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Winter in Spain 2012/13 PDF Printable Version E-mail


Winter in Spain 2012/13
By Sprinter and Caravan

Margaret and Barry Williamson
December 2012 to March 2013

Introduction

After returningDSCF3143.JPG from an autumn of motorhoming and cycling in Germany, we left the Flair in storage as we felt ready to try winter caravanning. Our Sprinter van and Bailey caravan awaited us in Cheltenham, fully prepared and serviced by Motorhome Medics and Golden Castle Caravans respectively. We left Briarfields Touring Park in mid-November, aiming for Plymouth and a ferry, with no further plan except to head south through France, aiming for Spain, Portugal and Morocco.

For our pictures of the journey,

Click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/travels-in-2013.html

and: Images of the Journey in Spain

This Travel Log is continued from: Winter in France 2012

Map_of_Spain_10.jpg


Campsites in France, Spain and Portugal

  1.  Larrouleta, Urrugne
  2.  Ezcaba, Pamplona
  3.  Valle de Tena, Sabinanigo
  4.  Almunia, Almunia de San Juan
  5.  L'Ametlla Village, L'Ametlla de Mar
  6.  Kiko Park Rural, Villargordo del Cabriel
  7.  International, Aranjuez
  8.  Parque Natural Monfrague, Plasencia
  9.  Ciudad de Caceres, Caceres
10.  Asseiceira, Santo Antionio das Areias

To Camping Ezcaba, Oricain, Pamplona, Navarra - 48 miles (Height 1,535 ft)    

Open all year. See www.campingezcaba.com. ACSI Card rate €16.00 inc 10-amp electricity and showers, plus 7th night free. WiFi cost varying, eg €2 for 60 mins, €5 for 24 hrs, €14.90 for 7 days (continuous use). N 42.85776 W 1.62250

Having written our 1_Entering_Navarre.JPGend of year letter, chosen 9 photographs and emailed it to around 150 addresses (despite the vagaries of Camp Larrouleta's WiFi, blamed on 'the weather'), we felt ready for the next country. Spain and Portugal are not exactly unknown territory, though it is 14 years since we last edged our way right round the Iberian Peninsula, with a side-trip to Morocco.

On a crisp sunny morning after a frosty night, we took rd 810 west from Urrugne for 7 miles, then turned south (inland) on N121A over the border into Spain. This proved to be a good wide road, climbing gently via many short tunnels up the Bidasoa River Valley. There was very little traffic, mainly trucks taking the shorter toll-free route to Pamplona and beyond. Sheep grazed where woodland had been cleared and we passed a little cheese factory.

We had lunch in a rest area after 26 miles at 500 ft/150 m, then climbed more seriously (no problem towing) for 7 miles to a maximum of 2,125 ft/645 m at the entrance to the tunnel burrowing below the col. Descending a little towards Pamplona (or Iruna in the Basque language) we turned right just before the village of Oricain (Ezcaba in Basque) at 47 miles, to the well signed campsite on the right after a bridge. It lies in a lovely hillside position at 1,530 ft/465m, directly on the Camino de Santiago pilgrim route, which follows a good foot/cycle path here alongside the Ultzama River for 10 km/6 miles into Pamplona.

We have the site to ourselves, with just an occasional overnight neighbour en route to Benidorm for Christmas. The bar/restaurant is closed but the WiFi signal is excellent. Margaret managed enough Spanish to persuade the site manager to get a man to fix the boiler for hot showers. The '7 days for price of 6' offer takes us over Christmas – in the perfect retreat!

At Camping Ezcaba, Oricain, Pamplona, Navarra

Click: www.magbazpictures.com/pamplona--the-pyrenees.html

Northern Navarre is strongly Basque Country. The graffiti chalked on the road at the2_At_Camping_Ezcaba,_Pamplona.JPG campsite entrance demanded 'Freedom for the Basque Prisoners', while a sign on a lamp post declared 'This is not Spain'. Both were written in English.

Oricain (Ezcaba) is reached by walking a mile south along the river to an underpass below the N121 highway. This emerges by a small industrial estate, though most of its units lie empty, a workshop building caravans and campervans sadly abandoned. The stop for an infrequent bus (15 minutes to Pamplona) is next to Restaurant/Bar Ezcabarte. We climbed a cobbled lane to the old village, past a huddle of sturdy stone houses, to a square tower looking out across the river valley (visible from our campsite).

In the centre 12_A_Basque_Lunch.JPGof the village, by the children's playground, was a charming crib scene – unusual in that the menagerie of plastic animals gathered round the manger included a polar bear, an elk, a stork and a few (Jewish?) pigs. The mixed infants had obviously raided their toy boxes! The dark stone church stood four-square at the very top of the hill, weighted down by a pair of massive bells. The adjacent stone house is a Santiago Hostel but this is not the pilgrim season and both buildings were locked. Back at the bottom of the village, devoid of shops, the only sign of life was in the Ezcabarte. Lunch was available at the bar and surprisingly good it was: a large platter of local sausages (5 each) and fried eggs (2 each), served with warm home-made tomato sauce, piping hot chips and fresh bread. We walked back with a wide smile!

Sorauren is the next village, 1.5 miles north of the campsite along the Ultzama River. We rode along the riverside foot/cycle path, which terminates at the bridge there. Again, we found a cluster of stone houses, a church and a bar but no visible shops. Old photos showed men and horses working to float beech logs downstream to the mills of Pamplona.

Pam11_Entry_to_Pamplona.JPGplona (Roman Pompaelo, after its founder Pompey the Great) grew to be capital of the Kingdom of Navarra. In the 11th century its prosperity was assured when it became an official station on the Camino Santiago for pilgrims coming across the Pyrenees from France. Now, thanks to Ernest Hemingway and tourist hype, it is best known to visitors for the 8 days of July when the Fiesta of Sanfermines means the Running of the Bulls. For the remaining 357 days of the year it is a provincial capital, seat of the University of Navarra, and site of a massive Gothic cathedral inside the impressive moated ramparts of the old city.

Click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/pamplona.html

We cycled into3_Molino_Villava_on_the_Camino_Santiago.JPG Pamplona: a gentle ride on the foot/cycle path, part of the Camino Santiago, meandering alongside the Ultzama, past Oricain and Arre, to the confluence with the Arga River and the picturesque Molino Villava at the weir. This was originally a water-powered flour mill, then a fulling mill making woollen felt, and finally a paper mill before being turned into an exhibition/info centre. Continuing along the Arga through riverside parks, we crossed the Magdalena Bridge to enter the old city at the massive Portal de Francia gate, in the footsteps of scallop-shell carrying pilgrims over the ages.

Exp12_Pamplona_Cathedral.JPGloring the cobbled alleyways, we saw the Cathedral of Santa Maria La Real (12-15th C) and the more modern Bullring, then paused at one of the atmospheric cafe/bars bordering the Plaza del Castillo at the heart of the old quarter. The hot chocolate was without a doubt the best ever tasted, thick and creamy, for only €1.20 a cup. The wonderful square was refreshingly lacking in tourists and bare of Christmas decorations. The music drifting across the Plaza was Johnny Cash: Walk the Line. Marvellous. Back at the empty campsite, after an easy ride totalling 15 miles, we are getting to like the real Spain.

Circular Drive from Oricain to Roncesvalles and Ochagavia (110 miles)

The Saturday before Christmas, with sunny blue sky after a clear frosty night, was the perfec13_Memorial.JPGt day to take the Sprinter van into the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees. After 15 miles northeast on N135 we reached the top of the first col, Puerto de Erro at 2,643 ft/801 m. The Camino Santiago footpath, a broad track of coarse gravel, crosses the road at this point on its way to Pamplona. A number of lithe male cyclists barely paused for breath as they were checked-in by a marshal at the top – not pilgrims but athletes on a training run. The road dipped before climbing to the next col at Mezkinitz: 3,042 ft/922 m. Again, the Camino track crossed the road, by a flower-decked memorial to Notre Dame de Roncesvalles. There was no traffic, the peace of the beech woods broken only by birdsong, the sun warm enough to stroll without a coat – at this height in December!

The road t14_Roncesvalles.JPGwisted on through forest, sheep-dotted hillsides and a couple of picturesque Pyrenean villages to Roncesvalles, at 27 miles and 3,130 ft/950 m - a key stage on the Camino Santiago route from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Puerto de Ibaneta pass. Tiny Roncesvalles is dominated by its massive abbey next to a small (locked) 13thC church. The adjacent crypt was the last resting place for Santiago pilgrims who died in the monastery hospital, after the arduous journey over the Pyrenees. Here also lie the remains of soldiers killed at the Battle of Roncesvalles, when Basque tribes defeated Charlemagne's army in 778 AD, an event glorified in the old French epic poem Chanson de Roland.

Rather than crossing the pass into France, we backtracked for 3 miles, then turned southeast on the minor NA140. It twisted through more charming villages like Arive and climbed to 3,420 ft/1037 m at 42 miles in the narrow little village of Abaurrea Alta, with a view of serious peaks looming ahead, gleaming snow white in the sun. Snow poles stood ready along the next stretch, where we stopped for a picnic lunch.

Down in Ezcaroz, at 50 miles and 2,425 ft/735 m, we turned north for a mile to Ochagavia, 15_Ochagavia.JPGa pretty (if touristy) little town on a babbling river with medieval stone bridges. There was a large car park, restaurant, tourist office (open), a bank, a shop or two and even a few residents, though most houses are holiday-let homes. The French border lies 22 km to the north, over the bleak pass to Larrau (5,230 ft/1585 m) – a pass we have cycled twice, though not in December, when it's closed by snow. Today we just had a delightful ramble round the steep grey-cobbled lanes and up to the sober church of St John the Evangelist.

An easier route back, south along the Salazar Valley on NA178, was downhill all the way! In the village of Navascues, the local Bomberos (fire brigade) displayed a large round banner, like a road sign, with a pair of scissors crossed out. We eventually realised it meant 'Stop the Cuts' (austerity measures). At 81 miles we met the new (toll-free) motorway A21 and turned northwest for Pamplona and Oricain. It had been a splendid day, excellent weather, outstanding scenery, yet we returned to a completely empty, wonderfully peaceful campsite – and so it remains over Christmas!

To Hotel de la Poste, Eaux Bonnes, nr Laruns, France – 139 miles (Height 2,355 ft)  - Without the caravan

On Christmas Eve we'd rung 3 hotels in the Laruns area of the French Pyrenees to arrange a night away. All of them had rooms free and our chosen Hotel de la Poste simply took our name to make a booking – no deposit required. It's more difficult to book a campsite in the UK, usually with a non-refundable advance payment!

The day after7_High_in_the_Pyrenees.JPG Christmas, weather cold and bright, roads completely empty, we left the caravan on-site near Pamplona and Sprinted along the A21 and NA178, over the Iso Pass (2,211 ft/670 m) to Navascues (44 miles). Parking by the church, we stretched our legs by cycling up the Salazar Valley towards Ochagavia for 10 km, then back for lunch in the van, resolved to return and cycle the whole valley another day. From Navascues we drove east over the 3,140 ft/950 m Puerto de las Coronas to Burgui, then north up the gently climbing Roncal Valley. Roncal village (at 65 miles and 2,330 ft) is a centre for sheep's cheese, though the dairy shop was closed. Izaba, 5 miles later, is a quaint village with an atmospheric hotel that we recognised from a night there many years ago. We had cycled over the pass from Arette in France – the Col de la Pierre St-Martin which we were now about to drive – and returned to France over the Col d'Erroymendi to Larrau (currently said to be closed by snow). Continuing onwards and upwards, hairpinning towards the top, the road was clear with just a touch of snow on the verge. A cafe was open 14 miles after Izaba at 5,200 ft, now with enough snow for sledging and a small ski run. The summit, 3 miles later at 5,808 ft/1760 m, is the Spanish/French border – sometimes closed by December but this winter's snow seems lighter than normal.

Click: www.magbazpictures.com/in-the-pyrenees.html

Two miles further, the French ski station of Arette-Pierre-St-Martin was a much larger and busier 10_View_from_Eaux_Bonnes_Hotel_Room.JPGplace, complete with Nordic husky dog sled centre. We remembered this blot on the landscape well from our ascent of the col by bicycle – the usual disappointment at finding a ski resort closed up in summer, with nary a cafe open! Descending for 28 miles to the town of Oloron-Ste-Marie, down at 1,000 ft, we circled the ring road and turned east on N134, southeast on D920 and D934 through Laruns, sitting cosily in a valley at 1,800 ft, then uphill for the final 3 miles to Eaux Bonnes, a tiny thermal spa with a couple of hotels and a closed casino, now overshadowed by the nearby ski resort of Gourette.

Our hotel/re19_Eaux_Bonnes.JPGstaurant/cafe/bakery was opposite the post office in the centre of the village. It had an air of faded grandeur but the Ricard family made us welcome and we had a splendid mountain view when we opened the shutters of our top floor room. We did enjoy taking a hot bath before a set 4-course dinner in the busy hotel restaurant (the only one open in the town), which included a delicious croque monsieur as an interim course between soup and main, finishing with patisserie from the in-house bakery! Watching the other guests was much more interesting than French TV.

Return to Camping Ezcaba, Oricain, Pamplona, Spain – 149 miles - Without the caravan

Breakfast in the hotel bar comprised orange juice, plenty of coffee, bread, jam, honey and butter, and a croissant each. Ham and eggs were available as an extra but we were still full from the evening before!

The day began by driving 4 miles up to Gourette, a hideously busy ski resort a20_Col_d'Aubisque.JPGt about 4,000 ft, with parking (not free) for motorhomes at the lower cable car station. We continued for another 2.5 miles, sometimes below avalanche shutters, climbing steeply towards the Col d'Aubisque, a Pyrenean Tour de France pass that we have also cycled. The road was open, as far as the Hotel des Cretes Blanches at 5,280 ft/1600 m. Beyond that a snow plough blocked the final ascent to the Col d'Aubisque, which reaches 5,626 ft/1705 m. From the hotel balcony there was a breathtaking view of the skiers below and eagles above - and a happy memory of a break here with other col-riding cyclists in the early summer of 1999.

Descendin11_The_Road_through_Eaux_Chaudes.JPGg back through Eaux Bonnes to Laruns, we turned left to return to Spain over the Col du Pourtalet. In Eaux Chaudes, an even smaller spa 3 miles from Laruns and at 2,185 ft, we recognised the tiny motorhome parking area where we'd left the Four Winds motorhome while we cycled to the top of the Pourtalet and back – a gentler climb than the Aubisque but also used in the Tour.

We drove on, up the21_Spansh_Border.JPG Ossau Valley, noticing the Camino Santiago symbol along the riverside footpath – there are several routes to what was the third most important pilgrimage in medieval Christendom (after Jerusalem and Rome). Past a dammed lake at 4,100 ft, 10 miles from Laruns, the ski centre of Artouste-Fabreges had very little snow: just one run served by a lift. The Col du Pourtalet, 8 miles later at 5,920 ft/1794 m, marks the Spanish frontier, with an old border post. There was plenty of free parking space (including motorhomes) over on the Spanish side, with enough snow to keep the skiers happy and adequate facilities. Lower down, the Spanish ski resort of El Formigal was popular.

Down at 2,800 ft, 24 miles later, we met the new incomplete A23 Autovia (toll-free) and headed west for 10 miles until it ended in Jaca, where we stopped to shop at Maxi-Dia, finding Spanish prices lower than French. Spain has begun some massive motorway projects and we wondered if they will ever be finished now, with road works abandoned. Continuing west on N240 for 20 miles, regularly crossing a Camino Santiago route, we then joined the Pamplona-bound A20 at 1,840 ft. This magnificent free motorway, with its wonderful viaducts, seemed to have been built8_Miles_of_Empty_Toll-free_Autostrada.JPG just for us – until after 6 miles it ended and rejoined N240. On along the Aragon River for 10 miles past the huge dammed Yesa reservoir until we joined A21, then left it almost immediately, after a tunnel, for a short detour to the village of Javier (or Xavier).

It was just 4 miles down to Javier Castle and its huge empty car park at 1,580 ft. This was the birthplace in 1506 of San Francisco Xavier, co-founder of the Jesuit Order and patron saint of Navarra. This St Francis travelled and taught in the Far East, where his preserved body remains in the Cathedral of Goa in India.6_Birthplace_of_St_Francis_Xavier.JPG We didn't go inside the much-restored fortress (entry €2.50) but the castle grounds made a good place for a late picnic lunch, a walk and a glimpse inside the 19thC Basilica (site of an annual pilgrimage of thanks for delivering Navarra from a cholera epidemic).

Click: www.magbazpictures.com/1-xavier-castle.html

Back on A21, we returned to Pamplona, arriving before dusk. All was well at the peaceful campsite, with just one other motorhome in residence. It had been a wonderful excursion – a real breath of fresh air, with memories to inspire more cycling. We were lucky that this winter's snowfall has been light, as the two Cols on which we crossed the Spanish/French border are often closed from November to May. (Alternatively the Somport Pass, west of the Pourtalet, is always open as it has a free tunnel.)

Cycling from and around Camping Ezcaba, Oricain, Pamplona

1. Pamplona and back (12 miles/20 km) - A gentle ride on the foot/cycle path, part of the Camino Santiago, which 4_Magdalena_Bridge_in_Pamplona.JPGpasses the campsite. It meanders alongside the Ultzama River, past Oricain and Arre, to the confluence with the Arga River and the picturesque Molino Villanova at the weir. This was originally a water-powered flour mill, then a fulling mill making woollen felt, and finally a paper mill before being turned into an exhibition/info centre. Continuing along the Arga through riverside parks, it reaches the Magdalena Bridge to enter the old city of Pamplona at the massive Portal de Francia gate, in the footsteps of scallop-shell carrying pilgrims over the ages.

2. Sorauren and back (3 miles/2 km) - A shorter ride in the other direction to the next village, 1.5 miles north of the campsite along the Ultzama River. The riverside foot/cycle path terminates at the bridge there. 

3. Circular ride to Pamplona via Orrio, returning on Camino path (17 miles/27 km) – Uphill from campsite on quiet country lanes past village of Orrio, turning west to Ballariain. Entering the outskirts of Pamplona, there were unsigned cycle paths, underpasses and footbridges which eventually led (using sense of direction and/or compass) to Burlada and the riverside Camino path near the mill at Villava. From here it was an easy route back to the campsite.

4. Navascues t9_Cycling_on_the_wide_back_roads.JPGo Ochagavia and back (32 miles/50 km) – On New Year's Eve we kept our resolution to return to Navascues and cycle the Salazar Valley. We drove the Sprinter once again to our parking spot by the church at Navascues, at 1,925 ft/585 m, drank our coffee and saddled the bikes on a beautifully sunny morning. Dozens of eagles soared on thermals, high above the roadside crags, as we cycled the empty road, easing gently up the valley beside the clear babbling Salazar River. In Ochagavia, at 2,180 ft/660 m, both the bars were crowded and noisy, so we returned to the cafe/bar we'd noticed a mile back, in Ezcaroz. A good choice for a break. Speaking a mixture of Spanish and French (and no doubt Italian, by mistake), we ordered coffees, bocadillos (sandwiches) and cakes. Then it was pretty much a freewheel back to Navascues. We drove 39 miles back to our Pamplona campsite via NA150 from Lumbier, which proved a good road and 5 miles shorter than the A21 route.

5. Pamplona, Old City and back (18 miles/28 km) – Along the easy riverside Camino5_Cafe_in_the_Plaza_del_Castillo.JPG path again (10 km to the Magdalena Bridge). Into the old city of Pamplona at the massive Portal de Francia and on to the Gothic Cathedral of Santa Maria, tucked among the narrow cobbled streets. Here we met a pair of Santiago pilgrims (from Oregon USA), complete with alpine sticks and backpacks sewn with scallop shells, who had walked from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees in 5 days. Like us, they declined to pay the Cathedral entry fee (€7 pp, or €5 for genuine pilgrims!) We rode on, past the Bullring Plaza de Toros with its statue of Ernest Hemingway, and along the23_In_Pamplona.JPG splendid pedestrianised Avenue Carlos III, all fine buildings and even finer shops. Back in the Plaza del Castillo at the heart of the old city, we couldn't resist cups of thick hot chocolate at one of the cafe/bars surrounding the square. We left the old quarter along Santo Domingo, past the Corralillos from which the bulls run the 825 metres to the Bullring during the Fiesta de San Fermin in July. Down by the Arga River, we followed it eastwards on a cycle path through Del Runa Park to San Pedro Bridge, then on broad pavements until we reached the Magdalena Bridge and joined the familiar Camino route back to our campsite.

6. Huarte to Murillo de Longuida and back (34 miles/55 km) – Drove the Sprinter 10 miles southeast on busy dual carriageway to Huarte, to park behind the large shopping centre there, just past Aldi. From here the much quieter road 150 continues southeast to Lumbier and is excellent for cycling, with a good shoulder and middle-chain-ring climbs. It was a beautiful clear blue sunny morning, after a frosty night, with no wind. Perfect. After 13 miles/20 km we detoured north into the small town of Aoiz in search of a bite. The bread shop/cafe had warm ham & cheese pies, cakes and coffee - at a very good price, too. Back on the bikes, we returned to rd 150 and followed it along the Irati River Valley for a few more miles to Murillo, where we turned back at the top of a hill and returned to Huarte. We saw several racing cyclists out on our route and are impressed at the amount of cycling in this area and the respect and margin that motorists give us.

JANUARY 2013

To Camping Valle de Tena, Sorripas, Sabinanigo, Aragon - 86 miles (Height 2,700 ft)    

Open all year. See www.campingvalledetena.com. €21.00 inc 10-amp electricity and showers. Free WiFi. N 42.55694 W 0.33722

The first Sunday of the New Year was 6 January, Epiphany - a National Holiday in Spain (Dia de los Reyes Magos or Three Kings Day) which seems more important than 25 December.

Leaving Oricain in the afternoon, we drove south via Huarte for 10 miles to join the free Autovia 21. The new 4-lane highway was all but empty as we headed southeast, past Lumbier at 28 miles, then turned east and through a pair of well-lit tunnels by the exit for Javier Castle at 36 miles. The incomplete Autovia then became rd 240 for 10 miles alongside Yesa Reservoir, leaving Navarra for Aragon. At the end of this clear still lake, there were another 5 miles of Autovia, then rd 240 again for 10 miles to Puente La Reina, now at 2,100 ft, and on to the city of Jaca, 73 miles from start. As we bypassed the centre of Jaca on rd 240, Camping Victoria appeared to be open.

At 76 miles the next section of A21 eastwards began. We took it for 6 miles, almost to Sabinanigo, then turned north on rd 260 up the Tena Valley (leading to France over the Col du Portalet). Our campsite, 4 miles along on the left, appeared large but was mostly taken up with permanent caravans and chalets, serving the ski runs higher up the valley. The few pitches left for tourers were small and very awkwardly placed, accessed by narrow site roads and right angle bends.

The site was busy with Spanish campers and their noisy offspring over the long weekend (Monday being a holiday in lieu of Sunday) and the restaurant, which had looked inviting, was packed out. Disappointed, we squeezed into the only place close enough to the TV Room to get a WiFi signal. On the plus side, there were good heated facilities, including washers and driers.

At Camping Valle de Tena, Sorripas, Sabinanigo, Aragon

Next morning we Sprinted back to Sabinanigo, a rather dismal town that filled the valley with industrial haze. Every shop was closed. We checked out Camping Aurin, behind a hotel/restaurant on the main road to the east of the town centre. Although open, the deserted campsite was very scruffy, with dilapidated statics.

Returnin41_Puerto_Cotefablo.JPGg up the Tena Valley, we continued north to Biescas, 6 miles past our campsite. This rustic stone village is developing into a base for the ski runs higher up. Turning east from Biescas we took a beautiful 7-mile drive up a twisting mountain road (NOT recommended for caravans) to the summit and short tunnel at the Puerto de Cotefablo (4,700 ft/1423 m). 40_Puerto_Cotefablo.JPGThe air was still and clear, the sky sunny and bright after a dry frosty night. There was no sign of snow, though the calendar given to us by Campsite Reception showed a 'winter wonderland' for November through to February! It must be a poor ski season this year.

On the way back, Camping Gavin was signed on the left a mile before Biescas. It turned out to be an excellent terraced site, lovely views, wonderful facilities, ACSI Card discount ... but down half a mile of sharp bends. Deciding against relocating here, we researched campsites open along the route south and found one unlisted by our guidebooks:

To Camping Municipal Almunia, Almunia de San Juan, Monzon, Aragon - 78 miles (Height 1,200 ft)    

Open all year. See www.camping-almunia.es. €17.00 inc 6-amp electricity and hot showers. Free WiFi. N 41.93758  E 0.24017

Another superbly dry sunny day, on which to extricate ourselves (with only inches to spare) from Camping Valle de Tena and escape south on rd 260 past Sabinanigo, continuing slowly down rd 330 (its parallel motorway still under construction). After crossing the River Guarga, it was a well-graded climb to the Puerto de Monrepos, at 20 miles and 4,200 ft/1280 m. After the summit car park there were 2 short tunnels, then we joined a new section of A21 Autovia at 28 miles. This 4-lane highway skirted the northeast side of the city of Huesca, stopping abruptly at 35 miles and putting us onto rd 240 for a few miles to Sietamo, from where A21 was again complete.

It continued 22_Rock_Formations.JPGsoutheast across a high scrubby plain (about 1,700 ft), almost desert-like in places, with a few small olive groves. Bypassing Barbastro, we noticed vineyards and Bodegas, this being Aragon's most prestigious wine-growing region (Somontano reds). What we didn't see, the whole way today, was any roadside services or rest area – just signs indicating where to turn off for fuel etc in a village.

By now we were driving in freezing fog and were relieved to reach the exit for Monzon and Almunia de San Juan at 75 miles. Turn left at the roundabout for Alumunia, 3 miles northeast. The campsite is signed in the village, next to the open-air Municipal Baths and a tennis court (both free for campers during summer).

The campsite wardens, a friendly German couple living on the site, welcomed us (the only guests), cleaned the facilities and lit the boiler in our honour! The site is level, with some hardstanding, no low trees and all the space we want. They promised that the freezing mist was very unusual, winter normally being dry and clear with frost at night. 

At Camping Municipal Almunia, Almunia de San Juan, Monzon, Aragon

The weather soon changed, returning to bright sunny days and cold nights, with no wind, rain or snow. We explored Almunia on foot – just a basic shop, one bar and a massive church that would more than hold the current population of the village. The olive oil factory still operates, employing two people! Our German hosts, Monika and Peter, told us how they, like the villagers, chop wood for the stove and get meat (rabbits, doves and wild boar) from the huntsman.

The town of Monzon (pronounced Monthon), just 3 miles away, was  much busier and there we found Aldi as well as Spanish supermarkets. 'Simply' Hypermarket claimed to be Auchan but was not so well stocked.

When a problem developed with our caravan sink's plastic mixer tap, Monika and Peter very kindly took us to Aracat Camping suppliers on the Monzon industrial estate and acted as Spanish interpreters. Aracat had a good range of stuff, from a superior metal mixer tap, that we bought, to the 2013 Camping Card ACSI book (in English!) We were also taken to an electrical store for light bulbs before the shopping expedition ended at Aldi, were Peter and Barry bought up the stock of chocolate marzipan bars left from Christmas, now reduced to €0.50 each. On a subsequent visit to the industrial estate we discovered a Ferreteria (ironmongery) run by the wonderfully named Jesus Salamero, who supplied the other fittings needed. Barry did a fine job of installing everything.

We also used the Sprinter van for excursions into the Pyrenean foothills of Aragon. 45_Fonz_Village.JPGAn afternoon's circular drive (total 66 miles) took us north on rd 133 to hillside Fonz, where we walked up to and around the heart of the village with its crowning church flanked by 16thC mansions. We were astonished to see a pair of Storks, newly arrived from their winter migration, settling back on the church tower nest – in January and in full view of a fresh dusting of snow on the distant Pyrenean peaks! The nest above our campsite still awaits occupation.

Click: www.magbazpictures.com/fonz-village.html

On to Estada, where we joined rd 123 northeast along the dramatic Olvena Gorge and through a series of short tunnels to Barasona reservoir. Then up the western side of the water, past 2 lakeside campsites at La Puebla de Castro (one of which, Bellavista, was open) and on alongside a cycle path to the town of Graus. Here we parked for a stiff walk up to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Pena, with a magnificent view of the Esera River from its balcony. The church was freely open until 5 pm, though an Icon Museum in the old Monastery Hospital was closed. We returned to Almunia via Barbastro and a short stretch of Autovia to Monzon.

Castles in the Air

1. Castillo de Monzon, Monzon - The centre of the town is dominated by its massive Templar Castle, the, atop a windswept hill (open 10 am-2 pm and 3-5.30 pm in winter). In the Sprinter van we followed signs up a maze of steep one-way streets (height 2.6 m and weight 3.5 ton limits) to the free car park below the castle gateway.26_Monzon_Castle.JPG The ticket price of €3 pp (or €2 for Seniors, called Jubilados in Spanish) included the loan of an audio guide each in English: much appreciated, as the leaflet and display labels were only in Spanish. Several parts of the castle have been skilfully restored, including a refectory, a church containing an exhibition about the Templars, and a tower that can be climbed for 360Ί degree eagle's-eye views over Monzon. The modern staircase inside the stone tower is especially impressive.

The original fort, captured from Islamic Moors in 1089, was ceded to the Templars in 1143. These 'Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon', commonly known as the Knights Templar, were among the most famous of the Western Christian military orders, existing for 2 centuries during the Middle Ages. The child-king James I of Aragon spent part of his youth here, under the guardianship of the Knights, after his father Peter II 'The Catholic' died in the Battle of Muret in southern France in 1213. When the Order of the Temple was finally disbanded by Pope Clement V in 1312, under pressure from King Philip IV of France,.Monzon castle and its lands passed to the rival military crusading order, the Knights Hospitaller of St John. By the 18thC, the castle was in the hands of the House of Bourbon. For more on the fascinating background, visit www.domustempli.com and click on English. The site covers 5 Templar castles from Monzon to Peniscola and we hope to reach them. Recent fiction linking the Templars to the Holy Grail, Stonemasons and other secret societies are the stuff of legend, but the history is extraordinary enough. To appreciate the magnificent setting of Monzon Castle, the town website www.monzon.es (Spanish only) has 2 short videos including a 'virtual tour' of the castle.

Click: www.magbazpictures.com/4-monzon-castle.html

2. Castillo de Loarre, Loarre - A longer drive (135 miles total) was to visit two of the many 'castles in the air' around Huesca. We took Autovia A21 to Huesca, pausing to refuel and try24_Loarra_Castle.JPG the €9.50 Menu del Dia at Restaurant Sabrina. We discovered that Cocido, described as a soup, was a robust stew of chickpeas, vegetables and chunks of black pudding (blood sausage). The main course of meatballs, peas and potatoes in tomato sauce was more to our taste, while the dessert of crθme caramel with cream and chocolate sauce was delicious. Including bread, water and coffee, the menu was excellent value.

From Huesca rd 132 led northwest to Esquedas, where minor rd 1206 turned north to Loarre. From the village a narrow road zigzagged skywards for 2 miles, climbing 1,000 ft to the Castle perched on its rock up at 3,533 ft/1070 m and visible from miles around, a breathtaking sight. It was a short walk from the free car park to a picnic area/cafe, where entry tickets for the Castle, with a leaflet in English, cost €3.90 pp (or €3.30 for Jubilados). We'd already checked winter opening times by phone with the helpful Huesca Tourist Office: 11 am–5.30 pm daily. We wandered along passageways, climbed the keep tower in the original early 11thC military fortress and stood in the Romanesque St Peter's Church, part of the Augustinian Monastery extension. The outer walls and turrets, added 2 centuries later, enclose the southern side, while the rest of the castle is protected by the rock face out of which it seems to evolve. See www.castillodeloarre.es or the 2005 film 'Kingdom of Heaven', in which it starred as a medieval French crusader castle! Back down in Loarre village, the medieval church of St Stephen, containing treasures from the castle, was closed.

Click: www.magbazpictures.com/2-loarre-castle.html

3. Castillo de Montearagon, Quicena, nr Huesca - Returning to Huesca we took rd 240 east, keen to reach the25_Montearagon_Castle.JPG castle ruins that we'd seen on a hilltop to the north of the highway. There is no sign to it, though Huesca Tourist Office had confirmed it was derelict and freely open. Access is by turning left for Quicena village, about 2 miles from Huesca, then following the single track lane uphill for a mile until it is barred before the castle. We parked on a patch of gravel (not for buses or motorhomes!), walked the rest of the way, enjoyed the views and scrambled carefully around. Standing at 1,900 ft/575 m – 500 ft above Quicena – the site is a popular climb with athletic cyclists. The medieval castle incorporated another Augustinian Monastery but it is in dire need of renovation.

Click: www.magbazpictures.com/3-montearagon-castle.html

4. Castillo de Ainsa, Ainsa-Sobrarbe – A return drive of 98 miles took us via Fonz, 26_Ainsa_Castle.JPGEstada  and El Grado to the medieval stone town of Ainsa, above the busy modern town. Our route followed the Cinca River valley northwards, alongside the El Grado and Mediano reservoirs. At El Grado (20 miles) we made a short side-trip to the Santuario de Torreciudad up at 1,830 ft/555 m. The huge modern (1975) Marian shrine didn't warrant a visit but there was a good view over the El Grado dam and reservoir from its car park.

Click: www.magbazpictures.com/santuario-de-torreciudad.html

Continuing another 25 miles to Ainsa, signs led up to its old centre, Casco Historico, at 1,900 ft/575 m. The huge car park by the castle was empty, the ticket booth closed. We were free to walk round the top of the castle walls, which stand on 3 sides enclosing a courtyard. The panoramic view over the old town square, its Romanesque church and terracotta rooftops, with the Pyrenean rock bastion of La Pena Montanesa beyond, was breathtaking. The French border is less than 30 miles to the north, though the road via Bielsa Tunnel is currently closed. An Eco-museum of Pyrenean wildlife, in one of the corner towers, does not open until Easter, so we learnt no more about the Bearded Vultures and their prey. However, down in the courtyard the friendly Regional Tourist Office, open until 7 pm, supplied free leaflets in English about the town and the region. The castle, on the site of a primitive Moorish fort, dates mostly from the 16thC, though the main tower is 11thC. See www.turismosobrarbe.com.

Click: www.magbazpictures.com/5-ainsa-castle.html

5. Castell de Gardeny, Lleida – Like Monzon this was a fortified Templar monastery, the second on the Domus 27_Lleida_Castle.JPGTempli route (the 5 Templar sites of the Crown of Aragon) - www.domustempli.com. It lies on a low hill (650 ft/200 m) just off the inner ring road to the southwest of Lleida (or Lerida in Catalan) city centre, 35 miles from our camp. Open 10 am-1.30 pm and 3-5.30 pm Tuesday to Saturday and 10-1.30 pm Sundays, entry €2.50 (free for us senior Jubilados). The large car park was empty; we had the site to ourselves. Our free entry ticket included leaflets in English and the loan of an English audio-guide each, leading us round 10 listening points.

A troop of Knights Templar who took part in the crusade against the Muslim city of Lleida in 1149 were rewarded with various lands. These included the hill of Gardeny, from which the siege of Lleida had been conducted, and by 1152 the Templars were building a monastery on the hill. It grew to encompass extensive estates and housed 20 friars. When the Order of the Temple was suppressed in the 14thC, the House of Gardeny became a hospital priory of the Knights of St John. The site was expanded and fortified in the 17-18th centuries.

The medieval walls enclose the Romanesque abbey church of Santa Maria de Gardeny (1156) and a 3-storey tower. This provided storehouses in the cellar, linked to the water cistern, with chambers, dormitory and refectory area above. The highlight of our visit was the video shown in the 'Information Centre on the Knights Templar' inside the tower. We were promised a private view, in English, at 11.45 am and expected a film. It was very much more than that: a riveting son et lumiere display that held us spellbound, an imaginative illustration of the monastic life of the Knights Templar, their rules and creed. We were extremely impressed with what had, at first sight, seemed an insignificant castle ruin.   

From the terrace there was a view over the city and across to the remains of the Islamic castle La Seuda, standing on a higher hill in the city centre next to the mighty Cathedral, La Seu Vella. We didn't go on to visit these, as they had exactly the same opening times as Gardeny, with a long siesta which meant waiting until 3 pm.

Click: www.magbazpictures.com/6-lleida-castle.html

Fiesta de San Juan (18-21 January) in Almunia de San Juan

Our little village of Almunia celebrated their patron saint's day over a chilly weekend. Monika (our campsite manager) walked us down at 6.30 pm Friday for the first event, which had been moved from outside in the Plaza to indoors in the social centre because of the weather. We enjoyed the hot chocolate and buns, then fled the noise of the well-named Disco Infantil (children's disco). An even louder version for grown-ups followed, faintly audible from our hilltop at 4 am!

For Saturday evening's bonfire and degustation of local wine, it poured down all day so we gave44_Storks_in_Fonz.JPG it a miss. Sunday was celebrated with a Mass at noon, followed by a procession. Margaret and Monika walked down to follow the procession, which was a short walk to the Plaza behind a 7-piece band from Barbastro (2 drums and 5 trum46_Stork_in_Almunia.JPGpets/trombones). They played while children handed out magdalenas (sponge cakes). In the afternoon there was a football match, then some children's entertainment followed by another dance in the social centre. We left the villagers to it!

The Fiesta ended with a Mass at noon on Monday for the souls of those who died during 2012. Then on Monday afternoon a pair of storks returned to one of the 4 nests at the corners of the church tower! They had obviously been waiting for things to quieten down! Three days later, the telephone mast above our campsite had its own storks back.

Cycling from Camping Almunia, Almunia de San Juan, Monzon, Aragon

To Fonz on the Ruta Costa t43_Cycling_to_Fonz.JPGrack, and return by road (18 miles/29 km) – From the centre of Almunia, follow wooden signposts for the (unsurfaced and stoney) Ruta Costa foot/cycle path to Fonz and Estada. Named after Joaquin Costa of Monzon, an early 20thC expert in agricultural politics and water management, the path roughly (very roughly) follows the Canal de Aragon y Catalunia - a fast-flowing narrow canal that brings water for drinking and irrigation down from the El Grado reservoir. We cycled42_Cycling_to_Fonz.JPG 15 km as far as Fonz but can hardly recommend it, unless you have an ATB and like barren hills. It certainly didn't follow the level route of the canal, which we often glimpsed far below us on its way through a tunnel! We saw no-one until we reached a smallholding near Fonz, with a freshly killed brace of hairy black wild boar lying in the yard. This difficult ride of less than 10 miles took almost 2 hours, leaving us no time for the planned coffee in Fonz before returning to Almunia along the blissfully smooth and gently rolling asphalt roads 133 and 1237. We did feel a sense of achievement, arriving back before dusk (now at about 6 pm).

Click: www.magbazpictures.com/cycling.html

After this first ride, the weather turned much colder with strong winds, deterring us from further cycling.

To Camping Ametlla, l'Ametlla de Mar, Catalonia - 140 miles

Open all year. See www.campingametlla.com. ACSI Card rate €14.00 (plus €1 local tax for first 7 days only), inc 5-amp electricity and showers. Discount long stay low season: 30 days charged as 21. WiFi cost varying, eg €2 for 1 hr, €5 for 5 hrs, €15 for 7 days, €20 for 2 weeks, €30 for a month. N 40.86493  E 0.77860

Over a farewell coffee with our hosts at Almunia, Monika gave us a jar of her peach jam and Peter promised development of the campsite for next winter: heating in the shower room, hook-ups with 10 amps, and a more reliable WiFi. We said we'd be back! Now it was time to head for the Mediterranean coast, where it should be warmer but we shall miss the peace of the Pyrenean foothills.

With caravan in tow, we headed southeast on A21 (free Autovia), circled clockwise on Lleida's outer ring and reached AP2 (Autopista del Nordeste toll-motorway) at 43 miles. As in France, you take a ticket on joining the motorway and pay on leaving, by inserting credit card or cash in the ticket-reading machine. Driving east on AP2, a virtually empty motorway, we paused at the first services near Les Borges Blanques, where the cafe/restaurant was closed up. With just one car already there (it was refuelling), there was plenty of room to park!

The AP2 climbed gently to a maximum of 1,875 ft/568 m at 69 miles, as we crossed the border between the Catalan Provinces of Lleida and Tarragon. We might have taken exit 9 shortly before Montblanc, for the road south to Reus, but decided to continue to exit 10 in order to call at the next services, Montblanc, at 80 miles and still high at 1,140 ft/345 m. Here we sampled the Menu del Dia - 3 courses, bread, water and wine for €11.95 each – and there was a good choice. We did learn, just in time, that Butifarra (in Catalan) is black pudding (aka blood sausage)! At exit 10, 6 miles later, we paid a toll of €8.20 and turned south to Valls.

Continuing on rd 240 towards the coast at Tarragona, the scenery had changed. Leaving the peace and hills of Aragon behind, we drove through a depressingly flat industrial area with busy traffic, a 'lady of the night' or two at the roadside in broad daylight and a distant view of skyscrapers along the Mediterranean coast. At 104 miles, shortly before Tarragona (whose Roman remains we have visited before), we joined AP7 (Autopista de la Mediterrani) and turned southwest towards Tortosa. At least it did feel warmer. Taking exit 39, 32 miles along, the toll was €6.10. The small fishing village/resort of l'Ametlla de Mar was just a mile away, from where we followed signs for 3 miles south along an increasingly narrow road to our campsite. 

Reception was still closed for lunch (1.30-4.30 pm!) but it was possible to drive in and choose a place. The pitches are level and hedged, though many have an awkwardly placed olive tree in the middle. It's nice and quiet, with a few residents (Spanish, German, Swiss, Dutch and one British couple), modern facilities and a short walk past the restaurant and outdoor pool (both closed) to a small pebbly beach cove. Best of all, there is an excellent WiFi signal. It is not the kind of site with social life, night life or entertainment – which suits us fine.

At Camping Ametlla, l'Ametlla de Mar, Catalonia

We cycled 2 miles into the village of Ametlla to shop, among a steep warren of lanes climbing up from the harbour. At the indoor/outdoor produce market (Mon, Thurs and Saturdays) we bought excellent Cheddar and blue cheeses and, of course, there was plenty of fish and seafood. We found a Spar supermarket, bank, post office (mornings only) and a helpful Tourist Info, with a free booklet in English about the Ebro Delta – our next destination.

From the small beach cove serving the campsite, a coastal footpath runs in both directions. We followed it via a larger cove towards the village, taking in the concrete remains of fortifications from the Civil War of the 1930s.

A Day at the Delta de l'Ebre – Driving 70 miles, Cycling 12 miles/19 km

Click: www.magbazpictures.com/evro-delta.html

From l'Ametlla we Sprinted south down rd 340 (parallel toAP7) to Camarles, then on minor roads to Deltebre, 20 miles from camp. This town, on the north bank of the Ebro, lies at the centre of the Ebro Delta peninsula. It was surprisingly busy for a Sunday morning, with plenty of shoppers at Maxi-Dia. Just past the supermarket is an Information Centre and Eco-Museum, open 10 am-2 pm and 3-6 pm Mon-Sat, plus Sunday mornings. See www.parcsdecatalunya.net. The Eco-Museum costs €2 pp, while the exhibition in the Info Centre is free. The young Geography graduate in charge was very generous with information and free leaflets on birdlife and cycling itineraries. He was also keen to learn about our way of life.  

Last year a47_Evro_Delta.JPG new bridge replaced the little ferries crossing the Ebro from Deltebre to Sant Jaume d'Enveja, so we simply drove across to the south bank. Parked by the cafe at the old ferry terminal, we ate our picnic and watched Cormorants diving and emerging from the fast flowing water. Continuing south for 7 miles across a flat landscape of shimmering rice paddies and irrigation channels, home to a variety of Herons and Egrets, we parked by a second Information Centre at Casa Fusta on the north side of the large l'Encanyissada lagoon. It was closed (same opening hours as at Deltebre), though the adjacent restaurant is open all day in winter on Fri, Sat and Sundays. Bicycles can be hired here, at the start of 'Bike Itinerary One' which circles the lagoon (19 km), with an optional extension of 9 km round the smaller La Tancada lagoon. Behind the restaurant is a large motorhome parking area, complete with water and dump. There was plenty of space, with about 4 vans in residence.

Unloading our bicycles, we followed 'Itinerary One' - a very easy flat cycle ride, partly on 48_Evro_Delta.JPGa dedicated gravel path and partly on quiet roads, anticlockwise round l'Encanyissada lagoon. It was a fine afternoon with no wind, yet no other bikes were out. In the village of El Poblenou del Delta a woman was selling sacks of local oranges. We saw plenty of Grey and Great White Herons, Little and Cattle Egrets, a pair of Storks, countless Ducks, Gulls and Cormorants, and a distant view of wading Flamingos. Margaret was pleased that the occupants of Europe's largest home for hibernating bats were still sleeping when we rode past. The wooden shelter didn't look big enough to house 25,000 of them, as claimed.

Back in the Sprinter van, we drove past La Tancada lagoon (better views of Flamingo) to the southeast corner of the Delta. A 7 km-long sand spit leads to the salt pans but we didn't risk driving along it, not having 4WD. We looked at Eucaliptus Beach (where the campsite opens in March), then drove across the southern half of the delta, covered with more rice paddies and fruit groves. At Amposta we joined rd 340 to return to l'Ametlla.

The Ebro Delta, where Spain's longest river (569 miles) meets the Mediterranean, is one of Western Europe's most important wetlands, second only to the French Camargue. However, it supports a population of 50,000, with 75% of the area given over to farming, principally rice. It is clearly difficult to combine preservation of a unique habitat with its exploitation (crops, fishing, salt extraction and tourism) and the Catalan Government has created the Ebro Delta Natural Park in what looked like a vain search for balance.

The Templar Castles of Miravet, Tortosa and Peniscola

Using the campsite at l'Ametlla de Mar as a base, we completed the itinerary of the five Templar Castles that stand along the ancient border of the Realm of Aragon (see www.domustempli.com and our earlier description of Castillo de Monzon at Monzon, and Castell de Gardeny at Lleida, above).

6. Castell de Miravet - Magnificently perched high above the little village of Miravet on the west bank of the Ebro, this is not easy28_Miravet_Castle.JPG to reach. It was a 35-mile drive inland from l'Ametlla: rd 340 to El Perello, then a minor road north to Rasquera and on to Mora, in order to cross the Ebro bridge and return a short way south to Miravet. The last of the simple chain ferries across the Ebro powered by the current, which plied between Ginestar and Miravet, would have shortened our journey but it was nowhere to be seen. From the village, follow signs for the castle leading up a very narrow and steep (over 10%) lane (or park and take a strenuous footpath). At the top, 320 ft/100 m above the river, we were rewarded with an empty car park, a leaflet in English, a castle to ourselves, an incredible view - and free entry on Tuesdays! Winter opening 10 am-1.30 pm and 3-5.30 pm (except Mondays).

The fortress again stands on the foundations of an Islamic castle, as the Moors knew a good defensive position. After it was conquered by the Christian King Ramon Berenguer IV in 1153, the Knights Templar rebuilt and extended the castle/monastery with an upper bailey, church and extra walls. When their Order was dissolved in 1307 the Templars of Miravet held out, finally capitulating to an 8-month siege until 1308 (the Knights' last stand in Catalonia) when their assets passed to the Hospitalers. A play recreating the Siege of Miravet is performed at the Castle every year in August – when the access road and car park must be chaotic!

Subsequent modifications followed in the 17-19th centuries, when the castle played a part in the Reapers War, the War of the Spanish Succession (being stormed by the Bourbon army), the Carlist Wars and even the Civil War, when it was occupied by Nationalist forces in 1938. But an interest in Spain's history or medieval military architecture is not necessary – go up there for the view, the pleasure of scrambling around the amazing complex of buildings and the thrill of climbing 47 spiral steps of the stone tower to a roof terrace. Down in Miravet, we parked in a small plaza and walked round to Esglesia Vella, the old riverside church we'd overlooked from the ramparts, but it was closed. The village is famous for its pottery, fashioned from the clay of the riverbed, and several potters were selling their wares.

Click: www.magbazpictures.com/7-miravet-castle.html

Miravet to Tortosa (35 miles) - From Miravet, in the absence of a ferry, we took a minor road climbing to over 700 ft/210 m at the Coll de la Bassa Nova. There were tidy terraces of olives, vines and pink-blossomed almond trees. In the hamlet of el Pinell de Brai, the beautiful 1920s building of the co-operative wine cellar and oil press, designed by a pupil of Gaudi, was under restoration. We dropped down to meet the Ebro again at 140 ft/40 m near Benifallet and followed the river valley south on rd 12 to Tortosa, about 35 miles' drive from Miravet. A menu del dia lunch at a small restaurant, within walking distance of Lidl's car park, was excellent value at €12 pp for 4 courses (soup, salad, meat and dessert) including bread, water and a full bottle of wine! Then it was over the bridge to the eastern side of the Ebro to visit the Old Town, dominated by its castle and cathedral.

7. Castell de la Suda, Tortosa – Strategically placed near the mouth of the river that was 29_Tortosa_Castle.JPGthe most important waterway into the hinterland of Spain, Tortosa has been a vital political, economic and religious centre since Roman times. The old city walls enclose a hill, crowned by La Suda castle, which overlooks the terracotta roofs of the massive Gothic cathedral, Bishop's Palace and cloisters, the old quarter below and the modern city across the river. See www.tortosaturisme.cat/en

On the hill stood the Roman acropolis, later fortified by the Moors as it lay on the front line between Muslim and medieval Christian Spain. The fortress fell to King Ramon Berenguer IV in 1148 (5 years before he took Miravet) and the Templars were installed to guard both castle and town. The buildings eventually became a royal residence and are now – to their shame – converted into a Parador (hideous state-run high-class hotel). This meant that we were only able to walk up into the garden (where the odd piece of Roman column lay on the lawns) and look at the view over the ramparts. There was no access to the buildings for non-residents and very little information. It was then a 30-mile drive on rd 340 back to l'Ametlla de Mar, after a full day of two castles (and a very satisfying lunch!)

Click: www.magbazpictures.com/8-tortosa-castle.html

8. Castell del Papa Luna, Peniscola – It was 55 miles south from l'Ametlla to the fortified sea port/beach tourist resort of Peniscola (its name derived from the Latin peninsula). We took rd 340 rather than toll motorway AP7, enabling us to call at the shopping mall in Vinaros en route for the joys of Carrefour, Aldi and McDonalds.

Given th30_Miravet_Castle.JPGat the castle on its rocky promontory is a popular tourist attraction, it was amazingly unsignposted among the maze of one-way cobbled lanes, and there was absolutely nowhere to park once you found the place. Luckily we came across a free parking area for the fishing port and walked up (and up) from there. It was the least atmospheric of the castles we'd visited in Spain, being the first where we encountered holidaymakers. Entry (Seniors €2.50) included a tiny leaflet with very little information. The 'Templar Exhibition' inside cost an extra €2.50 each, which we didn't pay, as it could not have compared with the brilliant (and free) son et lumiere presentation at the Castell de Gardeny in Lleida.

Peniscola's castle was built on Arab foundations by the Templars between 1294 and 1307, modelled on Miravet. It's worth a visit for the views from the roof over the town, lighthouse and out to sea. Described as the best preserved Templar Castle, the fort was actually modified and extended in 1415 to become a Papal Palace, where the Avignon Pope Benedict XIII (known as Pedro La Luna) lived in exile after the Schism of the Occident until his death in 1427. His enormous statue welcomes visitors at the entrance. The buildings underwent further restoration, with the addition of new walls, when Peniscola town and castle stood in for Valencia in the 1960 film El Cid starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren. Once again, see www.domustempli.com for more on all 5 Templar castles. It has been a great route to follow since Monzon.

Click: www.magbazpictures.com/9-peniscola-castle.html

FEBRUARY 2013

A Visit to Morella, Capital of the Valencian County of Els Ports ('The Mountain Passes')

From Peniscola (and minus the caravan, left on the campsite at l'Ametlla) we returned 33 miles to Vinaros, then drove inland for 38 miles on rd 232 to Morella. The road climbed gradually, reaching 1,000 ft/300 m at Chert, then more steeply as it hairpinned up to the Port de Querol at 3,300 ft/1000 m. It was wonderfully warm for the start of February, the roadside snow poles redundant.

Taking the first turn for Morella, we entered the walls of the medieval fortress town at the Puerta San Mateu gate. Having researched accommodation, we'd booked a night at the Hotel El Cid, just through the gateway, with on-street parking outside: www.hotelelcidmorella.com. (Note: If in search of a car park or the motorhome Aire, do not turn into the walled town but keep straight on the main road and follow signs. The only other hotels inside the walls have no parking.) Our room on the top (4th) floor was splendid, very modern with bathroom, TV, heating and a balcony with a magnificent view over the town walls to the empty landscape beyond. Much better than expected for the budget price! We were now above 3,000 ft/925 m and the evening was cool.

9. Convent, Castle and Church - Next morning we ambled slowly up the stepped lanes31_Morella_Castle.JPG and cobbled alleys, lined by arcaded half-timbered houses, huddled inside the intact walls. See www.morella.net and www.morellaturistica.com. The picturesque medieval town is crowned by a hilltop castle, at the base of which stand the dilapidated church and monastery cloisters of the Convento de San Francisco. Entry to the castle (open daily 11 am-5 pm, Seniors €2.50) is through the Convento, from where a path climbs steeply through three concentric tiers of battlements to the uppermost keep. We were dismayed to read that the monastery and its adjoining hospital buildings were destined to become a Parador hotel in 3 years' time but the friendly custodian said that funds had run out and the work is presently abandoned. Some restoration of the castle continues.

It was difficult to trace the history of the site from the signage, with very little in English. We gleaned that this was not a Templar castle but a fort taken from the Moors in 1231 by King James I the Conqueror, after which it belonged to the Crown of Aragon. The Franciscans arrived by royal invitation in 1270 and kept books and money safe at the monastery. The townspeople paid a tax for maintenance of the castle walls, in return for which they could take shelter inside in times of trouble. There was also mention of our hero El Cid, who once failed to take the castle. The upper part of the town was integrated inside the shelter of extra ramparts, built during the Carlist Wars of the 19th C. But all this mattered little – on such a splendid morning, it was just a wonderful place to clamber around, with panoramic views over the red roofs of the town, elegant cloister arches, medieval aqueduct, more modern bullring and the road we'd driven snaking away into the far distance.

Descending, we returned past the imposing 14thC Gothic Basilica de Santa Maria la Mayor (entry free, 11 am-2 pm and 4-6 pm). The massive iron-studded door stood open and a glimpse inside revealed a wealth of elaborate sculpture, gilded cherubs, massive gold altarpiece, monumental organ of 1717, rose windows– all the symbols of might and power. The museum of ecclesiastical treasures inside charged an entry fee but we thought they had enough wealth.

Click: www.magbazpictures.com/10-morella-castle.html

Back at the Hotel El Cid, where we'd left the Sprinter, the Restaurant was open for lunch: full menu €10 pp or 'half menu' (only lacking a starter) €7. The half-menu was extremely good value: plenty of choice of main course and dessert, plus bread, wine and water. The meat (one pork, one steak) was especially tender and the home-made cheesecake lovely. To be recommended on Trip Advisor!

Return journey – A wonderful 100-mile journey back to l'Ametlla took us through a mountainous hinterland of ancient villages, ridges and wild outcrops, far removed from the narrow strip of coastal resorts. We drove north from Morella on rd 232 and over the Port de Torremiro pass at 4,100 ft/1240 m (not recommended for caravans), with a touch of snow lingering on the verges.

10. Valderrobres After32_Valderrobres_Castle.JPG descending, we crossed from Valencia into Aragon before turning east on rd 231 to Valderrobres (= valley of the oaks) at 1,700 ft/515 m. We paused here to inspect a partially restored 14thC castle next to a well-maintained church. The castle was closed until 4 pm. See www.castillodevalderrobres.com.

Clickwww.magbazpictures.com/11-valderrobres-castle.html

Continuing northeast on rd 231 we passed a local shepherd riding a donkey, reminiscent of the villagers of the Greek Peloponnese.

By the next village of Arnes (where there is an all-year ACSI campsite in the protected nature reserve of Els Ports), we were back in Catalonia. We stopped to admire the avenues of ancient cypress trees leading to the Ermita del Calvari chapel. A sign claimed that one of the wooden doors of the Vatican was made from one of these trees.

After 70 miles we met rd 12 and turned north along the River Ebro, crossing it in Benifallet. Down at 150 ft/45 m, it felt much warmer as we drove 'home' via Rasquera and el Perello, having made the most of our night away.

Fitting a GO2 Mover to the Caravan – and Castle no 11 at Siurana

Caravaning Cambrils (www.caravaningcambrils.com) is the nearest caravan dealer/repairer/accessory shop to l'Ametlla, situated on road N340 just north of the centre of the resort of Cambrils. It's run by Albert, who speaks very good English and was a great help in organising the fitting of a GO2 Mover to our caravan. On the appointed day, we took the freeway AP7 to exit 35 (Cambrils and Reus), then back towards Cambrils town centre on N340 to Caravaning Cambrils (on the left, after a campsite and before Lidl).

Arriving for the 9 am opening time, we left the caravan in the good hands of Albert's mechanic. We checked out the nearby campsite, in case of need, and found that Camping Amfora d'Arcs is open all year but had no campers in residence – hardly surprising at €25 per day (and no WiFi at all)!

11. Castell Siurana_(12).JPGSiurana, Siurana de Prades, nr Cornudella de Montsant – With a day to pass while the work was done, we drove north into the busy town of Reus (birthplace of Gaudi) for shopping at Maxi Dia and a McLunch, then headed northwest on rd 242 into the Serra de Montsant Natural Park. The road soon climbed away into the hills, the impressive strata of rocky ranges streaked with red and the coast laid out as a distant view behind us. We crossed the Coll d'Alforja, 14 miles from Reus, at 2,115 ft/641 m then descended for 6 miles into Cornudella de Montsant at about 1,800 ft/550 m.

As the Serra de Montsant range is popular with climbers and Siurana_(27).JPGwalkers, the village bakery/cafe was packed with sturdy hikers. We looked in the beautiful 1920s Co-operative Wine Cellar building which, like the one we'd passed in the village of el Pinell de Brai (between Miravet Castle and Tortosa), was designed by Cesar Martinelli, a pupil of Gaudi. The architecture and reverent atmosphere of the building was church-like and it is still very much in use, with massive wine barrels below the soaring roof vault. The local vintages were on sale, along with other regional products.

Our goaSiurana_(15).JPGl Castell Siurana, 5 miles east of Cornudella, was accessed by a very narrow steep hairpin road (keep right and follow 'Siurana'), which ended abruptly in a windswept car park up at 2,500 ft /760 m. The magnificent view over a sheer cliff face was vertiginous, especially in the relentless gale blowing across the rocky hilltop. The tiny half-deserted stone village had a stout 12thC Romanesque church (locked), a restaurant (open) and gift shop (closed), over which brood theSiurana_(21).JPG fallen remains of the last Islamic castle in Catalonia to be taken by the reconquering Christians, in 1153. We scrambled to the base of the ruins but the entry gate was barred, probably on the grounds of safety. It was literally breathtaking up there, where the wind snatched and then returned Barry's cap!

Click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/12-siurana-castle.html

The only Siurana_(19).JPGway out of Siurana was back down the switchback descent to Cornudella, marvelling all the way that such a road had been built and wondering why the Moors put a castle up there in the first place. The Tourist Info in Cornudella is only open at weekends but the information board claimed that the Moorish Queen of the Castle, Abdelazia, leapt to her death from the summit on horseback rather than yield to the Christians. It is said that a hoof print is still visible in the rock . . .

After returning to Cambrils to collect the caravan, Barry enjoyed propelling it out of the workshop, like a radio-controlled toy. The mover works well and will save a lot of wear and tear on the Sprinter's engine/clutch, not to mention our patience and our backs. See www.go2caravanmover.com for more on the model Albert chose, made by Truma.

The West Wind did Blow (but we had no snow)

Back at Camping Ametlla, the Pope's resignation (in Latin) had taken the place of the Horse-that-shall-be-called-Beef in the news headlines (Horses for Courses?) We felt no urge to return to our native land but did want to escape the relentless strong west wind that had been blowing along the coast for a week or more, keeping us mainly indoors. Braving the gale in the Sprinter, we drove to the shopping centre in Amposta (25 miles south, down rd 340, on the west bank of the Ebro) for the joys of Lidl, Maxi-Dia and Carrefour. We couldn't leave with the caravan until the buffeting wind dropped.

Barry used the time to create our fifth website, a Weebly version just for our photographs: www.magbazpictures.com. We think they deserve more exposure! Margaret worked on editing two very full accounts of motorhoming in France and Spain, by fellow-Lancastrian Brian Rudd, now on this website. There was also time to cook (not forgetting Pancake Day), read (including a new e-book, 'Bet Your Life' by our friend Joe McNally on Amazon), watch some of our stock of DVD films, deal with mail sent on from England, talk with the only other English couple on-site (David and Jenny of the Baha'i faith), write emails etc. And people ask what there is to do?

To Kiko Park Rural, Villargordo del Cabriel, Valencia - 189 miles (Height 2,285 ft)      

Open all year. See www.kikopark.com. ACSI Card rate €16.00 inc 6-amp electricity and showers. No WiFi. N 39.5525  W 1.47444

In mid-February Toledo_(40).JPGthe wind finally dropped and we were away by 10 am, extricating the caravan from between the olive trees with ease, thanks to the new Mover. We took the quiet toll-motorway AP7 south, past Tortosa and Benicarlo. The mountainous hinterland, so clear during the dry windy weather, now lay under dark cloud. On the seaward side, our view was soon blocked by the high-rise hotels of Oropesa and Benicassim and we wondered at the attraction of the flat Costa del Alhazar (orange blossom coast) with citrus groves laid out on an industrial scale.

Lunch on an empty service station south of Castellon after 95 very easy miles. Just before Sagunto, 12 miles later, we paid a toll of €21.10 (credit card or cash), after which the A7 bypassing Valencia is free. At 133 miles, we exited onto the A3 Autovia del Este, the free motorway that heads inland, west to Madrid. Since leaving the toll motorway, the traffic was much busier and services less frequent.

Climbing away from the coast through open rolling country past Buno (known to some for the tomato-throwing battle of La Tomatina in August), we reached a maximum of 2,365 ft/715 m at 160 miles, where we had a break at a huge empty truck services at El Rebollar. This would have made a good night-stop in a motorhome but when towing we prefer to find a campsite – one of the disadvantages of caravanning that we constantly debate! Soon we passed Requena, known for its red wines, the dry red earth scraped clean of weeds between acres of neatly pruned vines.

At 186 miles, and still well above 2,000 ft/600 m, we took exit 255 into the village of Villargordo del Cabriel. Ignore your SatNav if it leads down the very narrow streets (guess how we know that?!) You need to turn right at the first sign for 'Kiko Park', then follow signs for 3 miles to the holiday village/campsite.

The best pitches, with their own tap and drain, were all reserved for a Dutch convoy due tomorrow. There was no internet. The restaurant was open but only for an expensive Valentine's Day Menu starting at 9 pm, so we had a night in! And the 'beautiful lakeside location' was amid barren hills, with the eerie dammed Contreras Reservoir a good 30 minutes' walk away. However, it was the only camp we'd found open, in order to break the journey to Aranjuez. After a rest day, doing the laundry (quickly dried outside in the warm sun and fresh breeze) and walking to said lake, we were soon back on the road.

To Camping International, Aranjuez, Castilla-La Mancha - 157 miles (Height 1,610 ft)     

Open all year. See www.campingaranjuez.com. ACSI Card rate €16.00 inc 16-amp electricity, serviced pitch and showers. WiFi cost: €4 for 1 day, €10 for 3 days, €15 for a week, €25 for a month. N 40.04222  W 3.59944

On a lovely Toledo_(41).JPGsunny morning we returned 3.5 miles back to the Madrid-bound toll-free A3, which crossed the foot of the vast Contreras Reservoir via splendid viaducts and a short tunnel. The parallel railway line to Madrid looked equally newly built. Pausing after 22 miles for a coffee break at an Autogrill Services, we noticed the diesel (at €1.41) was the same price as in local garages.

Our road remained high, across a rolling plain of red earth and green pasture. We passed a huge wind farm at 48 miles, set on a 3,000 ft/910 m ridge that disappeared in low cloud. Both motorway and service areas were unbelievably empty – perhaps because they were so recently opened that the SatNav didn't know they were there! The high point of 3,182 ft/965 m was at 78 miles, with a lunch break 9 miles later at an empty truck stop near Montalbo.

We left A3 at 114 miles at Tarancon, taking exit 80 onto the A40. This newly completed  Autovia de la Castella-La Mancha  ran west for 32 miles to Ocana, where we joined the A4 and continued to exit 52 for Aranjuez: toll-free all the way. A promising dual carriageway led 3 miles towards the town, then narrowed into a hectic road through the centre past the Royal Palace, culminating in a busy cobbled roundabout and a small road bridge across the Tajo River. At the next roundabout, follow the signs off right and alongside the river to the campsite. When we leave, we'll take a longer way round to avoid the centre of Aranjuez, whatever the guide books and SatNav suggest!

Despite the Aranjuez_(15).JPGawkward approach it's an excellent campsite, well organised, with generous hedged pitches. We have our own tap, drain, rubbish bin, fire extinguisher – and a view across the leafy Tajo to the Prince's Garden parkland opposite. The site is by no means full but has enough business to keep its shop and restaurant/bar open. The ablution buildings are well heated - and there is even a little 'tourist train' to take campers into town, free of charge, each morning at 10.30 am, though they have to walk or taxi back unless they wait till 6 pm. Impressed, we bought a week's WiFi.

At Camping International, Aranjuez, Castilla-La Mancha

Aranjuez, midway between Madrid and Toledo, is not an ancient city. It grew up around the Palacio Real, the Royal Palace, built in 1561 as a summer retreat from the rigours of Madrid. By the 18th century the palace, with its parks and gardens, had grown into a copy of Versailles that still dominates the town, drawing tourist crowds to the World Heritage site. The only other attractions are the bullring and a large daily market hall.

Near the cAranjuez_(11).JPGampsite a small footbridge (with ramp for wheeled access) crosses the river into the Jardin del Principe gardens, forming the shortest route (less than a mile) into the town centre. This seemed the ideal way to go by bicycle – until we met the gatekeeper-from-hell and were forcibly ejected from this public park, even after dismounting. The full story of our encounter and subsequent complaint, delivered to both the Tourist Office and Royal Palace, is on this website.

The alternativeAranjuez_(13).JPG route between town and campsite is to join the chaotic traffic over the busy cobbled roads and bridge – the way we'd driven in – or to cycle 5 miles alongside the park railings to the next bridge and circle back on quieter roads, which we now did. Bicycles can be hired from campsite or Tourist Office, but neither of these tell you of a potential ban in the park, nor does the cycling leaflet available in English from the Tourist Office. You have been warned! Disillusioned with the Royal Palace and all its works, we didn't take the guided tour (even though it's free on Wednesday afternoons).

We fared better locally in the Sprinter, with a choice Aranjuez_(14).JPGof two Lidl stores within 3 miles: one on the main road north towards Madrid (next to a good butcher's) and one south through the town centre towards the A4 (next to Maxi-Dia, near a huge Carrefour shopping mall).

The campsite restaurant offers lunch, dinner and take-aways until 6 pm Mon, closed Tues, then open until late evening Weds through Sundays. We tried the Menu del Dia one night, which had a good choice at €9.95 pp for 3 courses and a glass of wine. Even better value was a take-away whole roast chicken and chips for €8.50 – more than enough to feed us for 2 evenings plus a lunchtime sandwich each.

A Day in Toledo – 31 miles each way (without the caravan)

Click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/toledo.html

Toledo, a lofty World HeritageToledo_(14).JPG city overlooking the Tajo River, was an easy 30- mile drive southwest on rd 400. Approaching the city, pass the handsome 1920s railway station, cross the river on the Azarquiel bridge and turn right into a large free car park, opposite the bus station. There was plenty of space on this Sunday morning and we parked near a trio of Dutch motorhomes to eat our picnic.

We enjoyed the stiff climb up to the old town, datingToledo_(12).JPG back to Roman times, though we could have taken an escalator to the Miradero lookout. Armed with a free map from the Tourist Office in Plaza Zocodova, we lost ourselves in a tangled warren of sloping medieval cobbled streets linking the many historic churches, mosques, synagogues, museums and shops. Swords and marzipan seemed to be the souvenirs of choice.

Potted history: MuslimsToledo_(13).JPG took Toledo in 711, ceding to King Alfonso VI in 1085, when the Pope recognised the city as the seat of the Catholic Church in Spain. Christians, Jews and Muslims co-existed until 1492: not only the year that 'Columbus sailed the ocean blue' but the date when Spain's Jews and Muslims had to convert or flee the country. 15th century Toledo was considered as a capital by Carlos I until his successor chose Madrid, though Toledo remains the spiritual capital. Finally, in the Civil War of 1936-39, Franco's troops bombarded the Alcazar, where the Nationalists had taken refuge. See www.toledo-turismo.com/en for more.

Passing more churches, monasteries and towers than weToledo_(28).JPG had time for, we made for the massive Gothic Cathedral, on the site of Toledo's central mosque which was destroyed in 1085. This being Sunday, entry was free as far as a side chapel, from which we saw enough of the main nave and rose window.

Back to Toledo_(27).JPGthe Plaza Zocodova for delicious mugs of thick hot chocolate at one of the many cafes surrounding the square. There was also a McDonalds, with a queue of students to the door, and a tourist 'train' waiting to go, filled by a group who looked Chinese. The place must be choked during the summer months! 

Reinvigorated, we walked up to the Alcazar at the highest point of the city. The 10th century Moslem al-qasr (fortress) was taken by the Christians, rebuilt for Carlos I, then abandoned when the Court moved to Madrid. It eventually became a Military Academy but was largely destroyed by the Fascists under Franco in 1936. Franco had it rebuilt and turned into a military museum. In recent years it was closed for substantial Toledo_(29).JPGrenovation and modernisation but is now fully open (entry €5) as the Museo del Ejercito (Museum of the Army) – and free on Sundays but closed on Wednesdays.

To our surprise, it Toledo_(22).JPGwas fascinating (and had a nice cafe)! Rising on escalators through the modern many-layered building, there were glimpses of a Roman cistern and the Muslim foundations. Well presented exhibitions, labelled in Spanish and English, covered every facet of Spanish military history: campaigns, weapons, flags, uniforms, model soldiers, colonies, monarchy . . . One room had been left as it was following Franco's siege, with a display of photographs from that time. We stayed until closing time at 5 pm and even pacifist Margaret enjoyed the history lesson.

Then it was downhill all the way, back to the car park to drive home to Aranjuez. The weather was cold but bright, with a touch of frost overnight. No complaints, as we hear that in Burgos to the north it is snowing with a low of minus 7 deg C at night.

Cycling around Aranjuez

 Do not - repeat not – cycle through the Jardin del Principe park which lies between the campsite and the town centre, unless you want to meet resistance and learn about the official complaints procedure (see the article 'Assault in Aranjuez')! It was actually a useful lesson, as later simply asking for the Hoja de Reclamacion (complaints form) in a cafe where we'd been overcharged resulted in an immediate refund.

1. Campsite to Aranjuez Centre (2 km/1.25 miles) - Turn left at end of lane from campsite (signed 'Aranjuez'), pass the forbidden footbridge into the Jardin del Principe, left again at a busy main road and continue due south, across the Tajo on the Barcas road bridge. You'll soon see the Tourist Office on the left (free maps and complaint forms) and you can't miss the Palacio Real (Royal Palace) to the right. Keep straight on for the market hall and the central square, Plaza de la Constitucion,  to the left. This is the shortest permitted route.

2. Campsite to Aranjuez Centre (8 km/5 miles) - For a quieter route and a leg-stretch, turn right at end of lane from campsite (signed 'Chinchon') and take the pot-holed minor road. Turn right at the next 2 junctions to reach the Queens Bridge across the Tajo River. Turn right here and follow the tree-lined path that separates Calle de la Reina (Queen Street) from the outer railings of the forbidden Jardin del Principe park. This leads to the roundabout just south of the Barcas road bridge. Continue as above.

3. 'The Twelve Streets Route' (up to 22 km/14 miles) - A free leaflet/map from the Tourist Office suggests cycling on the more rural north side of the Tajo. The directions are vague, there are no signposts and it is not exactly a circular route, but at least there was very little traffic. We rode northeast from the campsite to the Real Cortijo (Royal Farm) de San Isidro – an 18th C chapel standing incongruously in a 1960s suburban development. Then west, along a straight tree-lined road that once ran through the thickets and kitchen gardens of the royal estate (now confined to land south of the river). Reaching the large busy roundabout at the Plaza de las doce Calles (12 Streets Square), we were impressed that drivers gave way to let us cross the main road. The eponymous 12 streets radiate from this roundabout and we continued southwest on the Calle Princesa and over a railway bridge. Empty tracks led past the Hipodromo (former royal racecourse, built 1917; abandoned in the early 1930s when Spain became a Republic), then a path alongside the Tajo River returned us to the Plaza de las doce Calles, for the road back to the campsite. The whole ride was an easy 22 km, partly quiet pock-marked roads, partly dirt tracks. It could be shortened at various points.

MARCH 2013

To Camping Monfrague, Malpartida de Plasencia, Extremadura - 174 miles (Height 1,410 ft)     

Open all year. See www.campingmonfrague.com. ACSI Card rate €16.00 (cash only) inc 10-amp electricity and showers. WiFi only in bar/restaurant (free but useless). N 39.94361  W 6.08444

We left Aranjuez with mixed feelings. It was the best campsite so far on this Spanish journey (good books on the swap shelf, reliable internet, heated facilities, good private serviced pitch and excellent restaurant) - but as a base for cycling it has proved terrible, with busy main roads and forbidden parks!

The shortest route to our goal in Extremadura, the province to the west, bordering Portugal, was via Toledo. Bruce (our Australian-accented SatNav) proposed going north on the A4 to meet Madrid's outer ring before turning west. Attracted by free motorways that avoided the centre of both Aranjuez and Toledo, we took his advice – a mistake! Driving north on rd 305, then the busy A4, we were astonished at how far the capital sprawled with its businesses, industry and tenements. If there hadn't been a major recession in the construction industry, Aranjuez would be a suburb of Madrid.

Taking exit 17 into the confusing maelstrom of M50, Madrid's outer ring, we should have been going clockwise, so why were we going east? About-turn at the next junction to circle south of the city, seeing as much of Madrid as we shall ever want. At 40 miles it was a relief to join the A5, Autovia del Suroueste, heading southwest and gradually becoming quieter. As the overnight frost gave way to a bright sunny spring morning, we enjoyed a coffee break 15 miles later on a large service station up above 2,000 ft. After passing to the north of Talavera (another city on the Tajo, the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula), we had a lunch stop on the services at 112 miles.

Continuing west through a rolling green landscape of olive groves and pastureland (grazed by black bulls with prominent horns, as well as the Manchego sheep whose milk produces Spain's most popular cheeses), the view to the north was the snow-dusted peaks of the Sierra de Gredos. We passed Oropesa with its hilltop medieval castle, then crossed the border into Extremadura.

At 142 miles, we took exit 185 onto the EX-A1 and kept west for Plasencia. This free motorway now ran parallel with the northern border of the Monfrague National Park: a Special Bird Protection Zone and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, home to some spectacular raptors and the rare black storks. Almost immediately we noticed eagles (or vultures?) soaring high above, while every pylon or overhead road sign was topped with a storks' nest. One wayside ruin had no less than 5 pairs of (white) storks already in residence.

We crossed the Rio Tietar (which joins the Tajo in the National Park) at 160 miles, 11 miles before our exit 46, signed for Plasencia (to the north) or Monfrague (to the south). The campsite is just 3 miles south along rd 208, on the left. We found it disappointingly unkempt with sloping pitches, awkward trees and soft ill-drained ground, but it's the nearest camp to the National Park. And perhaps the noisy groups will leave after the weekend? The restaurant and bar was busy, with a popular football match showing on the TV. Maybe another day ... It does claim to have free WiFi but only in the bar and we later found it to be 'incompatible' with either of our laptops. Very frustrating.

At Camping Monfrague, Malpartida de Plasencia, Extremadura

Bird Watching

There are plenty of birds to be seen from the campsite, with eagles/vultures soaring aloft, a lone red kite circling, a nuthatch on the trunk of the holm oak outside our window, goldfinch feeding, house martins mud-nesting and – most exciting – a small party of azure-winged magpies landing close by (which naturally took to the trees when we tried a photograph). 'Birds of Britain and Europe' lists these as unique to southern and central Spain and we've never seen them before: a smaller magpie with conspicuous blue wings and tail, black crown and beige body. Very smart indeed.

Click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/montfrague-national-park.html

To seeMonfrague_(18).JPG Monfrague National Park's emblematic Griffon Vulture we started by driving the Sprinter just 8 miles south on rd 208 to the tiny stone village of Villareal de San Carlos, the only settlement in the Park. Here there is a low-key under-funded badly-signed so-called 'Information Centre', open daily 9.30 am-6 pm free of charge. Inside three separate houses, it offers a small exhibition of photographs and items labelled Do Not Touch in Spanish. In fact all the information panels, and the simple leaflet with suggested walks of various lengths, were exclusively in Spanish and only one of the several attendants spoke a little English. The nearby cafι was closed. Staff back at campsite Reception had been much more informative, helpfully telling us that we'd just missed the annual Extremadura Birdwatching Fair at Villareal de San C (1-3 March 2013)! See www.turismomonfrague.com.

We drove on along rd 208, over the Tajo River bridge (the Park straddles its confluence with the Tietar) Monfrague_(10).JPGand past a couple of parking spots until we rounded a bend and stopped in awe at the Salto del Gitano (Gypsy's Leap) lookout/parking area. Here, where the Tajo breaks through the Sierra de Monfrague, the Pena Falcon Crags tower above the far side of the river.

The jagged line Monfrague_(13).JPGatop the crags was not rocks, as we first thought, but the unmistakeable bare white heads and hunched shoulders of a colony of Griffon Vultures (Gyps fulvus). These enormous light brown carrion-feeders stood motionless, untouchable, at the top of the food chain. Despite the rain that had begun to pour we stood transfixed, taking photographs in poor light against a leaden sky. A little further along, 5 miles from the Info Centre, the Castillo car park near the National Park's southern boundary is the start of a 45-minute walk up to a ruined 9thC Muslim fort but the path was closed due to a rock fall.

Retracking on rd 208 towards the campsite, there is a right turn signed Saltos de Torrejon. We Monfrague_(14).JPGtook this narrow road leading over the Torrejon-Tajo dam to the eastern entrance of the National Park at Portilla del Tietar (7.5 miles from Villareal de San C). Our route wound its way through wooded hills of dense shrubs and stripped cork-oak thick with mosses, down to and across the Tietar River. Joining a couple of serious ornithologists, their massive camera lenses balanced on tripods, we attempted more photographs of Griffon Vultures on the crags above our side of the Tietar. Some birds clung to the cliff face, others perched above on the rock pinnacles or in spindly trees, one or two had their broad dark wings spread out to dry after the heavy rain, like massive cormorants. We also saw more azure-winged magpies in the woods, a white stork or two down by the river and a lone Iberian Imperial Eagle (Aquila adalberti) soaring high.

What a treat, we returnMonfrague_(12).JPGed to the campsite more than satisfied, having explored the length of the only two roads that run through this small national park, created in 2007. There are reputedly also mammals (deer, otter, wild boar, foxes, maybe even Iberian lynx) though they kept well out of sight!

On a later visit to the Salto del Gitano (Gypsy's Leap) lookout/parking area, during a brief sunny interval in a very wet week, we saw many more Griffon Vultures soaring on the thermals – some of the 80 pairs living in the National Park. Much rarer is the small white Egyptian Vulture, only one pair known to be visiting to breed (Neophron percnopterus – or Alimoche in Spanish). A neighbouring ornithologist excitedly pointed one out to us in the sky, along with another Iberian Imperial Eagle. And down by the Tajo River below the crags there were two Black Storks (Ciconia nigra), one of only three pairs resident here. Brilliant.

Note: You do need a car or a small campervan to follow these roads to the hides and look-outs. However, several companies organise guided birdwatching and photography tours, either on foot or by 4WD, starting at Villareal de San C (info from the Info Centre). The easiest option for motorhomers is to go with En-Ruta, who offer a 4-hour 4WD 'Photographic Safari' that leaves the campsite at 10.30 am daily for €25 pp (book at Reception): www.rutaspormonfrague.com.

Plasencia

The nearest city to the campsite, Plasencia, is 6.5 miles north, along the narrow rd 208. Plasencia_(10).JPGNot pleasant for cycling, with an 8% downhill to the Rio Jerte, so we went in the Sprinter van (besides, it was raining!). The whole city, ancient and modern, is surprisingly large; the capital of northern Extremadura, rivalling Caceres in the south. On the way in, before crossing the river, we had a choice of shops: Aldi, Maxi-Dia and Lidl.

Click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/plasencia.html

Continue over the Trujillo Bridge for the old walled city, rising above a bend in the river and dominated by its Cathedral. Don't try to drive through the gate and inside the walls, it's a bustling warren of very narrow streets and only for those who know their way in a small car! Spotting one space, we turned left immediately after the bridge and managed to park by the river.

We wandered throughPlasencia_(11).JPG the gate and along to the Plaza de la Catedral – in fact, two Cathedrals merged to form a massive whole, providing a lofty nesting place for several pairs of white storks. The entry ticket (for the 13thC Romanesque Old Cathedral and Cloisters, 14thC Chapel of St Paul, and 16thC Gothic New Cathedral) cost €1.50, open to tourists 9 am-1 pm and 4-6 pm daily, except during Sunday services. The size of the enlarged cathedral, the soaring vaulted ceilings, the golden retablo and the paintings in the Capilla de San Pablo (including a Caravaggio of John the Baptist) were certainly impressive, as was the New Cathedral's Plateresque facade.

Rain eased as we continued along Calle Santa Clara, picking up a freePlasencia_(17).JPG city map at the Municipal Cultural Centre (inside the restored Convent of Santa Clara). On past numerous stately stone buildings and the Baroque church of San Esteban (St Stephen), we reached the arcaded main square, Plaza Mayor. The restored 16thC Town Hall incorporates the 17thC Old Prison and a clock tower, though we'd just missed the figure of 'Grandfather Mayorga' striking the hour. The Tuesday Market still held in the square dates back to the 12thC.

Our goal, the Plasencia_(16).JPGTorre de Lucia, was a few minutes away, along Calle de el Rey and past the 16thC church of Santa Anna (now an auditorium). Without a map, you need to ask! Lucia's Tower is on the remaining short section of the fortified city walls, which can only be accessed via the 'Interpretation Centre', a little museum on 3 floors (entry free, open 10 am-2 pm and 5-7 pm Tues-Sat, plus Sunday morning). There is a small exhibition on the history of Plasencia and a video (all in Spanish) but we were lucky enough to meet the friendly curator, Felicia, who was very happy to practise her excellent English. We learnt that the city was founded and fortified by Alfonso VIII of Leon in 1186, then changed hands between Christians and Moslems a couple of times before coming under the power of the Catholic Monarchs in 1488. By then it had a Cathedral, as well as the first University in Extremadura. Sadly, the castle that once stood behind this tower was destroyed in the 13thC. Our brief walk on top of the walls in 3Plasencia_(14).JPG directions gave a good overview of both medieval and modern Plasencia. Felicia also told us that the surrounding valleys are famous for their cherry trees and cherry liqueur, with a cherry blossom festival at the end of March. www.turismoextremadura.com

Leaving the Tower, we might have exited the old quarter through the 15thC Puerta del Sol (Sun Gate) for a walk to San Anton's Aqueduct, built in mid-16thC to supply the city with water. As it was now pouring with rain again, we left that for another visit and walked back along wet cobbled alleyways, across the main square and through the Trujillo Gate to our waitiPlasencia_(18).JPGng Sprinter.

Returning to Plasencia on a sunny morning, we turned right after crossing the river, keeping outside the city walls, and followed the main road round to the parks to the east of the old centre. There is plenty of free parking space on the Avda de la Hispanidad  in front of the entrance to the Parque de los Pinos, except on Tuesdays (market day). Rain set in as soon as we stopped here, within sight of the arches of the Aqueduct! After a short wet walk in the Parque, in the company of ducks, geese and peacocks, we ate our picnic inside the Sprinter van as hailstones bounced off the roof.

Ruta de la Plata (the Silver Road)

Early Plasencia lay on the almost 1000 km-long Roman road built in the first century AD to link the Bay of Biscay in the north with Seville in the south. It came down through Salamanca, Caceres, and the capital of the Roman Province of Lusitania at Augusta Emerita (modern Merida). The route that became known as the Via de la Plata was strategically important in the Middle Ages in the struggle against the Moors, who ruled much of the land south of the Tajo River. With the advent of motor traffic, the road gave way to the A66 highway and it is now promoted as a tourist route: www.rutadelaplata.com. 

To Camping Municipal Ciudad de Caceres, Caceres, Extremadura - 47 miles (Height 1,380 ft)     

Open all year. See www.campingcaceres.com. ACSI Card rate €16.00 inc 10-amp electricity and private en-suite toilet/shower! Plus every 4th night free. Free WiFi to pitch. N 39.48861  W 6.41277

After a wet week at Monfrague, our new GO2 Mover did a great job in getting the caravan off its soft muddy pitch up a slight incline.

It was just 3 miles north to EX-A1, then west to join A66 southwest for Caceres, on quiet free motorway the whole way. The max height was 1,590 ft, before a slight drop to cross the swollen Tajo River. Take exit 545 at 45 miles, and follow N630 towards Caceres. Turn left at second roundabout and follow camping signs to site, next to football stadium, a couple of miles north of the city.

Here it is still showery but the campsite is excellent. Each level gravel pitch has its own en-suite toilet/hot shower, as well as an outdoor table and chairs, sink and tap with hosepipe.

At Camping Municipal Ciudad de Caceres, Caceres, Extremadura

At the swap library in Reception we acquired 2 CDs of Country Music, donated a book or two and found a couple of DVDs to watch and return. There is also a good laundry, price €5 for a wash and dry. The restaurant/bar has a cosy fire and we sampled the Menu del Dia one evening: good value at €9 pp for 3 courses, bread, water and a glass of wine. The seafood Paella starter was quite tasty.

The free WiFi works well on both laptops, so it's good to listen to Radio 4 while catching up with correspondence and updating the website. We even have a pair of Azure-winged Magpie (Cyanopica cyanus) to watch, a bird with a remarkable range. It is resident in two areas of the world, over 5,000 miles apart: in China/Mongolia/Japan – and Spain!

The migratory species passing through the campsite is less interesting and more intrusive: Homo Campingcariensis on the annual migration from the Mediterranean coasts of Spain and Portugal to their summer habitat in northern Europe. Some stayed for a brief night, others lingered in small flocks, parting with cries of 'See you next year'. We felt that we were going in the wrong direction!

Into Caceres and its Medieval Centre

Click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/caceres.html

The city is Caceres_(37).JPGonly 3 miles south of the camp, though it wouldn't be pleasant to cycle in on the busy highway. Camp Reception supply information on the half-hourly bus, as well as a map of the Ciudad Monumental (the walled medieval centre) and its monuments. We drove in (past a Lidl store) in the Sprinter and just managed to park in the street near the Bullring. It was about 15 minutes' walk along Sancti Espiritu, past the Church of Santo Domingo topped with nesting storks, to the Plaza Mayor. The official car parks are indoor with height restrictions so we'd suggest motorhomers take the bus – it's worth the effort to explore this World Heritage Site! See www.turismocaceres.org and www.turismo.caceres.es.

Caceres began as the Roman colony of Norba Caesarina, Caceres_(16).JPGfounded by veterans from the Roman army around 25 BC, though little remains except one of the four Roman gates, the Arco del Cristo. The town was rebuilt by the Moors, who strengthened the walls and towers. After the Christian reconquest in 1229, incoming nobles built substantial manorial palaces, churches and convents and the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque centre is well preserved and unspoilt. Most of the cafes and shops lie round the huge Plaza Mayor, off which Estrella Arch leads into the Ciudad Monumental.

Wandering the Caceres_(22).JPGcobbled lanes and steps that link the three main squares, we started in Plaza Santa Maria where, like most of the visitable monuments, the 15thC gothic cathedral church was still closed for the afternoon (open 10 am-2 pm and 4.30-8 pm, €1 plus €1 to climb bell tower). The substantial buildings round the square include the Episcopal Palace and the restored 15thC Palacio de Carvajal (Tourist Office HQ with small display and gardens), which was freely open all day. Here we got a better map and other information.

Continuing past the Roman gate, we climbed the steep narrow streets of humbler housing in the Barrio de San Antonio, the old Jewish quarter, where the church was built over the former synagogue.  

On to the Plaza Valetas for the recommended Caceres Museum in the 16thC Palacio de las Valetas,Caceres_(41).JPG built over a 12thC Muslim cistern. Luckily the museum of archaeology, local history and costume (free to EU citizens) was just opening (winter times 9 am-2.30 pm and 4-7.15 pm, closed Mondays). We saw the cistern below, a display of prehistoric and Roman finds on the ground floor, and the surprisingly interesting 'folk museum' upstairs, illustrating the hard life of Caceres_(46).JPGthe peasants through the centuries. There were fishing boats and beehives made of cork, agricultural and household implements of wood (very little sign of metals), spinning and weaving of wool, fascinating costumes etc. There is also a fine arts section, open mornings only.

Making our way back through the warren of historic streets and squares, we stopped at a most interesting and unexpected spectacle: a television crew working on a film in Plaza San Pablo. Horses, soldiers, executioner and peasants re-enacted the beheading of a medieval conspirator, with several 'takes'. Fascinated, we watched until the chill of sunset drove us back to our parked Sprinter. 

A day in Roman Merida

The modern city of Merida is an easy 50 miles south of Caceres down the toll-free A66 Autovia Merida_(51).JPGde la Plata. Rather than move to the reputedly dismal municipal campsite at Merida, we drove down from Caceres for the day to visit the impressive wealth of Roman remains. Arriving early, we managed to park the Sprinter on the street to the west side of the Theatre (Paseo de Alvarez Saenz de Buruaga).

Click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/merida-the-roman-town.html

Potted history: Merida_(40).JPGThe town of Emerita Augusta was founded in 25 BC and settled by veterans of the army of Augustus, to protect a pass and bridge over the Guadiana river. It developed into one of the most important cities in the Roman Empire, the capital of Lusitania Province (covering much of what is now Portugal and Western Spain). After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Visigoths moved in and made Merida their capital of Hispania. It fell to the Muslims in the 8thC, then into Christian hands in 1230.

Despite Napoleon's 19thC invasion, when many monumentsMerida_Museum_(10).JPG were destroyed, Merida still preserves more important ancient monuments than any other city in Spain. It can also be proud of the stunning modern building that houses the National Museum of Roman Art. We had a full and fantastic day! www.turismoextremadura.com and www.merida.es.

We began at theMerida_(23).JPG Tourist Office by the Theatre entrance, collecting a small map and a list of the 7 monuments that are included on the Entrada Conjunta Single Entrance Ticket (excellent value at €12, or €6 for EU pensioners). With this you can visit: the Theatre and Amphitheatre; Alcazaba (Arab Citadel overlooking river and Roman bridge); Mithraeum (Roman villa); Columbaria (Roman cemetery); Circus (Roman hippodrome); Santa Eulalia (church and crypt); and Moreria (Moorish archaeological area). In winter, all these sites are open daily 9.30 am-2 pm, then 4-6.30 pm (in summer 5-7.30 pm). The Theatre and Amphitheatre site does remain open all day on Fri, Sat and Sundays (but this was Thursday!) As the various sites are well scattered, strategic planning and prioritising was needed.

Other Roman remains are freely on open view, and tMerida_(11).JPGhere are two museums (both open Tues-Sat 9.30 am to 6.30 pm, and Sunday 10 am-3 pm). The National Museum of Roman Art is free to EU pensioners any time, and to all on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning – otherwise €3. Finally, the Visigoth Art Museum is free to all whenever it's open. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Visigoths moved in and made Merida their capital of Hispania.

At theMerida_(25).JPG entrance to the Theatre and Amphitheatre we duly bought our Single Entrance Tickets, which included an excellent booklet in English on the 'Historical Monuments of Merida World Heritage Site', with map, photos and full information. The 6,000-seater theatre, still used for summer classical performances, was stunning, with a 2-tier backdrop of Corinthian columns. The gladiatorial amphitheatre, which held 14,000 onlookers, inspired the visiting mixed infants to noisy combat.

A stroll through modern shopping streets led to the site of tMerida_(43).JPGhe Roman Forum, complete with the 'Temple of Diana', partly overbuilt by a 16thC mansion. Downhill from here to the river and the Alcazaba, the Moorish fort (built in 835 with stone from the Roman walls) guarding the main entrance to the city. From the outer wall there is a great view of one of the longest remaining Roman bridges, its 60 granite arches spanning the Guadiana River and still carrying pedestrians. Inside the fort, a 3-storey tower has a Merida_(36).JPGdark basement cistern, topped with a mosque and a lookout. We wondered how the Arabs knew in which direction Mecca lay.

A long walk to our next goal, the excavated Mithraeum (2ndC AD Roman villa) and nearby Columbaria (Roman cemetery), which are near the 19thC bullring. Information here was only in Spanish (unlike the well labelled Theatre complex). As other sites were now closing (2 pm), we returned to the Theatre area for a well-earned lunch. The €10 Menu del Dia at the Cafe del Teatro was just what we needed: a starter of cauliflower cheese with ham and potatoes, rabbit stew, chocolate profiteroles, bread and drinks.

Reinvigorated, we spent a good hour or so in the nearby National Museum of Roman Art. The soMerida_Museum_(16).JPGaring brick building, designed by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo and opened in 1986, rivals the grandeur of the breathtaking mosaics, frescoes, statues and artefacts that it was designed to display. There are 3 floors and an underground cistern, as well as a section of Roman road uncovered when the museum foundations were dug. Don't miss it!! http://museoarteromano.mcu.es/

Click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/merida-the-museum.html

Returning to the Sprinter van, wMerida_(63).JPGe drove out to the Roman aqueduct, Acueducto de los Milagros, which supplied the city with water from Lake Proserpino (5 km away and now the site of a dam). Again we were lucky in finding a place to park near the railway line. From the grassy park below the viaduct arches, we photographed the storks and watched them swoop down to the stream, gathering material to repair their many nests.

Driving back through the city to join the northbound A66, Merida_Museum_(19).JPGwe passed the 13thC Basilica built to honour Santa Eulalia, Merida's Patron Saint, martyred here. Excavations alongside have uncovered a paleo-Christian cemetery and remains including the 5thC church. Further out, across the railway line, lies the Roman Circus, a hippodrome for 30,000 spectators – but enough is enough. Merida really needs two days of dedicated sightseeing to cover it all.

Before reaching the A66 we made a short detour to check out Camping Merida, about 2 miles northeast of the city. It was just as we'd heard – small muddy pitches, low trees, no permanent Reception, no WiFi, generally neglected and costing more than the campsite at Caceres, to which we gladly returned.

Moving on to Portugal

After a day of seriously heavy rain delayed our departure, the Vernal Equinox dawned warm and dry. On settling our bill at Caceres Camping, we benefited from a new offer of every 4th night free, a nice surprise! We phoned a small rural campsite on the edge of a Natural Park in the Alto Alentejo – it was time to head west into the WET (Western European Time) zone. And so it proved to be!

Continued at: Spring in Portugal 2013