Day 27, 30th Jan – Filling station for the soul

The battery’s not happy.  M’s not happy.  Stan wants a walk, so he’s not super-chirpy either.  

Well, the only issue I can have any influence over is the dog.  I leave M on his tummy once more, feet sticking out of the van, up to his elbows in wiring.  I think I hear him utter a tight “Okay” as I leave, but I’m not sure. He’s fully engaged in (a) not electrocuting himself, (b) not buggering up the sad battery or (c) damaging the healthier one. 

Stan and I explore what I think is the back end of another footpath.  I love the European way of organizing country walks. In the UK you get a map and find your way by carefully trying to discern between one large copse of trees on the horizon or that smaller one, whilst holding your compass onto a wind-torn paper map that wants only to escape your frozen-fingered grasp.  What fun?

None of that nonsense in France, Spain or Italy.  The maps are horrendous if you want detail, but that’s because the paths are signposted (with actual signposts) and have markers all the way round.  A colour coding system tells you if youre on the correct route, a painted cross in that route’s colours indicates if you’ve gone the wrong way and then arrows on trees/rocks show where the route changes direction just to clear up any confusion.  It’s simple, effective and much, much more reassuring than finding yourself knee-deep in semi-frozen bog that (according to your OS map) should have been 300 yards to the left and not where you’re presently sinking.

So, when the puppy and I get back to find M listening to the radio, putting away all his electrical gubbins and generally smiling, I’m delighted.  Brill!  We make a flask of tea (just because it’s 22 degrees and sunny, that’s no reason not to have tea) I put together sandwiches and we set off for the walk that I’d given up of having time to do.

The footpath signs take us almost immediately into pine forest.  We climb steeply up rocky slopes that might double for riverbed when it rains.  The light differs here to that in deciduous woods.  At home, the wafting leaves give intense patches pure gold on the dark earth below the canopy.  In winter it’s only the skeletons of branches and tree trunks that break up weak yellow daylight.  More of the sun’s rays settle their way down to the leaf-mulch carpet underfoot and birds flit in plain sight.

The pine forests that wrap themselves around us here have no canopy as such. We walk through foliage clearings but from little more than head-height the branches intertwine so that the sunshine is diffused, gentler, filtered by many feet of finely meshed pine needles. The air is full of their scent, warmth caresses my cheek.  I can hear but have no chance of spying the fauna that invisibly shake branches around me.  

Breathing hard from climbing 500m in one long swoop of the mountainside, we can finally raise our eyes from the rumbly terrain to look at the majestic craggy spires, bidding for freedom from their tree-clad roots.  I cannot talk.  My vocabulary is utterly inadequate for capturing the verdant green set against grey and rust towering rock, set against the crisp cloud-free heavens.  I can only drink in this loveliness, try to sate my thirst for such wonder.  Perhaps if I gaze intently enough I can greedily keep this soul-food within me, be nourished by it when we must eventually return home.  

In this singular space, this moment before the second hand moves onward, I am enchanted. My heart may never have been so full. I look across at M who’s similarly still.  Even Stan pauses, raises his snout to test the air and offers a languid wave of his tail. 

Gratitude, blessings, fortune has favoured us, does that mean we’re bold?

Day 26, 29th Jan – Idle conversations; idling batteries

We woke to the sound of waves crashing against the rocks and Stan whimpering to go out.  

It’s M’s turn. 

I lie there, immobile, wondering if I’ll be permanently disabled or if, in fact, the use of my limbs will return. Instead, M returns and offers me tea and biscuits in bed.  

This has a remarkable effect on my paralysis.  I am suddenly able to sit up, rearrange my pillows and stretch out my arm to receive nourishment.  Modern miracles…!

Yesterday, when M had suggested going to the supermarket for bread, eggs, potatoes, more biscuits, I had shot down the idea.  After a long day, I couldn’t face retail.  Which meant that this morning, we literally had three Gallette biscuits between us and nothing else that would substitute for the first meal of the day.  

Giving M some space for his ablutions, I wandered along the beach and saw a cafe, open, people sitting outside and at least one black-clad waitress busily weaving her way between tables.  Hurrah – breakfast!

Twenty minutes later and we leap to the only free table at this oasis of food, me, M and Stan.  The adjacent customers also have a dog, a chihuahua who is utterly resistant to Stan’s charms.  Nothing doing.  No matter the wags, sniffs and licks offered by our puppy, theirs isn’t playing ball; six inches off the ground and it is ferocious.  Which is ok, it offers a conversation point and I pull Stan back to a position of safety.

Anya and Francis are regulars in Spain, this is their first ‘long’ trip (a month) in a campervan, but they look like they were born to do nothing else.  Over our cafes-con-leche and toasties, we exchange stories, favourite sites, long-term ambitions.  The conversation lasts an hour or so, it’s good-natured, easy going, happy and idle chit chat.  

They’ve just come from an area that I’d hoped to visit before we’d detoured back to the coast: Sierra Espuna.  So, after settling the bill, we wander back to the camper, set the co-ordinates and ready for off.

Before we fire up the engine, M checks the batteries, again.  M installed the solar power system, a fact of which I’m terrifically proud.  There are as many ways to do this, as there are instructional YouTube videos on the subject.  It took weeks of investigation, questioning of experts and seeking advice.  In the end, I came home one afternoon to find M, mobile phone in hand, monitoring by Bluetooth the performance of our very own, magical, solar powered system.

Since then, we’ve had a few hiccups.   The batteries seem to charge quickly either from solar power or the split power relay from the engine.  But at night, their charge dwindles alarmingly fast.  Is it the wiring, the inverter, the fridge or that our expectations are too high?  There’s been low-level anxiety all trip; are they ok (the batteries)?  Will they last?  Should we find different ones?

We don’t have answers, but we do have a destination.  And, we still don’t have groceries…

Driving off into a new unknown, the route takes us past various towns and cities, but avoids all retail opportunities or open cafes.  By 3pm, the toasties are wearing thin, we could do with more to eat. Our general view of the world is that you’re never more than 20 seconds away from a food opportunity.  In Spain, at Siesta time, the theory doesn’t hold true. I’m hungry, but kind-of pleased the Spanish haven’t relinquished their culture in favour of western slavery to retail opportunities.

Eventually, we find our way into the national park of Sierra de Espuna.  It’s stunning, not dissimilar to El Vall De Jalon; lush landscapes from which towering banks of rock fight their way up into the cobalt skies.  We wend our way upwards, the widths of roads decreasing in proportion to our altitude. Café after café is closed, looking like it will be many months until they open again.  

Eventually we happen upon the village of El Berro.  It boasts two (closed) panderia, one (closed) supermarket and two (closed) cafes.  Losing hope of eating more than raw onions and red cabbage for our supper, we finally spy an open café opposite a car park.  Parking and food in close proximity is a rare and wonderful combination, we’re truly grateful.

El Menu del Dia (meal of the day) is a generous offering: drink, salad, bread, starter, main, pudding and coffee for €10 each.  We can’t make it past the main course.  The lovely food is plentiful.  Our waiter takes my attempts at Spanish on face value and fires off incomprehensible menu choices.  Seeing my confusion, he quickly reverts to English and indulges my mispronunciation of his mother tongue.  An hour later, sated with food, we walk Stan up to explore a campsite that’s got great reviews.

We’ve eschewed campsites so far.  But M is bothered by the batteries and I’m bothered by his concern.  So, we find a slot in the clean and militarily managed site and I exercise Stan whilst M is face down in the bowels of the van, wiring, rewiring and wrestling with our power source.  

I return an hour later to find him deep in thought.  He’s problem solved, researched, contacted the suppliers (who are keen to both baffle and avoid any liability that might make them uphold their 1-year guarantee). M’s worked out what to do whilst we take advantage of the electric hook up that’s included in the undefined price of staying here.  

We settle and get ready for bed.  One battery appears well and chirpy; the other is unwell and unhappy at taking charge. We’ll leave the poorly battery on hook-up and see what power it’ll absorb overnight.  I’m hoping M will sleep…

Day 25, 28th Jan – Farewells and a flamboyance of flamingos

V is coming to join us on Saturday.  She’s flying into Malaga, which gives us five easy days of travelling to cover the 400+ miles between here and there.  We don’t want to leave Pinos and G&L; we don’t want to rush along the distance between here and Malaga.

So it’s with lots of repeated hugs that we make our farewells.  Stan will miss Daisy and Holly’s company as much as we will miss their owners. We get an open invitation to come back their way when finally homeward bound.  It’s very tempting.

We stop off at Calp to pick up M’s specs.  They’re not ready on time, so we discover a lake and put the kettle on.  We give Stan a wander and find that the lake is home to lots and lots of flamingos.  Pale pink in body with darker wing tips and then deep blue ends to their beaks.  They wade, mostly heads down, lost in the lake, sifting for lunch.  

Today’s discovery was the collective noun for flamingos.  There are several to choose from (a stand, a colony, a regiment) but my favourite is ‘A Flamboyance’ because, set against the distant mountain tops and the huge rock of Calp dominating the skyline, nothing but such flamboyant beauties could compete.  We stand gawping until we realize that we haven’t seen Stan in a while and we’re in shady, bush territory – there’s a tell-tell tale trail of loo paper.  

“Stan, Stan, where are you?”  He languorously trots toward us, we anxiously check his facial movements – is he licking his lips?  I think not, but am too chicken to lean down and take a sniff.

M is the passenger today, I want him to have the chance to see sparkling views of sun and sea as we head out of the Jalon Valley and back towards Costa Blanca, Alicante and then Cartagena.  On our right are drier sierras, they’re dustier mountain realms than we’ve been used to. To our left, ‘urbanizations’ (purpose-built satellite housing estates) merge to form an endless vista of homogenous roof tiles.  

After the sense of space and tranquility of the last few days, I feel overwhelmed by the crushing populace of the cities that we pass in the van.  People are everywhere…

Two warm driving hours (230C today), and M finds another example of Park4Night brilliance.  A small town called Pilar de la Horadada boasts an unspoilt beach.  This conurbation seamlessly blends into the towns North and South of it.  But there’s a parking area that’s free, where the police don’t apparently try to move campers on.  

We choose our spot and start getting sorted.  A voice calls from outside.  M and I pop our heads round the open side door to see a very fit British guy on his pedal bike.

“I’ve been following you round for days,” he says.  “You were at Calp, Altea” and he rattles off other places we’ve stopped at.

We smile, unsure if this is a good thing.

“And I’ve been following you on Overnight Camping.”  

“Oh, ok” I resist the temptation to ask: is that alright?

“Oh well, at least you know who we are now!”  I cheerfully respond and there are a few more exchanges between us.  He’s parked up further down the coast.  A regular campervanner on the Spanish Riviera he reports how much busier it’s become in recent seasons.

“There are campers everywhere now, where there used to be just two or three.”

“Yes” I commiserate and recount our experience of tailing long lines of motorhomes around Scotland.

Then he takes a slug from his water bottle and is gone, leaving us to get food ready.  

Supper done, M walks Stan.  Pilar appears to be a purpose-built holiday town, full of uniform dwellings.  All but six seem empty, the town is uninhabited, dormant; like sleeping beauty waiting for her visitors’ kisses before she can wake up for the summer.  

Which is great for us, it’s quiet and nothing interrupts the sound of waves crashing against the pink and gold limestone rocks, except for the occasional call of a sea bird or Stan snuffling in his dreams.  

Day 24, 27th Jan – Easy like Sunday Morning…

Well, easy like everything really, with G&L, they do unhurried cheer to an Olympic standard and then when it’s time to kick into action, then “Boing!” they’re up and ready.

So we went from:

“Oh yeah, look at the time…” to “Right then, I’ll turn the car round and we’ll be off!”

Which we did, because this was the ‘look, see” day.  Three hours of sight-seeing-with-a-purpose followed by a late lunch at the locally famous ‘Maria’s’ restaurant in the village.  

Up hill, and down olive and almond-blossom sprinkled dale.  Weaving around the faces of the mountain in ever-tighter hairpin turns. I gaze through the car windows, wondering at the terraces, neat, maintained, industrious, for mile after mile.  

There’s a small cassitta (cottage) in Pinos village, you can almost see it from G&L’s terrace.  It’s rented now but they’re looking to sell.  Comes with different options in terms of land available.  Beguiling, authentic, terracotta-tiled with an open fire. A homestead of whitewashed loveliness.

We move on. “Se Vende” appears form time to time. But more importantly, we get the feel for this corner of the world that our hosts love dearly.  They are evangelical, proud, and still bewitched. It’s not hard to see why.

At Maria’s Restaurant, we’re served by a weary but charming son of Maria, who corrects (instead of wincing at) my Spanish, followed up by Gary who explains my error.  We chomp and chatter as fellow Brits turn up to say hello.  

Chris and Chrissy, who first dated as teenagers and then thirty plus years later finally rediscovered each other and have been inseparable since.  

Gareth (renting “my” cassita in the village) who’s been to the medieval market that we didn’t make, there being too much catching up with G&L to do.  Gareth smiles warmly and says that he’ll happily help up house-hunt in the next town down the mountain, he loves his current location.  

On our way out after an endless set of tasty delights, we’re called in by Jo, another Pinos resident and part time journalist for the local Bendorm Paper. She insists that we meet her dogs and see the new sofa.  

For each conversation of: ”How long?  Why? and Was this the right decision?” we learn not only of personal histories but what made a move successful, and the reasons for that fearless leap.  Each person we quiz states firmly and cheerfully that this was the best thing they’ve ever done.

There was a lot of wobble juice.  I turned out to be the only person drinking red wine until Gareth came along and he felt bad about drinking mine, so insisted I help him finish off his additional bottle.  Bottles of white and rose came to the table along with beer.  Then Jo had wine, which was supplemented by further supplies.  

So, it was a woozy pair of Wilsons that unsteadily wobbled their way to the van last night.  

Brain-full, I stood and looked up at the velvet night, pinpricked with shards of brilliance.  I wonder, I wonder…

Day 23, 26th Jan – Throwing down the gauntlet

My heart flutters with hope, like wings of a fledgling bird on the edge of it’s nest.

I can see a vision.  It’s so clear, I can almost taste it, palpable enough to hear the rhythms of a new life and touch it’s fabric.  But I’m getting ahead of myself…

There is something magical, gazing up through muted-green, olive tree foliage, to spy dawn’s pomegranate glow reflected on the shanks of Mount Bernia, It offers tranquility to early day musings, lets the mind wander slowly down dapple-shaded avenues toward wakefulness.

Our stress-free hosts invite us to sit on their balcony as we drink tea, coffee, share stories and let the day rouse us properly.  As the sun’s rays gain power we move down to the porch, chatting, laughing. It’s an easy start to Saturday. Mundanities (washing, emails, uploading) are taken care of with more tea and more quiet chuckles.  

M’s asking lots of questions, Gary and Lesley (G&L) are endlessly patient as we root through the details of their existence here and how it came to be. Decision trees, route maps, little challenges, big ones.  Things they would do again, or differently.  We are utterly enchanted with what we see here and try to remember that a sunny Spanish weekend in January is not a new kind of existence.

After the slowest of starts, it’s gone noon before M and I rattle the camper up to the mountain’s footings for a walk.  We’re on our own (Stan stayed on paw-gentler terrain with G&L) and in ‘our’ type of territory.  From the pathways, some of which extend 5 or 6 hours of walking over to local towns, we have rock behind us, a view of the sea ahead.  

M throws down the gauntlet.

“I don’t want a new life to be something that I drive, that I source and find.”

Ok. 

I keep my eyes on the sand-coloured soil of the footpath and wait for whatever’s coming.

“You do it this time.  You find it.”

Ok.

OK!  

I suppress a grin and manage not to Whoop and Cheer.  Eek!  

M’s comment is fair enough. I wanted to do a camper, which meant he sourced the vehicle, the parts, built the internals, did the plumbing, most of the electricals. Did it all, in short, except the soft furnishings. And that’s the same for much of how life runs: I have the blue sky ideas, M makes them happen. Fair do’s; it’s my turn.

We get back to base and I report the conversation to Lesley.  She raises her eyebrows, beams, and pulls out her IPad. We set to, looking at estate agents’ offerings online.  

There’s not much in: (a) our price range, (b) preferred locations or (c) the size/type of property that we’d be interested in.  It’s not going to be an instant find, but that’s a good thing. Tempering the keenness is a good thing.

The plan for the evening is to celebrate the birthday of builder Kevin (a friend of G&L) down in a local town with his wife Sally, and another couple.  It’s a great Chinese restaurant that has pre-prepared dishes but also cook a range of fresh fish, poultry, red meat to order. There’s lots of laughter and funny exchanges. M and I get to ask more questions. Kev and Sally have been here for just less than 5 years, Tina and Darren about 10 months.  They’ve all found work, faced challenges, struggled with the heat in August.  

We ask, what for us is the key question: Was moving here the right decision?  The answer is unanimous and unequivocal: Yes.

Kev, a DJ at heart was up for hitting downtown Bernissa, drinking and dancing. To my immense relief, no-one else had the energy.  I drift in and out of sleep on the back seat during the 45 minute drive home.  It was immensely kind of Gary and Lesley to include us with their friends.  Generosity has been the by-word of our visit.

Stan is having a brilliant time.  He’s trying to make friends with G&L’s dogs, they’re less keen.  But he’s getting spoilt rotten by G&L.  He has been awarded free access to all of their dog toys and has been given a sleeping bag to supplement the rugs, dog’s bed and other spots that he can choose to lie down.  As the day warms up he moves in and out of the sun’s glare, a rotating set of toys in his mouth and a slow wag of contentment in his tail.

Day 22, 25th Jan – Nearly lost, newly found

Waking up at Altea, we had another bout of ‘Camper-Smugness’.  

Ours was the only home-made van in the car park of maybe 10 vehicles set up overnight. Which meant that, because M had taken the trouble to reverse in to our slot, late after the flicks yesterday, we could open the back doors and have our own private window on a delicately hued sunrise reflecting onto turquoise seas, framed by lush new growth on the pine trees. 

While M slurped tea and slowly came back to consciousness, I walked Stan down to the beach and turned left.  We had to be in Calp (pronounced Calpey for those who don’t know – I didn’t) for 12:45 for M’s eye test to get new specs.  So, I was looking for a potential back road route that I could run from our spot. It looked like I could start on the coast and then move inland for a bit, before moving back out to the sea shore once more.  Should be gorgeous.

A little housekeeping later and I confidently jogged off into the distance. M was following the dual carriageway and then going to find somewhere to park up and wait for me.  I shouldn’t be far behind him.  The first route Google offered said it would be 7 miles, the second offering gave the mileage at 4 miles.  4 was a bit short, but better than 7, so I dropped the destination in Google maps and the opened up Sports tracker.  The former would tell me where to go and how far I had left, the latter how far I’d done and at what miniscule pace.  All good.

Ha!

Three annoying miles later, where I had twice run from the road down to the beach, looking pointlessly for a coastal route and then had to run back (up) to the road again and the dual carriageway was my only option.   I thought I’d just check the Map, in case…

Bummer – another 5 miles to go?  Really? 

I rang M, just to make sure I’d got the correct end point.  He sent me a new pin for where he was, some additional few hundred meters away from where I was heading.

Bummer again.  

It was now 11:30am and I was concerned that I’d be too late for M and risk him not getting to his appointment.  Google thinks it’s going to take me an hour and 24 minutes to walk it.  Obviously, I’m running, or trying to, but even so…

One of the things I admire about the Spanish is there absolute commitment to hills. They do loooooong ups, punctuated with short, sharp, interval-training-type-really?- ups, before they return to the looooong steep slopes.  They’re equally conscientious about coming down, there’s just as much ‘whooah’ pointing to the bottom of their not inconsiderable hummocks.  

It was after two more miles of these undulations when the path turned to rubble, which turned to a footpath through the bushes (oh-oh, watch out for the dark patches) and I, now at the mercy of a map-app, was running blind.  To my consolation, the postie on his yellow ‘Correos’ moped appeared round the corner of my foot trail.  At least one other human being must know about the route, perhaps I wasn’t completely lost.  

Hurrah! Tarmac!  Civilization!

And eventually, down a side street, was the camper.  Keys were where we’d arranged for them to be and I had, ooh, maybe an hour for the most leisurely shower of the trip.  Not lost, not longer sweaty, and getting ready to meet up with Gary and Lesley in a couple of hours time.

Have you ever known someone, a little, for a long time?  Circumstances mean that you don’t have the conversations you might like.  You get the sense of a person, but not the opportunity to properly connect.

I’ve known Gary, a bit, for 24 years and Lesley less well, for 23 of those.   

It was Gary, in January 1995, who arranged for M and I to meet.  He’d sold M to me on the basis of him being a copper, but not like a normal copper, he was a really nice bloke.  I’ve never known the details on which I was marketed.  It was Gary, who on my visit up North, met me and V from the station and extolled M’s virtues all the way home.  And three weeks later, it was M who accompanied Gary on an evening at the local club, where he met Lesley who was on a work’s night out and not on the market for a bloke at all.  

Our paths have crossed occasionally but through no fault of either side, we’ve never really had a ‘get to know you’ chat.   Today put that right.

And, it has been lovely.

Gary’s unchanged.  Funny, daft, warm, inviting, glad to have us there.  

Lesley’s a little more shy to start with, makes a lot of effort to ask questions, find out things.  

We met up in the town of Jalon (which has a car park where, for €3 you can exchange grey/black water for drinking H20, or for €5 you can also stay the night). Our group of 4 chatted on, Lesley and I gave Stan a quick trip round the park before picking up a few provisions from the local supermarket.  Then we followed them back to theirs for the evening, where, despite being vegetarian, Lesley’s prepared a meat feast for supper.

The route was maybe 10 miles.  It moves inland, past the village of Pinos, a tiny collection of houses and cottages , and then through a lost valley to their home set in its own almond and olive groves.  They have a slice of heaven.

When I tell Lesley how lovely I think it is, she’s genuinely surprised and I seems, pleased.  They have had less enthusiastic visitors.  It’s easy to understand how the relative distance of the cottage from a town or village might appear isolated, but that’s not their experience. I remember reading about life in the Scottish Highlands; homes are separated by valleys and mountains, but because of this, the community ties are stronger.   Gary and Lesley have received more invitations and care and concern than any of us might expect from city dwelling.  And they clearly love it.

So, without being slushy or overly sentimental, I want to say ‘Hello’’ to a pair of kindred spirits, who love the great outdoors and want a simpler, soul-friendly lifestyle.  It’s been lovely to meet them properly at last, I feel like we’ve found ‘new’, ‘old friends’.

Day 21, 24th Jan – Demons (not to be read at mealtimes…)

We all have them: some big, small, noisy, quiet.  But I’m yet to meet anyone/thing that doesn’t have a weakness.

Stan’s weakness (sorry, but this is actually really relevant if you’re camper-vanning in Europe with a Labrador), is human poo.

“Why?” You understandably wonder, am I talking about such a revolting subject?  Because sadly, it’s become horribly relevant.

Take last night’s stop, Guadalest.  This tiny tourist spot has three car parks.  The nearest to the centre of town is for locals only and houses the very well kept public loos.  The next-closest is also only for locals and is across the road from the WCs.  The third car parking opportunity is down a steep hill, on two levels and contains public bins, circular skid marks where the locals have shaved off layers of tyre rubber and gives access to one set of climbing routes that rise out of the bushes.  It does not contain a public loo.

“Seriously, you’re complaining about walking up hill to get to the loo?”

Nope. Not at all.  I’m commenting on the effects of all the other people who don’t walk up the hill to find the loo.  Instead they’ve nestled in said bushes, and left deposits sometimes covered with leaves, often not covered at all, for unsuspecting human feet and eagerly searching Labrador noses to find.

It’s not nice!  And Stan is super sneaky.  He’ll pick up his ball, ask you to throw it a couple of times and on maybe the third or fourth go (never the first or second, he’s far too canny for that) he’ll go to retrieve the ball but not come back.  Just as I turn my head to say “Yes, a cuppa sounds like a great idea”  or “Hang on, I think it’s in the front cab”  the little sod disappears, through a break in the car park wall, onto a sure thing.  

The clue to what he’s found is when he comes back licking his chops, in the way that you would if you’d just eaten a large mouthful of peanut butter.  His breath is unbearable and he’s then confined and leashed outdoors for a period of time.  Thankfully, we have a green-tea additive for his water that helps keep his teeth clean and eventually helps clean him up.  

The dog is now on the lead for ALL walks and only when we’re on a beach and are absolutely certain that he’s not going to make a discovery do we let him run free. 

It’s not his only demon, Stan’s, I mean, but it is a particularly stomach-churning one and I’ve never encountered quite so much human “debris” as here in Spain. So… if you’re climbing/walking/hiking/or own a Labrador…

My demon’s came out unbidden this morning.

The weather started out very cold and windy.  Then for a brief spell, the wind pushed aside the clouds meaning that although it was still blowy, and below 100C, it really seemed worth picking our careful way through the undergrowth to do some of the shorter climbing routes nearby.

They were a gift.  Bolts in the rock (that you attach carabineers and your rope to as you ascend) were less sparsely placed than often in Spain, the hand and foot holds were abundant; sharp and unforgiving on soft skin, but plentiful none-the-less.  

First clip (8’ off the ground) was fine.  Second clip (another 6 feet away), similarly good.  Moving beyond this, I’m 18 or so feet off the ground, but I’m on secure foot placements and I can see where the next hand holds might be.  The third bolt is another 3’ beyond my reach, but no matter.  

The wind picks up.  Clouds have already covered the sunny patches and the area is dark and cool.  The air temperature drops and with it goes my confidence.  I reach up, find places from which to move , clip and secure my rope, but I’m unsettled.  

The fourth clip is further apart from the rest.  The handholds are less generous and as my fingers quickly tap the rock’s surface, hunting for a place from which to make the next push upwards, a particularly strong gust pushes me sideways.  I hold on, fingers and feet secure, but it’s not a good feeling. The rock itself is cold.  The frigid stone pulls the strength from my fingers that seem cloggy and slow to respond to commands.  More to the point, I no longer trust them.  

Finally, I find one handhold that suffices and a second that’s shallow, spiky and puts me out of balance.  The wind pushes at my frame again, fingers feel like they’re going to peel off of their own volition… and I’m done.

Not happening.

A route that ordinarily I would have cruised as a warm up, and I’ve backed off it. I’m on the ground feeling shamed and foolish.  Stupid for trying in these conditions.  More stupid for not just pushing through and finishing the route.  My demons are mocking and taunting me.  M’s relieved, he had quickly started to get really cold and isn’t used to me being so reticent.  If I ever back off something he’s normally only encouraging, this time he just got me down as quickly as he could.

Not sure if common sense or my demons won this morning.  I need to get back on rock and try again.  The route today should have been a breeze, instead, I’ve been undone by one.

This afternoon we parked up at the most stunning camper spot we’ve ever visited (and there have been a few beauties), just North East of Altea.  It’s on Park4Night and is near a grand villa, right by the beach.  From here its 20 minutes, South and inland to L’Alfas del Pi where Vice, as promised, is showing in English.

I won’t give anything about the film away – Christian Bale deserves his plaudits for the role and all supporting actors are just as convincing.  If ever you wanted to see demons in action, then see this movie and follow its reflections for modern politics in the US and beyond.  

Tomorrow, hopefully, we’ll get M an eye test and eventually a new pair of specs, then we catch up with the local residents of Benisa.  Hopefully a less troubled day.

Day 20, 23rd Jan – To rock or not…

I did! I did!  I did see climbing bolts!  

Then I saw the UK Climbing logs for the area (tons of baby-easy stuff for me which is incredibly rare in a country that counts bolts in the rock as being there for wimps).  

Then I looked out of the window to see pine trees bent almost horizontal in the prevailing gale, sweeping its way through the valley.  

Oh well.

So, we walked down to the lake, which is very beautiful, sat by the roadside to have our picnic, and walked back.  M stopped to take a lovely picture, it’s very good, really captures the sense of the area. He achieved this with the use of his expensive variofoculs.  Just as he was thinking that he should be careful not to loose those essential glasses the wind whipped them away.

Up, up, up they went.  Over the Dam wall, down the other side, lodged somewhere on the scrub cliffs of the reservoir.  I saw roughly where they went.  Then I noted how impossible it would be to reach them, even if I did want to risk life and limb in the attempt.

It put a damper of the day.  He still managed to see the climbers on the various outcrops of rock though, we observed which climbing areas were protected from gusts.  Which was great, because for tomorrow, we know where to go now! M can’t wait…!

The nearest town with a cinema is L’Alfas del Pi. We’d done a death-defying drive down 270 degree road bends to get there in time to eat before the 7:15 showing of “Vice”, which M has really wanted to see all week.  The cinema owner was very accommodating.  He took us to the notice on his door that showed us that films are played in English on a Thursday, Sunday and Monday.  Today, of course, is Wednesday.

All was not lost, however.  We’d read the trip advisor reviews of the “Deja View” café.  Once inside we discovered the owner had a broad Geordie accent, and was serving braised steak with mash and veg.  

Ordinarily, you understand, we wouldn’t countenance eating English food in an English bar, in Spain.  But we were sat down by the time we realized.  And the upside of being there (apart from the very tender braised beef in onions) was the local knowledge that there were two opticians, one in Benidorm, the other in Calp where we could get M an eye test and replacement specs. 

There was also an interesting contrast between Guadaleste and L’Alfas.  Mac, of Irish descent, has absolutely ‘gone native’. His English accent is barely recognizable from the bullet-fire Spanish that he shares with the locals.  His fiancé is a local girl; he is enmeshed, ensconced in Spain and it’s difficult to see him going back to the UK.  

Trish, however, from the ‘Déjà vu’ has been in Spain 16 years, run a bar and then a thriving restaurant here, lives in a caravan in her son’s garden and decided long ago that the Spanish language wasn’t for her.  She left because of immigration into Newcastle (today running at <1% of the population), she’s considering returning for the grandkids and her Italian husband’s access to British health care.

Mac’s bar was full of Spanish, Trish’s café serves anyone but.  Two different ways of being in one part of the world…

Tomorrow I’ll start back on my ‘Learn Spanish with Paul Noble’ audio book and get better at communicating with the locals.

Day 18 and 19, Jan 21st– 22nd – The best laid plans

Monday, Day 18– We’ve had some sad news in the past week.  Two ladies that had played a significant part in M’s life and early memories, have passed away.  We got a phone call from Pat Coyle’s daughter to say that her mum, aged 90, had passed away peacefully in her sleep a few weeks after suffering a stroke.  Margaret Purdy, the lady who’d been trip ‘Mum’ when taking handicapped children to Lourdes each year as part of HCCPT trips also passed on Sunday.  I won’t replicate M’s gentle and well-written words about them here, but did want to acknowledge both of these lovely people, who gave him encouragement in becoming the person we know and cherish today.

None of our plans for Monday materialized.

Driving round Valencia city in a small car, and more importantly getting parked up, must be pretty miserable.  Attempting this in a 21’ van is utterly impossible.  After an hour and a half of:

“red light, crawl forward, big ramp, crawl forward, big ramp, busy junction, red light…”

and we gave up.  I’m sure that Valencia is lovely, and one day we’ll hopefully return.  Which, of course, meant where to next?

Guests had pointed us towards Xativer, which we duly visited.  It’s a very pretty, small but bustling town, equidistant between Valencia and Alicante, on some good roads and then lots of picturesque ones with hairpin bends snaking like a cattle trails up and down hill sides.  It also boasts a prodigious number of tiny crowded streets and more road ramps, red lights, heavy traffic.  Driving through, we acknowledged the pretty parks and the tiny compacted parking spaces.  But in the absence of anywhere to stop, we moved on once more.

Beginning to feel like we’d never find somewhere to rest, we headed back up into to hills.  

Finally, in the middle of nowhere, near the tiniest settlement called Bellus, was a campervan stop, with 3 types of water, beautifully kept, nestled below the dam wall of the reservoir.  There’s not much to tell you, except that it was clean, and that in 1788 (that’s not a typo, it was 1788) there were a set of baths that were ranked as one of the best spa facilities in the whole of Valencia.  Sadly, these now reside under said reservoir, but hey – good to know none-the-less!

Tuesday, Day 19– Bellus is a great place to sleep, it’s not a bad place for a run.  It’s one café is probably a lovely place to eat come April when it re-opens.  

We packed up…

“Where are we going?”  I asked

“Not telling,” was the answer “Surprise.”

Which it definitely was.  Looking up at the snow-dusted mountains around us, I mused on how chilly they looked as we started to drive.  A short time later I mused on how they seemed to be getting closer.  No, really, they were a lot closer.

I looked at M. 

“Where are we going?”

“Honestly,” he said “I can’t remember what I typed in the sat nav, but it looked great on the reviews.”

I put the map book down, noting instead how I could see the crevices in the snow now… 

An hour up and then down the mountainside and we arrived at “El Castille de Guadaleste”, a tiny but thriving village, beside a LOT OF ROCK.  Like Morella, it too has an impressive set of turrets perched implausibly on a tiny outcrop of mountain, along with three churches and medieval settlements up there too.  

This “blink and you’ll miss it’ dot on the map also gets to crow about some seriously good eateries and a bar, run by Mac and his (only now, after 10 years) fiancé.  The bar is very popular in winter with the locals, not least because the “European directive against smoking in public places” mysteriously doesn’t apply within its walls. We didn’t much care about the smoking, the wood burner was blazing, the chat and the wine were good, as were the tapas and the Nachos Picante.  

As I gave the dog a walk later, I was sure I saw climbing bolts on various parts of the rock wall, glinting in the street lighting…

Day 17, Jan 20th, Street Life?

Like a leaf on that gust of warm air, we were off, blown down the coast towards Valencia and sights new in the drizzly remains of an overnight downpour.  The plan had been to go to the pictures at 5pm (the only time for showings) after having seen the sights of Valencia City. Neither happened.

What we saw instead, was much more interesting.  

The city is split by a long riverbed, some 200m wide, broader in some spots. Encased on one side by medieval city walls, the elongated enclave of activity has runners, cyclists, rugby players, scooter-riders and roller-bladers of all ages. 

In the flower beds and bushes were cat shelters and trays of food.  We looked for human habitations, like you’d find in London’s parks: bedding and boxes set out for the coming night, insubstantial and rain-absorbent, we found none.  Wherever the homeless rest, we’ve seen almost no evidence of their dwelling on any Spanish public streets.  It must be there; in England, Belgium and France its growing incidence is uncomfortably visible.  Here, we’ve failed to see it.  

It turns out that Valencia does have/has had an issue with homelessness.  It started to tackle this by sending out hundreds of volunteers one evening in 2015 to walk the streets, to actually ‘see’ how many were sleeping rough.  Of 400+ found, 250 were surveyed for mental and physical health issues and a strategy was devised.  From then, they’ve had a number of projects to increase social housing and get people off the streets (one championed by Richard Gere in 2016).  They also have police patrolling the park in panda cars so that the itinerant population can’t disturb the peaceful rest of the city’s kittens or musings of visiting tourists.  

After a mile or so, we turned away from the verdant riverbed of health, into the city. The streets cobble and tarmac their way between tall apartment buildings, Parisienne in style, some of these towering edifices are elegant, beautifully maintained with long shuttered french-doors, their juliet balconies, overlooking the park.  Other blocks are decrepit , crumbling, uninhabited, unsafe.  The juxtaposition of sound and unsound, felt like a plan for the city was half executed.  Perhaps, there are many property owners waiting for the next round of EU grants…?

During our wanderings, we found the smart and shiny theatre building, all glass and steel framing, not exactly what we’d set out looking for.  But by burrowing further, we found even smaller streets with café tables and chairs and the great and the good sipping, not café-con-leche, but a dark red liquid in large glasses, served on ice with an orange slice.

As magnets gravitate to the pole, M and I had “naturally” been drawn to the cool and trendy part of town “El Carmen” (The buzzing old town district of the city – according to trip advisor).  We were sat amongst the beautiful, and as such chose to hide our unqualified selves in the corner of one bar, from whence we could watch those who belonged, unchallenged.  

From Vall d’Uixo, where we almost exclusively saw svelte runners and cyclists heading out into the hills, to here, wandering through this valley, we had firmly come to the conclusion that Spain must have a zero obesity problem. The entire population appears fit, trim and athletic by nature.  Bar culture put our minds at ease, a more rounded perspective of the population showed that although there are lots of skinny fit people in Spain, there are more ‘normal’ body shapes too alongside them.

The liquid I’d spied was Vermouth. I smiled into my glass, thinking of Joan Collins and Leonard Rossiter in Cinzano Rosso adverts of the 1970’s, as I sipped. Vermouth is apparently very trendy in Spain right now.  It’s also very delicious, I needed a second glass, just to be sure 😀   

By the time we got back to the van, walked Stan and had a little post-aperitif snooze, we’d missed the flicks.  

Tomorrow we’ll go to the renowned Central Market and stock up on fresh fruit and veg, and get M to the pictures.  Then we’re away again, down towards Alicante…