We didn’t think we’d be returning to Spain, so we even gave our Spain guidebook away. However, it really is the warmest place in Europe in winter - in fact, it’s the only even tolerably warm place in Europe in winter! It’s a shame we don’t like skiing and cold, as lots of camping cars head for the ski resorts. We think they’re crazy! We don’t have a ‘winterized’ van and we don’t want to know anything about mountains, snow socks, snow tyres or snow chains – so Spain it is!
We left France on December 1st and headed to Barcelona. This proved to be an inspired move, as we missed the fuel shortages, motorway blockages and general strikes in France in the first weeks of December.
This was our third attempt to see Barcelona and it was well worth the wait!
We stayed at Tres Estrellas camping near the beach and airport - a 2 Euro, 40- minute bus ride into the centre of the city. We were parked up right on the beach, which was very relaxing after a busy day of sightseeing and we saw some lovely sunsets. What we’d forgotten about Spanish campsites was – cats! Most sites are overrun with feral cats and it drives us all mad.
Our first day of sightseeing in Barcelona was spent along La Rambla and in the Gothic Quarter, enjoying its winding streets and interesting architecture, statues and fountains. We visited the cathedral, of course.
Who can resist a good market? Not us for sure, so we spent a happy hour or so poking around the Mercat de la Boqueria. Wonderful fruit, vegetables, seafood and meats as well as quirky little tapas bars.
Following advice from our friends Tom and Marnie we located the tapas bar, Irati. Great find! The tapas were amazing and so varied! Four generous tapas each plus a really nice glass of wine was only 12 Euros per person and more than enough for lunch. If Grubie knew the delicious lunches we were having without her, she’d be really cross!
We then endured three days of torrential rain and howling winds and were not able to go anywhere. At least we had the luxury of waiting it out but we felt sorry for the people who only had those few days in Barcelona, so had to brave the weather or miss out altogether. During the downpour Michael adjourned to the restaurant/bar for their Internet so he could do our November blog, while Sue & Grubie tucked up with a good book. By the end of the three days we all had ‘cabin fever’ and were glad to get sightseeing again.
At last the rain cleared and it was back on the bus to Placa De Catalonya. We bought a one-day ticket on the hop-on-hop-off bus and enjoyed a different perspective of the city. It is such a huge city with so many different neighbourhoods, marinas and long beach promenades! It was great to get an overview of the place.
The first stop where we got off was Sagrada Familia, the epic cathedral by Antonio Gaudi, that is still not finished. As we arrived Michael said ‘Oh F**K!” We had heard about the crowds of tourists in Barcelona but hadn’t experienced it and weren’t expecting it at this time of year. OMG! You couldn’t get close to the place to even buy a ticket, which were a whopping 32 euros each to be squashed into the basilica for an hour. We decided to view the monument from a distance. Sue absolutely loved the detail, the flowing lines, the incredibly quirky decorativeness and general gaudiness of the building. Michael was disappointed as he likes more traditional architecture and thought it was a bit of a ‘dog’s breakfast’. Construction started in March 1882 and it won’t be finished for a long time yet.
We were still shocked at the crowds – it was December, not August for goodness sake! It looked as though it would be a week’s wait to get back on the bus so we walked to the next item on our Gaudi agenda, the beautiful La Pedrera. It’s such a gorgeous building with its lovely flowing lines and beautiful wrought-iron balconies, all with themes from nature. This was the last private residence designed by Gaudi and was built in1906.
It was a lovely day so we walked back to Placa Catalonya down the Promenade Gracia, a beautiful wide boulevard with large trees and upmarket shops and apartment buildings.
Our next day of sightseeing was completely different and focused on the Placa de Espagne area. This was developed for the 1929 International Exhibition. It is at the junction of five main avenues and includes a bullring built in the Moorish style and the exhibition centre with its 47M high Venetian Towers. It ascends the hill via a series of steps with rows of fountains, to the beautiful Museu Nacional D’Art de Catalonia.
Sue visited the Museu Nacional D’Art de Catalonia which sits at the top of the Placa de Espagne. She loves modern art and architecture so focused her visit on that. Some of the highlights of the collection were the works of Joaquim Mir and Ramon Casas, although there were some interesting pieces from Jean Miro and Salvador Dali. What was so impressive was the breadth of genres of the Catalonian modern artists – painting, sculpture, stained glass, wrought iron and decorative arts. Sue was in heaven!
Michael enjoyed soaking in the view while listening to the buskers. What a view! You could even see the Sagrada Familiar.
Then we walked to find a building by another of Sue’s favourite architects, Mies van der Rohe. He designed a new pavilion in his inimitable style – low clean lines, lots of light, interesting use of texture and colour. We meandered to the Jean Miro Park – basically a park with a huge statue/sculpture by Miro – before wandering the neighbourhood of Sants-Montjuic. After exploring a covered market we had stumbled across and buying a little Christmas bouquet of pine and mistletoe flowers, we decided to lunch in a little tapas bar. Michael and the waitress loved each other’s T-shirt slogans! It was lots of fun and yet another time that Woolly’s Bar & Grill popped up in Europe!
Sunday saw us once again being ‘Sunday drivers’, enjoying the motorways without trucks. It was a simple drive to our destination of Peniscola. Just as well, because our GPS just would not work, no matter what we tried. Once we dug out the instruction manual and located the GPS receiver it turned out that it was covered in dust, so wouldn’t work. We’re embarrassed that our poor housekeeping was detected via satellite!
We love the camping ground at Peniscola: under-floor heating in the showers and impeccably cleaned and maintained facilities. In mid-December it was ‘little Germany’ and not very crowded but after Christmas more people from lots of countries arrived.
We were thrilled to see our friends from Stuttgart, Moni and Waldemar. They stay in Peniscola all winter and it’s where we first met them. Such a warm and out-going couple, with a love of entertaining!
They hosted us to so many meals we were overwhelmed by their generosity. It started with a German goulash and over the next weeks also included Weisswurst with sweet mustard, a traditional meal from Baden-Wurttemberg where they live; chilli con carne; Iberian ham with bread, tomato and pickles that is traditional for this area of Spain; and the local Merguezla fish with potatoes and kraut.
We rode on our bikes with them to the nearby town of Benicarlo to explore the markets, a bodega (wine cave), a terrific carnicero (butcher) and the ubiquitous Lidl supermarket. At the carnicero we bought three huge rib-eye steaks because it was surely our turn to cook for Waldemar and Moni. We waited for a lovely sunny day where we enjoyed a long, leisurely lunch and Michael cooked the steaks to perfection using Aussie BBQ techniques. We have found that the European friends we have made are not used to BBQ cooking. They tend to have outdoor electric cook plates and fry rather than BBQ. To them a BBQ is an event and not a cooking method.
Peniscola is a lovely town. It has a scenic castle built by the Knights Templar high on the promontory, with a maze of fascinating old winding streets leading up to it. It dates back to the late 1200s and was finished in 1307.
On a sunny Sunday Sue, Michael and Grubie walked into the town and up to the castle to explore the old streets and find somewhere for lunch. We eventually settled on a seafood restaurant that only served fish freshly and locally caught – nothing frozen. The owner/chef is a fisherman and diver so he and Michael had a great chat and he then proceeded to give us a detailed run-down on the house specialties. We were feeling adventurous, so tried the crumbed sea nettles. Very ocean-tasting and quite sloppy in texture; they weren’t terrible but that will be our first and last try! We also had warm small baby clams, compliments of the house. They were delicious, with a buttery texture and a delicate flavor. Our main course was grilled fish with bbq’d artichoke. Both were fabulous! Artichokes are a specialty of the region and nearby Benicarlo has been officially recognized as the home of artichokes. It has a really big Artichoke Festival in February every year. Dani, the owner/chef of Anfora Taberna really wanted us to try his octopus and potato stew and was so disappointed we didn’t order it, that he bought us some anyway. Eaten with bread and aioli it really was good. After the food he delivered a complimentary vessel of schnapps. We’d eaten a lot of food, so it was just as well we had to walk home!
In Peniscola the market is on Monday. There are lots of stalls of clothes, shoes, bags, kitchenware and rubbish like mobile phone covers etc. as well as fruit & veg, olives & oil, salted cod, honey and plants. No meat or fish. Sue got a great ‘pre-loved’ jacket for 3 euros and a nice new Spanish leather bag.
We had some lovely sunny and warm days in December and were able to walk on the promenade and enjoy meals with our friends. The majority of the people here are from Germany (are there any pensioners left there at this time of year?) One day just before Christmas there was a Bratwurst and Gluhwein event at the campground. You had to buy tickets in advance so we bought 4 bratwurst and 4 Gluhwein for the two of us. There were probably about 200 people there and all were very friendly and welcoming of we novice Aussies. The Gluhwein was quite strong, so needed to be drunk with caution. The boys followed the tradition of adding a shot of schnapps to the Gluhwein. As usual Michael used his wonderful ‘charades body language’ to make immediate friends, especially with the blokes around the BBQ.
On Christmas Eve, that is celebrated in Germany and is called Holy Eve, we joined Moni, Waldemar and their friend Siggy for a meal in the German style. That means that you arrive exactly on time and are seated straight to the table, with the food served immediately. It was quite a casual dinner with pasta and green salads and a meat patty. We gave Aussie themed gifts that were much appreciated. Although the on-site restaurant was chock-a-block, the camping ground itself was much quieter than we expected, given all the over-the-top Christmas decorations. But Moni & Waldemar said that if we weren’t there, they would have been quiet as well. We’re obviously a bad influence!
Our friend Liam Higgins of Higgins Cartoons made us a lovely cartoon for Christmas. He really is clever!
On Christmas Day it was our turn to entertain ‘Aussie-style’. We had to explain in advance that the meal would take all afternoon and that we wouldn’t serve the meal straight away but would have drinks and a first course, then the main and a cheese plate because there was no pudding.
It was a lovely still, warm, sunny day and also Sue’s birthday. Moni & Waldemar gave her a voucher to the local Moroccan restaurant for a tagine. We started the day with Moet champagne accompanied by individual nachos; smoked salmon & caviar blinis; and prawns with a dipping sauce. This was followed by roast pork belly with gravy & applesauce, cooked to perfection by Michael in the WebberQ. Cauliflower cheese, tomato & onion pie, as well as mixed roast veg made it a feast. Pretty amazing for a small camping oven, a 3-burner gas hob and a bbq!
We had a tiramisu birthday cake and a cheese & chocolate platter planned, but were all too stuffed to indulge so abandoned it for another day. Sue just blew our her birthday candles and enjoyed the sunshine.
While we were in Adelaide in November Michael discovered a 3 litre bottle of our Wooly’s Bar & Grill 2015 Sangiovese wine that he had overlooked before. This was carefully transported back to Europe and travelled from France to Spain waiting for the right occasion. On Christmas Day we all enjoyed the taste of home.
We all went out to the Moroccan Restaurant to use the ‘voucher’ Moni & Waldemar gave Sue for her birthday. We shared a lamb tagine that was very tasty and so big it not only fed we four but a huge amount came home to feed Grubie and us the next day.
The end of December was poignant for us as we watched with horror the dreadful temperatures and the awful bushfire situation. It’s difficult to wrap your head around the staggering magnitude of the blaze and the incredible loss of life, animals and habitats. It just kept going on and on and showed no signs of abating. It featured as the first story on the news here and everyone was talking about it.
We were happy to welcome Sam and Andy, our friends from the UK who arrived just before New Years Eve. It was really cold so New Years Eve turned into a bit of a progressive dinner. We started at 5:00pm (German eating hours) with an array of sausages on the BBQ. Then we stayed around the charcoal fire for a while with lots of people from the campsite dropping in, before moving inside Moni & Waldemar’s safari room for a rich potato soup, which was totally delicious. We watched the coverage from Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate on TV and then returned to the fire later on. It was a lovely way to see in 2020.