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In Spain in the Winter of 2017 PDF Printable Version E-mail

In Spain in the Winter of 2017

Margaret Williamson
January 2017


Continued fromIn France in the Winter of 2016/17

Continued atIn Portugal in the Spring of 2017

Travelling in our Carado motorhome, we left England at the beginning of December 2016 on the Brittany ferry from Portsmouth to Ouistreham, the port for the city of Caen. We headed south down the west coast of France to the Pyrenees. Here we paused for some time in the Basque country, hiring a car for a week out of Biarritz for a tour which included Christmas on the Spanish side of the mountains. In the following account, we finally leave France over the Pyrenees on the classic route south from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Pamplona.

Motorhoming through the centre of Spain, we aim to cross the mountainous frontier into Portugal..

Itxassou (France) to Camping Ezcaba, Oricain, Pamplona (Navarra) - 63 miles

Open all year.  www.campingezcaba.com  ACSI Card rate €19 (no tax) inc 10-amp elec, chilly showers. 7th night free. WiFi expensive: €1 for 1 hr, €5 for one day.  N 42.86776  W 1.62250

On 6 January (Epiphany:
1[1][2][3][4][5][6].jpg a public holiday in Spain but not in France) we are sorry to say Adieu to Camping Hiriberria. Madame presents me with a dozen free-range eggs - a thank you for the Review I put on the ACSI website – and she is generous with a long-stay discount. This is the first French campsite on which we have ever felt so welcome.

We motorhome down to St-Jean-Pied-de –Port, calling at Lidl in Uhart-Cize on the way. Then we follow the ancient route over the Pyrenees to Pamplona that we took in the hire car two weeks earlier. It's a fine sunny day, 10°C outside with no ice or snow.

From St Jean the quiet D933 runs south up the valley of the Petite Nive to the imperceptible Spanish border 5 miles later. The road signs change from French to Spanish & Basque and fuel is a little cheaper. There are regular signs for the Camino to Santiago de Compostela and warnings of pilgrims crossing. We even see a lone walker, with backpack and sticks, making his way along. Not a young man, but he doesn't want a lift.

The road follows the line of the French frontier for a few miles before starting to climb 2[1][2][3][4][5].jpgmore steeply, snaking up to the Puerto de Ibaneta at 1067 m/3,520 ft (34 miles from Itxassou). The pass is marked by a hostel (closed), a modern chapel (locked) and a simple mound with a wooden cross and a pair of boots marking one pilgrim's last resting place. We had climbed the short path to a monument and taken photos on our earlier crossing, so we don't linger here today.

Then it's a short (2 km) downhill to Roncesvalles (French Roncevaux), signed '15 minutes' for Camino walkers, at 942 m/3,110 ft. Here is a huge hospice/monastery and a pilgrim hostel (only another 790 km to Santiago de Compostela). At the busy Casa Sabina restaurant, where we recently lunched quietly for €13, there is now a festive €19 Menu del Dia for the holiday. We park and make a sandwich.

Outside, 3[1][2][3][4][5].jpgin a biting wind, there is a monument to the Battle of Roncesvalles, 778 AD. Here a force of Basques ambushed the Frankish rear-guard of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne's army, which was returning to France after attempting to defeat the Moors and restore Christendom in the Iberian peninsula. As retaliation for the destruction of the city walls of Pamplona, the Basques killed Roland and all his men. The battle (the Holy Roman Emperor's only defeat) is recounted in the 11thC 'Song of Roland', the earliest surviving work of French literature. Nearby is the 14thC Iglesia de Santiago and the even older (12thC) Chapel of the Holy Spirit, standing over a4[1][2][3][4][5].jpgcrypt for the bones of pilgrims who died at the medieval hospice. Legend says that it is on the spot where Charlemagne (Carlomagno) had a tomb built for the defeated Roland and the bodies of all those slain in the battle.

After Roncesvalles we turn west on N135, over two lower passes (Aurizberri at 922m/3,040 ft and Erro at 801 m/2,645 ft). There are regular blue & yellow Camino signs, as footpaths cross our road and disappear into the woods. Then we meet the busier Pamplona Ring and follow the SatNav and signs to Camping Ezcaba near the village of Oricain, about 10 km northeast of Pamplona.

As it's a holiday (Dia de8[1][2][3].jpg los Reyes Magos or Three Kings Day) the Reception is closed and the intercom unanswered but the site is open, with just one motorhome (GB) on site. The caretaker comes round later, speaking only Spanish, but we are eventually registered. The WiFi works well, after buying a one-hour or one-day ticket, which is frustrating and expensive. On a previous visit (see picture on the left of our Sprinter van and caravan 4 years ago) one-week tickets were available but we are told they are Finito. The shower/toilet block is cold, with luke warm water, though a new hard-standing area for motorhomes is a big improvement on sinking into muddy grass or parking in the roadway.

And the site is 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 (or Iruna in the Basque language).

At Camping Ezcaba, Oricain, Pamplona

Margaret's Review of the Pamplona Campsite for the ACSI Website

A large site situated by a riverside cycle/footpath on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. Pamplona is 10 km away along the path (cycles can be hired from the campsite). Buses run from the nearby village of Oricain (a 1-km walk), where the little restaurant has good bar meals. The campsite restaurant is closed in winter, as is the camp shop, with a few items on sale in reception.

The grass pitches are very muddy when wet but there is a small hard-standing area for motorhomes.

The WiFi works well throughout the site but is expensive at €5 per day, with no longer-term tickets available. The laundry/wash-up room has a washing machine and a drier, again at above-average price.

The toilet/shower rooms were clean but the water remained tepid throughout our stay and the building was extremely cold. A one-bar heater came on very briefly if you walked past it, making no difference at all. The ACSI Card rate of €19 (the top price) is too much, with nothing being invested in winter heating.

No wonder that most campers just stay one night, passing through on their way north or south.

A walk into Oricain: Next day, on a dry sunny Saturday morning with a bitter north wind, we wrap up to walk into the village, over a mile away (despite the campsite notice that the bus stop is only 500 metres' walk!)

Oricain is reached by following the path along the river bank for a mile towards6[1][2][3][4][5].jpg Pamplona, to an underpass below the N121 highway. This emerges by a small industrial estate, including a workshop that builds and sells campervans (closed today). The stop for an infrequent bus (15 minutes to Pamplona) is next to Restaurant/Bar Ezcabarte: the only sign of life in the village. Recalling a good bar lunch here, we are not disappointed. The barman produces a menu in English and we enjoy a large platter of local sausages (4 each) and fried eggs (2 each), served with warm home-made tomato sauce, piping hot chips and fresh bread.

Warmed and replete,7[1][2][3][4][5].jpg we climb a steep cobbled lane up to the older part of the village. On the way we meet Bob (an expat Londoner living near Valencia) and his Spanish friend, descending the hill on Fat Bikes. They ask if we know anywhere nearby to eat – an easy question! It transpires that Bob has a business importing and selling Fat Bikes from the USA - http://www.xn--fatbikes-espaa-2nb.com/?lang=en - and they are up here in search of snow to try them out. Their bikes are interesting, with wide soft tyres (one only has one front fork), but we are not tempted to give up our custom-built touring cycles. We don't want to be known as Fat Tired Bikers, after all! Bob kindly takes a photo, which he later publicises on Instagram.  

Continuing uphill past a huddle of sturdy 5[1][2][3][4].jpgstone houses, there is a square tower looking out across the river valley (visible from our campsite). In the centre by the children's playground is a charming crib scene – unusual in that the menagerie of plastic animals gathered round the manger include a few (Jewish?) pigs. The mixed infants had obviously raided their toy farms. There are only Two Kings (one with his head missing) and a defecating shepherd! Perhaps it is time to dismantle it, with 12th night past. The dark stone church stands 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 are locked.

We walked back to camp with a wide smile, after a good meal and a good meeting.

Cycling to Pamplona and back (23 km): On Sunday morning we ride the bicycle/footpath south along the river for 9[1][2].jpg10 km into the historic city. Pamplona (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 Fiestas de San Fermin 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.

It's a gentle ride along the foot/cycle path,10[1][2][3].jpg part of the Camino Santiago, meandering alongside the Ultzama River 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 face an obstacle course of strollers with dogs, prams, children, bikes, scooters and roller skates – a weekday might have been a better choice! Despite being part of the Camino, the route is badly signed and we take at least one wrong turn before finding the way to the Puente de la Magdalene bridge and on through the massive Portal de Francia gate, in the footsteps of scallop-shell-carrying pilgrims over the ages.

Exploring the11[1][2].jpg cobbled alleyways into the heart of the old quarter, we pass the Cathedral of Santa Maria La Real (12-15th C), with a fine crib outside. In search of a bite, we make for the large square, Plaza del Castillo, bordered by atmospheric cafes and bars that are all packed full. The Christmas market stalls sell all manner of arts and crafts, jewellery, local cheeses and salamis – but none of the traditional German fare of sausages, mulled wine, coffee or gingerbread that we'd anticipated! We return to the smaller Plaza Consistorial where the Cookie Cafι near the Tourist Office is now closed. Luckily the nearby Norte Sur (North South) Cafι is open and we sit in the window, enjoying ham & cheese toasts, orange juice, cake and coffee, with a view of the magnificent baroque Ayuntamiento. It is from this Town Hall balcony that the pyrotechnics are launched to open the festivities of San Fermin, and where the closing song Pobre de Mi is sung.

The return ride to an empty campsite is faster, the riverside path much quieter now that everyone has gone home for dinner and Siesta on the last day of their extended Christmas holidays. 

Cycling into Oricain and back (4 km): Keen to find an ACSI Card 2017 book, we ride into Oricain to check out the campervan dealer. They don't have the book but do sell a good range of camping accessories. Barry buys a digital voltmeter that plugs into the 12-volt cigarette lighter (something he's looked for in vain) and the kind assistant tests it before taking our money. Though they rarely speak English or French, let alone German, the people we meet try their best to be helpful as I stumble over a few words of Spanish and sign language.

Cycling to Sorauren and back (6 km): This is the next tiny village along the Ultzama12[1][2].jpg River, 1.5 miles north of the campsite via the Camino path, including one short climb and descent. Riding around the steep hillside settlement, we find a cluster of massive stone houses from the 17-18th centuries, a locked church and two bar/restaurants (both closed) but no visible shops. Barking dogs are the only sign of life. Old photos by the bridge show men and horses at work floating beech logs downstream to the mills of Pamplona. The riverside cycle path from Pamplona, past our campsite, terminates here in Sorauren, continuing only as a simple narrow footpath.

A Change in the Weather: After weeks of clear starry nights, dry sunny days and a fresh north wind, we experience three days of continuously pouring rain that turns the grass pitches into a quagmire. A succession of overnighting vans (British, Dutch, German, French, Spanish and Portuguese) join us on the hard-standing area, some heading home, others on their way to the Costas. At least it feels warmer. We take time out for writing up the Travelog, working on Barry's family history and exchanging emails. Terrible weather is reported over much of Europe, with snow and temperatures below zero at our favourite Greek campsite at Ionion Beach – the first time that George, the owner, has seen snow there (and he is in his forties)!

And a Change of Plan: Our original intention was to travel on from Pamplona via Burgos, Valladolid and Salamanca, and so into Portugal. However, the weather forecasts on both internet and TV show serious snowfalls along that high route, with a temperature of minus 7°C in Burgos! Indeed, sleet is already falling here at Oricain. We consider going north to San Sebastian and along the northern coast of Spain, but the forecast predicts terrific winds and serious gales along there! Reluctantly, we decide to drive south to Spain's Mediterranean coast for some temporary shelter. Our delayed departure does mean we qualify for the '7th night free' offer before leaving! 

See more Pictures at
www.magbazpictures.com/pamplona1.html

Pamplona to Camping Municipal Ciudad de Zaragoza, Zaragoza (Aragon) - 120 miles

Open all year.  www.campingzaragoza.com  €25.75 inc 10-amp elec, heated showers. Free WiFi throughout.  N 41.63766  W 0.94227

On the morning of Friday 13th, heavy rain/sleet falls through breakfast and the forecast is bad. The only way is south, so we set off for Zaragoza, the next known campsite en route to the coast.

Circling the PA30 Pamplona Ring, after 4 miles we spot a large Aldi with plenty of parking space. Stocked up with fresh croissants and a selection of Xmas goodies (reduced to clear), we make a donation to a friendly Nigerian begging at the door. Other shoppers have given him a coffee from the nearby take-away and a black umbrella.

10 miles later we join the toll motorway AP15 (AP=Autopista Peaj) and leave the traffic, the snow-dusted hills and the rain behind, as a watery sun comes through. We cross the River Aragon and then the Ebro, whose valley we will follow to Zaragoza, turning southeast on AP68. The Autopista del Ebro crosses a high plateau at about 1,000 ft, with scattered vineyards, olive groves, wind farms and solar installations. Regimented rows of fruit trees and green vegetables stand between areas of scrubland, gleaned by sheep. In fact this southern area of Navarra, the Ribera, has a market gardening tradition dating back to the Arabs.

On Tudela Services (at 69 miles) we park for lunch, then continue with a gusty north tail-wind. Before meeting the Zaragoza Ring Road Z40, we meet the third and last toll booth (total paid €18.35). The automatic barriers accept cash or card payments. Following the SatNav, we drive anticlockwise round Z40 (direction Teruel), then take N11 towards the city. The large and orderly municipal site lies about 5 miles southwest of Zaragoza centre and is busy with transient motorhomes and caravans.

The English-speaking Reception staff are helpful with information on visiting Zaragoza: the number 41 bus stop is a 10-minute walk away and they run every 15 minutes to the city centre terminus. Price €1.35 each way for the 7-km journey, pay the driver. Cycling is not advised!

Next day, however, the weather feels Arctic with a strong wind chill factor and we prefer to keep heading south.

Zaragoza to Camping Altomira, Navajas (Comunidad Valenciana) - 157 miles

Open all year.  www.campingaltomira.com  ACSI Card rate €17 inc 6-amp elec, heated showers. Extra discounts for longer stay: €14 over 7 days, €12 over 15 days or €10 over 30 days. WiFi free at restaurant/bar; payment for site-wide at various prices: €3 for 1 day, €5 for 2 days, €7 for 3 days, etc.  N 39.87489  W 0.51034

Next day, still backed by a strong north wind, we return to the Zaragoza Ring Z40, drive anticlockwise to exit 29 and take the toll-free A23/E7 (direction Teruel). This almost empty Autovia Mudejar climbs gradually above 300 m/1,000 ft into a steady downpour. The arid pale-red soil, supporting vines and olives, certainly needs the rain. As we pass Cannena, a town with wine and mineral water factories, two brave hunters are out in the fields with rifles and camouflage jackets.

It's a straight climb up to Puerto de Panizo at 925 m/3,050 ft before the road levels out, with a touch of snow on the hills to the west. After passing Teruel, we cross the Puerto de Escandon at 1242 m/4,100 ft, then pause for lunch on the Puebla de Valverde Services – still high, at 1136 m/3,750 ft, with wild weather rolling rubbish bins across the car park.

The A23 runs all MBT_4_(10).JPGthe way to the coast at Sagunto, north of Valencia, but we turn off at exit 33 for Navajas and its campsite that overlooks the village, just 2 km from the motorway. The rain and wind have died down, the Receptionist speaks English, the ablutions are good and heated, the popular restaurant is open – BUT the terraced site is set on a very steep hillside, with a long steep climb from the entrance up to the camping area. To make access even more awkward, very few pitches are long enough for our modest 7-metre van and they are all edged with high curbs!

Finally installed after several tries, we take a short walk downhill and under the railway MBT_4_(11).JPGline to the tiny village of Navajas. The streets in the old part are lined with semi-abandoned villas and gardens, the remnants of faded glory days. The massive church is (as usual in Spain) locked up, though this is Sunday afternoon. In the main square an ancient tree dominates a fountain and two small boys kick a football; the cafes are deserted. One strange feature is that all the side streets and alleys have iron gates that can be used to seal them off and the shops and houses have heavy metal shutters and grilles, as if expecting a riot.

Back at the campsiteMBT_4_(12).JPG, we locate the foot/cycle/horse-riding path that passes above it, the Via Verde de Ojos Negros, running for about 40 miles along an old railway. We are not tempted to stay and explore it - we'll just be glad to extricate ourselves from the crazy pitches tomorrow! We enjoy an excellent evening meal in the Altomira Restaurant: a set menu of 3 courses, bread, wine, water and coffee for €12 a head. The place had been busy through the afternoon but after 7 pm we have it to ourselves. 

See more Pictures at
www.magbazpictures.com/navajas.html

Margaret's Review of the Navajas Campsite for the ACSI Website

Though only 2 km from the A23 motorway, the terraced campsite sits on a steep hillside, which is a big problem. The lower area, by the reception and restaurant, is taken up with static vans. Tourers must climb a steep twisting drive with tight bends, very difficult for larger motorhomes and caravans, to the upper levels. Here the pitches are mostly small with awkward access and steep curbs to catch the exhaust pipe! Our 7-metre motorhome will only fit on a couple of the places, and a caravan would need a mover.

The toilet and shower facilities are clean and heated, with good hot water, though the wash-up sinks are outdoors. WiFi is available for a price on the pitches, or free of charge down at the bar/restaurant, where we had an excellent Menu del Dia set meal.

Navajas village is a 1-km downhill walk away.

There is access to a former railway line, now a path used for cycling, walking and horse-riding, that passes above the campsite.

The Receptionist was welcoming and spoke English, the winter rate is good, but the site is only suitable for small campervans driven by fit campers.

Navajas to Eurocamping, Oliva (Comunidad Valenciana) - 99 miles

Open all year.  www.eurocamping-es.com  ACSI Card rate €17 inc 6-amp elec, heated showers. WiFi various prices: €4 for 1 day, €6 for 2 days, etc – but didn't work. Refund after argument. Very unpleasant staff.  N 38.90555  W 0.06666

Barry rises to the challenge of manoeuvring out of Camping Altomira, then we head down A23 on a dry sunny windy morning. After 24 miles, the much busier A7 takes us south for 30 miles skirting Valencia, through orange groves with distant sea views of cranes at the port and the high-rise buildings that rear up along the coast. The toll-free A7 continues directly to Alicante but we turn onto the AP7 (Autopista de la Mediterraneo), which follows the coast round to Alicante via Benidorm.

At 80 miles we pause for lunch on the Services, 10 miles before our exit 61 for Oliva. With a choice of at least 7 seaside campsites between Oliva and Denia, we aim for Eurocamping as our Caravan Club guide claims 'helpful British owners'. That comment can only have been posted by the owner himself.

The coast road N332 runs straight through the crowded centre of Oliva, a long narrow gloomy town in need of a bypass, and on to our site (difficult to find, even with a SatNav) about 3 miles later. It sits between godforsaken 'Urbanisations', fronted by a long sandy windswept beach, with no security.

At first glance there are plenty of empty pitches but the sour-faced Receptionist (speaking hardly any English, German or French, despite the overwintering clientele on English-owned Eurocamping) issues a plan of the ones available. This plan, which considerably limits our choice, is only updated once a week but is not open to discussion. We are instructed to choose a place and report back with its number, in order to get the electricity box unlocked. Many pitches are too small or have a tree in the middle but we eventually settle on one. I rush back to Reception, knowing Siesta is from 2 pm-4 pm. Too late - it is closed, at 3 minutes past 2 pm. Thanks for waiting, now we can get neither a hook-up nor a WiFi ticket. We debate leaving but a queue of newly arrived vehicles blocks the exit and a Dutch caravanner tells me he has come from Calpe, further down the coast, where all the sites are full!

Annoyed we take a look at the beach, where a row of vans pay extra to pitch along the dunes with no shelter from the gale that is blowing. The wind is whipping up a fierce sandstorm and we retreat to look round the campsite. There are 3 dismal toilet/shower blocks, 2 of which are unheated and open to the elements. The shop and cafι are closed. Why do people want to spend weeks hibernating here?

At 4 pm I join the queue to check in and finally succeed in getting the power connected (6 amps, not the 10 amps advertised in the ACSI book). Even though I pay for the one night in advance, the electric box must remain locked until I check out tomorrow ('we open at 9 am'). The one-day WiFi ticket I buy doesn't work and the €4 is only refunded after a very lengthy argument with Sour-Face, which ends with me shouting in German when English fails. And a monster-truck from Belgium, towing a car and carrying two nasty-looking noisy dogs (whose larger-than-life portrait is painted on the truck), has moved in right next to us. The weather forecast for tomorrow is torrential rain and storms along the coast. Can things get any worse? We decide to head inland again to the excellent site at Aranjuez we remember from 4 year ago.

We try to relax over a Fray Bentos chicken pie and a DVD: a young Ian Carmichael as 'Lucky Jim' in the 1957 black & white film of Kingsley Amis' book. It is surprisingly good and nostalgic! 

Margaret's Review of the Oliva Campsite for the ACSI Website

A sprawling site, open to the beach with no security, 3 miles from the town of Oliva. The unmarked pitches on the sea-front cost extra (no ACSI card discount), though the beach was blasted by wind and rain. Many other pitches were reserved and it was difficult to find one not blocked by trees (though I had phoned about availability: 'No problem').

Only one of the three basic facility blocks had any heating at all, despite the site being busy with winter residents. The restaurant was closed. The shop opened briefly in the mornings, when the owner felt like it, to sell bread and a few other items.

The electrical hook-up (advertised as 10 amps in the ACSI Card book) was only 6 amps. It had to be connected by a member of staff, who then locked the box and had to be summoned to unlock it when we left – even though we paid in advance. We wanted to leave early for a long drive and were told 'Reception opens at 9 am'. In fact, the Receptionist only turned up at 9.45 am next day, without a word of apology to the waiting queue, and we finally got away at 10 am.

The Receptionist was also extremely rude, claiming to speak little English to avoid complaints. In order to get a refund for the WiFi ticket I had bought (which failed to work at all), I had to shout at her in German until the money was grudgingly repaid.

I chose this site (there are at least 4 others near Oliva) because it was advertised as 'English owned and managed'. Well, I met the English owner/manager when Reception was closed on the morning I wanted to leave. I went to the campsite shop ('open from 8 am'), which he actually opened at 9.30 am. He claimed that he could neither open our electricity box (no keys), nor phone the caretaker to do it (no phone). I did not believe him. At least he spoke English as he turned his back on me and walked away – twice. In 30 years of travel in every country of Europe, as well as further afield, I have never ever met such ignorant and uncaring treatment at a campsite in any country. I still find it hard to believe.

Choose one of the other Oliva campsites – they could not be worse – and this is the only one that has raised its ACSI Card price since last year. Perhaps they should invest the extra in staff training, starting with the owner. 

Oliva to Camping International, Aranjuez (Madrid) - 248 miles

Open all year.  www.campingaranjuez.com  ACSI Card rate €19 inc 16-amp elec, heated showers. Every 7th night free. Good WiFi various prices: €4 for 1 day, €10 for 3 days, €15 for a week.  N 40.04222  W 3.59944

Next morning I discover that things can indeed get worse at Eurocamping Oliva! Keen to get away for the long drive to Aranjuez, I report to Reception at 9.05 am. It is closed. I try the site shop (supposedly open mornings from 8 am). Also closed. It is pouring with rain, the wind howls and the site paths are mud, but we can't leave until someone is found to open the electric box and disconnect our power. The shop finally opens at 9.30 am but the unbelievably rude English owner/manager tells me he doesn't have a key for the box; nor has he a phone in the shop to summon the groundsman to open it. I do not believe him. He refuses to explain why the boxes are locked, or why there is no-one at Reception. He just turns his back on my complaints and walks away with a sarcastic 'Have a Nice Journey'. The sour-faced Receptionist arrives at 9.45 am, with no word of apology to the dripping queue at her office door. By then I am furious and practise more German expletives before we are able to leave at 10 am. I have never, repeat never, known such ignorant treatment from a campsite owner or receptionist of any nationality anywhere.

Retracing our route to Oliva, we then turn inland along a succession of narrow country lanes until we join the better CV-60 road after 33 wet miles. This leads to A7 north towards Valencia for 6 miles, then A35 southwest. The rain stops as we climb the quiet toll-free motorway, though we are battling a strong head-wind. After a short tunnel, there is a pass at 692 m/2,285 ft marking the border of Valenciana and Castilla La Mancha. The A31 then continues west over a pass at 893 m/2,950 ft, the route guarded by a succession of sturdy castles culminating in Chincilla de Monte Aragon.

After Albacete (still high at 675 m/2,228 ft) the arable landscape is bleak and windswept, factory-farmland with some flour mills and other industry. Near La Gineta (at 123 miles, half-way to Aranjuez) the Services have a Burger King and we have a good break, with Whoppers and Wedges!

At the junction where A31 turns north to Madrid we take A36/AP36 northwest for Aranjuez, paying a total of €13.30 in tolls. There is a parallel road N301 but the motorway is quieter, faster and uninterrupted by towns and roundabouts. Passing through an enormous expanse of solar panels, it's interesting that they lie horizontal to the overhead sun rather than standing at an angle.

Taking the Aranjuez exit, we stop at Lidl on the way into town to buy bread and fruit. On past the Royal Palace ('the Spanish Versailles') along cobbled streets, over the River Tajo and round to the well-signed and secure campsite. The Reception is open all day, staffed by a friendly multilingual Belgian manager and helpful assistants speaking fluent English. The ablutions block is well heated, the restaurant is open daily except Tuesdays, there are plenty of spacious hedged comfort pitches, and the WiFi is extremely reliable. What a contrast to the coastal site we just fled! 

JANUARY into FEBRUARY 2017

At Camping International, Aranjuez (height 1,610 ft)     

MBT_4_(13).JPGCampsite: Our privately hedged pitch has a view across the leafy Tajo, the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula, which separates the camp from the Jardin del Principe: the extensive Prince's Garden parkland along the opposite bank. The campsite is by no means full but has enough business to keep the restaurant/bar open, supplemented by workmen who are completely renovating the second ablutions block. The site shop is closed, though bread can be ordered. There is even a little 'tourist train' that takes campers into town free of charge each morning at 10.30 am, leaving them by the royal palace. The site WiFi is reliable, enabling much work on-line while listening to Radio 4's coverage of the dreadful events unfolding in both the UK and the US. There is also a good laundry room with modern machines - and free use of an iron for those who must!

Shelter from the Storms: This site in the centre of the country proves to be a sheltered MBT_4_(15).JPGhaven, far from the storm-ravaged Spanish coast that appears daily on the TV news and weather forecasts. Reports from friends throughout the Mediterranean tell of gales, with unprecedented snow and rain. At Ionion Beach Camping in the Greek Peloponnese, owner George has seen snow for the first time in his life (and he is in his forties!) In Sicily, A-Nomad finds the hilltop town of Erice cut off by snow, and down at Torre del Mar on the Costa del Sol, motorhoming friends are experiencing the worst weather they've known in 16 winters. Crops of salad and vegetables are ruined, with lettuces, broccoli, cabbages, herbs, etc rationed or unobtainable in British supermarkets!

Bungalow: MBT_4_(14).JPGAfter our first night we decide to have a prolonged break here in Aranjuez and move into one of the campsite 'bungalows', a self-contained fully equipped cabin with heating, kitchen and shower room. It's named 'Jarama'- a local tributary of the Tajo River. Our motorhome is parked directly outside the door, so we can take the opportunity to give it a good clear-out and a thorough clean.

Sad News: The next day we are distressed to receive the news that a very old friend, our personal hero Jeff Mason, has died at home in Sheffield. We last visited him at the end of October 2016, when he took us on a Wheelchair Walk while hisMBT_4_(17).JPG sister Audrey made lunch for us all. Paralysed from the neck down for the last 27 years of his life following a minor bicycle accident, Jeff continued to live a life full of adventure and service to others. A long article on this website, 'In Memory of Jeff Mason' contains many tributes, including ours, links to an article and to condolences published in the Sheffield Star Newspaper, photographs including one of Jeff with us in the far north of Finland, poems and the the full Order of the Funeral Service. We shall not forget him; he was the sanest and most courageous man we have ever known.

MBT_4_(33).JPGAranjuez: Midway between Madrid and Toledo, this is not an ancient city. It grew up around the Palacio Real, the Royal Palace, built in 1561 as a summer retreat for the court from the rigours of Madrid. By the 18th century the palace, with its parks and gardens, farms and orchards, had grown into a smaller copy of Versailles that still dominates the town, drawing tourist crowds to the World Heritage site. The fertile area is known for its strawberries, long supplied to the palaces both here and in Madrid, which is linked by the railway. The sights and town centre all lie to the south of the River Tajo, while the campsite is on the north bank. A free city map is available at campsite reception or the tourist office (opposite the palace).

Royal Palace and Sites: Set alongside the Jardin de la Isla with views of its many MBT_4_(18).JPGsculptures and fountains, the Royal Palace is open daily except Monday, 10 am-6 pm, entry €8 (half price for EU citizens over-65). On Wednesday and Thursday afternoons (3-6 pm) it is free for any EU citizen, so along I stroll for an hour, armed with my passport - and a Swiss army penknife, which is confiscated as my bag goes through the scanner, to be returned on leaving! Once inside, I follow the arrows through a grand courtyard, then past an exhibition of royal wedding dresses, carriages and the inevitable gift shop. Upstairs the unguided tour of some of the state apartments is of more interest (especially for those who know more than I do about tapestriesMBT_4_(16).JPG, porcelain, 18th century furniture, paintings etc). The signs in Spanish and English describe the Rococo, Chinese and Arabic style dιcor of the rooms, though an audio-guide can be hired. One painting I recognise is the Puerto del Suspiro del Moro (Pass of the Sigh of the Moor) showing Boabdil, the last Moorish king of Spain, looking back with a sigh at Granada from the 860 m pass, after surrendering his Alhambra capital to Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic Monarchs. We still have a small reproduction of this picture, painted on wood that we bought in Granada. The title has inspired several poems and novels, including one by Salman Rushdie.

The Royal Palace ticket (even the 'Gratis' version) gains admission to two other sitesMBT_4_(19).JPG in the Prince's Garden park, which do not sell their own entry tickets. The smaller 18thC palace at the far end of the gardens, oddly named the Real Casa del Labrador (Royal House of the Worker), is too far to reach before closing time. However, on my way back I do catch 15 minutes at the third site, a modern building (1963) near the footbridge, that houses the Museo de Faluas Reales, an impressive collection of royal barges for outings on the River Tajo, the earliest dating to 1668.

Royal Bull Ring: The Real Plaza de Toros, a monumental bull ring built of tiny bricks in 1797, is one of the oldest in Spain. Now open as a museum in the tourist season, it is only used for bull fights once or twice a year at special Fiestas, so we could only walk round the outside. It lies beyond the central market.

MBT_4_(20).JPGWalking into Aranjuez: Near the campsite a small footbridge, the haunt of hungry geese and ducks, crosses the river into the Jardin del Principe, forming the shortest route into the town centre. Note that cycling, even wheeling a bike, is strictly forbidden in this vast park (see below!) MBT_4_(32).JPGWe regularly explore different paths through the park and gardens on our way into town. Canoes and kayaks row and paddle round the bends of the river - once the preserve of the royal barges – and there are pleasure boat trips along the Tajo for a fee. The direct route is a 15-minute walk but a diversion goes via the delightful Chinese Gardens, with fountain and pagoda, where iridescent peacocks strut in the afternoon sunshine and three agile red squirrels emerge from hibernation to collect nuts.

Cycling into and around Aranjuez:

1.     Campsite to Aranjuez Centre (2 km/1.25 miles) - The safe quiet paths throughMBT_4_(23).JPG the park would be ideal for cycling, especially for children, but when we rode in 4 years ago we met the gatekeeper-from-hell and were forcibly ejected from the main gate, even after dismounting. This encounter and subsequent complaint, delivered to both the Tourist Office and Royal Palace, resulted in a formal written response (in Spanish). Now we note that new signs at the park entrances clearly forbid bicycles (and dogs, picnics, ice creams, feeding ducks, picking flowers, ball games or any other way of enjoying yourself)! And the ban is still enforced, as we witness one hapless rider being turned back by the park keeper.

The permitted route is to turn left at the end of the lane from the campsite (signed 'Aranjuez'), pass the forbidden footbridge into the Jardin del Principe, left again at the main road and continue due south on the footpath, across the Tajo on the Barcas road bridge. You'll soon see the Tourist Office on the left 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.

2.    Campsite to Aranjuez Centre (8 km/5 miles) - For a longer route and for variation, 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, leading to the roundabout near the Barcas road bridge. This makes a circular ride combined with route 1 above, and perhaps with a coffee in town.

3.    'MBT_4_(25).JPGThe Twelve Streets Route' (22 km/14 miles) north of river - 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 a couple of unshod lanes end abruptly at the railway line, but at least there is very little traffic. The straight tree-lined roads and paths once ran through the thickets and kitchen gardens of the royal estate (now confined to land south of the river).  The eponymous 12 streets radiate from a large busy roundabout at the Plaza de las doce Calles (12 Streets Square), from where we cycled southwest on the Calle Princesa and over a railway bridge. Empty tracks lead 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, empty except for an occasional dog-walker or angler. We reached our aim, the confluence with the Jarama River, albeit it on foot round a field for the last half km, then returned on a different track to the Plaza de las doce Calles and the road back to the campsite. The whole ride was level and easy, partly quiet pock-marked roads, partly dirt tracks. It could be shortened at various points.

4.    Through Town south of river (20 km/13 miles) - In the town we are impressed to MBT_4_(26).JPGfind broad cycle paths, parallel with but separate from the roads leading south as far as LeClerc's shopping mall, where we turn west on a minor road. A couple of miles later we come to the slip road onto the Toledo-Madrid motorway and are forced to turn back, past the industrial estate, the flower-decked cemetery and the architecturally impressive railway station to emerge by the River Tajo near the Royal Palace. Returning to camp via route 2 gives a total ride of 20 km.

MBT_4_(27).JPGShopping: In Aranjuez we find the post office opens 8 am-8 pm, while most shops take a siesta (a Spanish word, after all) from 2-5 pm. An exception is the magnificent and popular market hall, open all day every day except Sunday. Here you can buy every kind of meat, fish, fruit and veg, while the one bakery stall sells huge croissants. At the centre of the hall is a small supermarket, along with a couple of cafι/bars. Shopping there one morning, we try the Desayuno (breakfast) deal - a plate of toasted baguette with tomatoes, a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and a large milky coffee – all for €2 per person! A cup of coffee alone costs more in most countries of Europe. Another find is La Pajarita, a marvellous old-style haberdashery/drapery where I buy some sewing materials. A myriad colours of beautiful ribbons, yarns and embroidery silks, as well as buttons - pearl, glass, bone or plastic – are displayed in glass cases like a museum.

For a larger supermarket there is a choice of 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 the huge LeClerc shopping mall). We take our custom to Lidl on the Madrid road, a return drive of 4 miles.

There is even a small caravan/motorhome dealer and accessory shop, Caravaning Vima in Sesena, 10 miles along the way to Madrid. The helpful campsite Reception phones them to check availability of the 2017 ACSI discount card & book (yes, but selling out fast!) Our SatNav leads us to their address, or rather to the end of a narrow cul-de-sac. As Barry turns the motorhome round, we are rescued by Hector, the proprietor of Vima, passing in a van! He leads us to his premises round the corner but (as he speaks only Spanish) we never do discover whether he was looking out for us or it was just a lucky chance.  Either way, we now have a new ACSI card and book (in Spanish). Our Reception staff are equally diligent at solving other campers' requests for a vet, a Ford garage, a doctor, the bus to Madrid … We are impressed.

Dining: The campsite restaurant (open daily except Tuesday) offers a Menu del Dia at lunch or dinnertime for €11.95 (more expensive at weekends).  We sample a Wednesday lunch, sitting by a cheery log fire with a good choice over 3 generous courses, including bread, water and a glass of wine. The vegetable soup is delicious, followed by pork steak with fried egg and roast potatoes for Barry, salmon in prawn sauce with rice for me, and then chocolate profiteroles. We don't do much for the afternoon!

We also MBT_4_(22).JPGtry the €10 weekday 3-course lunch menu at the Hostal Real (Royal Hotel) in Aranjuez, near the park, and are equally delighted. Our main courses, beef stifado and roast chicken, are memorable, as is the chocolate mousse cake, and the waiter includes a whole bottle of red wine! With more than enough to eat, we pocket the bread rolls to feed the birds on our way back. It's quite a challenge to aim at the ducks and keep the greedy geese at bay!

Aranjuez is also a good place for coffee. Sitting in the sunshine outside the little cafι by the Royal Palace, 'Coffee or Tea with a Muffin: €4' is very welcome during cycle ride number 4. The large chocolate muffin is served with a knife & fork! We also sample 'Coffee and Chocolate Tart: €3.50' at a cafι near the park (next to Burger King).

Mainly, of course, we cook for ourselves using the bungalow's hob and microwave, supplemented by our own kettle, toaster and pressure cooker. With the latter I produce 9 jars of marmalade, using local oranges and lemons – though I do have to buy them! I miss the generosity of Greek campsite owners, dispensing fruit and olive oil at this time of year.

UFOs: Around 6 pm on 17 February we rush outside on hearing a loud and prolonged MBT_4_(29).JPGhonking and bugling. Wave after wave of large broad-winged birds are overflying the campsite in V-formations, like squadrons of Lancaster Bombers! We grab camera and binoculars and stare in wonder, yet nobody else even looks up! Ten minutes later the sky is empty and we are puzzled. With long outstretched necks and trailing legs, our first thought is Storks – but they don't make this noise or fly in V-formation. Geese or Swans? No, they tuck their short legs in when aloft. Herons or Egrets? No, too small, and they fold their heads back in the air.

Cranes wouldMBT_4_(28).JPG fit the bill (no pun intended) but surely they breed in the Far North and migrate eastwards? We've seen a few in Sweden and Finland in the summer. An on-line search confirms that not all Common Cranes (Grus Grus) head east. These 'very tall heron-like birds migrate in flocks of considerable size, flying in V-formation with neck outstretched, and a striking far-carrying bugle call'. I am delighted to read that about 130,000 cranes migrate to Spain of which 58% settle in Extremadura (southwest Spain and Portugal) for the winter. What a privilege to witness their departure, a sign of Spring. 

See more Pictures at
http://www.magbazpictures.com/aranjuez.html

Margaret's Review of the Aranjuez Campsite for the ACSI Website

An excellent well-managed site, 15 minutes' walk through the park to the centre of Aranjuez. The Reception team all speak English and could not be more helpful. They directed me to the nearest caravan dealer (10 miles away in Sesena, half-way to Madrid) and phoned him to check that he had the 2017 ACSI Card book in stock. Another camper needed a vet, others wanted a Ford dealer to fix their motorhome – all handled with a smile.

The toilet/shower block that was open was very warm and clean; a second block is being fully renovated. Good laundry, with 2 washers and 2 driers. The camp shop is closed but bread can be ordered. There is a large market hall in Aranjuez, open daily, with cafes and a supermarket at its centre. Also a Lidl store and butcher's less than 2 miles away along the Madrid road.

WiFi is available for a small charge and works well everywhere.

The restaurant/bar is open daily except Tuesdays, with a good choice including an excellent 3-course Menu del Dia, and there are several restaurants in Aranjuez. And, of course, there is the Royal Palace to visit for a fee (or free of charge on Wed and Thurs from 3-6 pm). A little tourist train runs into Aranjuez from the campsite at 10.30 am daily (no charge), returning at 6 pm (or walk, or get a taxi!)

In winter, most campers pass briefly through but I find it a good place for a longer break, with mild weather and much less crowded than the Spanish coast. 

Aranjuez to Camping La Chopera, Plasencia, Extremadura - 161 miles (height 1,168 ft)

Open all year.  www.campinglachopera.com  ACSI Card rate €17 inc 5-amp elec and showers. Good WiFi free throughout site.  N 40.04348  W 6.05751

We finally vacate the Aranjuez 'bungalow' on the last Friday of February 2017, encouraged to leave by the fact that the coming weekend is the pre-Lent Carnival, with the campsite advertising a programme of entertainment, children's games, teenage disco etc! Normal weekends have been busy enough with family groups coming out from Madrid to disturb the mid-week peace.

So on this very misty morning we head west on N400 towards Toledo. After 23 miles at Canete a new link road crosses the Tajo and links to motorway AP40, thankfully avoiding Toledo itself. Five miles later (toll €2.20) we join the toll-free A40, the Autovia Castilla-La Mancha, northwest towards Avila, remaining high above 500 m/1,650 ft. By 11.15 am the sun has broken through to clear the mist.

At 57 miles we turn due west on the slightly busier A5, carrying traffic directly from Madrid. Bypassing Talavera, with a glimpse of its suspension bridge over the Tajo, it is lovely to spot our first Storks of the year: two pairs returned to nests atop the lamp posts. As the Cranes fly north, Storks are moving in: each to its niche. There are more Storks grazing in the fields below the impressive castle at Oropesa.

We leave A5 at 127 miles, continuing west on EX-A1 for 30 miles to exit 46 for Plasencia, the capital of North Extremadura. Turn onto N110 alongside the east side of the River Jerte to the well-signed campsite, about 2 miles northeast of the city centre.

It's a pleasant level site with plenty of trees, a restaurant and outdoor pool (both closed) and very few other campers: one each of Dutch, Danish, French, Spanish and British. The camp lies between two footbridges over the Jerte, giving an easy 2 km or 3 km traffic-free walk/cycle ride into Plasencia on paved riverside paths.

At Camping La Chopera, Plasencia

IMG_0027.JPG1-IMG_0027.JPGCycling along the Jerte Valley (38 km): Next morning, wonderfully warm, we don cycling shorts (first time this year) and turn right along the river, away from Plasencia. The broad concrete path soon passes a footbridge, then ends abruptly at 2 km by a sports centre! We return to the bridge and cross the river to a similar path on the other side. Rather than turning left for Plasencia we take the opposite direction along the riverside path until it meets a minor road below a high dam (at 6 km). The short steep climb up to and across the dam wall is rewarded, as the cycle path then continues, following the twists and turns of the dammed River Jerte northeast. It's a lovely quiet route, just an occasional cyclist or walker, with flowers and butterflies heralding spring. Some cattle grazing by the lakeside include fearsome black Toros with serious horns, but they placidly ignore us.

Again, the path comes to a sudden end, 10 km from the dam wall, when it turns into9-IMG_0041.JPG a sandy rubble track by some large houses near the main road (17 km cycled). We retrace our track to and across the dam, then follow the path past the footbridge and the campsite, then under a road bridge, arriving at an old stone bridge where we enter Plascencia at 34 km, by a large empty free car park (ideal for motorhomes). Riding along a broad pavement towards the Centro Storico in search of lunch, we soon spot chairs and tables (and a bouncy castle) outside Cafι El Parking, shortly before the cathedral.

2-IMG_0031.JPGWe are more than ready for slices of chicken or pork, served with fried eggs (two each) and fried potatoes, eaten in the sunshine while watching Storks wheeling overhead, standing on a roof or nesting on a chimney. It is then a short ride back to the campsite, across the stone bridge and left, along the path on the far side of the river.

See more Pictures at: 
www.magbazpictures.com/plasencia-town-and-river.html

Cycling to the Shops and back (12 km): The nearest supermarkets (Mercadona, Aldi, Lidl and Dia) all lie along the Avenida de Espana in Plasencia, 4 or 5 km from the campsite and on the same side of the river. It's an easy traffic-free cycle ride, along the riverside path past the old stone bridge, until the path ends at a main road, next to Mercadona and opposite Aldi! Neither appear to have parking for high vehicles but this is no problem on a bicycle! We note that Lidl and Dia, further along Av de Espana, both have open car parks. Best buys are delicious croissants from Aldi bakery and a plump roast chicken from a chicken take-away across the road (with optional fried potatoes or salad).

We are impressed with the Spanish attitude to cycling. Helmets are compulsory outside towns, if it is not too hot or steep, but the police have better things to do. Motorists are kind, allowing ample space when overtaking (1.5m or 5ft is a legal requirement), with no hooting or hassle at all. Mostly bicycles are separated from traffic on dedicated paths or broad pavements around towns. We return from the shopping trip on the roadside pavement as far as the old stone bridge, then cross it to take the riverside path to the next footbridge, over that and back to camp. What a civilised way to go shopping, then home to a pot of tea, croissants and jam.

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 (Silver Road) 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. Part of it is incorporated into the long distance cycle route EuroVelo 1.

Medieval Plasencia

This time we don't explore the sights of the Centro Storico – the old walled city rising above a bend in the river and dominated by its Cathedral - as it was thoroughly recorded and photographed on a previous visit four years ago. Our account and images date from then (March 2013) and not much has changed:

“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 a space, we turned left immediately after the Trujillo 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.

Continuing along Calle Santa Clara, we picked 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. 

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 van.

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, within sight of the arches of the Aqueduct - except on Tuesdays, being market day."

See more Pictures at: Plasencia

Margaret's Review of the Plasencia Campsite for the ACSI Website

Very peaceful camping with a welcoming Reception. Good free WiFi throughout the site. Shower/toilet block unheated and in need of modernisation, but there is unlimited hot water. Outdoor pool and restaurant closed at present.

Well placed by foot/cycle path alongside the Jerte River: about 3 km into Plasencia with its medieval centre, shops etc. A good cycle ride in the other direction for 14 km each way, on the riverside path, over the dam wall and round the lake. 

MARCH 2017

Plasencia to Camp Municipal Ciudad de Caceres, Caceres, Extremadura - 78 miles (including side trip to Monfrague National Park), height 1,585 ft

Open all year.  www.campingcaceres.com  ACSI Card rate €17 inc 15-amp elec and individual toilet/shower cabin. Every 4th night free. Good WiFi free throughout site.  N 39.48861  W 6.41277

On 1st March we leave Plasencia, calling at Lidl on Av de Espana before taking road EX208 south, past Camping  Monfrague  at Malpartida de Plasencia and into the Monfrague National Park, created in 2007. The winding road becomes narrower inside the park boundary but is wide enough for buses and motorhomes with care.

The roads and tracks through the impenetrable scrub and oak forest of the Park follow01-Monfrague_(10).JPG ancient cattle tracks and drovers' routes. At 16 miles we reach the site of the medieval village of Villarreal de San Carlos, which now has car parks, an information centre, gift shop, restaurant etc. The trucks dismantling marquees from a recent bird watching festival are blocking most of the parking area, so we drive on. We already have a leaflet and map from our last visit 4 years ago, showing the parking possibilities and03-Monfrague_(19).JPG footpaths. It's downhill for the next 4 miles, across the bridge over the Tajo to a parking bay next to the river by the Fuente del Francis. Here we eat lunch and then take to the bicycles for a short ride (total 11 km) in what is the best preserved area of Mediterranean hill vegetation in Spain: a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, a Special Bird Protection Zone and home to the largest colony of Black Vultures in the world (some 80 pairs). There are reputedly also mammals (deer, otter, wild boar, foxes, maybe even Iberian lynx) though they keep well out of sight!


A mile or two along the Tajo is the Salto de Gitano (Gypsy's Leap) 
02-Monfrague_(15).JPGgorge, with lookout/parking area, where the Tajo breaks through the Sierra de Monfrague. The Pena Falcon Crags tower above the far side of the river, the haunt of vultures, eagles, owls and falcons, though there are less birds than we remember 4 years ago. A few Black and Griffon Vultures are soaring above our heads and a lone photographer follows their flight with his enormous lens. Then we cycle back, past the Fuente del Francis and along the riverside path to the site of the Puente del Cardenal. This05-Monfrague_(23).JPG bridge dates from the 14th C, when the Bishop of Plasencia had it built to help the transhumant cattle drovers who previously ferried their beasts across the Tajo on barges. Though still shown on the Monfrague walking routes leaflet, the bridge has now disappeared underwater, so we turn back, cross the road bridge and cycle along to the other end of the former bridge before returning to the motorhome to continue to Caceres.

See more Pictures at: monfrague-national-park.html

We drive back to Malpartida de Plasencia on rd 208, then turn west to take the A66, the Autovia de la Plata, south for 38 miles to exit 545 for Caceres North. It's a quiet 4-lane highway, roughly following the line of the Roman road and the medieval Silver Route, through well watered green country with pastures and olive groves, gently climbing the pass of Zangano at 471 m/1,555 ft before a slight drop to cross the swollen Tajo River. From the exit, take N630 towards Caceres, turn left at second roundabout and follow camping signs to site, next to football stadium, 3 miles from the highway and a couple of miles north of the city.

The campsite resembles a terraced army camp, though the individual facilities are excellent. Each level gravel pitch has its own en-suite toilet/hot shower, as well as an outdoor table and chairs, drainage sink, tap with hosepipe and outside light. Reception has a cheery log fire and a less cheery welcome from a team who resent questions and resist giving information apart from details of the half-hourly bus into Caceres. They hand me a leaflet listing set menus at the restaurant for €15, €20 or €25. Only later do I discover, at the restaurant, that there is weekday lunch menu at €9. Unusually, the ACSI 2017 book/card is on sale here, in a choice of languages. No excuse, therefore, for the man with a giant motorhome towing a car who tried to use last year's card. Ashamed to say he is English.

At Camping Municipal Ciudad de Caceres, Caceres

At the swap library in Reception I find a couple of DVDs to watch, the most memorable being Timothy Spall in 'Mr Turner': a brilliant portrayal of the artist and his later life. Also use the laundry, price €6 for a wash and dry.

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. A bonus is that the local TV carries no less than 6 news channels in English (BBC World and France 24, as well as channels from Russia, China and the US). The similarities and differences in the coverage of world news are interesting.

We even have two pairs of Azure-winged Magpie (Cyanopica cyanus) to watch outside our door, a bird with a remarkable range. It is resident in only two areas of the world, over 5,000 miles apart: in China/Mongolia/Japan – and Spain! A smaller magpie with conspicuous blue wings and tail, black crown and beige body, they look very smart indeed.

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, or even Morocco, 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!

There appears to be a 5.4 km footpath into Caceres, the Paseo Alto, but Reception know nothing about its route or suitability for cycling. As the weather turns cold and wet, we don't investigate further. We had explored the city, the capital of Extremadura, and its walled medieval centre on our previous visit.

History:Caceres_(14).JPG Caceres began as the Roman colony of Norba Caesarina, founded 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.

Margaret's Review of the Caceres Campsite for the ACSI Website

The campsite resembles a terraced army camp, with a barrier at the entrance to the barracks. Once inside, the individual facilities are good but unheated. Each level gravel pitch has its own en-suite toilet/hot shower, as well as an outdoor table and chairs, drainage sink, tap with hosepipe and outside light. Reception has a swap-library, a cheery log fire and a less cheery welcome from a team who resent questions and resist giving information apart from details of the half-hourly bus into Caceres. They hand out a leaflet listing evening meals at the restaurant for €15, €20 or €25, with no mention of the good weekday lunch menu at €9.

Unusually, the ACSI 2017 book/card is on sale here, in a choice of languages. The camping charge for card-holders is reasonable, with the bonus of every 4th night free, and the free WiFi works well across the campsite.

The site's position, next to the football stadium and across from an industrial estate, does it no favours and it is a pity that there is no obvious path to walk or cycle into the lovely old town of Caceres: at least not obvious to any staff we asked! 

Caceres to Parking Teatro Romano (Camperstop), Merida, Extremadura - 52 miles

Open all year.  www.areasautocaravanas.com  €12 per 24 hrs inc water, dump and WiFi. Electricity €3 per 24 hrs.  N 38.91861  W 6.33611

A new guarded Area (camperstop) with optional hook-up, just 5 minutes' walk from the  vast Roman theatre and amphitheatre in Merida, now provides a welcome alternative to Merida's grim municipal campsite. This is our base for a second visit to the impressive remains of the capital of the Roman Province of Lusitania, a World Heritage Site.

As we leave Caceres we call at a large Lidl (next to Dia and Aldi), delighted to find a variety of croissants and cheese rolls at the in-store bakery. Then it's back onto the A66 Autovia de la Plata south to the Merida exit at 49 miles, for the N630. The camperstop isn't signed and the co-ordinates lead our SatNav straight to a low bridge under the aqueduct, requiring a smart U-turn, then past the Area on the wrong side of a one-way system. We finally get back to it, realising we left the N630 too early.

The parking lot has areas for cars, buses and 'autocaravans' – take a ticket stamped with date and time of entry, then pay the guard when leaving. He will also turn the hook-up on, if wanted, and note your registration number. WiFi is free, with no password. Vehicles over 8 metres long pay an extra €3/24 hrs.

We settle in next to a French couple on the point of leaving. They kindly give us their free map of Merida, which saves calling at the Tourist Office (next to the Roman theatre entrance). A quick lunch, then out on the bicycles for a tour of the city.

History: Like Caceres, the town of Augusta Emerita was founded in 25 BC and settled by veterans of the army of Augustus, in this case 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 which covered much of what is now Portugal and Western Spain. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD, the Visigoths moved in and made Merida their capital of Hispania. It fell to the Muslims (aka the Moors or Arabs) in the 8thC, then into Christian hands in 1230.

08-Merida_(26).JPGDespite the Moors robbing the Roman remains for building stone, not to mention Napoleon's 19thC invasion when many treasures 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. www.turismoextremadura.com and www.merida.es.

On our previous visit, 4 years ago, we had explored the 07-Merida_(12).JPG7 monuments that are included on the Entrada Conjunta Single Entrance Ticket (excellent value, and half-price for EU pensioners or Jubilados). 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 (early church and crypt of Merida's patron saint, martyred here); 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). Merida_(25).JPGThe Theatre and Amphitheatre site do remain open all day on Fri, Sat and Sundays. As the various sites are well scattered, strategic planning and prioritising is needed.

Other Roman remains are freely on open view, and there 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 Sundays – otherwise €3. Finally, the Visigoth Art Museum is free to all whenever it's open.

Cycling (a10 km tour): Rather than re-visit the seven wonders of Merida (wonderful though they are), we cycled past the 6,000-seater Roman theatre and gladiatorial amphitheatre, then turned right alongside the 09-Merida_(37).JPGmagnificent National Museum of Roman Art and down modern shopping streets leading to the site of the Roman Forum, complete with the 'Temple of Diana', partly overbuilt by a 14thC mansion. Downhill from here, past the Arch of Trajan to the Guadiana River, where the Alcazaba (the Moorish fort built in 835 with stone from the Roman walls) guards the main entrance to the city, site of one of the four Roman gates. Below the fort, the 60 granite arches of one of Europe's longest remaining Roman bridges span the river. It still carries pedestrians - and cyclists.

We ride Merida_(43).JPGacross the bridge, turn right on the riverside path, recross the river at a modern pedestrian bridge, and continue to the confluence with the smaller Rio Albarregas. Turn right along this stream to reach the fantastic Roman Aqueduct of the Miracles, Acueducto de los Milagros, which supplied the city with water from Lake Proserpino (5 km away and now the site of a dam). From the grassy park below the viaduct arches, we photograph the newly arrived storks and watch them swoop down to feed and gather material to repair their many nests. The first-comers are already mating on the nest – what fantastic timing to witness this. Riding back through the town to the Area, we appreciate how easy it is to cycle round Merida, with riverside paths, wide pavements and considerate traffic.

At Parking Teatro Romano (Camperstop), Merida

Next day we can't resist a morning in one of the best Roman museums we recall at any price (and this one is free!) Its only rival in Europe would be the excellent site museum at Xanten in North Germany - a Roman site I helped to excavate as a student nearly 50 Merida_Museum_(10).JPGyears ago – but that's another history. Today we intend to have a brief look, buy some lunch in Merida and get on our way to Portugal, but we are soon reminded that this museum deserves much more attention than that and we linger long past lunchtime!

National Museum of Roman Art: The soaring brick building, designed by Spanish Merida_Museum_(19).JPGarchitect 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, a crypt and an underground cistern, as well as a section of Roman road uncovered when the museum foundations were dug.

The crypt contains tombs, as well as the remains of several Roman houses preserved beneath the museum, with porticoes and murals. The ground floor displays stunning sculptures, including a giant Ceres (goddess of agriculture) that stood over the stage at the theatre, and a fine head of Augustus, Emperor and founder of Augusta Emerita. For me, the most impressive exhibits are the huge mosaics, showing hunting scenesMerida_Museum_(16).JPG and chariot races, expertly displayed on the walls to be visible from above and below. The town also had its own mint, potteries and glass makers, so there is a wealth of smaller exhibits from the 1st to 4th centuries AD.

A group of art students sit quietly sketching some of the sculptures, while troops of excited mixed infants are surprisingly well behaved and interested as they are shepherded round. This is not a fusty dusty museum, but a lively place that enlivened us. Four levels of pure joy in a purpose-built museum that is a miracle of brickwork and engineering. Don't miss it!! www.museoarteromano.es

We complete a fascinating day with a Menu del Dia at one of the nearby restaurants. As usual, the 3 courses, bread and a glass of wine are excellent value at €10 all-in. freshly The starter of ratatouille topped with a fried egg was very tasty, followed by pork in a creamy sauce, then chocolate cake or mousse.

See more Pictures at: 
www.magbazpictures.com/roman-merida.html

PORTUGAL

To Camping Asseiceira, Santo Antonio das Areias, Alto Alentejo - 114 miles (Height 1,600 ft)     

Open all year except Xmas. See www.campingasseiceira.com. €16 inc 10-amp elec, immaculate showers and variable free WiFi. €15 for 7 nights plus, €14 for a month or longer. Cash only. N 39.40992  W 7.34075

Leaving Merida, we return to the A66 Via de la Plata (3 miles) and drive north almost to Caceres. At exit 551, 40 miles later, we join N521, a good 2-lane road heading due west to Portugal. Near Malpartida de Caceres we cross a railway lined with telegraph posts, each one topped by nesting storks. At the next village, Aliseda, there is a Guardia Civil checkpoint but no police. It's a remarkably quiet road for an international route, the sun shines, Storks strut among the spring flowers round a lake: a perfect morning except that there is nowhere to stop – and it's Budget Day in the UK.

06-E_P_Border_(18).JPGIt gets hillier as we approach Valencia de Alcantara, the last Spanish town, 8 miles before the border. Reaching the Portuguese frontier at 104 miles (alt 2,112 ft/640 m), we pause for lunch on the large parking area. It's deserted, derelict, the days of customs checks and money exchange long gone, thanks to the EU. The bar/restaurant 'A Frontera' has seen no customers through its broken windows for many a year. But is this soon to change?  We remember Portugal is in the West European time zone (same as the UK, an hour behind Spain), so put our watches back.

See more Pictures at: www.magbazpictures.com/spain-portugal-border.html

Across the border, rd 521 continues as N246 towards Castelo de Vide. We turn right (signed Marvao) at the Portagem roundabout (alt 518 m/1,700 ft), after 5 Portuguese miles. An earlier right turn, via Ponte Velha, would be a short cut to Santo Antonio das Areias but it's a narrower road. Our chosen route climbs for 2 miles through groves of cork oak to a junction at 670 m/2,210 ft, where the (dead-end) road to Marvao Castle twists away uphill to the right. We turn left, descend to the village of Santo Antonio das Areias and turn right following campsite signs, up to the roundabout at the Bullring, then half a mile down to a neat little campsite among olives and cork oak on the left. The English owner, Gary, is expecting us (albeit a fortnight ago!)

The site has immaculate modern facilities and free WiFi that works somewhat spasmodically. With only a dozen pitches tucked inside a quiet walled olive grove, it's a popular base for cycling and walking, set on the edge of the Serra de S Mamede Natural Park and overlooked by the hilltop village and castle of Marvao. It feels good to be here in the Spring.

See more Pictures at: www.magbazpictures.com/around-marvao.html

At Camping Asseiceira, Santo Antonio das Areias

Continued at: In Portugal in the Spring of 2017