Final Blog – Coming home

The last two days of our trip passed in a blur of fields and trees.  Steep-rooved houses, criss-crossed Tudor beams are either clustered into towns, or spaced out like candles on the flat landscape of a birthday cake.  The van brakes ground, or they didn’t grind, we developed an oil leak but kept topping up. The sole aim was to get home now, distance to cover in case our train pulled into the Euro Tunnel, sliding into the darkness without us.

And yet, like a child on Christmas day fighting tired eyes for fear of missing grown-up events, we clung to the last hours of our amazing odyssey, torn by the requirement to get back and our desire to turn around, shoot off in any other direction but home.  

From Nantes we made it to Mont Sainte-Michele, it’s tall gothic spire puncturing the sky, launching upwards from grey mud-sand of Normandy beaches.  We allowed ourselves a stop from incessant forward movement, to tread its causeway and jostle with multi-cultured faces and voices, squeezing round corners, along ramparts and up to the Abbey itself. Despite it’s apparent medieval nature (think Hogwarts- meets Lindesfarne-meets Bamburgh Castle), it’s mostly a 20thcentury fabrication.  Tiny turrets jut out at odd angles, wonky chimneys offer ledges from which pairs of seagulls squawk in protest at disturbed repose.

Then back in the van, into gear: onwards.  

Our final evening, Boulonge-sur-Mer, was an opportunity partly for reminiscences, glowing memories over a bottle of wine on a last supper out, and the transactional stuff that I’d fixed on achieving.  M, ever patient sighed as we sheltered from icy rain dashing out to the launderette machines cleaning and drying clothes and dog bedding.  In my head, it was essential to re-enter the UK without a mound of smelly washing.  

I was discombobulated, hormones not helping, but in mourning what was over I was snipey and focused on little stuff rather than seeing a bigger picture.  

Next morning, air cleared, mug of tea shared and approaching Calais, we clicked back into the sync I’d shoved us out of.  Notes were compared as miles passed:  favourite days, favourite nights out, the best of ‘this’, worst of ‘that’, things to change/avoid, do differently in future.  Would we stick with this van or make a different one? Where would we go next time?

What was clear as the road signs counted down the kilometres to our exit, was that we’ve done many journeys in the past 96 days, the least of which was the 5000+ miles. We’ve learnt what we can achieve if we decide on a course of action.  M’s confidence has grown: he had lost faith in his ability to make things, the intimidation putting him off the idea of building the camper to start with. Now he describes how he can reshape the kitchen area, estimating half a day for the work.  He’s started to write, and gets lost in his own thoughts and words, creating a narrative so different to mine, M fluid at expressing things that I find it harder to say.  

My beliefs have shifted too.  I’ve started consultancy work that I’m loving in its own right, proud also to be contributing independently and more significantly to family finances, outside of the guesthouse.  I know now that we can make a new life, lots of new lives.  I have more confidence that ‘blue sky dreams’ are not in fact only suitable for the ether, they have more value and less risk attached to them than was assumed.  My determination to have us both reach for them offers real benefit, rather than folly. Just look at what we’ve done so far.

Which doesn’t at all cover my gratitude.  I am shortly in danger of being one of those gushy actresses who, hands clutching a shiny award, overstays their stage time.  But, if you’ll allow me to monopolize your attention for just a short while longer:

Thank you Mr Wilson.  You are my best friend, my enabler, trustee of the dreams, tears, heights reached, lows plumbed.  I am afforded influence, and though I’m judicial in what I push for, there are times when the adjective is simply ‘pushy’.  I’ve nudged and then oomphed you.  Thankfully, you see our adventures as good things, have loved the journey and appreciate the necessity of changes coming our way.  A lesser man might have descended into resentful irritation.  You have not.  You wake each day determined to be both cheerful and the best human that you can be.  I stand in awe of such resolution on a daily basis.

Vicks has been a stalwart supporter of this and other departures from the norm.  Her visit in the middle of the trip was precious time.  It provided opportunities to chat about subjects inconsequential and more serious. I hope she and I keep running/cycling together.  I love the space it provides, time for the two of us and our endless striving towards her ever-more-ambitious sporting goals.

Family have been wonderful.  Curators of our journey, lines of contact to speak with, eternally supportive and encouraging. We got back to the UK and stopped first with the “London Lot”.  Out came the trolley jack, copper slip, clamps.  Off came the wheels, problems identified, rectified, rolling stock restored.  M up again early on Sunday morning, hands around the brakes and their innards, supervised by Uncle Ron. Then we go North on Monday for M’s Mum’s birthday (she’ll be 82), to see my Mum, Dad and Joy, to spend time sharing the highlights, good and bad.

We’ve been blessed with friends who’ve assumed our abandoned responsibilities, sorting the cottage and caring for it’s guests, ensuring plumbing keeps flowing in the freezing weather, collecting the post and sending weekly reports that the guesthouse is still standing.  Our garage was broken into, we have pictures for the insurance company, accounts from neighbours and colleagues in the police force.  There’s a raft of kindness that we’re profoundly appreciative of, buoyed by the sense that although we sometimes feel like a separate double act, clearly we’re not and have many people to be glad for.

And, I’m grateful for all the people who’ve responded to this blog, sent messages of support, noticed our tribulations, even just affirmed their presence with a “Like’.  Each bolsters, endorses, encourages, make me fight a desire to hide or keep this exploration of the possible quiet and private.  You’ve come with me; your company has been invaluable and reassuring.

It’s going to be a roller-coaster ten months.  We’re stopping the guesthouse, which necessitates leaving it.  That’s four floors of downsizing and we’ve no idea of into what.  The guesthouse bookings are very busy, lots of guests who are valued friends and new friends to make.  Lots of decisions, weighing up, taking down, simplifying and stripping away.  

Optimism is my natural bent, I assume success and strenuously resist losing that outcome.  I have huge buckets of optimism for the future, our blue skies are liberally littered with fluffy clouds of opportunity.  All we need to do is decide where we’re looking first: North, South, East or West, and surely, that can’t be too difficult.  Can it?

And off we go… c’mon Wilson, catch up…!

Monday 4th March – Breaks – Break-in? – Broken

By 8am I’d got myself sorted in the corner of a local cafe whose WiFi I could surf to do my dissertation supervision sessions.  M took Stan and the Van around to Msr Pierre.  The brake pads had arrived, not in specialist Peugeot boxes as promised but more like something we could have ordered from Amazon.  Never mind…

“Come back at 12 or at 2pm, it will be done”

M called back whilst I was working and then we called back together a couple of times. Each time we passed Pierre was working on a different wheel, with just ‘the other one’ to go.  

At twelve, we’d clocked his progress and even a rudimentary knowledge of maths would tell you that 4/4 is done.  So we pulled into the forecourt to call time.  Pierre was a bit put out:

“Je dit 2pm…”

“Oui Monseigneur, mais tu es finis…”

He grumbled, flashed the card payment machine in front of M and then grabbed his keys and dashed out of his office, locking it behind him.

Oh well. It wasn’t much of a farewell, but at least our brakes were done and we could resume travelling north now.

“Right” says M, “I’ll drive the car” (he being the one who hired it) and you take the van.  Here’s the keys…”

He fumbled for a bit.  Checked all his pockets, checked the surfaces in the van, checked the ignition of the van where he’d agreed the keys would be left with Pierre…

Yup – you guessed it.  No keys. 

Pierre had by this time zoomed off in his little black Citroen C3, up the hill and away into the distance.  We examined the details we’d taken on Friday evening.  The business number could clearly be heard on the other side of the office windows.  No Pierre. No mobile number.  No keys.

We rang the lovely assistance people.  Perhaps they had another form of communication?  No.  But we agreed that surely he was just on his lunch break, he’d be back soon.  

At 1:45 we saw him.  

Hurrah! 

Ah… No… wait… 

Come back…! 

Pierre shot back down the valley.  He turned to look at his premises and clearly clocked us, but didn’t stop.

By two-fifteen, it was looking unlikely that he would EVER return.  I wandered down to the other garage in the town. They rolled their eyes at the mention of his name, exchanged meaningful glances, tired ringing his office number and emphatically (perhaps in the way that only the French can do) said they didn’t know. I wandered back.

The lovely assistance people rang us back.  They’d rung all over town: the other garage, the gendarmerie, the tourism office… no-one had a mobile number for Pierre.  It was a mystery.  

We stood outside his large office window, staring at our keys on his desk.  Would one little stone really be wrong?  Only a small break-in.  Just enough to get our keys and go, not for anything else…

Finally, finally, at three pm, he zooms onto his own forecourt in a desperate hurry. This has nothing to do with us. He asks in a “I don’t really give a shit, but you’re still here, so I’ll enquire” kind of way why we’re still hanging around.

“Tu a nos clef”  (you have our key)

“Ah. Merde” (note the lack of any apology.)

“Oui Monseigneur, Merde”  I replied, affecting a calm that I didn’t at all feel.

He looked at me sharply and I returned the stare.  No matter.  Keys in hand it was off to Pau, to drop off the hire car, see a bit of that city and head North.

The van was a bit sluggish by the time we’d done the 60km to Pau, but I didn’t mention it to M in case I was being unnecessarily alarmist.  By the time we reached Pau and decided it was no place to park for the night, and had then decamped 25 miles south to Lourdes once more, it was clear:  all was not well.

“Feel the heat coming off those brakes”

I didn’t need to.  As my hand drifted within a foot of the wheel itself, I could sense the temperature radiating from the corner of the van.  Not good.  The disc could warp or the brake fluid could burn off.  Either way, we couldn’t ask the van to do another 1000 miles to home in this condition.

We rang the lovely assistance people (again) explained the issue, that we didn’t want anything more from them, other than a recommendation of a nearby mechanic with a safe reputation.  They gave us a recommendation but also were incensed on our behalf.

“Did he apologise to you?” said the lovely Alan (pronounced with a French accent). “He did not apologise to me. he was very rude.”

Tarbes is where we’ll find the nearest reliable garage on their lists.  By now it was 18:45, the garages would all be closed.  Tomorrow they’ll use their infinitely better skills to explain our problem to the mechanics of choice.  Hopefully they’ll fit us in.  We’re on a countdown now to Saturday.  Got to be at Calais first thing.  Got to have Stan’s tapeworm done at least 24 hours beforehand.  I’ve booked a vet’s appointment at Bordeaux for Wednesday, but there’s nothing to say that we’ll be road worthy by then…

But there’s nothing we can do tonight and so little point dwelling on what-ifs.  The answer… clearly… is to go for a wander around lamp-lit Lourdes, and the grotto, light some candles and then find a bistro selling a lovely, grapefruity Sauvignon Blanc with cheese platter and bread, and imported plum pickle.  Then to wander back to the van to wait for tomorrow.   

Brakes are still broken but hey…

Supper in the Old Town at Lourdes

From a four-paw perspective – Gavarnie, France

I’m conscious that it’s been mostly me, or occasionally M doing the talking over the last nine weeks. But Stan’s been with us too.

He was a bit bored on Saturday round Lourdes, lots of slow walking on the lead, not enough running around and chasing things. Sunday, however, was a much better day spent leaping all over Gavarnie. Here it is in his own words:

“We got in the car. I get to sit in the back now, it’s better than the boot.

The drive went on forever – taking, like, TWO hours, but then we got out. 

And there was snow, and water, and hillsides, and paths, and other dogs. Then there was a long walk off the lead. I found a stick whilst they had food, and then I had two apple cores.  The apples were great.

Then we were off and there was snow and paths and other dogs and water in the river and from my bowl. It was great.

I had another stick whilst they sat and had coffee. I chewed bits off it and then ripped off the bark.  And they threw the stick all over the place and I had to go and get it for them (they’re very forgetful).  And it was great.

Just as I was getting really hot and tired, we were back at the car and I fell asleep on the back seat.  Apparently there were loads of sheep in the market square that doubles up as a roundabout in Laruns, but I didn’t’ see them, coz I was still asleep.

Then we got home and I got fed.  And that was great.  

Then, because it was so warm, they left the door open till it got dark and I stared out at everything till I fell asleep again.

It was all great.”

Friday March 1st, Close Calls over the Pyrenees

We left Zaragoza and headed even further North.  

Down at G&L’s, spring had sprung and perhaps gone over, blossom had turned to almond sets and each day was bathed in warm Mediterranean breezes.  Zaragoza’s trees are bare, the grass is just starting to waken and blossom is a rare flowering entity on the most optimistic of trees.  The air is cold.  We delve into our lockers and pull out the jumpers again.

By the time we’re at the Spanish base of the Pyrenees, 600 miles north and 2000m up in altitude, the world looks like it’s been trapped forever in November.  There’s no snow on the ground, and although distant mountain caps are striped with white, they’re not blanketed as February might expect them to be.

We do a few ups and downs, the van seems happy enough.  It chugs on the ups and when M keeps it in second gear he manages to minimize the amount of braking required.  So far, so good.

There’s a decision point, part-way into the mountain passes.  Carry on straight up, directly heading for the central pass, or divert through the less picturesque tunnel that saves the mountainous undulations but takes all the fun out of the drive.  I show M on the map.  We give it a moment’s consideration.  

“Nah… we’re here now”

“In it for a biscuit”

“Righto…”

We’re set for the adventure and stunning majestic sights; the route doesn’t disappoint. It would if you’d gone up to the highest valleys where the skiing is thin, there were maybe three ice-packed routes to choose from.  You’d be really glum if you in were lower ski resorts.  Then you’d have wanted to bring a stout pair of walking boots and waterproofs because your skis weren’t going to be of much use to you.  But in the cab of our camper, it is glorious.  

Deep blue, semi-frozen reservoirs are fed by icy-cloudy rivers that jumble their way to join the whole.  The sun in it’s hazy sky throws random shots of light across tree-pocked hillsides. Those same rays refract off the snow where it persists, shooting back brilliant gleams of gold, right onto the back of your retina.  It is, not to put to finer point on it, bloody lovely.

Up, up, up we chug.  Over the top, across the French border as we start the 10 miles or so of constant descent. The van is in second gear, or third (when it flattens out a little).  The brakes do squeak a bit, but not alarmingly so.  Just enough to remind us that they’re unhappy.  But they still work.

Or so we think.

The lowest point in the foothills, on the road to Pau is a small but bustling town called Laruns.  As we’re approaching the central square, which doubles as the roundabout we have another decision to make.  The shortest way to reach Lourdes, where M really wants to spend a couple of days, is by turning right here and doing another undulous, tiny, twisty road that will lead us into the heart of that city.  The alternative, flatter but triple-length route is to up to Pau, across to Tarbes and then down the third side of the rectangle to get to our destination. M pulls over.  He’s not happy about the van.  The brakes have started making some alarming noises.

As we move off the main road it creates the most awful sound. Is the entire chassis about to pull away from the van itself?  

“So what routes did you want to show me?”

I pick up the map but say:

“They must have a garage here, what do you think?”

“Yup”

M gets out and shines a torch through the wheel trims.  As he moves from corner to corner, his expression gets darker.  

We’re not going anywhere, we also can’t stay where we are, partially blocking the main access route through the town.  As M puts the engine back into gear, that awful deep grating sound, starts up again. It’s like the wheels are filing down the axles.

A road sign says there’s a camper car park just 200 yards away, it takes us several horrible minutes to grind into it’s entrance.  

Only now do M and I’s joint imaginations relive the past 10 miles of hairpin bends at super-steep slopes.  We realize how incredibly lucky we’ve been.  My head’s full of tales of drivers who’ve careered into pebble beds to save themselves and their passengers, or failed to make a tight curve.  That could so easily have been us; but it wasn’t.

We passed a garage on the way into Laruns.  It’s clear we need assistance, it’s also 4:45 on a Friday evening.  Monseigneur Pierre Casajus, proprietor of the second garage in town agrees, reluctantly at first, to look at our poorly camper.  He and M drive off so that our French ‘Mecanicien’ can listen to the sound of discs slicing through wheels, and by the time they return, he’s on board.

There’s a cynical part of me that says “Well, yes, he would wouldn’t he, given what he’s charging?”  M balks at being fleeced €342 for parts that would cost £40 at home.  But it’s Monseigneur Casajus or the Renault Garage that Google rates as 2½ out of 5.  Pierre seems like the better choice.

The parts can be here by Monday, at the earliest.  He’ll do the van that day, at some point, charging €48 an hour for as long as it takes.  We’re in no position to argue.  The breakdown assistance are much more helpful than last time.  ‘Alan’ (pronounced in a French accent) assures me they will pay for a hire car (but not fuel) and €85 towards a taxi to take us 60km to Pau to pick it up.  So, it’ll all be fine in the end.  

We nudge the van back from the garage to the camper stop, where €21.60 for 3 nights seems a wonderfully fair price to pay.  

Collapsed in a local café, over food that someone else prepared, we count our blessings. We’re not in a crumpled heap on the side of a Pyrenean lane, with no wheels/steering column/brakes left to mend; we’re not in hospital, nor is the dog at the vets/in a dog pound, because of injuries; we’re not sitting in a juddering mess, trying not to cry whilst we cook our supper.

We’re in a warm, busy restaurant, the van and dog are safe. It’s a beautiful place to break down and my French vocabulary is now expanding to include several car parts and vehicular maladies.  All good, by the skin of our brake pads, but good nonetheless.

Thursday 28th March, Zaragoza – Gilted and glorious

“Let’s try and get away early” suggests M, horizontal in his pit, unaware that it’s already 8:43, “Let’s be on the road by 10”

“Okaaaay…”

I respond, glancing at the clock.  I forbear from sharing the truth – he looks really comfy and has taken to writing things – its not time wasted.  I love his words.  Another hour won’t hurt…

By a tremendous feat of effort and will, I’m behind the steering wheel at 11:06 as we pull out of the car park and back onto the road.  It’s about 170 miles (3½ hours driving in this van) to the Park4Night place near the centre of Zaragoza, from where we can explore the city.

Our journey flashed past in plains of vast, eye-leading flatness.  They are a patchwork of greens, greys, rust browns and sand-pale, rectangles, tessellating perfectly, unpredictable in colour from mile to mile.  All flat. In the distance we see ridges and mountains, but up close… unruffled horizontalness.

We passed the Airport of Teruel, where you will never catch a plane.  It is an air-park, not a junk-yard of disused machines of flight, but storage for excess capacity, planes that have legal issues, and others awaiting delivery.  Huge jumbo jets dwarf a nearby village, standing out from the smooth agricultural earth like sculptures from outer space.

There’s a lot of un-lovely urbanization on either side of the A23 as it ploughs its way north. Huge factory buildings of corrugated metal surrounded by homogenous, efficient housing for workers, stacked high to minimize their footprint.  We sail past these seemingly lifeless metropolises, hoping that our destination holds more promise.

Which it doesn’t to start with.  

I used to live in Sheffield, North Yorkshire.  I was miffed on hearing that the queen went past ‘my town’ on the train or in the car and commented about what an awful place Sheffield was.  It wasn’t.  But from the motorway/rail line, you only saw the industrialized, metallic and harshest view of the town’s digestive workings revealed in all their ugly glory.  You didn’t see the parklands, the river running through the city, it’s sandstone library and town buildings or all the places to stop, ponder and think.

Likewise, Zaragoza has an unprepossessing set of outskirts.  Row upon row of high-rise terracotta coloured apartment buildings.  Built in the same pink-brown hue is Zaragoza’s penitentiary, plonked just outside the city’s perimeter and by architecture, largely undistinguishable from surrounding residential accommodation.

Then we find the river, gracious banks along the Rio Elba, and the pace slows, water glistens and a parking space accommodates us for a late lunch, a walk for Stan and the opportunity to stop.  In the distance, along the river bank, an amazing collection of spires are calling to us: “Come and discover”.  

Walking is one way of sightseeing; by car is another; also bikes.  But we find two abandoned scooters at the roadside and after app-loading and payment, whoosh, we’re off!  Level 23 takes us up to meteoric rates of around 14 miles per hour – enough to get your hair wafting out behind you and to fix a grin across your chops. Yahoo!

The search to reach those spires take us to a huge plaza, with water cascading down and across a sculpture of the world as a map, a stone-carved globe, and the Basilica. Where in Sot de Ferrer, the place of worship was ornate in structure but in simple white, the Basilica de Zaragoza is the polar opposite.  The vast structure houses thirteen domes, on the outside capped in enameled tiles of blue, white, green and yellow.  Inside each is decorated in fresco, cherubs gazing, holy wars waged, saints blessing, dying, saving others, and these works of art are as nothing compared to the marble.

Vast structures depict angels winged and floating on gusts of folding turbulence, arms reaching down to the gilt laden altars and chalices that send tumbling golden light to caress the bowed heads of kneeling sinners.  It is wondrous.  It is overwhelming.  How could a simple soul enter this palace of worship, see a vision of such wealth and power and not feel awed into deferential gratitude, just to be allowed inside?

I cannot connect with this opulence, but I see those who do, for whom the visit is of benefit, amongst the mostly reverently-quiet tourists.  Wheelchairs and walking stick bearers queue for their chance to hear the padre’s words of comfort and feel his gentle hand upon their hair.  Others sit silent beside the confessionals, one penitent returning to his confessor and pressing something that glints into his hand.  There are twelve smaller dome-topped chapels around the central, largest, most magnificent structure, and in each one, two or more heads are bowed in communication with their saints, their god. 

I cannot enter into their acts of worship, any more than I could crawl on broken knees up thirteen, pebbled Stations of the Cross.  But that reflects where I am, my spiritual journey.  I see compassion here, amongst the fabulous physicality of what is around us, and I’m glad of it.  There can never be too much compassion in this world.  

And we send a prayer for dear friends of ours, who have recently revealed their struggles with illness.  Their faith is strong and shared and Christian, so in this temple of Catholic holiness, surely here, God or one of his saints must have an ear. For them we both send up an application for support:

“Protect them and care for them, they’re going to need you.”

For Debbie and Rick

Wednesday 27th Feb – Pinos, Valencia to Sot de Ferrer, Aragon

I REALLY need a haircut…

I have one booked, for March 15th, when we must be home because guests are arriving the next day.  And we have our Eurotunnel ticket.  We toyed with the idea of taking the ferry from Bilbao to Portsmouth, saving ourselves around 500 miles and €300 in tolls, but nothing doing.  No tickets.  Everything this side of Brexit is now jam packed as reluctant Brits pour back into the UK, away from the sunshine into the dark turmoil that is our shambles of EU relations.

We hadn’t the heart to drive for very long yesterday.  Our departure had been delayed as were were reluctant to depart the warm and cheery company of Gary and Lesley.  Also, I delayed us until after lunch because I needed to set up a number of Skype calls.  I’m supervising a group of post-grad students dissertations for a Northern University.  Today was the first part of that supervision process.  They’ve each written a research proposal for what they want to study as the major part of their Masters degrees, which we need to discuss.  At this stage, proposals tend to be vast in their ambitions.   

The biggest idea of this year’s tranche, is the the student who wants to establish the value that social enterprise education might have on entrepreneurial activity in post-conflict areas of rural Columbia.  It’s a well researched proposal with lots of relevant literature in its justification.  Sadly, this social education process hasn’t happened yet, the post-conflict areas are far from stable and (even if I thought her travelling there was safe) all universities are twitchy about research taking place outside UK borders given the Durham PhD student who recently spent many weeks in a Dubai jail on spying charges. 

My Columbian student is bright, intelligent and cares passionately about peace in her country. At the end of our skype we’d worked through the issues about the scale of her research, her funds to carry out the work, and time limitations (it’s got to be done and written up by Sept 30th).  She’s happy with what I’ve asked of her in reworking the project and completely unaware of the irony I see in our conversation.  M and I are battling with precisely the same issues: what scale of life do we want post-guesthouse, what funds are we going to use to achieve it and what are our timings.  Of course, we don’t have to complete a 12,000 word research project by the end of the summer, and so have the advantage, perhaps.  

Our first leg of the drive home takes us beyond Valencia and then North, up toward Zaragoza. It’s very warm, the driving cab reaching 300c.  We’re a bit irritated that, with all of Spain to explore, we’re going to spend a 100miles or so on a road we’ve used before.  

It turns out to be an advantage.

A month ago, on our way South, fleeing from Teruel’s biting temperatures of -60c, we’d driven past a tiny town, buildings clustered around a hillside where a long white set of steps zigzagged half a mile or so to it’s zenith.  We’d exclaimed at the view but hurried on to the coast and the promise of warmth.   Now, doing the route in reverse, we want to know what this is, so pull off and find ourselves in Sot de Ferrer. 

It’s a tiny town, with antecedents that predate the ‘modern’ palace of the 1200’s, was built as a summer recess for the then monarch of Aragon.   The town’s highest recorded population was 900 souls at the turn of the 20thcentury.  This dwindled to 402 in 1990 and has steadied at 409 for the last couple of decades.  People stop and chat in the roads returning our greetings of “Hola” and “Bueno Dia” with automatic politeness.  Our experience is that the Spanish are generally surprised, but pleased, if foreigners take the trouble to greet them, and always respond. As we wander, we notice buildings that are mostly large, tall, creating narrow, quiet, long, shady lanes up which to wander towards the sunlit spaces always just out of sight.  

All of the roads, lanes and the large flat car park are either tarmacked or paved in pressed concrete.  They are smooth and easily traversed.  All, except for that pathway from the top of the village up the white-walled zig-zags to the chapel above.  Here, alone, the path is covered in sharp, lose pebbles and rocks.  

I notice the change in terrain, but don’t think about it too deeply, until we reach the first of thirteen white icons, each containing a tiled-painted picture of Jesus’ final days.  This is a route of the Stations of the Cross.  And the loose pebbles?  M explains, being brought up Catholic, those are for the supplicants who make their pilgrimage on hands and knees.  The rocks offer the means that worshippers might suffer more this way, than by crawling on a smoother surface.  I shudder, my imagination reconstructing the damage to skin, bone and cartilage.     

Luckily, our progress is injury free up to the chapel with its ornate but gilt-free altar in the cool depths of the thick whitewashed walls.  And then down again, along the outskirts of the rustic settlement and back to where the van is parked.

Supper is my attempt at paella, chicken and chorizo variety.  Stan lies in his bed, at the van’s doorway, staring out as maybe 100 sheep are herded up the lane on the other side of the fast flowing river. It’s good to be back in the van, door open until beasties discover us and reluctantly we witness the last of the sunset through glass.  I love this space, it’s harmony and simplicity. Our way of life in here has become a shelter from reality and all the decision making that we, the UK and even my dissertation students face.  Nine days left and counting…

The gilt-free chapel


Friday 15th Feb – Park Life… Cordoba – Montoro – Argamasilla de Alba

Thursday night, 14thFeb

Our big flat car park in Cordoba was (just) ok for a few hours, but neither of us felt like spending the night there.  Right next to a dual carriage way, unmonitored by security, it was a perfect place to get gassed/robbed.  Just as we decided to move on, M found a ton of reviews all describing the horrors that have happened here.  

Quick, quick, run away, run away..

Park4Night shows a new spot for the night, just a mile or two away, it gets great reviews – quiet, picturesque etc.  We set off into the twilight sky, the last of the sun’s glow diminishing by the second. As visibility finally fails, we’re directed onto a narrow track – bouncy to say the least – our headlights suggest that in between the craters are just more craters.  Neither of us like what we’re looking at; trouble is, it’s a narrow lane and we’re on it now.  Paint-scraping foliage hems us in on both sides and there’s nowhere to make a 3-point (or 5-point or 7-point) turn.

Oh well, onwards and upwards…

The narrow gets thinner, the bushes get thicker, the night gets blacker, our hearts rise up to our throats.  It goes on forever….  Well, at least a couple of miles.

Abruptly, we are stopped.  

A barbed wire fence is festooned with high-vis jackets as it bars our way.  We’re going no further forward, and we’re not turning round.   The only way back is by reversing.  Bummer.

I close my eyes and hide my face.  I’ve no idea why i do this, it’s not like I can actually see anything and it’s too dark for M to see my trepidation.  He’s sensibly focused on the reversing camera and rear view mirrors, squinting at the views he can barely see since he lost his variafocals some four weeks ago.  I love being behind the wheel of the van under normal circumstances, it’s a great drive.  Tonight though, I am quite happy to let M’s ‘Police Advanced Driving’ experience take over.  In concentration-zoned silence, slowly, slowly we retreat, one careful wheel rotation at a time. 

Where is the end of this awful lane?

Each time we hear the awful woody branches slicing into the van’s paintwork and lovely decals there are two sharp intakes of breath in the cab.  M keeps us straight, no dips into the deep ruts on either side, no bumping into low obscured walls or boulders.  Just achingly slow progress until, eventually, we’re back to where we turned off and can reverse the van into a small access area.

Neither of us say much for a while.

“Well done”

“Cheers Chubs”, he replies but he’s got his phone out and is now looking for that ‘other’ site he saw, eight miles away.  The review has pictures.  It’s a long, river-side car park beneath a hill-mounted town.  Looks lovely, although we’re slightly wary of car parks next to busy roads.  There are no bushes in evidence though and that looks like a tarmac road.

M’s sleuthing finds us in a ¼ mile-long, immaculately block-paved parking area, directly above the ox-bow river that separates us from the town of Montoro. Gazing up as we give Stan his last walk, it’s like staring at a Christmas card of Jerusalem.  The jumble of buildings, one layer stacked above another is up-lit by dotted street-lights.  A central dome at the peak carries a cross, and above this, one particularly bright star hangs heavy, before the canopy of the galaxy opens up above. 

It’s quiet. It’s calm.  It’s very flat and there are no bushes, craters, car thieves or assailants anywhere to be seen.

We sleep.

Friday 15thFeb

I’ve got a deadline to meet so the van becomes my office.  M explores Montoro with Stan, they come back to report on their findings and then, after lunch we move on.  I’ve mastered the art of typing while we travel, so sit next to M, up front and look up to avoid car-sickness, letting my inaccurate touch-typing do it’s worst.

We can’t quite bear to go North yet.  Partly because the weather forecasts show plummeting temperatures, but mostly because we’re entrenched in this new life of ours.  Going up, means going home, means it’s coming to an end.  It must, end, of course, but we’re just not ready to admit that yet.  

So M (with careful assessment of all site photos) picks a place, next to a lake, with a castle, with motor-home specific parking.  

Argamasilla de Alba, is exactly what it says on the tin.  A lovely expanse of a reservoir, overlooked by a medieval castle and the dam wall with another ancient structure on the other side.  The parking is broad, flattish (we’ve got ramps to get level) and again it’s still.

Supper is a chicken-broth with the chunks of crusty loaf, consumed to the sight of the sunset down-climbing the skies behind the turrets of the fort.  Tomorrow we’re going to try Albacete, slightly North but mostly East of here, it’s a city that boasts a nice cathedral and a buzzing tapas scene, apparently.  

We’re so close to Gary and Lesley now, that it seems a pity not to go by their slice of heaven, so that’s our general direction.  These two lovely people are glad we’re coming and unfazed by the fact that we can’t quite predict when we’ll arrive.  

You just never know what you’ll find…

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