Thursday 14th Feb – La Rambla to Cordoba

 “There’s a Spanish train that runs between Guadalquivir and Old Seville, and at dead of night the whistle blows and people hear she’s running still…”  Chris de Burgh, 1975

And there we were, travelling over the Rio Guadalquivir.  There are, in fact,  day time trains connecting Cordoba and Seville, but I’m doing it again, getting ahead of myself…

We packed up and moved away from El Chorro.  From our spy-hole over the lakeside, nestled in the olive groves, we left the rust coloured soil defying the blue-deep sky and the clouds keeping count of the score.

I’ve got work to do.  The campervan makes the most amazing mobile office.  I sit, brain focused on internal thoughts whilst my eyes let the blues, greens and sand coloured images flash past them.  I am preoccupied and at the same time absorb just how special, how entrancing this country is.  

We pull into a small town some 20 miles from Cordoba where there’s a camper stop (to deal with the ‘you-know-what-box’).  

This is La Rambla, not to be confused with Las Ramblas of Barcelona fame.  The singular variety, La Rambla, is a small encampment that’s famous for it’s ceramics.  There’s been a market, but we arrive at 1pm, so we missed it. Likewise, all the shops and cafes have shut up shop, in ritual for the siesta.  Lunch is in the van and then we take Stan out for a walk, a ramble around the tiny pressed concrete streets so previously injurious to the van’s engineering.

It’s a beautiful place.  

There are several small parks, each with ceramic picture tiles set into in the public seats, encasing the fountains, on top of the signage and above the aviary in one sheltered corner.  Across the whole town, all of the ceramics are both colour and pattern co-ordinated and they are all, each and every one, completely, intact.  There’s not so much as one chipped vase, not one cracked urn, not one tile around the fountained areas that’s been damaged.

In our local area of England, the council took two years to replace the wooden bridge that youths burnt away.  The replacement steel bar bridge lacks charm but has survived similar arson attacks. It’s hard to imagine that such delicate decorations would last a week, much less the decades that these gentle items have withstood the tinkling of the fountain-fall of water.

We are charmed.  Stan trots alongside us as we trace our way around a footpath, circumnavigating the small town.  It’s siesta-quiet and the warm sunshine lulls us to a wandering pace.  

But our plan is to make Cordoba.  It’s on the secondary list (not a want, but a nice to get to) so after lunch we bundle up the van and move further inland.

Less than an hour later and we rise over the gentle hill that offers access to Cordoba. The city is huge.  As we take in its enormity, our hearts sink.  

The connurbation has spread as far as the eye can see, like someone dropped a pecan and chocolate chip ice cream that melted all over the valley floor.  The white-cream-brown lumps have seeped into the corners of the verdant buttresses, spilling over the river-banks and around the moderate foothills that try to contain the city’s sprawl.

Oh lord.

But, in fact, Park4Night finds us to a large flat dolomite car park, fenced in by high-rise flats and the dual carriage-way on three sides.  We settle the van and head off, crossing the ancient bridge to enter the hallowed city.

At the entrance to the jumbled collection of streets, houses and shops, stands aloft and separate, the building that back in the 780s was a mosque until (can you guess?) the Christians turned up.  They plonked a cathedral on the side and largely erased the Arabic texts and decorations.  

The mosque itself is a four-sided building, housing a central area.  Access on three sides is through three great, metal covered doors, each standing over 20 feet high.  Whatever the bustle on the outside of these walls, inside they have a hypnotic effect.  We are stilled, other tourists similarly so.  Families with small children slow down, becalmed.  

The outer walls are arched, creating covered walkways, offering shady shapes, arcs of shadow against white-washed walls.  In the main area of the square, low olive and citrus trees offer the first layer of arboreal canopy, protection from the sun.  Above this, the palm trees waft gently in the breezes we can only see, and standing majestic in the centre, are spire-tall cypress trees, taking your thoughts directly up to heaven, just in case they couldn’t get there by themselves. 

I resent the glowering cathedral dominating one side of the square.  It interlopes, intrudes, impacts the tranquility of this respite built some 1500 years ago.  

Eventually, it’s time to move away.  We’re hungry. Searching through Google, M finds us a place for lunch.  The waiter is charm personified and for the first time in my life, I surrender critical faculties and control over the bill.  I hand back both our menus and say:

“Ok, choose what you think we will like”

Michael looks horrified as Alberto the waiter smiles at me, glad that I have acknowledged his superior understanding.  He proceeds to supply us with food and wine and later, the bill… What the hell – it’s Valentine’s Day after all…

Wednesday 13thFeb – El Chorro: “Solid as a rock…”

It’s been two days of… rock.

  • Rock music played by M, we drove down through France to Meatloaf and Alice Cooper and he’s picked up the the rock theme again, although going for a softer version this time
  • Aiming to visit El Caminito del Ray – an amazing walk through the gorges at El Chorro.  
  • Getting my hands on rock.

There’s nothing quite as disappointing as buying a new rope and a guide book to the local crags, to discover that you’re not going to use either.  Which is where we were on Tuesday morning.  It’s like getting all geared up for Christmas, only to discover you’ve overslept, its Boxing Day; everyone’s gone home, and they’ve taken your presents with them.  I exaggerate not…

We’ve got used to the eternal summer of Spain’s winter.  The temperatures are almost always in double figures, rain is rare, and the tourists haven’t really turned up yet so we’re only slightly encroaching on the locals.  

Imagine then, yesterday morning, having poured over the crag guide and readied our climbing gear, got out the rope and – well – everything – imagine  my dismay on waking up to the sound of sleeting rain and howling wind.  

It’s a bit of a shocker when winter actually shows its teeth over here.  

Glum…

Still, we needed shopping, stuff needed doing for the van and I got lots of work done…

11 o’clock – grey wet,  yuk – we went to Alhora, there’s a Mercodona Supermarket

12 o’clock – grey wet,  yuk – still shopping

1 o’clock – grey wet yuk – on the way back from shopping

2 o’clock – less grey, no wet – hmmm…

3 o’clock – blue and grey, dry, better…

And the loveliest husband in the world, who doesn’t want to climb himself, but does want me to use the book and the rope, suggests (without me even hinting…) that we could go climbing since it had cleared up.

I wait perhaps a millisecond: “Okay!”

After the last debacle climbing where I just scared myself silly and left the rock-face feeling miserable; I was nervous.  In the guidebook, there are perhaps 6 of 283 pages  that list climbs I feel happy to start on.  We head for the most accessible crag, Fontales area, just above the village of El Chorro.

Two hours later…

I am a rock climber reborn.  

The rock is firm, it’s got lots of edges (this is a good thing), positive and lovely to grip, and the warm breeze that floats around me neither pushes nor shoves, just reminds me that I need to keep my jacket on.  M belays me up and down four routes, holding me steady, offering endless encouragement.

I keep waiting for the whisper of fear in my ear, but it doesn’t come.  Images of falling, failing to clip into the bolts, falling, banging limbs, don’t appear in my mind’s eye.  The icy grip of terror that has been known to wrap itself around my insides, doesn’t squeeze.  I’m in my element, in the place I feel connected and assured, even in moments when I’m hunting for the next hand hold, stuck between clips.  I am in the best of places: I am on rock.

Jubilant we come back to our home-on-wheels, supper is in a new spot, a mile down the hill from our last.  This new place is equally lovely but lacks other vans and local ‘deposits’.  So, Stan gets to wander on a much longer leash, find sticks to chew and have thrown for him.  All is well with the world.  Tomorrow, we have tickets for the Caminito de Ray to walk the gorge, and are planning to go back in the morning for the longest route I’ve ever climbed (35m) that’s three grades up from today’s achievement…

Wednesday 13thFeb

Communication is a wonderful thing.  I’ve written about it before.  About the value of asking questions over the merits of making assumptions.  Had I done this, we’d have been climbing earlier, before the bus was due to take us to the start of the Caminito del Ray, for the walk we’ve been wanting to do for days.

Instead of climbing, then lunching, then Caminito-ing.  We spend ages getting sorted, then finding a parking place for the van, then discovering that the walk has been cancelled due to high wind.

Bummer.

The sun is out though…

We ‘rock’ up at the crag (pun, geddit?!) to find lots of Europeans and one American couple crowded round our easy’ area of routes.  Chatting becomes a lot easier as soon as we openly state that Brexit is a disaster and we wish we had the political constitution of the countries represented by the climbers around us.  The US couple declare that their country is, just about, more screwed than ours. All nationalities present agree: the US is marginally worse than the UK, Europe is clearly better and on this basis, cordial relations are established.

Belayed by M, I do 5a route (equivalent to HVS or an easy Extreme1 climb if on trad) – the kind of warm up I’d run up at the indoor wall at home).  It feels ok.  I’m umming and arring about what to do next when M points out that the 6a (E2) route is now free and why don’t I just do that instead?

30 minutes and 35 metres later, I am as triumphant as Stan with a new plastic bottle. Yah-bloody-hoo.  At last, I’m getting my ‘head’ back, letting go of debilitating fears and finally, finally, climbing again.  

It was wonderful.  I’m incredibly grateful, for the opportunity ,for the support that M offers me in attempting the things I want to acheive, for this whole trip.

We’re going to come back another trip for Caminito del Ray.  Our journey has effectively carved Spain into two parts.  The Western reaches and Portugal will have to be done next time.  This visit, we’re going to head East, inland, to hold onto as much warmth as we can, before facing the chilly North.  

Yes, next time.

We’ve learnt a lot about ourselves and the van in the past six weeks.  

  1. The hand-luggage sized lockers (excluding footwear and toiletries) have too many things in them, we could have done with ½ what we’ve brought
  2. Our elasticated washing lines have been fabulous.  Today, only today, we discover that the cab’s ceiling handles make a great indoor washing line holders for stuff that’s not quite finished outside. This means that our living quarters don’t end up like a laundry room
  3. We haven’t, not once, thought that this was too much, too little, or not comfortable.  42 days coming up and we’re mourning our last 24 days.  We could do this for longer – next time
  4. There’s a million places we haven’t been yet…

Day 40, Monday 11th Feb – El Chorro, Alhora and mean things to do to your campervan

As the mornings have gone on, it’s been slowly less dark by the time Stan whimpers for his food or a walk first thing.  The sky was a grey-yellow hue this morning as I opened the door and peered out, lead clamped firmly to the reprobate’s collar (no surreptitious wanderings for you, my boy).  Behind me, over the nearby ridge, like a volcano of exploding colour, light was shooting up into the bank of low cloud that shrouded us.  

I struggled to make out what was happening with the light, sleepily wandering up the lane, toward the road and the ridge.  Squinting, I encouraged myopic retina to focus on what was ahead.  At the top of the path, the sun suddenly escaped through the valley opening.  As if dawn’s laser had burnt a hole, a ray of pure gold tunneled through the v-shaped rock walls, beneath the cloud’s heavy weight, flashing past my groggy eyes and straight across the lake.  It landed, like a firebrand on the opposite shore, a shot of brilliance that dispersed low-lake mist and left those fields ablaze.  

Gaping, open mouthed, I ignored Stan’s tugging on the lead and just looked. Gazing from the source, where eventually the morning sun would rise, to the lakeside, a bright pinpoint of colour in the mist-grey landscape, and back again.  Like an umpire in a tennis match, my head turning left to right, desperate not to miss one tiny scrap of what might be evolving.  

Just as suddenly, it was finished.  The light dispersed, the fields of flame dulled back to grey and green and the dawn was subsumed by nubula.  Gone. And not gone, caught in my imagination, trapped in optical nerves and synapses, held by dint of will, keeping the image safe inside my brain.

Back at the camper, the morning resumed it’s easy routine – tea, work, ready.  The plan had been to go to the Caminito del Rey – a rockside route around the El Churro gorge where hanging bridges allow fee-paying tourists to totter and imagine what would happen if their rope bridges…  But this required booking, which we hadn’t realized.  

An English bloke (about our age?) was leading a group of climbers back down the crag-face to his car.  I heard English voices and always greedy for information, I went to steal some from their knowledge bases.  

They were generous, not just then, but later when we were hunting for the camping spot he described and the climbing shop where I could buy the local climbing book. The book was easily obtained, the dust-ruble track at 35 degrees was simply not going to happen for us.  We found a spot to stop, below another huge crag of rock, begging to be touched and clipped to, where we finished lunch and I poured over my new climbing guide.  

A long crag of easy routes (confidence builders) hung above the next town along. That’s where we’d head, which we did. 

Tiny bends we are getting better at. Steep hills take their time, but the van gets there in the end, it’s 2.2 engine doing the work of the 2.8 version we’d have preferred.  But in the tiny town of Valle de Abdalajis, where the roads were barely van-wide, with right hand corners, and steep, steep slopes of pressed concrete long ago worn smooth, there, we nearly came unstuck.

A generous local lady nodded in blasé acceptance of us definitely making it down her precipitous lane, past two diametrically parked cars and onto the next hazard-laden street that was out of view.  We were less sure.  M put his foot on the main break, van in gear and used the handbrake, for security. Which he needed, because, despite these measures, the van kept sliding downwards.  Slowly, you understand, but it hadn’t stopped.  I looked at him; he looked at me.  We were still not-stopped, still responding better to gravity than Peugeot’s engineering.

So, six feet into the lane, we had no chance of reversing.  We were committed.  Do or die, or in the case of our gearbox, possibly both?

She was quite correct, we did inch our way down and squeeze our way between two battered vehicles, nudging our way forward.  And along, and left at a right angle, and right at another right angle and round.  

Just as I’d decided it was safe to breathe again, our road definitely being wide enough for one vehicle in the two-way traffic, M mentioned what the guidebook said.

“It’s a sharp right turn, up a steep track”

Oh, is it?  Like we’ve been gliding around on smooth, flat-plane roads so far then?’  I keep these thoughts to myself, they’ve proved unhelpful in the past.

“Aha” is all I comment.  Until we draw level with said track.

No way. Not even for the best camping spot in the universe.  It’s not happening, and neither, by default is my climb here tomorrow.  The crag’s parking spot is another 2.9 miles, uphill, before further mile walk in.  There’s nowhere to abandon the van if we don’t attempt the drive up there and no chance that engine will make it.  Time for plan C.

Which sees us do some horrifically awful turns and angles in the van that audibly creaks, before we give in and go back to last nights beautiful (if slightly poo-y) stopover.  The gearbox is juddering in emotional shock and the brakes are weeping and screeching with exhaustion and over heating.  

Oh my.

Back at the path end, we chat to a lovely German couple in their camper, watch two cars come with awkward drivers who don’t stay long after they’ve visited the bushes, and M makes sure the dog’s on a really short lead.  

The sunset is gorgeous, more peaceful than the day’s beginning, but we’ve had adventures enough in the past few hours – tranquil will suit us just fine.

Sunset at El Chorro and Caminita del Rey

Day 39, Sunday 10th Feb – God Bless Technology

It’s been a technology-rich day.  

Using WhatsApp, V dropped a pin for the café she thought we might like for breakfast. Google Maps kindly obliged, bringing us to her Airb’n’b so we could pick her up and then on to the café itself.  The waiters in the café had mobile phones on which they recorded our table number and orders, then delivered our ham and cheese croissants with smooth Spanish coffee.  Likewise, the bill, contactless payment for it’s settlement, all tech enabled.

We took V to the station where she’s travelling up to Madrid, working for a company that delivers parcels all over the world using the latest hard and software available.

You get the picture.

But the most fun we had with technology today, was the battery-powered scooters around Malaga.  By downloading the scooter app, you register (with bank details, obviously) scan the QR-code on each scooter, which unlocks it and then whoosh, you’re away.  You end your rental (charged at €1.15 per minute) by taking a picture on your phone that acts as a date-time stamp.  

Zooooom!

Malaga is beautiful.  The Castle is set in parkland, overlooking the port beside which unfold the granite-lined streets of the city centre.  Rich in heritage, pre-dating the Romans with Phonecian foundations, it has a mellow, gracious feel.  

As we wander back down from the fortress, a busker plays classical guitar and I imagine wide crinoline skirts rustling against the flowerbeds and hedgerows of rosemary.  You’d hope they had good shoes though – not kind on the tootsie pegs these pathways!

We need to plot a route home.  With just under 4 weeks now by which to be back at Calais.  Straight up North, or East before North, or West and then North? Either way, eventually, it’s gotta be North.  We’ve got about 1300 miles to cover, route dependent.  

Heading out of Malaga, we start with North, up into the mountains.  We’ll probably stop off at Cordoba and then head for Mid-Pyrenees, get to Lourdes (for M) and then chug across France, west-ish, arcing left of Paris.  

Today, the poo-box needs attending to.  There’s an dearth of appropriate facilities, but we find a campsite.  The manager won’t let us pay to use the chemical site without paying for all of us to come in – so two adults, a camper and a dog all get charged for separately.  Charm might be in short supply, but his technology efficiently relieves us of our euros.  We find our allotted space, next to other parked vans, all neatly stacked like sardines in a can.  

M does the nasty bit, I recycle and empty rubbish, we take on as much water as we’ve got containers for.  Then we sit, for at least 3 minutes, before M says: 

“Shall we just bite the bullet?”

I’m not sure what he means.

“There was a beautiful spot back there, on the Park4Night app, overlooking the lake – described as stunning, quiet and peaceful” he explains, “shall we just go?”

“Great idea”

Neither of us can bear being confined in an area that has more rules than its 217 pitches. It’s wooded but not beautifully clean, the dog needs to be on a lead all times, we need to be on leads at all times and the boundary for our spot gives us, at most, 3’ on all sides.

So, like kids bunking off school, we gleefully escape, delighted when the barriers open automatically and our exit is unimpeded.  It’s been an expensive water exchange but the relief to be out is so enormous, we simply don’t care.

A few minutes up the hill sees a track, reasonably flat if you drive round the craters. It takes us out to a spit of land, maybe 100m above the reservoir which envelopes us on 3 sides.  Imagine the lake district, Ullswater probably, tree packed islands emerge from its depths, it’s blue reflects the azure of the cloudless sky and in the distance the sierra mountains wrap their arms around us, in an all-encompassing embrace.  

M and I pick our very own angle at which to park, unrestricted by any regulations.  We get set and take the dog out for a wander. Both of us have spotted the ominous lumps of tissue paper beneath bushes, so Stan will stay on his leash even if we’re glad to be off ours.  A couple drives part-way up the track and we exchange “Hola” and “Buenos Dias” as we pass.  But, we return too soon for them. She’s wiping her hands with a piece of tissue that she discards to the breeze.

No…. 

She hasn’t….

She bloody well has.  

The steaming evidence is just round the nearest bush to where we’re parked and the pong is all the proof you need.

For God’s Sake – don’t these people have toilets to go to?

We relocate slightly, away from the offending ‘mound’ and settle to enjoy the rest of the evening,  it’s stunning sunset and supper.  This is a qualified beauty spot, you just need to watch where you step and keep the dog under close scrutiny, something that sadly, technology has not yet developed an app for.

Day 38, Saturday 9th Feb – Tarifa part 2

The last few days have been a slow meander through swimming and running for V, suppers in Tarifa and general wanderings.  It turns out that there’s a limit to the number of ways you can make “and then we went for coffee” sound interesting…

V’s swimming is better.  On Thursday, she appeared, wetsuit in bag again, announcing that Adele’s song of “Rolling in the Deep’ is a cover of an Aretha Franklin song.  

“What?”

“Yes” she says, playing the vocals her phone  Wow – Adele’s cover is exactly the same as the original…

“It might be older you know” says M to V, “Older than Aretha”

“You think so?”  

Out comes Google and the two of them hunt for information on-line.  

“Wait a minute!” exclaims M…

He holds up his phone for the pair of us to examine.  

“No!”

Aretha Franklin has done the copy, an Exact copy of Adele’s song, beat for beat, tone for tone, the same song with just a different voice.  

I guess that’s how you know you’ve made it, when Aretha Franklin does a cover version of your material…

After which, V took to the water again, in strong surf.  She managed to body surf some of the 8’ rollers, but after the second wipeout she came back to shore.  Using Google Maps M sees that Tarifa has a large port and a sheltered harbour.

Relocating finds us a bay, beside a port for the large ships and ferries that move  in and out of Tarifa’s waters.  We choose a safe route, well away from motorized boats.  In the preferred zone, there are just a couple of snorkellers, pootling around in the seabeds, looking for long-lost treasures.  

It’s half a mile from where M and I sit, to the furthest shore of the bay and back again. So, she’ll need to do this twice to bag her mile.  The first lap is uneventful.  As she starts the second, a speedboat zooms out of the harbor, into the bay where V and the two snorkel pipes are making their peaceful ways around the shore. There appear to be two young men in the craft.  Distracted by something, both are heading for the same ‘safe corner’ we’ve identified for Vicks.  As the boat’s speed increases, the two inhabitants are engaged with something on the boat’s floor, their backs to the wheel and the direction in which the boat is hurtling, unmanaged.  

I stand helplessly on the harbor wall, watching V’s rhythm of: ‘3-strokes and breathe’, ‘3-stroke’s as the boat speeds onwards.  As I stand about to start shouting and waving, the man nearest the wheel looks up, still oblivious of the swimmers and casually turns their potential death trap in a wide loop out to sea and then back even at an faster pace heading inside the port walls, just for kicks.  

As the boat disappears, I can finally breathe.  All three swimmers are safe.  Now, I cannot afford only to keep my eyes pinned to V, I’m also anxiously glancing over at the harbor, scrutinizing for movements, just in case.  

Vicks is making good time.  Lap 1 was 18 minutes for the ½ mile, potentially knocking a whapping 12minutes of her previous speed if she can maintain this pace.  She’s slightly off course, as she heads to the further shore, arcing her way seaward toward that destination rather than going in a straight line.

Which is precisely when the thoughtless buggers in the boat appear again.  This time, I’m jumping up and down on the harbor wall, gesticulating madly as these buffoons behind the wheel speed with their super-sharp propellers toward my one and only daughter.  I’ve no idea if they see me.  One of the idiots does indeed look up and by this time I’m alternating between crazy waving and pointing to the sea where V and one of the snorkellers are very close.  The boat deviates in its course, does a crazy sharp turn sending waves of wake bashing against the harbor wall below me, but it goes, thankfully,  back into the port where it belongs.

I want to run and shout at them, punch them, but V’s now approaching the other side of the bay.  It takes me the same time to run round to this beach as it does for Vicks to reach it. She heard rather than saw the speedboat and felt it’s watery-impact.  I suggest an alternative course back to M, hugging the line of the wall, where the worst that can happen is that she comes close to the waving fronds of rust-coloured seaweed.  

And, ten minutes later, we’re wrapping a towel round her shoulders, gathering her stuff and getting her out of the water, onto dry, safe land.  V’s training is a nerve-wracking experience, it’s exhausting!.

/——————————————————/

Friday deviated from the routine of:  ‘get up – do/watch some form of training –  realize its now mid afternoon – find food’.  

If you face the shoreline from where we’re camped at Tarifa and follow it West, there’s a curious, enormous lump of sand, perhaps 1/4 a mile wide.  It’s as if a narrow band of wind has swept up from the North African shore, visible over a short sea break, and dumped its load onto the Spanish shore. It stands proud, by as much as fifty feet from the trees that surround it. Literally, a lump of sand, incongruously deadweight in the first that contains it. It’s held our attention for the last few days but we’ve never ventured out toward it.  So, on our last full day here, with Google announcing directions, that’s where we point the car.  

We find the Playa Bolonia, an archeological site, not as big as Herculaneum, but sizeable none-the-less.  And slap beside the ruins, separated from us by a hedge of wild geraniums about to burst into glorious poppy-red blooms, is a café for lunch, specializing in fresh fish. Then we follow a road that we think might take us to the enormous sand dune, but which, instead carries us upward.  

Upward and upward.

There’s rock.  Lots of rock. But nowhere, despite my scrutiny is there a single bolt or scarp of evidence of climbing.  Strange.  If I love climbing, the Spaniards are addicted.  Every face of granite that you can get a bolt or bit of gear in, generally has evidence of climbing activity.  Here though: none.

As our car travels up the hillside, we leave scrub forest behind us, move toward roads that become rougher, pockmarked by rock falls.  There’s a plateau, a space to park awhile, gaze out across endless vista.  My eye is caught by a movement on the top of a ledge in the crag face.  The movement changes shape, opens enormous wings and floats, effort free on a thermal, circling with the breeze into the sky. Followed by another, a third, a fourth, fifth and sixth eagle.  Huge,  majestic creatures, encompassing stillness even when airborne as if their flight is of a cloud or a flower petal, carried aloft.  They turn and turn again. 

We found this place, this moment, by accident, but it’s veracity captures us, holds us still.  Shortly after, the road abruptly ends, barricaded where development has ceased, as if someone decided that humanity’s encroachment on nature had gone far enough. Which means that we have to descend. V and I have planned a run, 8 or so miles back toward Tarifa, contributing to her triathlon training.

So much has come out of these few days. Lessons about swimming and competing, so that V knows she can take part in this race of madness that she’s paid into. Learning about the size of eagles and why the many faces of the rock here, only hold evidence of nature, not of man’s insubstantial conquests.

Well done Tarifa.  Thank you.

Day 35, Feb 6th – Beach Adventures

V appears at the camper this morning, grinning with a paper bag in hand.  It contains the wetsuit she’s hired in town. Very smart, not as thick as we’d imagined and, being designed for surfers, it doesn’t have the more flexible shoulder fabric to aid swimming.  But… it’s a wetsuit and she’s going to use it today.

A little time later, there we are, witnessing her first proper sea-swim – half a mile in one direction, then turn around and back the way she came.  In the pool she knows she can do this in 40 minutes and in the sea she’s aiming to come in well under an hour.  

From the dry sand, we can see that the goggles V’s wearing are causing issues. She does a set of strokes, then she’s faffing on around her face.  The distance makes it difficult to work out precisely what the problem is, but its clearly distracting from the easy strokes she makes between interruptions. 

Stan finds friends, a piece of seaweed and a long stick to keep him entertained.  M records the moment with a video and lots of pics.  I can’t shake the memories of a nightmare I had when V was five.  

In the dream, we were on the pebbled Pevensey Bay beach; I was watching V play in the shallow surf.  Then my dream-self glanced away a second and when I looked back, she had completely disappeared.  I ran into the water and hunted, arms outstretched feeling the bottom of the sea-bed desperately hunting, trying to look through sea water as I went deeper and deeper… I woke up gasping for air from holding my breath underwater so long. In absolute panic I ran through to her room to find V, arms flung across her bed, lost in happier dreams of her own.

I’m not taking my eyes off her as she swims, I don’t care how old she is.

So we watch her, and eventually we trace our way back to the beginning and she’s running toward us, to the outstretched towel and hugs of congratulations.  48 minutes for a first go, we’ll sort out the goggles and try again tomorrow.  It takes 3 of us to get her out of the surfing wetsuit, not designed for a swift exit, and M kindly takes the spare stuff so that V and I can run.. well, jog, for a bit, before we meet M back at the van and go for coffee.

The rest of the day is easy-going.  Lunch at V’s, she and I wander out for more coffee, then a walk into town to find a place to eat.  

We’re hunting for local.  Taverna Grifa is stainless steel shuttering and bright-lit stone floors, crowded with Spanish (all men?) noisily finishing their day at 7pm.  V and I think this would be perfect.  M points out the sunset that we could be watching.  Old dynamics, step-family-tensions, threaten to resurface.  We all work at not going back there.  The debate of where to eat is at least, a lot less contentious than yesterday’s somewhat heated conversations around accommodation.  

M is adamant – we should go down to the beach.  V and I can’t find anything in the town, either beside the old castle, or nestled in it’s six-foot thick walls that is open yet, or inviting.  So just as the sky is starting to fill up with swathes of red, pink, gold and tango-orange, she and I relent.  Walking downhill and all three of us are struggling to see anything suitable.  

Ten minutes later, and finally, “Beach Bar Encuentro” offers us a seat in their tarpaulined conservatory.  

“See” points out M “African Sunset Skys…”  It’s impossible not to agree.  And then, V says, “That could be a good name for a blog.”

All tensions dissipate, over a bottle of wine and hamburgers that actually look like the pictures on the menu, we return again to the topic of my blog name.

Lots more laughter.  The themes include: adventure, not giving in to age, so being daring, but more than that, and there’s an hormone element…  We look at other blogs, admiring some of the clever plays on words and the ones we find less appealing “perimenopausal-woman”.

Then I play with the word Menopause – Meno –pause, paused.  And it strikes me…

Me-No-Pause 

– because I don’t want to. Not for age, not for fear, not for hormones or anything else.

Perfect. 

I follow V’s instructions, look it up on the domain checker and have purchased two years of the same all before taking the first bite of my goats cheese and walnut burger.  

So adventures of watery and wordy kinds on the beach today.  I grin to myself as I snuggle beneath the duvet, this evening. So wonderful, having V with M and I. Each time we navigate choppy family waters and come out unscathed I am washed over with relief.  Here we are, sharing the important stuff, big and small. Being blessed with the enormous luxury of time that we’ve taken/been granted and managing, despite a few ups and down, to be peaceful all at once.  

Day 34, Feb 5th – La Cala de Mijas to Tarifa

Le Cala de Mijas has served us well.  At ‘our end’ of the town, the boardwalks stretch and pull their way through and across the dune conservation area, wick with birdsong, flowers of all colours and prickled thorn bushes sprouting between the dune grasses.  The houses at this end are more local, less urbanization, sleepy in a ‘keep your coat and sunnies on’ while you drink your café con leche, watching the morning slip away.  

We’ve had three days in a car park by the sea, close to ‘amenities’ in which to wait for V to slowly recuperate from her London routines of ‘5am triathlon training sessions, followed by 14 hour days, and an hour’s commute before she eats.  Many of the planned activities have been abandoned in favour of watching the colour come back to her cheeks and the sparkle (that never actually goes) take less of an effort to appear.

Time to wander down the coast though and see what we can sea.  The aim, by the end of the week is to do a mini triathlon so V gets the experience of running out of water in a soggy wetsuit, ripping that off and climbing on a bike, before staggering of that and jogging up hill with her mother.  Surprisingly, the day on which we plan to do this keeps moving backwards!

We’ve had a right-old-chew finding somewhere else for V to stay.  The offer either to use an airbed in the space between the camper sofas or to have a sleeping bag beside us, received the briefest of of horrified glances.  The idea was then summarily dismissed.   The range of accommodation has been more expensive and less attractive here than we hoped, so we’ve looked further afield.  Eventually, with the help of an old-fashioned map-book and Google Satellites, we found somewhere reasonably rural but with things to do, further down the coast. Far enough, in fact to take us past Gibraltar, to the very tip of the Spanish mainland, to Tarifa.

A stop-off point for lunch sees us at a tiny port you’d never find by accident – we had a recommendation from a friend, Puerto de la Duquesa.  It’s Castille, is a proud, burnt-sandstone sentinel, central to the village, and set in lush lawns, surrounded by seafood restaurants to the left, and the beach on the right.  We opt for a beach picnic, English Style; M gets the table and chairs, V and I take down food, plates and cutlery. We forgot the napkins…

Stan is in his element, wandering around, picking up plastic bottles discarded at the edges, trotting into the shallow waves and then coming back to us in case there are crumbs or tidbits.  

He keeps returning to one spot at the corner of the beach.

There is a big, black, open-mouthed pipe pouring onto the sand’s edge…

Me: “Where’s the dog?”

M: “Over there… Stan, Stan”

V: “What’s he eating?”

Me: “Oh, no…”

M: “Stan! Come here, Now!”

V: “Oh God…”

M: “Stan!” Stan takes his time, then wanders back, licking his lips, making wide, happy sweeps of his tail – a canine equivalent of the cat that got the…

Me: “What’s he been eating?”  

I’m incredibly brave, I lean down and sniff.

“Oh No…”

There’s a chorus of “Urgh” as we leap to our feet as if to run away from him.

V: “That dog is DISGUSTING”

We pack up lunch and get off the beach, the dog is tied up in the van.  M wants to get out of the bright Spanish sun, so V and I wander off for coffee at one of the cafes.  Stan gets a bowl of water liberally laced with the green tea mixture – revolting animal – oblivious to his disgrace he’s still sweeping round his mouth with satisfied wipes of his tongue.  

Eugh.

When we set off again to Tarifa, V opts to change vehicles and comes in with me. Conversation hovers around a number of topics before resting on my blog – and it’s name – Dare2Say.  

When I started writing and blogging, ‘Dare2Say’ felt very appropriate.  You try writing down your innermost thoughts and then sending them out into the void for the world to admonish, snicker at, or ignore.  Daring in its truest form.  

We hunt together for adjectives so that V can explain in detail why the name is just – well – wrong.  As it turns out, I’m probably the only person who ever really liked it.  So, we play with ideas, V looks up the most popular travel blog titles (the worst being “Blonde in a van”) and we laugh at different sounds. Manchego Trails, Olive Wanders, Wonder Trails.  The possibilities are endless…

Tarifa looks like it’s doubling in size every time you glance out the window. There’s a lot of crane activity and concrete construction.  But if you turn your back to the mainland and follow white-gold sands out to where the cobalt sea is interrupted by vegitinous mountainsides that push up into the clear Mediterranean skies, then, it’s breathtakingly beautiful.  This is where we’ll be for a few days, for V to swim (there are at least 5 places to hire a wetsuit), she and I to run, and M to join us on hired bikes.  

There don’t appear to be any big black pipes leading out onto the sea and the land here is flat, limiting the opportunity for humans to give Stan an impromptu feast.  Even better. 

Day 30-31, Feb 2nd-3rd – The possessive noun

Saturday Feb 2nd

V’s coming…. 🙂

To fill in the morning M got himself scrubbed and dressed whilst I ran along the coast, finding signposted footpaths that took me on the seaward side of cliffs (no bolts for climbing, I checked, just in case).  Sorted and ready, an hour or so later, we trundled into Malaga, to pick up a car which which to travel more easily (there are no seatbelts in the back of the van).

Malaga airport facilities resemble all other airport facilities:  busy, designed to optimize parking charges and facilitate the through-flow of bodies.  But most of all: busy.  I abandoned M, leaving him floating round with all the other cars that didn’t want to get trapped in the financially lucrative parking buildings. I went in search of the Arrivals hall.

Standing in the corral alongside more patient ‘waiters’, I peer intently at and through the glass doors from whence other travellers emerge.

Where is My daughter?

In front of me, directly in my line of sight, blocking my view of that glass portal; obstructing the first possible indication of V, a woman leans on the railings. Her position obscures the view for several of us.  Doesn’t she know? Can’t she move?  My daughter is due to come through any moment.  I might have to wait…seconds… before I see her.  Finally, a guy wanders towards her and she gives him and tentative hug, then she’s gone.  Great…

A smart young woman, (in her late twenties?) comes through to meet an older couple, a greying Brit and a small woman whose thick makeup and long, black-dyed hair, make her ethnicity indiscernible.  Slightly anxious as this new arrival sees her audience, she increases her pace to almost a trot, hurrying in their direction.  Reaching them, she turned first toward the mature woman.  The greeting female held the girl’s arms, preventing her leaning forwards to kiss her cheek, trapping her in an awkward position of neither warm reception, nor whole rejection.

Somewhat flustered, a pink flush spreads across cheeks and neck, the young woman turns to the man.  He carefully manages to put his arms around her and simultaneously hold her apart. The girl holds his arm-tops firmly and rests her chin on his shoulder for a moment before the embrace is broken.  My mind fills in the blanks.  I hope the disapproving stepmother will warm up over the visit and that her father might make time to have proper chats and close embraces during her stay. 

Next, a man in his forties, with a huge trolley full of luggage comes into the arrivals arena and, without exiting that confined arena, stands at it’s centre, looking all around him.  Shortly after, a similarly laden female joins him.  They occupy the majority of the available space, looking aimlessly from left to right and shrugging.  My compassion is running thin.  Do they not know?  My daughter is due to come through.  I might have to wait… even more seconds… if they stand there gawping.  FINALLY, they move off too.  Right…  back to peering.

And I realize that none of them appreciate the weight of my possessive noun.  MY daughter is coming through.  MY light of my life, child of Mine.  I know she’s a grown up; she’s accomplished; far more widely travelled than I; independent; autonomous; frankly awe-inspiring in many ways; but she’s My daughter (other things to other people, but I’m her mother) and I want to know she’s safe.  Woe betide thoughtless passengers who stand in my way when I need to see her, collect her, know her safety.

And there she is.  Home, well, with me, which amounts to the same thing.  I can hug her, stand back so to take a good look, assess what might be needed.  She’s here. Possessive noun placated.

Sunday Feb 3rd

We’re running this morning, V and I.  M, ever the proficient and practical does the washing, which is very kind.  He’s planning to take advantage of the WiFi and wait the 45-60 minutes our route should take.  

During the miles we do, V plugs into something that makes her smile, I’m working my way though “Learn to speak Spanish with Paul Noble” (now on chapter 12 of 37).  As we pound the boardwalks parallel to the shore, I’m silently chanting repeated phrases: “Por que no quiere habla espanol?” (Why don’t you want to speak Spanish?), and “Por que no puedo tomarlo a la estacion?” Why can’t I take it to the station?).

Back at V’s Airb’n’b, M is onto drying our things (for which I’m immensely grateful. I hadn’t expected him to assume this single handedly, we juggle things on the airer).   V takes advantage of our presence to attempt her first open water swim, ready for her ½ Iron Man Competition in Greece this Easter.  We follow her down to the beech, speaking words of encouragement, neither of us commenting on precisely how cold those blue depths are likely to be.  

As V plucks up the courage to run through the surf and into the waves, a small gathering of disbelieving locals stare in wonder at this strange English female.  V’s been taking lessons in preparation for her sea-swim in the competition.  We see the benefit of this in the few strokes she’s able to make before the temperatures render her limbs inoperable and she has to retreat.

We all get it now, the advice of: “you’ll need a wetsuit”.  No more attempts till she buys one!

The rest of the day involves exploring Marbella.  V had imagined some ancient, terracotta-bricked fishing village.  The reality lives down to M and I’s expectations.  But we stop for a drink, I get an ice cream and V asks to cook tea this evening.  Lovely. 

Back at the van, M and I give Stan a walk. The sun has nearly set, the sky looks like it’s been spread thickly with orange tango water colour paint, then brush stroked upwards to fill up to the top of the page.

Tomorrow – Malaga to shop and find that wetsuit, then… well, I’m not sure what… I have my two most important people with me, so not much else matters really.

Day 28-29, 31st Jan-Feb 1st – Parking

Wednesday 31stJan

Second night done at the campsite, we’ve got 300 miles to Malaga Airport for V on Saturday.  In this van, that’s at least 6 hours driving.  Gotta move on.  

I went to pay.  When we parked up, I’d asked M about the prices, he wasn’t sure, the manager had been a bit vague.  There was an allusion to €7 a night, so we weren’t expecting it to cost too much.

If you rocked up to a Premier Inn, in the middle of gorgeous nowhere, for a room-only rate with amazing mountainous views, a reasonable restaurant and shared but beautifully clean bathroom facilities and they said, €18 a night for a double room, you’d probably shrug shoulders and get your wallet out.

But… 

Say to a camper-vanner who wild camps for Nada Euros, in perfect privacy (albeit without the luxury of a ceramic loo) that they have to pay THIRTY SIX EUROS for two nights stay and you’ll see the tears in their eyes as they try to stop coughing in distress.  

That’s probably why the manager didn’t tell us the price (which, let’s face it, is peanuts) – he’ll have known that all but most dependent of caravans would probably have driven on.  And we benefitted from the electric hook up, M got the batteries sorted (yes, sorted!) and the fridge got a steady 110 volts for a change.  I got three hot showers where I didn’t have to dry out the shower curtains or the shower tray before we trundled off… don’t be so tight… 

The AP7 took us from Sierra Espuna, to Murcia, and cross-country to Granada.  We wound our way through four different Sierra regions, the van chugging like a lazy salmon, swimming upstream in a wide dark river. 

Rounding the foothills, a sky-high bowl of rock peaks looms to our left, seemingly marshalling the storms, like a food-processor on a slow whisk, turning white, black, purple nebula over and over on themselves until they doubled in volume.  Like milk in a saucepan that unexpectedly reaches boiling point, the clouds suddenly frothed over the mountain edges, tumbling down steep edges, deluging everything in their path.  Including us. Suddenly we were in a waterfall of precipitation, deep cloud, grey obscurity.  Windscreen wipers ineffectual at clearance, we slowly crawled our way through the inclemency.  

I peered into the distance; sharp spikes of sunlight punctured the cloud to let the rainwater through.  Otherwise, the world was now dullness, obscured magnificence around us, cowering us to the tarmac.  Like a dogged snail we travelled, leaving tyre-track trails behind us in the rain. 

 Eventually, we descended to Granada.  It might have been magnificent, we were just glad to discern the 20 feet in front.  M tussled the van through grumpy rush hour drivers to a Park4Night spot on a hill. Supposedly, this was above the Alhambra. There was no way of knowing.

Thursday 1stFeb

It rained all afternoon, all-evening, when I stirred in the night, I heard the rain. So this morning…  yup.

Stan whimpers and it takes me 20 minutes to unearth waterproofs, boots, warm clothes. Finally ready, I open the door and step out, expecting Stan to do his normal of shooting past me into the outdoors. 

No Dog

Have you ever seen a Labrador wearing a look of utter horror?  He looked at me, glanced at the rain, then tried to lie back down in a tightly curled ball in the corner of his bed.  He hid his head, like Winnie the Pooh, if he couldn’t see me… The coward was miserably resisting leaving the comfort of his warm and snuggly pit. 

“Tough do-dah, Stan, I’m dressed now, you are definitely coming”

After very firm ‘persuasion’, dog and human stride through the drizzle.  We’re beside the city walls, 4 feet thick of stone in broken places.  Exploring through brick-built archway and in the distance, nestled in the valley, is the up-lit Alhambra.  Magnificent, enormous, enticing.

We all have bucket lists, and The Alhambra has long been on mine.  

I’m like an excited child by the time we’re at the 2pm slot for the palace.  It doesn’t disappoint.  Here is a world created by older, wiser civilisations: Moors, Muslims.  The city is festooned with water hydraulics, fountains, pools, gushing gullies to rival the Romans’ work, on whose remains the Alhambra rests.  This magnificent city laces its way through more than twenty centuries of European history.  I walk open mouthed, ear hooked into the €6 audio book that tells me of it’s past.  

I won’t wax lyrical, save to say that if you have chance to visit these gardens and palaces, gawping to the sound of bubbling waterways and lark-shy birdsong, then go.  It is worth it.

We’re now at the second site for the evening.  The first, was a gloomy and glowering sea-side spot.  It boasted public loos, apparently now employed for much more than their original intent.  I don’t know what you use a teaspoon for, but I tend to stir my hot drinks with mine.  I’m not often seen boiling up substances in one, like the poor scrap of a human being, down by the underpass was doing tonight.

Our second place sacrifices WCs for a tranquility.  It’s a flattish car park, largely populated with other campers, considerably more peaceful.  We’ll rest here before wandering over to get V tomorrow.  As I finish this latest epistle, the wind has picked up again and I can hear the familiar sound of rain battering the side of the van.  Hey-ho – It is still winter.

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?