We have spent the last three months of 202O in Spain, choosing our destinations carefully, to minimize the Covid risk.
We left France on September 29th, heading to Spain for the winter. After an uneventful drive on a route we now know well, we arrived in the town of La Hopitalet de l’Infante, 36km south of Tarragona. The campsite was lovely and had three pools and 5 different sorts of Jacuzzi as well as its own private sandy beach. It was practically empty, due to Covid and the end of season, which was fine with us and met our personal safety rules. The weather being sunny and warm, we made full use of the facilities.
The small town was very pretty in the typical coastal Spanish way, with white buildings marching up the hillsides and a nice marina with restaurants. We were going to stay a couple of weeks but ended up only staying for a week, as there was no phone reception and no Internet at the campsite. We rely on the Internet to get our news, keep an eye on the weather and keep tabs on the Covid situation wherever we are. We just felt unsafe being so cut off and isolated.
We returned once again to Peniscola and settled in for the winter. Our friends from Germany, Moni and Waldemar and our UK friends, Sam and Andy were already there. We first met these friends three years ago here in Peniscola and have caught up with them a few times a year ever since. Sam is working hard on her recovery and is now able to eat real food and is walking with a frame and working on her balance. She had online meetings with doctors and therapists several times a week. Sam had her first visit to a restaurant in twelve months and we were all very excited. We had some fun meals together, all taking a turn to cook.
We have revisited some of our favourite restaurants – several times! We do like to support the local economy, or at least that’s what we tell ourselves. First stop was the Vermouth Bar for their magic chicken wings and beautiful views. It’s near the old castle.
We also went to Roja Picola for a tapas and to listen to their great music. They have the most robust internet connection in town, so we head there to do backups, updates and downloads.
We discovered a really good Indian restaurant last time we were here, so we had to revisit that as well. Michael introduced Waldemar to the delights of Rogan Josh.
Because of all this eating and drinking, we have started a fitness regime of walking and exercises every morning. The camping ground has a gym and Sue is the only one who uses it, so it’s quite safe. It’s a beautiful walk along the promenade, looking at the ocean and the castle in the distance. The promenade links Peniscola with the next village of Benicarlo, and you can even walk or ride along the coast to the further village of Vinaros, a distance of about 15 km.
Because of the mask law in Spain you can buy masks everywhere. Michael found a T-shirt place that screen-printed onto masks, so of course Woolly’s Bar and Grill had to have some!
Michael celebrated his birthday at what is commonly known as “the Slovenian restaurant” because the people who own it originally came from there. They serve typical Spanish food – mostly tapas, fish, oxtail stew etc. They do an excellent Cordon Bleu, which is listed on the menu as a Gordon Blue!! Michael took a magnum of excellent red wine from St Emilion that he’d been saving for the occasion.
There is a great mechanic and motorhome repairer in nearby Benicarlo called Tambo, who comes to the campsite to do the work where possible. We got him to replace the water pump, which wasn’t properly repaired in France and he also replaced our faulty door and the broken skylight screen. He is a great repairer, with meticulous attention to detail. He’s also very inexpensive. We decided to have him clean the roof of our camping car, because we’re both scared of heights and think it’s too dangerous to get up that high at our age. The roof was covered in black mould, even though we had it cleaned properly in May. He did a brilliant job and it looks brand new. We also sourced a curtain shop in the business part of town and had new curtains made. When we leave Spain our camping car will be the best it has been since we bought it!
We bought ourselves a halogen oven, so we could do slow cooking and use the campground electricity rather than our gas. We had fun playing around with it, getting used to cooking times and methods and trying out some new recipes. Some were more successful than others and some took two goes to get right!
One day we went with Moni and Waldemar into the hills behind the nearby town of Vinaros. It was a bit of an adventure, driving on tiny dirt back-roads through the olive and orange groves but we finally found our way to a park and a monastery on the top of the hill. It was a beautiful spot with stunning views along the coast and a lovely church. The arched opening of the compound had 1639 on it but the church itself was dated 1732. We walked around the park and listened to a drumming group practicing their repertoire. There was a lovely courtyard with a restaurant so we thought we’d have a beer and tapas and enjoy basking in the sun.
Not a bad way to spend a winter’s day!
On another day we drove north to the Delta de l’Ebre, the huge delta of the River Ebro. It’s an important bird sanctuary with hundreds of flamingos, grebes, heron, ducks and other water birds. There are also miles and miles of rice paddies, with much of Spain’s rice production being done in this area. It was fascinating to see the huge tractors without tires, ploughing through the mud. We were going to stay in the area for lunch but we were in the Tarragona region, where they have shut down bars and restaurants. When we re-entered the Valencia region we were stopped by police, who were turning some cars back but we were allowed through, as Peniscola was our base.
On another excursion with Waldemar and Moni we drove 70km to Cabanes to visit a wine wholesaler, the ‘Bodega de Vinos Centelles’. He was also a pig farmer, so sampling the ‘nose’ of the wine was a bit challenging. We were actually blocking our noses! He had wine in barrels of different years and styles, mostly red wine although he did have one rose and one red vermouth. Prices ranged from 1.50 to 1.80 euro per litre and you had to bring your own container, which he filled direct from the barrel. He was not a winemaker, but bought it in bulk from somewhere near Barcelona and aged it in his barrels. It was not a place where you discussed the age of the barrel or the provenance of the grape. You just got in, got your wine and got out! But the wine is eminently drinkable, so it was worth the trip.
From Cabanes we drove on a tiny little road that wound through hills and valleys and through a national park full of pines, then past almond and olive orchards and orange groves to the town of Oropesa. It was such a pretty drive!
The Covid cases in Europe continued to rise dramatically and it was really no surprise when Belgium, France and Germany all went into different forms of lockdown. Spain has a curfew and a mask law but hasn’t locked down everywhere yet. They declared a state of emergency and devolved management to the various regions. Several have chosen to close their borders, which makes travelling around the country tricky and has virtually stopped tourism. Where we are is in the Castellon region of the province of Valencia. Valencia decided to close its borders soon after we arrived - probably to keep out people from Barcelona and Madrid - and this has meant that our campground and Peniscola in general has been very quiet, almost deserted.
We shared lots of lovely meals with Waldemar and Moni. Moni is a wonderful cook of traditional German meals and Waldemar is a brilliant cook of fish. We’ve enjoyed the goulash, herring in a white sauce with apples, wonderful potatoes with bacon and Moni’s famous kraut, the best we’ve tasted. Sue has learned to make a few of our favourites.
The weather turned cold at the start of December and we’ve had more wind than rain this year, sometimes as high as 80kph. St Nicholas Day is on December 6th in Germany, marking the start of the holiday season. We joined our German friends for a ‘goulash and gluwein’ party.
Christmas Day and Sue’s birthday was cold and a little windy so we celebrated inside with an international meal starting with the northern Italian vitella tonato, followed by Greek chicken and then English plum pudding. We didn’t quite make it to the pudding, so saved that for lunch on Boxing Day.
New Year’s Eve was also very cold so we celebrated at lunchtime instead. Champagne, herring in white sauce and potatoes and a cheese & chocolate platter.
Michael went to a party of Germans just up our campground ‘street’, they are his schnapps-drinking buddies. He enjoys joining them for sing-a-longs of old favourites tunes and folk songs.
Peniscola is a beautiful small town, one of the most visited locations in eastern Spain. The population of 7,500 inhabitants explodes to 150,000 in summer! This winter it’s nearly deserted, due to Covid but still has some restaurants open and many more open up on the weekends, when the locals come out for lunch. There are lovely walks and rides and beautiful sunsets to admire and the bird life is fascinating. We’ve been here three months now and haven’t been bored yet!