has been a big event in Spain for centuries. Parades, festivals, family holidays etc were the norm. Unfortunately, not this year or last year - because everything was cancelled. Luckily, all the provinces of Spain decided to ban travel outside the provincial borders of your home over Santa Semana. However, the camping ground soon filled up with people from elsewhere in the Valencia region. It was fun to see Peniscola ‘humming’ as it normally would be at this time of year and we can now start to imagine what it would be like in summer.

We anticipated a spike in numbers in the next few weeks, even though Spain (and particularly this region) is doing much better than France, Germany and Italy.

The infection numbers in Spain did rise overall in April, but the increase here in the Castellon province of Valencia was small.  By mid April, 10 days after the Easter holidays, we were at only 18 per 100,000 and an R rate of 0.63. This was a lot less than some other areas in Spain and much less than many areas of France and Germany. Despite really wanting to move on, safety and common sense dictated that we stayed put.

We so wish we could speak Spanish! We had some lovely Spanish neighbours, called Pepe and Genovara and we communicated via a mix of some words, Google translate and charades.  We loved their Spanish music and always told them to turn it up. They responded by cranking it up and dancing in the street!

Genovara is a wonderful cook and on a couple of occasions made us paella for lunch, being the proper Valencian lady as she is. Her paellas are nothing like those you get served in restaurants.  The last offering included rabbit, lamb’s liver, chicken and artichoke, as well as two types of beans. Brilliant spicing and it has spoilt us for restaurant paella from now on.

We couldn’t think what to make in return, so eventually settled on a traditional lamb roast. They loved it!

We were relieved and excited to finally solve the problem of our Australian Drivers Licenses expiring. After trying on the website and being denied due to our photos being out of date, we then phoned the correct department who said they couldn’t help and that we should ‘get a French license’. Yeah, not going to happen! Eventually Andrew Killey in Adelaide put us onto a contact in the Office of the Premier, who put us onto a contact in Minister Corey Wingard’s office. Suddenly it was possible for the date of photo expiration to change and we were able to apply for the license on-line. Imagine how we felt when it finally arrived in Peniscola and we were legal again!

Peniscola was all agog with the visit of the Galleon de Andalucia for a few days early in the month. It was a replica of an 18th century galleon and was just magnificent. The workmanship was amazing and people lined up to have a look.

The town also hosted a major triathlon that had 700 entrants. The swim leg started at 7:30am and was around the ‘rock’ or the castle. It looked like a challenging event and brought many visitors to the town.

 

The weather was pretty magnificent: warm, with clear blue skies especially in the afternoons. This required lots of walking and lunches on restaurant terraces.

We were really enjoying our new bikes and going for longer rides. We rode along the coast and through the vegetable fields to Vinaros, the furthest and busiest of the three towns and discovered the old town and the beach promenade, as well as their huge Thursday market. There was plenty of entertaining street art in all three towns.

Michael did a big ride with a couple of our German neighbours through the National Park. The track was mostly dirt and wound along the coast. Parts were really hilly – in spite of gears and the electric bike they still needed to get off and walk for one stretch. But the views were stunning and worth the effort.

We continued to support the restaurant business, returning to a few favourites as well as discovering some new ones, now that the season saw many more being open. We loved the local Argentinian BBQ restaurant and shared a stunning chargrilled steak. Often we eat fish and shellfish when we go out, so we don’t cook it in the van with the accompanying mess and smell. Michael does do a magnificent salmon on the BBQ.

As it became time to think about going back to France we started to think about what we would stockpile and take with us. Empanada wrappers, potato tortilla, padron peppers, olive oil, salt and potato chips were top of the list. Of course, we needed to add Spanish Brandy, a nice verdejo and tempranilla to the cellar as well. We hope we wont be too overloaded!

We were waiting for the part to repair the hydraulics of the drop-down bed to arrive and it was taking ages! We decided to leave and visit Pepe and Genovara’s hometown of Sagunto. It was only about 120km away, just north of Valencia. Sagunto is famous for its Roman ruins, but it has been occupied for since the 5th century BC! In 219 BC the Romans laid siege to the town and took it from the Carthaginians. There followed several centuries of a ‘golden age’, hence the many public buildings since discovered.

The town is set at the base of a big rock/promontory type of outcrop that overlooks the surrounding area, so obviously has strategic importance. There is an ampitheatre (Teatro) that was restored and partially rebuilt in the 70s and still holds concerts and plays today. Magnificent acoustics! We went to the Teatro Musee where there was a fascinating collection of typical costumes and masks of the Greek Tragedies. Even in Roman times most of the plays were the classic Greek tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides.

The Castillo on the top of the very steep hill had the ruins of the Roman Forum, some temples and the walls/fortifications. The other interesting thing was the Jewish Cemetery on the way up. They were square holes cut into the cliff or walls, with doors decorated by symbols such as menorahs.  The old town of Sagunto also had a Jewish Quarter.

The town of Sagunto itself was quite pretty, although the inhabitants must all be mountain goats – all the streets were so steep! There were lots of pretty squares and gardens and many of the ancient homes were well preserved and still in use. It appeared quite prosperous.

There was nowhere very secure to stay near Sagunto, so on the advice of Pepe and Genovara we headed to the beach about 6km away. Unfortunately the camping ground was dreadful, so we only stayed one night.

We enjoyed the change from Peniscola so much, we decided to take off and visit L’Hospitalet de L’Infante near Tarragona. We came once before but only stayed for a week, being frustrated by the lack of connectivity. This time we had the satellite TV and a MiFi so decided to return. It’s a fabulous camping ground with its own private white-sand beach, 5 different Jacuzzi and 2 pools. We got a camping spot right overlooking the beach and a short walk to the pools. It’s so quiet, at night all you can hear is the waves. Bliss!

We rode our bikes into the town on a couple of days to look around and for a change of scene. We had a lunch out at a restaurant once, but otherwise we just cooked for ourselves.

We returned to Peniscola to have our motorhome repair done by Tambo. He’s amazingly clever! When he replaced the faulty part it became evident that the motor that drove the hydraulics of the drop-down bed was burnt out, so he had to re-build that, too. After all his work on our motorhome over the last 7 months, it is now as good as new.

 

Eventually, at the end of May we left Peniscola for France.