February 2018

We began February with a trip inland to Granada, the last stronghold of the Moors in Europe. We were so busy looking up all the things to see and do that we overlooked the weather forecast and basic information such as height above sea level (738M).

The trip between the Costa del Sol and Granada was quite a steady steep climb with lots of viaducts.  We stayed at a campsite well out of town and caught the bus in each day. The fact that the campground was basically empty should have been a hint that we were well out of season. OMG it was cold! The wind was blowing straight off the snow on the Sierra Nevadas and it got to -4 degrees. The snow in the distance was very pretty but we didn’t like the freezing temperatures very much. We were worried that our campervan would automatically dump all its water (a protection against freezing the pipes) so we rang our friend Sebastian who advised us to keep the heating on high and the inside temperature to 15 degrees. Worked a treat but used up lots of gas and electricity!

We have been re-training Grubie to be an independent dog and stay home in the van by herself, just like she used to at Clifton Street when we went to work. She’s been pretty good but knows that lunch and walking around old towns is fun, so the re-training has had to be pretty strict. We are now leaving her for 4-5 hours but definitely no longer, which is a bit different than the 10 hours we left her when we were both working.

The main attraction in Granada is of course The Alhambra. It’s so popular that you often need to book the tickets months in advance. We booked ahead and got an entry into the Place de Nazaries at 11:30am, but still had to line up for awhile. We made the mistake of walking to the entrance of the Alhambra and found that it was a very long, very steep climb – should have taken a taxi.

The Alhambra was developed as a royal palace, fortress and miniature city and the Nasrids (descendants of Yusuf ibn Nasr) ruled here for 250 years. It has courtyard after courtyard of beautiful formal gardens with fountains and pools. It also has an extensive landscaped park. The first building on the site was in the 11th century and it continued to be added to until 1527. It has wonderful plasterwork honeycomb vaulting, mosaics, tiled floors, cloisters and carved wooden ceilings. It’s a feast for the eyes and beautifully symmetrical.

We loved the Albayzin or old Muslim quarter on the hill across the river from the Alhambra. The paved terraces along the river are lined with tetterias (cafes) would be shaded by huge old trees in summer - but bare when we were there. The maze of streets contain and lots of very old mansions with their walled gardens and beautiful doorways. We wandered around for hours getting totally lost but being entranced by the little details and surprises.

We were expecting to be underwhelmed with the city of Granada, based on the guidebooks and blogs we had read but were very pleasantly surprised. Once in the centre of the town we enjoyed the fountains, squares and architecture.

Granada still offers free tapas with your drinks and some are good quality. Two glasses of wine and two tapas each and lunch is done! You just need to choose bars that offer quality tapas. We found one fantastic little bar that was the home of Jesus, or thought it was. Every square inch of the place was covered in holy pictures, medallions, religious statues etc.

When we escaped the cold of Granada we returned to the coast at a campsite near the town of Torre del Mar, not far from Malaga. We had stayed at this town before and liked that it had lots of restaurants, bike tracks and everything you needed such as banks, large shopping centres and a great market, a dry cleaner, hairdressers and beauticians etc. Plus it had one of the best campgrounds we have stayed in, being immaculately clean and with great security and facilities.

Just down the beach about a km was a little restaurant actually on the beach. The kitchen was basically a potting shed and the Spanish lady turned out amazing meals while her husband smoked, growled at the customers and tried to cheat you on your change. We had a magnificent meal of beef cheeks with vegetables and home made chips, after a serve of succulent chargrilled sardines (13 EU total).

The Thursday market was one of the best we’ve seen in Spain and nearly as good as the one in Ars en Re in France – plenty of clothes, crafts, useful things as well as fruit & veg and cheese and charcuterie. No fish and meat – you had to go to the little shops around the market for that.

One day when Sue went to have her hair done she got talking to the lady next to her, who it turns out was staying at the same campsite. Delize was originally South African but has been in France for many years and is now a French citizen. She and her partner Patrick spend 7 months each year in Spain and have spent lots of time in Portugal. They were great fun to share aperitifs with and a wealth of information for our future travels.

We have to be back in Angouleme in France on the 15th to renew our visitor class temporary residency visa so we started heading north, stopping at Benidorm on the way. We wanted to have a look, after the TV program made it so funny. What an experience! Michael called it Pommie Phuket, but its also known as Spanish Blackpool. It’s famous for its package deal tourism and is the destination of the footy trips, stag parties and hen’s nights. Bogan central! It’s mile upon mile of very high-rise apartment buildings, full of restaurants peddling the worst of British food and has lots of British supermarkets. You’d never know you were in Spain! The other part of the British population of Benidorm is very elderly. We’ve never seen so many gophers (disabled scooters)! We even saw tandem gophers and they were parked up in rows outside some hotels. However, the beach is lovely with pale sand and there is a nice old town. The weather was quite kind while we were there and the campsite had an indoor pool with aqua classes, so we enjoyed ourselves.

Our friends Les and Christine drove over to see us one day and we all went out for an Indian curry that was delicious. Apparently chicken tikka is now the national dish of England!

On the trip from Torre del Mar to Benidorm we were flagged down by a man who was pointing to our roof and telling us to pull over. This is a classic scam in Spain when another car then pulls up and they rob you, so we were not going to stop. Luckily there was a tollbooth in a km and we pulled over to check. The man showed us that our rear top spoiler was ripped off and flapping up and down. Very dangerous! We were able to tape it up (Michael can do anything with gaffer tape and octopus straps!) and kept on our way.

Leaving Benidorm we headed north intending to stay at Tarragona but found out that the campsite doesn’t allow dogs, so instead we pulled in to Peniscola, a very pretty tourist town with miles of lovely sandy beaches. This place is a mecca for Spanish holidaymakers in summer and the population ranges from 4000 in winter to over 100,000 in summer! A lot is shut at this time of year, even though the camping grounds are full. It has a very active fishing port and a great marina.

Peniscola was under the control of Moors from 718 and was handed over to the Knights Templar in 1294. It has a stunning old town built around the ‘castle’ on the cliff. The castle is actually a fortress built by the Knights Templar in 1294 following the fall of Acre in 1291. The Knights Templar were warrior monks heavily involved in the crusades. It was also the papal residence of Benedict X111. It sits high above the sea (64M) and was a fascinating place to visit, with lots of acted movies and explanations in many languages.  We think that it might have been the place where a part of The Pirates of the Caribbean2 was filmed but aren’t sure. And the locals say that Game of Thrones was filmed in the castle – but nearly every town in this part of Spain says that! Whatever, it’s very beautiful and picturesque.

In Peniscola we stayed at a very comfortable camping ground that had a fantastic restaurant that was also a function centre, hosting weddings and community events. How bizarre! The restaurant had very modern décor (not Spanish) and probably the best food we’ve had in Spain so far. Michael had a wonderful lamb dish. It was a slow cooked lamb shank pulled off the bone and mixed with a gravy to form a rectangle and baked again, with a baked prune on top. Don’t know about the spicing but it tasted spectacular and was accompanied by a great artichoke ratatouille and sliced fried potatoes. Sue had the plat du jour – artichoke salad, rabbit and then pannacotta with kiwi sauce. Tablecloths, professional waiters and a bottle of red wine – 21 EU total. That demanded a return visit.

Our neighbours in this campground were a friendly lot and we shared aperitifs and a fabulous ‘long table lunch’ to which everyone contributed. Andy and Sam from near London had a rotisserie so did a suckling pig and roast potatoes, we did apple sauce, gravy and white ratatouille, Linda and Nigel from Cornwall did couscous and frittata while Waldemere and Monika from Stuttgart did nutmeg cream cauliflower as well as a starter chicken salad. Once it was all consumed at a leisurely pace (Grubie had the bone) and clean-up had been done, the party moved on to drinking shots. One was a 45% proof Anis Seco. Very dangerous!

The next day it rained constantly all day, so we moved the party back to the restaurant, which was just as good the second time around. We have been lucky that the weather, while the coldest winter in Spain for 15 years, has been dry where we have been. We haven’t had to spend many days cooped up inside the van and when we do we usually have lots of research to do about future destinations, the blog to prepare or backgammon and crosswords. The day goes quickly but we wouldn’t want to do it for weeks.

Next stop: back to Jarnac, through Bordeaux.