For the first few days of January we were still based in Torrox, near Nerja and enjoying the delightful sunshine. We spent lazy days sleeping in, walking or riding to local towns to shop or have lunch and enjoying the company of others in a very friendly campsite.
We then travelled just 30km to Torres del Mar near Malaga, where we were lucky to witness the festival of the Three Kings, or the Epiphany. This celebrates the introduction of Christ to mankind, in the form of the Three Kings who travelled to Bethlehem. We wouldn’t describe the festival we saw as particularly religious. Exuberant, noisy and colourful, definitely and with lots of music, dancing and lolly-throwing. There were three floats each with a King. It was great fun. A bit like the Xmas Pageant but less controlled and with the Three Kings instead of Santa. The last float was for the ‘naughty children’ and handed out lumps of coal instead of lollies. None of the children wanted to accept!
We were meeting up with our friend Craig Schilg who was coming from Australia to spend a couple of weeks touring this part of Spain with us. Michael was very excited to have another bloke to trade insults and share the driving with and set off by bus to Malaga to meet Craig at the train station.
Sue says it’s a bit like travelling with Laurel & Hardy and she sometimes has to call ‘time out’ from the bullshit and banter. Craig hired a car for a few weeks so we had the chance to head into the mountainous inland of Spain without Michael trying to drive while suffering so badly from acrophobia.
The first day Craig was here it bucketed with rain all day and was freezing and windy. We spent the day having lunch!
We drove to Malaga, about 44kms away. We wandered around the old town, went to the old fort & castle which were built by the Moors in the 11th C, saw the Roman Amphitheatre and the Castillo de Gibraltar. We felt like we were on a movie/television set and sure enough, we saw the spot where some of Game of Thrones was filmed.
Picasso was born here in Malaga so we went to the Picasso Museum and to the house where he was born. A real highlight was the Cathedral - so unbelievably opulent! That was a full-on day of sightseeing and walking.
On another day we went inland to Ronda, a city that we had heard lots about. What a gorgeous town! The old town is so pretty and even the new town was nice. The gorge was amazingly deep and there was a lot of water in it, but what amazed us most was the bridge across the gorge between the new and old town - how on earth did they build that!! We spent a lovely day wandering around the old town, looking in all the churches. Fancy Ronda having a court in the Spanish Inquisition!
Because it’s winter only about a third of the restaurants and shops are open - everywhere, not just Ronda. This is the price you pay for avoiding the tourist crowds of summer. We had lunch in a little laneway restaurant and it was fabulous. Michael had suckling pig and Sue had ‘Ronda rabbit', which sounds like a cartoon character! Michael and Craig went to the bullfight arena & museum, which they said was wonderful while Grubie and Sue went wandering the old town and also looked in the shops of the new town. We didn’t get back to Torre del Mar until after 6pm and we were all exhausted!
On another day Michael and Craig went back to Malaga to visit the famous football stadium and the wine museum. They said the football stadium was fascinating but the wine museum was a great disappointment. Michael still hasn’t found a well-priced and widely available red wine he likes. Its still a bit hit and miss when ordering.
We spent four days in Seville being serious and committed tourists, wandering the town and visiting their monumentally large cathedral and the Alcazar, the old forts and palaces.
You can’t talk about Seville without describing its magnificent Cathedral. Started in 1402 and taking 100 years to build, it’s the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. It’s monumental and a little overwhelming. Photos don’t really give a sense of its huge scale. It holds the tomb of Christopher Columbus as well as wonderful paintings by Goya and Murillo. The ceilings are fantastic and there are so many huge marble altars, as well as all the little chapels around the side.
The Royal Alcazar of Seville is the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe. Since the 11th century - that’s a thousand years! – every culture that has ruled the Iberian peninsula has used this as the capital of its kingdom. It has sections built in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries with beautiful patios and fountains, tile work and Mudejar plasterwork. The gardens are an attraction in themselves, built in several levels and quite formal with hedges, fountains and cloisters.
Seville has several diverse neighbourhoods. There was the Jewish quarter, the Barrio de Santa Cruz and the El Centro. We didn’t get across the bridge to the Triano area at all. The medieval Jewish quarter was beautiful, gorgeous houses with ornate balconies, doors and tiles and many with a Star of David punched into the brass of the doors.
While in Seville Sue & Michael celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary, with the help of Craig and Grubie. A visit to the Tapas Market was a little disappointing as it was more a series of mini-restaurants than a market. This was followed by a long, long walk (we got lost!) around the financial and Jewish quarters. Then another long walk towards the Place de Espagne. On the way we found a beautiful restaurant outside in the gardens. We stopped for paella, the best we’ve had because of its lovely smokiness. We washed it down with a fantastic French champagne and followed it up with a yummy cheesecake. It was a celebration! The other celebration was catching one of the famous Seville horse-drawn carriages. Grubie thought it was Christmas to be that close to a moving horse and the rest of us were surprised at how slow that mode of transport is, although very scenic and relaxing.
Our favourite building in Seville was probably the symmetrical and very beautiful Espace de Espagne. Built for the 1929 Iberian Expo it has many fountains and canals and showcases the tile work and painted porcelain of the region – every one of the many hundreds or thousands of the balustrades was painted porcelain! On the outside it has painted porcelain maps and a historical scene for each Spanish province.
One night we left Grubie in the van and went in to town for a Flamenco performance and dinner. The Flamenco performance was just long enough (45 mins) to appreciate it with being bored. There were five dances covering the major styles of Flamenco. Sue really liked the female performer and her fierce expression, as well as the passionate music and frilly dress. Craig liked the athleticism of the male performers but thought the female ‘too scary’. Michael enjoyed both and particularly the wonderful guitarist.
Next stop : Gibraltar. We drove through a landscape much like country SA – wheat fields, sheep and cows – to the edge of Gibraltar in a Spanish town called Algiceria. We free-camped in the Marina and walked (across the airport runway!) the 3km across the border and in to the English territory of Gibraltar. This place gets mixed reviews, with some people loving the thousand years of history and others being put off by the ‘more British than Britain’ vibe. We loved it all and appreciated the vibrancy of the modern city. There’s a lot of offshore banking, government & defense business and lots of building going on. The economy never felt the financial crisis and is very buoyant. Put that money with tourist activities and there’s a lot to experience – marinas, restaurants etc.
The highlights of our visit were the Rock Tour and the fascinating Gibraltar Museum, which traces the history of the rock from prehistoric times. Gibraltar has been Muslim and Castillian and then British for more than 300 years.
Craig, Michael, Sue and even Grubie took the Rock Tour. This took over 1½ hours and included the exquisite Caves of St Michael with its wonderful caverns of stalactites and stalagmites. The first and largest cavern is set up for the concerts they hold. How we would love to hear an opera in there! Then there are many smaller caverns progressing deeper into the caves. Just stunning!
The Rock is also the home of a colony of large monkeys (Barbary macaques), originally brought from northern Africa as a food source. They are kept up on the Rock and out of the town by the feeding program. They are very confident and curious and Grubie was freaked out! She barked and barked and they still weren’t scared, they just hung on the outside of the car and bared their teeth. Sue doesn’t like monkeys, so she and Grubie were locked inside the car while the others went off touristing, because the monkeys know how to open the doors!
Up and down the Rock is a tiny, weenie, skinny one-way system of what may loosely be termed as roads. It is so high (428M) and the views of Africa and the Costa del Sol are spectacular.
We visited the Grand Siege tunnels with all their gun embrasures and cannon. No wonder it was of such strategic importance when they were able to hold off a siege for nearly 4 years.
On leaving Gibraltar we headed in the direction of Malaga, from where Craig was leaving. We found a lovely campground 15km north of Marbella at Marbella Playa. It was on the beach and the weather cooperated by being sunny and in the 20s each day - not beach weather for us, but great for sitting outside in the sun reading, walking on the beach and having lunch in the little beach-side cafes. We went into the town of Marbella, walking through the old part with its charming church and squares full of standard orange trees and then to the marina to sit in the sun. We even complained about feeling hot!
We farewelled Craig with a dinner in the van. It was lovely to have some company from home and we’re looking forward to our next visitors in May.
After nearly 12 months on the road we met our first Australian couple doing the same thing as us. They had been travelling for nearly 2 years - except they were doing the 3 months in, 3 months out of the EU plan, rather than our temporary residency. That means they were travelling more, having spent three months in Albania and three months in Morocco. It was great to pick their brains and hear their stories. They were from Brisbane and kept their house so they go home a few months every year as well.
The campground at Marbella Playa was a bit different. Obviously it gets unbearably hot in summer in this part of Spain. Many of the campgrounds have structures they use to put shade cloth on to shelter the caravans/campers. In this campground there is obviously some sort of regulation where you have to have a camper/caravan if you rent the space permanently. So there are lots of plots totally covered in shades/shade cloth/fences etc with a little camper somewhere in the middle. It’s a bit like a shantytown - giving new meaning to our term ‘trailer trash’! Surrounding this camping ground are expensive homes and apartments, restaurants and beautiful tree-lined streets. Following two weeks of busy tourisiting with Craig, we settled in for a week or more to be a bit lazy and have a postal address, so we could do some on-line shopping. We bought contact lenses, tent pegs and a new ACSI Camping membership. We love on-line shopping as we no longer need to spend hours looking through shops and grappling with the language difficulty.
We celebrated Australia Day with lunch in the sun on the terrace of a lovely beachside restaurant near Marbella – with the obligatory lamb chops and red wine, of course!
The last days of January provided us with an amazing experience. We were walking along a little goat track through the vegetable fields outside of Torrox when we came across a ‘tin-shed’ bar that we’d been told of, so we went in for a drink and some delicious tapas. The old man who owned the place told us to come back that night at 10pm because there would be “musicos”. We decided to give it a whirl and invited our friends Les and Christine to come along. This place really was on the side of a hill in the middle of nowhere – we needed to take a torch to walk there. But by 10pm the place was packed with what we reckon was every ageing hippy for miles, as well as Spanish locals of all ages. Quite a few people spoke English, but the majority were Spanish. Lots of people walked in with instruments and while there was a main band group – lead, rhythm and bass guitar, drums and sax – different people got up to play throughout the night. We counted a total of three different drummers and four bass guitarists, and two lead singers/guitarists. We were astounded by the quality! The core group was a mix of Spanish and English musicians and they were really tight, playing a great repertoire – Doobie Bros, Commitments, Eric Clapton, JJ Cale, Spencer Davis etc. We knew we were in for a great night when the first song was a perfect cover of ‘Mustang Sally’ – except for the girl singers. They could have really done with a couple of girl backup singers for many of the songs but Sue and Christine wouldn’t volunteer! Michael can’t sing and can’t play, otherwise he would have been up there for sure! The music was great and the drinks were cheap so we stayed until after 1pm then decided to call it a night. What a wonderfully serendipitous adventure it was!
Now that we are sufficiently relaxed we will soon be heading inland to Granada and Cordoba for some more art and history. Watch for next month’s blog.