Le Gard region, Languedoc continued…

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Classic Hymer from Germany parked outside Montpellier. Very Kool..

We day tripped to Montpellier using both the local buses and trams and to our surprise both the bus and tram drivers were extremely helpful ensuring we were always going in the direction we wanted.  Montpellier itself, believe it or not, kind of reminded us of Birmingham.  The buildings aren’t similar, nor are the restaurants and shops, but infact it was the people that made the similarity.  Montpellier’s inhabitants are very diverse and the visual aspect of people watching felt very similar to our second city.  So far, this is one our favourite city’s of the tour and therefore goes on the ‘we should come back’ list which is getting longer and longer.  To top off a great day out, we cooked Paella back at the van in Palavas, using the rice grown at I’Ebra.

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Matt’s Paella

We left Montpellier early to go north inland to the Gard region which is a known wine area on the Languedoc / Cotes du Rhone border.  We parked up for the night at Remollins (free) and spent the first day walking down the river to see the ‘Pont du Gard’.  On the second day we attempted to do a wine route on our bikes and we got as far as Collias but all the wineries we passed with ‘degustation’ were closed – I could not believe my bad luck.  However, I did manage to take a bath in the river Gard which was almost as refreshing as a cold vin blanc.  As a consolation, back in Remollins I purchased a 5 litre box of local wine which proved useful as on the car park we met Claude (Swiss) and Thomas and Tina from Bonn.  Thomas and Tina were in a 1986 T25 Volkswagen bus that they had purchased from Lohmar, where I used to live and work – klein welt!!!!

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Matt in the river Gard.

I finally got my wine fix at Uzes where we stayed at a winery called Saint Firmin.  This was our first ‘French Passion’ stop over and we thoroughly enjoyed it.  We ended up staying 2 nights at the vine yard for free and we did try a lot of their wines!!  On the Saturday night we completed a ‘happy hour’ with Bob and Tricia from Filey, Yorkshire.  It was inspirational to see them touring as Bob was 78 and Trica was 81!!!!  They were full of life and Yorkshire humour and it was a pleasure to meet them – “Thanks for the sausages”!!!

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Bob and Tricia at the Domaine Saint Firmin

Uzes is a fantastic medieval town, so much so, I have starting peeping into Estate Agents windows again…..

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The box did not last as long as I had hoped after happy hour!!!  Local Pont Du Gard wine.

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Even the Citroens match the shutters, St. Siffret.

The next vine yard stopover was at Domaine Reynaud located just outside the historic village St. Siffret.  The village itself was picture perfect and our day was concluded by Luc Reynaud talking us through, in French, all his white, rose and red wines complete with tasting, this totalled 12 wines!  Needless to say, after this, Sharon’s French was lubricated sufficiently to keep the conversation two way, and myself loosened enough to buy some of his wines – after all we were staying on his property for the night for free!!!  It is now the last day in May and we are planning for some time on the Cotes D’Azur before hitting Italy.  I have managed to refrain from all the pizza restaurants so far, waiting for the real thing…….

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The Suntor in the distance, parked up at Domaine Reynaud for the night.

 

 

 

 

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Languedoc Region, France.

Leaving Andorra on the CG2/E09/20 delivers a spectacular journey and this route seems to be a motorcyclists mecca as all the way down small packs of bikers skimmed past us like wasps.  This route took us to a surprise destination, and our first for a while in France, Mirepoix.  Mirepoix is not underlined or starred (which indicates a place of interest) in the Marco Polo Europe Atlas or is not mentioned in the Lonely Planet France, but whilst reading the comments on the Camper-Contact App we realised that this was an in fact a medieval market town.  Also the town’s Aire had services and was free so this always influences us when route planning.  Mirepoix certainly was a special place and has an amazing square that is surrounded by buildings propped on wooden stilts.  Further to this, the town’s community centre which was right next to the Aire were hosting ‘Kiko and the Gypsyland’ band and they were playing their final gig in the town on the Saturday we arrived.  The style of music was kind of Mexican crossed with flamenco and salsa played entirely on four guitars and of course I bought their cd and obviously I chose to wear a Levellers T’shirt, rudimentary gig attire!  Here, at the event we met Gaelle, Leslie and Nadage and we would like to thank them for their hospitality as they threw an early hours impromptu after gig party at their apartment – “sante et paz”.

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Kiko and Gypsyland

Mirepoix was leading us to Carcassonne, put here we kind of messed up.  First we could not find the Aire and when we did get there it would have cost us 20 Euros to park up for the night.  So we had to make do with a drive around the walled historical town.  The second plan was to go to Lagrasse to the east of Carcassonne.  This town sits on the ‘Route 20’ Les Corbieres wine route and lies in stunning, what I would call, typically French country side.

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We are in France!!  Route 20 wine route.

The town itself is small but has an impressive compact historic section and an abbey and is certainly worth a day trip.  To counteract the loss of not seeing Carcasonne we treated ourselves to a 4 course menu at L’Affenasse Restaurant on the principle street through Lagrasse.  The food was simply amazing, see photo of Sharon’s starter, “bon appetitie”.

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Smoked duck salad, L’Affenasse.

The next planned destination was Sete, where I have fond memories from a few years back of going to Giles Petersons World Music festival.  More Aire woes here I am afraid so we moved onto Balaruc-les-Bains which was full and then onto Palavas-les-Flots.  Apparently the French fuel crisis, which we were completely oblivious to, is making motorhomers stay put.

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Palavas-les-Flots canal.

Palavas is a simple pleasant seaside town serving the main city Montpellier and we have been here 2 nights already parked up next to the marina.  We have taken a little time out from driving, passing time by playing boule next to the harbour and finishing off our books.

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Sharon always beats me at boule

Also there were a few nice surprises on the evenings at the marina.  On one evening a local car club congregated and had a barbeque.  Secondly I spotted an English canal boat moored up and that made me think about next years travel possibilities!!!

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The Palavarian car club, I’ll take the blue Talbot Rally please.

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One for my Mom and Dad, British Waterways 503284 – “Esmeralda” moored up at Palavas-les-Flots.

Pyrenees and Andorra

The journey from Ainsa to Andorra was incredible if not a little hair raising. The N260 highway is basically like a piece of spaghetti as it twists and turns east across the Pyrenees.  The views of snow capped mountains, craggy rocks, dense forests, rivers and small villages were amazing, or so Sharon tells me, as I was concentrating on either the sheer drop on one side of the van and/or the next up and coming hair pin bend.  I can’t put the words down to explain this road, but it is definitely one of the most exciting I have driven on and I would love to have another ‘pass’ in the future but on this time in a convertible and not a 3.5 tonne camper.  We did have one very scary moment as we turned around a blind hair pin to find a Dutch motorhome completely on the wrong side of the road and coming towards us, we really don’t know what he was doing to have got in such an incorrect position, but an emergency stop combined with a slight swerve towards the sheer drop was my default reaction as we stopped slightly to the side of them and looked directly into their blue eyes.  The next camper incident we saw was a Spanish Ducato which had pulled up with a smashed off left hand side wing mirror, again indicating that this road is quite thin.  In fact, in places it is a single carriage (but remaining 2 way!) as it cuts through a long gorge as the photo shows.  Luckily on this stretch we got a clear run which pleased me as this was not the place to practice my reversing skills back up to one of the passing places.

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Through the gorge, N260

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N260 hairpins below

By the time we arrived in Andorra for the night, I was pretty cooked after completing the 170 KMs across the N260, which in total took 4.5 driving hours.  We decided to stay in Saint Julia de Loria and not the capital in attempt to see something different than dense commerce.  Here we found another great Aire which had a service point and free electric meaning we did not even need to use our own gas, these small wins these days make me quite happy.  Unfortunately though, as we arrived at the Aire we saw the second motorhome casualty of the day.  A Spanish couple, whilst passing through the entrance barrier, had managed to mount the side bollard, and the damage basically started just after the cab door along the whole right hand side of the van – ouch.  The poor couple were almost hysterical as they had to cause more damage getting the vehicle (which was new) off the bollard which had by now implanted itself into the rear wheel arch.  Needless to say we tried to help, and needless to say Sharon guided me through the quite thin entrance to ensure I did not do the same thing.

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Camperstop at St Julie, Andorra.  Free electric and great back drop……

Tour reflections so far, almost 3 months in……

21-05-16. Sant Julia de Loria, Andorra.  Free WIFI at the tourist office!!!

We can definitely say we know Andalucia well, as we spent 2 months touring there but on the flip side we have only tasted other areas such as Basque, Castilla y Leon, Extremadura, Murcia, Valencia, Catalonia, and Aragon.  We have completely missed states Madrid, Castilla La Mancha, Navarra, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia.  Luckily we will pass through some of the northern states when we complete the Camino de Santiago which we are looking forward to.  But these lists summarise our biggest bug bear that you can’t visit everywhere and we have decided to make slightly better travel plans for the east French coast and Italy using the principles of ‘travel slow’ and to visit places we won’t be able to get to easily from England in the future.  This might take out some of the large cities which I am sure are spectacular but will hopefully include some surprise locations along the way.

Also, we feel touring and motorhome life is relatively easy to complete (so far, the notebook is touching wood!!).  Sure, it is a relatively simple way of life and at times living in a 12 sq metre box is testing.  We have not missed TV, but we are now experts at playing Uno and any family members reading this (Steve and Maryann?), I suggest that you start practising this card game, as it is coming out on one the future Christmas’s.  We have found finding places to stay quite easy and only a few times along the way have the stops being full or not suitable.  Also, the nights that have been free have definitely by far outnumbered the paid nights.  We are under budget and therefore on average we are spending less than 20 euros per day per person, and that includes fuel.  We still eat out on occasions and quite regularly we have a few drinks in local bars.  I know this might change as we head towards more expensive countries such as France and Italy, but hopefully our created buffer will help us through……We also realise that we are travelling out of season and space availability issues may be upon us as more motorhomers hit the road during the summer months.

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Our Fiat Ducato Swift Suntor parked up.

A few notes on the van, in summary so far so good.  I am pleased that we have the 2.8 turbo as often I am craving for more power and I think an engine remap is on the cards at some point.  I really don’t know how the 2.0 turbo vans get on, especially since ours is not even fully loaded, but still at times I am reaching for fourth to try and keep the revs at 2000 rpm.  The LPG conversion has proved to be worth it so far and LPG on the forecourts was quite easy to find in the larger Spanish cities.  I can’t believe we have only spent about 20 euros in 3 months of travelling on LPG, which fuels our fridge, hot water and cooking.  Also, the solar panel is extremely good allowing us to stop on places without needing to move or ‘hook up’ to power.

 

In summary, almost three months in and we are still enjoying it and we are sad to see Spain and Portugal go for a while but we are looking forward to France and Italy.  We hope that we have not spoken too soon regarding our thoughts on motorhome life………  I still have some issues thinking that we are on holiday and often I am tempted by all the ‘Menu del Dia’ boards that are around all the Plazas, but this is fading as I try to heed some self control, which if you know me, is really difficult. 🙂

Finally, we want to thank all the people reading this blog (family, friends and others) and for all the comments you have posted – we do enjoy reading them.  Thanks again to Chris and Elspeth for looking after our cats and to our families for looking after our lives at home.  We hope you are all well.

Catalonia and Aragon

Next stop was another random pick that stood out because it is a natural wild life area, Parc Natural Delta de I’Ebre in Catalonia.  In complete contrast to the holiday destinations we have spent the last few days at, this was in the middle of nowhere.  The Camperstop Europe book lists this as in the town of Amposta, but we can confirm that it is not, in fact we had to rattle down 11 Kms of bumpy gravel tracks away from the town towards the coast, much to my frustration as I hate when the van and all our possessions vibrate continuously.  The positive though, was the end destination, which was quite remote and in the middle of what we would describe as the Spanish equivalent of the Fens in east England, but before it was dried out!!!   Due it being still wetlands the whole area is taken over by both birds and rice fields, it really is an interesting place to visit.

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Rice fields at the delta

Keen to see the delta in all its ‘land of the big skies’ wonder we took the bikes around the local area and one surprise of this was to stumble upon the expansive Platja de Eucalyptas which was completely deserted and a perfect place to take my morning bath in the sea.

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Where is everyone?  Platja de Eucalyptas

On the wildlife front, I think we are going to need a bird spotting book to name all the species, but to generalise, we saw a least 10 different types of water birds, the largest being something that looked like a large purple/grey heron and the smallest being a species similar to a Kingfisher but with white and black feathers – answers on a post card please.  We also saw a snake crossing the track as we cycled by, much to Sharon’s delight.  On the food front, we have bought some of the local grown rice, which I will add to a homemade paella once I have assembled all the ingredients!

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Rice grown in the delta, this brand chosen due the 10% free, obviously.

Heading out of Amposta, we took the D12 road north into the interior of Spain.  The D12 follows the magically powerful green River I’Ebre and is truly spectacular and dramatic, as is twists and turns up the mountains towards Lleida.

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The D12 up through the mountains

We stayed a night at Asco (free carpark), which similar to the other towns on this route, is made from a kind of reddish stone and therefore finally different from the pastel/white washed concrete that dominates the coast.

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Typical Catalan town, alongside the D12

Perched on the hillside along the river, it’s old town encaptured (Matt word!) us with it’s very narrow streets with 3 or 4 storey houses on either side winding up to a castle.  Another great thing about Asco is that it is not heavily visited and is truly full only of local people.  There are a few bars, a local supermarket and a bread shop, but we did not even see a restaurant, which is very rare.  One point to make though, Spain is putting Asco on the visitors map (by the way, I am aware that we are visitors/tourists) as it’s old town is undergoing an extensive restoration via a European grant, which I am sure will bring many different opportunities for the local people.  We are just pleased we saw the town in its original state, just normal life and normal people getting on with their lives.

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View of the I’Ebre from Asco

Continuing up the D12 and straight through Lleida city centre we left Catalonia and entered Aragon province.  From Lleida onwards (N240) the climb stops and gives way to pastures and farmland in the high lands. It seems most of the Spanish pork comes from this region as every farm had vast pig sheds.  As a nod towards the pigs, we lunched on ham and cheese baguettes on a Dia Maxi (supermarket, our favourite in Spain) car park in a town called Binefar.  Enroute to Ainsa, in North Aragon, we travelled up the D138 which follows the Rio Cinca, and is yet another great driving journey.

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Driving shot from the D138

The river becomes more vividly light blue as you approach the snow capped mountains of the Pyrenees.  We both have not really seen anything like it, the water seems like something from the Bahamas.  Ainsa, unlike Asco, has well and truly being put on the map and the old historic town is absolutely picture perfect and almost 100% restored.  Even so, you can not deny it’s charm, as it stands over the lake (Embase de Mediano) and next to the Rio Cinca.

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Blue lagoon, Embase de Mediano

After a quick paddle in the river, which up close is crystal clear and obviously not blue, we enjoyed a bottle of the local red wine, a variety called Somontano, in the Plaza Mayor.  We then cooked our last meal in Spain, pork steaks with garlic and mushrooms (thanks again pigs), and reflected on our time and tour so far.   This took most of the night to conclude, but we both agree that Spain is amazing and we have thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Our last night in Spain for a while.  The Ainsa stopover (free) with snow capped mountains in the distance.

Costa Calida and the Costa Blanca

We had planned to complete some of the nearby walking trials that surround Abla to explore more the Sierra Nevada.  However, the continued rainfall played our hand to continue driving and we even managed to get an early start.  We also achieved quite a respectable distance and we got as far as Cabo de Palos in the Murcia region.  We did not have any ideas what this stop over (free) was going to be like, we only knew it was coastal (Costa Calida) and near La Manga.  As the photos suggest, the stop over is in an amazing location, with sea and the La Manga strip in view from one side and the light house in the other.

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Cabo to the back of us

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La Manga to the front

This stop over was also made more pleasant as we met Wendy and Chris from Wales who joined us on the car park.  The Cabo is surrounded by small beach coves and that is where Sharon chose to do her sunbathing by day, and where the Anglo/Welsh foursome chose to drink some wine whilst watching the sunset at night.  I really liked Cabo de Palos, but I always seem to have a soft spot for small fishing ports (Saundersfoot, Carteret, Grand Camp-Maisey etc etc).

One point I don’t want to forget is the road to the Cabo (RM332) which I think wins the prize so far for the best coastal road of the trip.

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RM332 towards Aguillas.

The next stop was the Costa Blanca, particularly a holiday destination called Mil Palmeres where, when I was much younger, we used to spend lots of our family holidays.  I was in two minds whether we should go back to see this destination as even after 28 years, which was the last time we were there, I still hold happy memories and it would be a shame to ruin them as I have heard that this region has deteriorated.  The drive from the Cabo to Mil Palmeres took us through La Manga/Mar Menor and up the coast on yet again the RM332.  Even though progress was quite slow with all the roundabouts we were rewarded with coastal views and also a glimpse of how the coast changes as you head north, in both natural aspects and in it’s inhabitants.

Once at Mil Palmeres I was pleased to find that in my opinion very little has changed.   The beach was quiet and still looked pretty amazing.  The little street with bars and restaurants looked the same as in my memory, however Mercado do Mercedes is now a German restaurant (closure of Mercedes could be linked to the huge Lidl just on the main road out of town!?!) but the La Pirata bar and the La Pescadito restaurant were still looking like they were fairing the time well, as did the whole resort in general.

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Matt at Mil Palmeras

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View from Playa 11 steps of Mil Palmeras beach.

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“Cheers”, El Pescadito restaurant.

We had planned to stop the night in Santa Pola but when we got to the stop that is recommended in Camper-Contact it did seem to be a little out of town and basically on an industrial site.  The next town we tried was El Campello where we found one stop over completely closed (Camper Stop Europe book, listed as ‘Camper Park Alicante’, Carrer Llauradors 113) and the other in the town a paid for ‘motorhome sardine packer’ behind a 10 foot chicken wire fence.  So, as it was still early we decided to continue north further into the Costa Blanca.  As both these places (Santa Pola and El Campello) only had ‘paid for’ sites and were pretty built up coastal towns where the main resort’s beach is lined with restaurants and bars with high rise apartments above we decided that if this was going to be the common factors of the towns on this part of Spain’s coast then we may as well go the old queen of all of them…………wait for it……….BENIDORM.

We ended up on a campsite just above Playa Levante which had about a 20% motorhome to 80% permanent resident mix.  The residents are 99% from the UK and use old caravans with massive awnings as homes escaping their UK lives and enjoying the cheapness and sunny climes of Benidorm.

After Benidorm we continued a little further up the Costa Blanca to Xabia which is another resort but not as large or ‘intense’ as Benidorm however, it did share the ‘English Menus, fried breakfasts, Indian restaurants and kebab shops’ all serving the British holiday makers.  In summary, my takeaways (excuse the pun) from this region of Spain is that I am mildly shocked by the density of the British invasion.  Many restaurants do not even have a Spanish menu and there are British owned supermarkets popping up everywhere selling sliced white bread and tins of beans.

In a strange twist to the very Britishness of everything that we saw, I managed to spend some time with a Spanish group of guys who were on a stag do (festa de despedida).  They stormed onto the Benidorm campsite in file, the Stag wearing a Borat green mankini, with a massive dish of paella.  They were staying in a chalet near to us so I went to investigate as paella is one of my favourite foods.  Obviously this led to me being invited to sit down and join them for a late afternoon lunch (and wine)……..very nice too.

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Xabia, La Arenal beach, which overall is quite a respectable holiday destination

As mentioned above, after Benidorm we continued up the coast towards Valencia and stayed at Xabia (Javier in Spanish). We have noticed that the further we move towards Valencia, evidence of the Catalan language becomes more provident and therefore testing, improving even, our Spanish language skills further.  Xabia was chosen as it was a free stop over and near the coast, but that is all we knew.  Once there we were pleasantly surprised to find a relatively calm holiday resort with a beautiful beach and clear blue sea, in which we went into several times a day and this was probably the highlight of this stop.

During this time though we had the opportunity to refocus our thoughts on the tour and we both agreed that we wanted to see more places off the beaten track.  This is one point most tourers will probably agree on is that you can’t see everywhere and you will always miss something.  Also, when you don’t have a fixed itinerary as we don’t, and to some extent we are governed by our water and chemical toilet levels and require at times stop overs with a service point, sometimes you don’t always pick the ‘best’ places, whilst sometimes you do.  We are learning that is life on the road……

 

Sierra Subbeticas, Granada City and Sierra Nevada.

We had a mountain stopover planned, to cushion the two city visits of Cordoba and Granada.  This took through a dramatic mountainous route to Dona Mencia.  Dona Mencia is a great stop over (free) as it backs literally onto one of Spain’s Via Verde cycle routes.  Not only this, the small town itself offers a pleasant afternoon’s stroll through castle and it’s charming fountain.

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The mountain side stop over at Dona Mencia

So, over our two nights we managed to get the bikes off the cycle rack again and cycle some of the Via Verde.  It is actually another old railroad track like the one we cycled on in La Jarra and therefore by its nature is actually quite flat and allows you to get the mountain scenery without the pain.  Also, we had some more food highlights.  In the main square in the town the locals seemed to be enjoying cups of caracoles (snails) with their cold beer so obviously we partook too.  The snails themselves are boiled in some sort of stock and are, to my palate, just edible (I am sorry to all the caracole lovers in the world).  Also, they managed to give both Sharon and I an upset stomach on the next morning and I am guessing that this journey into the chemical loo was probably the quickest the snails have ever travelled.

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‘Caracoles’ from bar in the central plaza, Dona Mencia

The second food treat was a Flamenquin, which is a speciality from the Cordoban region.  I managed to buy a home made gourmet version at the local supermarket in the town and it is basically a breaded pork steak rolled that has been rolled in bacon.  It tastes better than it looks in the photo……

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A Flamenquin

We finally made it to Granada by the Thursday (4th May) and we were able to get pre-booked tickets to the much talked about Alhambra for the coming Saturday afternoon.  We decided to pass time in the local area of the campsite (Sierra Nevada) that we had chosen to stay in, it seems that Granada is not that motorhome friendly and there are not any reasonably priced stop overs.  However, one thing the campsite did offer was a chance to see something for the first time – a converted modern coach that carried 20 holiday makers on a tour, this one was completing a Spanish biased European tour from the Czech republic.   It was basically a massive motorhome for tourists and my curiosity led me to talking to the organisers Pawel and Krcyk (Mole) who we in their thirties and a few of their guests.  As this was evening, this also led me to sharing a bottle of their homemade Czech moonshine as we swapped travel stories until late.

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Pangeo Tours Camper coach

It was our first time to the Alhambra and our expectations were high so after waiting 40 minutes to collect our pre-booked tickets we embarked on the walking route.  Sure, the palaces and Generalife were amazing, but for some reason we felt a little disappointed or even underwhelmed.  Was this all the hype we had heard on our run up to Granada?  Was it the slightly manicured feel to the grounds?  Was it the extensive restoration that is being slowly completed making it feel less authentic?  Or even, was it that this type of thing is not my type of thing, I am not sure.  To debrief we headed into Granada centre where I felt more at home.  There is a gritty, arty, even Boeheim feel to Granada which is something I have not felt in any of the cities since Vitoria in the Basque.

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Grounds of the Alhambra with Granada below

Leaving Granada we drove through the Sierra Nevada on a foggy rainy day.  This obviously obscured the amazing views as the van zig zaged its way to Abla.  Enroute we stopped at Casas Cuervas, where they have bizarre houses built into the rock and these are still used today by 100s of local families.  Unfortunately, it was still raining hard when we got to the free stopover in Abla but fortunately our ears fell upon some pretty rough live rock music that was coming out of the near by sports centre.  An exploratory walk found the local band ‘The Hangover Banda’ playing at a private party with it’s own makeshift bar.  We also learnt that the band sounded so terrible as the tunes from the speakers were echoing off the four bare concrete walls of the sports hall.  Everybody there seemed to understand this, as did the lead singer, who finally gave up the ‘vocal’ due the vibrating wall of sound they were producing.  Thanks to ‘The Hangovers’ for letting us shelter from the rain and for the ear ache that followed.

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Strange rain clouds forming over Abla.  Probably caused by ‘The Hangovers Banda’?