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

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 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. 

The Janitor

My ovaries have been, are, and struggle to continue being, my hormone factory. And the factory has a janitor. Now, as the factory nears the end of its useful life and the janitor approaches his retirement, he is cleaning out the cupboards.

Each time he discovers an old batch of eggs at the back of some dusty corner, he clears them out, regardless of how long it has been since the last one was moved from my system. Through calloused hands, he sweeps from the shoulder, pushing away the remnants of my fertility. Another space is empty and the door behind him locked.

We have never been great friends, this janitor and I.

Unlike other women, intuitive and in-tune with their body’s managerial systems, my janitor is huffy, easily upset. The slightest emotional disturbance and he took to his back room with a party pack of lager, settled in his saggy armchair, refusing to emerge from the sports channel. Whereas other women had punctual if punctilious carers, mine turned up when it suited, swept down my monthly if he felt like it and then wandered off to do something more interesting.  If, say, the cup match final was on, he disappeared, never mind the disarray created by his negligence.

And he extracts his final revenge now. Revenge? For having a female form to work in. Not for him a low-slung set of testes, from whence he could pump endless testosterone and exult in the power of the male form. This janitor has resented his lifetime and exacted petty vengeance’s from the start. Like giving me my first period, on horseback in a riding lesson when I was eleven. Having me heave with seasickness in pregnancy, leaving me bereft or mad with hormonal rage when premenstrual. His life-long employment has been my torment. All for being female.

And now that he and I are almost done, his ire knows no bounds. Some cupboards contain not eggs, but vats. These brown, nondescript tubs are tightly lidded. The janitor approaches his latest discovery with eager anticipation. His eyes gleam as he prises up the lid and light falls on the liquid emotion contained inside; shiny, unstable, volatile.

“GNah!” He shouts in glee. Other janitors might replace the lid, gingerly moving on one edge at a time towards the lymphatic drainage system that would allow all that pent up energy to harmlessly dissipate away. Not my man, oh no. He grins that gap-toothed malevolent smile, wraps knarled arms around the drum and throws the container with shimmering contents high up into the air.

Up, up, up and CRASH, down, down. With his movements up, up, up, go my emotions, utterly out of control and when anger over some indiscernible trifle is spent, then down, down, down I crash, dissolving into sobs; lost at my inability to control this rollercoaster that my janitor deliberately revels in creating. He stands triumphant at the chaos from his actions and steps over the damp patches on the floor. The puddles of spilt emotion will leave indelible salty watermarks, not dissimilar to those of tears. My janitor, free of concern, shuffles on his rounds.

I have not been the helpless victim of my janitor these four decades. I have strategised, planned, regrouped and tried again. When he pumped my muscles full of retained water, I ate cucumber and kiwis; natural diuretics. When he thickened my waist, I took to exercise, running, walking; anything my besieged body would allow me to do. When he weighted down my arms and legs so that even raising my head from the pillow was an effort, I pushed onwards, seizing what tiny medical help was available. I continued, despite his best efforts.

I have been waiting…

This last phase, wether it takes months or years are the foregone conclusion of womanhood. It is much documented, feared. There are patches, creams, pills, devices, but all invigorate my janitor and prolong the inevitable. Age now offers a promise of comfort. Additional wrinkles are the price of retiring my lifelong foe. This will end.

I look down at my janitor, leaning on his broom and glaring in my direction. We both know the truth; his time is shortly up. Soon he will sleep, somewhere in the mothballed factory halls, within his sanctuary, lager cans stacked and the TV remote resting on the frayed chair arm. I cannot predict how long our war will continue, but it’s cessation is nigh.

He raises his fist, shaking it at me in anger and I look up to the wall. There hangs a dial resembling a clock face. Where the noon-day pointer would be the face is deep red. It is paler at three, pale pink by nine and white approaching the vertical once again. I hear him growl from below, making my stomach ache and tender breasts sore. But I smile as almost imperceptibly, the single hand on that clock moves another notch closer from red-pink to white…