Monthly Archives: Dec 2016

Tarragona and #ARTCAVA

Tarragona

Leaving the peaceful Delta L’Ebre behind, we headed away from the coast and back into the familiar comfort of the mountains.  But before reaching our goal, we had a quick side visit to glimpse a portion of the city of Tarragona. We drove through the busy centre and found a narrow but workable space on the side of the road, then walked back along the busy road, passing some terraced parks, towards the historic centre.

tarragona-cathedral

tarragona-city-streets

We passed several Roman ruins, one that had been extended and repointed to offer a modern use.  We walked through the tall, grand streets, with five or six storied façades on each side with wrought iron balconies framing the large windows.  We reached the cathedral in a small central plaza where a few locals enjoyed coffee.  We arrived next at the grand square at the Town Hall, lined both sides with recently pollarded trees and many shops and cafes; a space that we could imagine would be well used on sunnier days.

We passed through the original and formidable looking city walls, but the ramparts were closed for works at this time, so we couldn’t enjoy the view from them.  We found a great viewing plaza at the end of a grand, wide street, with views looking out to sea where many ships waited patiently to be called into port.  We then passed the remains of a Roman ampitheatre in a small park, another surprising addition to a city, to close our short loop.

tarragona-town-hall

tarragona-ampitheatre

It was a whistle-stop walking tour, just to get an initial impression of the city.  As always we were pleasantly surprised at the amount of historical and architectural interest Tarragona held.  We had almost passed it by, as many no doubt do, visiting only its big brothers Valencia and Barcelona.  We were glad we took the time to stop; frankly, it deserved more than the passing glance we could offer.

Avinyonet and #ARTCAVA

We arrived in the carpark aire of the vineyard late afternoon, surprised to be the only motorhome there.  After parking up, we went into the reception with the intention of booking a tour for the following day.  Inside we met Ramon, one of the three partners in the #ARTCAVA venture, who suggested he could give us a quick tour and tasting session right now, and for free, rather than wait until the next day.  We liked his idea very much.

artcava-farmhouse-dining

We found out that the lower stone walls of the farmhouse were over 1000 years old, with additions and changes made at various periods over the following centuries. A reclaimed stone arch, possibly scavenged and added in 18th century, formed the opening between the animal quarter and the main house.  In the rear gardens we saw the original, now ancient, olive tree traditionally planted at the inauguration of the farm, over 1000 years ago.  It had been split by a lightning strike at some point but was now growing back together strongly, healing the wound, a process that could take another 200 years.

artcava-farmhouse-kitchen

We saw a dug-out granary store positioned under the house, accessed by a hole in the floor. We learned that when filled with grain and sealed properly, the heat inside causes the still moist outside grain to attempt germination, which in turn absorbs oxygen.  This creates a  vacuum in the store, and the lack of air restricted the growth of any bacteria that could cause rot, allowing grain to be stored for anything up to 15 years.

Working animals were traditionally kept inside a room in the house, and we saw holes formed in the soft stone wall from the constant attention given to hanging salt licks.  The bedrooms above the animals were prized, especially in winter, due to the heat given off by their large bodies.  The house and the lands had a fascinating history, with the earliest extant written documents from the farm ledgers dating from 1521.

artcava-vineyard-presses

But enough of the history; let’s look at the present and future.

This region of Catalunya produces over 250 million bottles of cava annually, with one well known brand responsible for almost half of this, at 120 million bottles. In contrast, #ARTCAVA produce only 18000 bottles annually, the very smallest of micro-wineries.

Cava bottles have glass four times the thickness of that used in a typical wine bottle, to contain the internal pressure, over 100 psi, created during the second in-bottle fermentation stage.  They can occasionally violently pop, like mini bombs, if the bottle glass has any imperfections. They use traditional methods, hand turning bottles over 21 days, turning a little each day to ensure all sugars are consumed.  The dead yeast gathered in the neck is later removed with a -21 deg neck freeze and careful manual opening before re-corking each bottle, the very definition of a hands-on approach.

artcava-n-tasting-with-ramon

It is an artisan craft, yet, as Ramon explained, Catalans treat cava as an ‘everyday‘ drink, to be enjoyed alongside food at mealtimes, like any other wine. Bubbles don’t necessarily only mean special occasion, as the French would have us Brits believe, but are a matter of suitability and taste preference.  We bought a few bottles to test this out for ourselves.

avinyonet-church-and-monserrat

avinyonet-church-and-vineyard

Away from the farmhouse we had a short local walk to some historic ruins, passing through expanses of recently trimmed back vineyards to see the local church. The next day we got up early and went for a finger-numbing cycle through the local vineyards.  The distant jagged peaks of Monserrat sat on the horizon like an inverted saw, with the blue skies helping disguise the fact it was close to freezing.  We were wrapped up well and soon warmed up when we found a few ascents.  The cold crispness of the air made breathing a shock, but the air was fresh and clear and the views beautiful.

avinyonet-in-wine-country

avinyonet-vineyards-and-villages

On previous cycles we’d passed through olive groves, then orange orchards, and this time in Cava country we enjoyed the gnarly, knotted stems of the grape vines, harshly cut back and leafless this December morning.  They stood regimented, like rows of crosses in a large military graveyard, with small white flowers, probably a weed, growing prolifically between the rows.

avinyonet-passing-vineyards

avinyonet-n-all-wrapped-up

A portion of the marked cycle route we found was classified as facil, but we didn’t agree.  It was a designated off-road blue route, usually an easy category, but the recent rains had cut up portions of the track into deep grooves and the going was rough and difficult.

We were also very glad to have chosen wisely on the direction to follow the circular loop;  we had a difficult, skiddy downhill of around 250m over a few kilometres, on large bouldered scree slopes that would have proved very difficult, if not impossible, to climb on our bikes.  The return path was compacted gravel or, near the end, tarmac, making the steep climb back to the local villages easily manageable.

avinyonet-a-on-cycle-ride

avinyonet-off-road-trails

The day never really warmed up in the mountains, although in direct sun the radiated rays were very pleasant.  The track was mostly in the shade through thin trees, and only the workout on the hills kept us warmed.  We passed through several local villages before returning to our site at #ARTCAVA.  It was only a 20km cycle in total, but allowed us to see a portion of the local countryside and feel like we had properly earned a glass of bubbles.

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Peñíscola, Morella and Delta L’Ebre

Peñíscola

Before leaving Valencia, we got word, after weeks of chasing, that a garage nearby would take a look at a few troublesome items under warranty on Benny, so we headed to see them first thing.  The service could not have been better; greeted by name on arrival, given a lift to a local town to complete a laundry and a shop whilst the works were undertaken, picked up again later with all issues we had listed, plus a few others, either resolved or replaced.  And all for our favourite price – gratis. Pedro at AC-LLAR, we salute you.

Now early afternoon, we drove up the coast to Castellón de la Plana and found a free aire near the beach to overnight.  We had a short walk along the local promenade but saw little of the town itself, before hunkering down due to being battered by heavy rains and wild winds.  We left early next morning to head north, to the celebrated town of Peñíscola.

peniscola-stormy-beach

peniscola-wild-seas

We parked up near the town centre and walked a short distance in the persistent rain to the tourist office, glad to see we were not the only people mad enough to be visiting the walled town of Peñíscola today – there were two others.  The wind was blowing strong and shaking the empty cafes, with their chairs chained up outside rather than arranged for use. On the beachfront the sea was rolling in hard and choppy, with large breaking waves like a conveyor belt of froth and spray.  The tall palms that lined the beach were bent over like thin grass, their leaves waving and shaking like a reluctant long-haired dog being given a blow dry.

peniscola-castle-walls

Everything in town seemed beaten down by the weather; except for us. It had been a while since we’d experienced this type of storm, and we were invigorated and energised by it. We bounced up the street, battered but excited, enjoying the wind and rain on our faces. We had already visited lots of places in calm sun, so the citadel here seemed all the more romantic, wild and interesting for being visited under these conditions.

peniscola-harbour-walls
With only a few other people around, the walled old town we saw was probably unrecognisable to anyone who had visited in summer.  We passed posh restaurants on empty, wet streets with tables already neatly set for customers who would never appear. Their blustering awnings hung on grimly and flapped noisily under strain.  We braced against the ferocious wind as we walked, trying to imagine the same place on a bright, busy summer’s day.

peniscola-city-streets

Shards of colourful tiles littered the corners of some streets, broken off from walls and balcony edges by the strong winds, making us a little wary of potential airborne projectiles as we wandered. We walked a loop of the old town walls, enjoying the views out to the roaring, angry sea. Huge walls of grey cloud rose above, completing the full Turner painting scene.  Information boards listed numerous films that had been set in locations around the town.  One such board pictured where episodes from Game of Thrones were recorded, the scenes shown familiar to us.

peniscola-the-shell-house
We saw the castle, the churches, the shell house, the museums and the natural blow hole, the Bufador, where the sea roars in below. But the agitated sea bombarding the lower city walls and throwing spray high up into the sky was today’s star performer.  It was wild and wonderful.

peniscola-on-the-battlements

Morella

An hour’s drive north-west into the mountains, at a height of over 1000m, the impressive citadel town of Morella appeared suddenly and filled our windscreen. The valley itself was filled with wispy low lying cloud, and the high castle fleeted in and out of visibility on our approach.  We skirted the city walls and parked up in the motorhome aire to the north east, impressively positioned and entirely empty- we were the only motorhome in town.

morella-the-town-from-the-aire

Given the weather, temperature and time of year, this was not totally surprising; it had fallen to under 4 degrees C in the mountains, was cloudy and spitting with rain, and we were only a week away from Christmas.  After a warming cup of tea sipped whilst enjoying the sight of the town from our window, we walked the ten minutes or so along the road, passing the remaining stone arches from a 14th century medieval aqueduct on our right, to the largest of the city wall gates, to begin our exploration.

morella-stone-arches

morella-n-with-statue

We walked the length of the main shopping street, some places still alive with local customers, reminding us that Morella is a viable, busy town, not just a tourist attraction.

Entering the town hall, we read a little on the long history of the town.  A Neolithic and Bronze age site on an important trading route, it was subsequently Roman, Jewish and Muslim, before being finally claimed in 1231 CE for Christendom. It barely survived the War of Spanish Succession, but has rebuilt itself over time.  It now enjoys a new life as a thriving local town and popular tourist-friendly spot.

morella-shopfront

morella-n-with-procession-statues

Morella also has a long history of carnivals and processional events, dating back as far as the 14th century. Some of the large figurines used for the festival processions were on display in the town hall, solemnly stood like stern-faced giants. Alongside the annual events, the town holds another popular festival every six years, the next in 2018, called Sexenni.  Dating from 1678, this festival lasts several days and celebrates the Virgen de Vallivana, with the whole town being beautifully dressed in tapestries and ornaments.

morella-main-church

morella-church-plaza
We didn’t linger in town for too long, as the low cloud was denying us proper views across the mountains and valleys below, and the cold air was biting.  We hoped to return another time to visit the castle and really absorb the views, but we saw what we could for now.

Delta L’Ebre – Casa de Funta

We dropped out of the mountains and back to the coast, but for a change of scene, we skipped past the beaches and headed to a protected Wetlands Delta, set in the fertile plains of the river Ebre, now used for growing rice, citrus fruits and various vegetables.

delta-lebre-roads-on-way-in

delta-lebre-leaving-for-the-mountains

We drove along the narrow causeway roads between the shallow pools and rice paddies, mirror flat and exposed, that reminded us of the western tip of Île de Ré.  The environment and landscape, in some ways similar to the fens of rural Norfolk, was a world away from the richly foliaged, steep slopes of the mountain valleys we recently left.  We heard so many different bird calls, quacks, squeaks, whistles and cries, and even one that we were convinced was mimicking a cow.  At least there were few dogs, and just one local straining donkey with the occasional braying outburst to disturb our relative silence.

delta-lebre-birdwatching

delta-lebre-overnight-spot

We climbed a timber built observation platform constructed primarily for bird watching.  With the surrounding land being so uniformly flat, being only a few metres higher up changed the perspective massively, allowing for lengthy visibility over the cultivation pools and scrubland plains, alive with bird life.

The weather continued to blow hard and occasionally deposit rain, but the wild clouds and stormy nature suited this big-sky environment, fitting well with the exposed and rugged simplicity.  We enjoyed the gentle battering we took from the weather on each venture outside, and relished our return to the comfort of Benny all the more for it.

delta-lebre-flamingos

delta-lebre-casa-de-fusta

We passed flamingos and egrets, grey and purple herons, their presence interspersed with black cormorants and avocets.  There were many other birds we didn’t recognise, all enjoying the delta’s bounty.  We walked into the local population centre of Poble Nou, more for the exercise and fresh air than the excitement of a townstead that turned out to be mostly shut up for the season anyhow. The solitude and peacefulness was intoxicating.

Valencia

Valencia

Leaving our rural solitude, we had a transition day filled with much needed jobs.  After completing these, we braved the busy motorways around Valencia, skirting the city to the north west to find a comfortable stop in a commercial aire that would allow us to later visit the city. We parked up and settled in, remarking on the lazy simplicity of paying fees and slipping back into full campsite mode, with WCs, showers and WiFi all on tap, rather than the Luddite rural retreats we had been experiencing previously.  Both have their special moments and particular advantages, whether cost, convenience or location, so it’s good to alternate between them occasionally.  We did nothing all day except drink the welcome sangria and enjoy a chat with neighbours in the afternoon sun.

Valencia – Day 2

We didn’t have the most illustrious of introductions to Valencia. Awaiting our metro train into the centre, we were stuck on a dirty platform in a litter and graffiti-strewn dead end road.  Local beggars approached us with a half-hearted attempt to squeeze a euro out of us, then other dubious looking locals, all limping slow and stiff-legged, filled up the platform. Some refused to stand still and await the train, but shuffled constantly back and forth, like scruffy, restless zombies. It was a strange and unsettling scene.

valencia-town-hall

valencia-tower

Finally the train arrived and delivered us neatly and efficiently to the old town, in around 25 minutes. We hopped off and walked across the road, first to the square with the Ayuntamiento, the town hall.  We had really underestimated the city of Valencia.  Even on this grubby, wet day with the dull, constant threat of rain it stood grand and tall, with multi-storied neoclassical and baroque buildings and wide avenues emanating a proud, elegant grandeur.  Every direction we looked from here was another row of beautiful, regal buildings, impressive and neatly maintained.

valencia-church

valencia-museum

Suitably chastised and now with very little preconceptions, we wandered further, finding more detailed, ornate facades and beautiful churches. We passed through squares framed with orange trees and tall palms, with conical Christmas tree sculptures lighting up the centre.  Smaller plazas housed cafes and bars, with many locals still sitting outside.  They were wrapped up well to deny the weather and still enjoy their coffees, whilst the warmer seats inside remained empty.

valencia-markets

valencia-markets-interior
We reached the covered indoor markets, looking very seasonal and busy with trade.  The detailed ironwork, stained glass and blue and red tiling lifted the market buildings beyond the functional into an inspiring space to browse stalls.  We looked briefly around the cathedral, avoiding the large number of guided groups and roaming gangs of school kids who appeared suddenly, filling the air with noise and impenetrable chat.

valencia-plaza-de-la-virgen

valencia-plaza-de-la-almoina

Valencia has a wide green river of parkland running through its heart, the Jardín Del Turia, from the safari BioParc in the west to the futuristic Science Park by locally born architect Santiago Calatrava in the east. This calm strip, offering respite from the bustling city, is populated by sports pitches, running and cycling routes and many unique elements, such as a giant prone Gulliver (in Lilliput pose) kid’s play park.

valencia-bell-tower-at-church

valencia-city-streets
Our key aim was to see the spectacle of the Calatrava buildings of the renowned Science Park.  We walked the few kilometres east in the parkland strip from the historic centre.  We passed under several bridges, observed many differing installations of sculptures and sports equipment before reaching the glass-fronted house of the Palau De La Musica.

valencia-palau-de-les-arts-reina-sofia

valencia-n-at-museu-de-les-ciencies

Walking on, we reached the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, the first building in the futuristic series by Calatrava.  Here we sat a while and ate lunch, watching the long domed white building, like a squat bird, reflected in the shallow pool in front.  A large steel statue of a figurative Neptune rose from the water in front.  As we ate the weather visibly brightened and we retained hope of blue skies to help frame the buildings for us.

valencia-hemisferic-reflected

valencia-science-park-panorama

Up close, the huge domed white enclosure was surfaced with random sized ‘crazy paving’ mosaic tiling, the same finish as the shallow pool walls and public benching within the complex. The effect was impressive over both small areas and large expanses.

We passed the winking eyeball of the Hemisfèric building, so beautifully reflected in the shallow pools. We walked the length of the more angular Museu de les Ciències, marvelling at how the change of angle and perspective affected the look of each building greatly.  The parabolic glasshouse with giant tiled stars, called the Umbracle, sat high above the lower walkways down at water level.  Two road bridges crossed the Science Park, with similar sculpted, angular supports forming interesting shadows and reflections.  Cypress trees set in tiled tree pits lined the pools, adding a level of colour and softness to the white edges.

valencia-science-park-overview

valencia-science-park-cyclist-reflection

We walked through the Museu de les Ciències, the only open building in the complex, before exiting at another pool with views across to the dark blue Agora building.  Beyond this lay the Oceanogràphic park, a series of smaller buildings housing the largest Aquarium in Europe and no doubt all manner of sea animal related fun.  We were just here to look.

valencia-inside-the-umbracle

valencia-a-outside-museu-de-les-ciencies

We continued our walk into more seedier areas near the harbour and back around to the marina, to get a feel of another side of the city.  We passed isolated apartment blocks and overgrown development sites selling dreams to any who would listen. The look here was very different, scruffy and tired, like most cities originally born from ports. The wound of losing heavy industry is a difficult transformation for any city, and takes time to heal. The regeneration of the sea frontage was fortunately underway and the area was, slowly it seemed, being reborn into a desirable residential area.

valencia-port-aurthority-building

valencia-harbour-crane

We had walked nearly ten miles through this city full of surprises, and we were tired from our efforts, yet so glad to have seen so many differing facets of the city.  A last quick walk to the nearest metro and we returned contentedly on the same efficient train to our base in the north, for a well earned cup of tea.

Carcaixent and Hort de Soriano

Carcaixent and Hort de Soriano

After our time in Simat, we drove only a short distance across the valley to the nearby town of Carcaixent.  We parked at an aire at the train station and walked around the town centre. We found little of interest in the town, other than the large superstores on the outskirts.  We walked a loop of the large shopping centre, completed a shop in the Eroski supermarket and picked up a few items of warm clothing in the Decathlon store opposite.  Due to concerns over train noise, we decided not to stay in the central aire.  We filled up locally with diesel earning us a free Benny wash, then continued out to an alternative free aire located in a municipal park area, at Hort de Soriano.

hort-de-soriano-view-from-benny

We waited at the gate to be let in by the site groundsman, then got shown a very specific plot to park in, even though the park was empty.  We were the only motorhome staying in the entire park area and we had all the space and facilities to ourselves for the full duration of our two day stay.

After arrival we decided over a warming cup of tea to give our bikes their first outing in December, long overdue, and go see the local countryside.  We cycled through continuous acres of orange trees, set in neat rows behind low stone walls. After passing through the many orange plantations on narrow concrete or cobbled roads with no traffic, we arrived back in the town of Carcaixent.

hort-de-soriano-the-road-to-carcaixent

hort-de-soriano-n-at-oranges

Here our cycle route took a sharp turn upwards, as we climbed up hairpins into a natural park area, with fantastic views over the town below.  The tarmacked road disappeared as we slogged up stodgy, muddy tracks recently churned by tractors, then onto bumpy rocks running alongside forests.  We finally made the top at some seemingly abandoned farm buildings and paused to take in the view, before the good part; we had 7 or 8km of rocky gravel descent to the valley, which we bounced and hopped our way down with great abandon and much smiling; a great way to end.

hort-de-soriano-national-park

hort-de-soriano-mountain-trail

hort-de-soriano-mountain-downhill

hort-de-soriano-through-the-oranges

hort-de-soriano-downhill-trail

The next morning, after a slow and lazy breakfast, we started out to complete a circular walk we found on a sign board in the aire – a 12km ‘red route’ loop taking in the local hills and a mirador looking out over the valleys beyond.  The path rose sharply up a narrow ravine from the campsite to the first hilltop, all in chilly shade as the sun was yet to reach in.  We were breathing hard, so paused a while to rest, before continuing on a flatter, easier path around the contours of the hills.  There was no one else in sight, as was now typical for our walks, and we revelled in the solitude and peacefulness.  After around 7km the walk branched left to an optional mirador, so we followed this.

hort-de-soriano-early-walk-climb

hort-de-soriano-n-at-mirador

From the mirador we could see back to Simat de la Valldigna and the ruins of the Castell d’Alfandec that we had climbed to just a few days earlier from our previous base.  The peaks of the mountains we climbed, including Cim del Penyalba, were also dominant on the horizon and we marvelled at how much of this region we had covered in a few short but active days.  We ate our packed lunch staring back at the lush green valley of orange orchards below.

hort-de-soriano-lunchspot-over-valley

hort-de-soriano-on-the-descent

The final descent on our return afforded an overview and insight into the scale of modern fruit cultivation. We’d been passing fields full of orange trees for a week or so now, but seeing the extent of just this small portion of it, from an elevated position, really brought home the incredible scale of the operation.  We could see thousands of acres of trees, neatly separated with gravelled service roads and irrigation channels, all fed from privately built raised reservoirs that from a distance look like huge swimming pools.  Central fincas were located in the midst of the trees, the only clearings visible, like farmhouses of old but looking more like slick operation centres rather than comfortable homesteads.  Like most things that economies of scale is applicable to, the orange-growing industry in this area has certainly embraced the ‘go big or go home’ mentality.  The loss of hundreds of oranges to early falls and on-branch rotting seems to be of very little consequence when considered against the many millions that must be picked each season.

hort-de-soriano-rural-camping

hort-de-soriano-benny-sunset

We spent the rest of the night in perfect solitude in and around Benny.  We enjoyed a lovely sunset over the orange orchards, relaxing and planning our next moves on the ever complex and challenging chessboard of life.

Guadalest and Simat de la Valldigna

Serra D’Aitana

Leaving our comfortable apartment back in Torre Pacheco, we drove along the coastal road heading north east.  Around Alicante we cut left and headed directly north into the mountains, spending a night in the town of Ibi.  From here we drove slowly along the quiet winding mountainous roads of the Serra D’Aitana range, through the pretty villages clinging to the slopes.  We stopped off just south of the town of Alcoleja and parked by the side of the road, to undertake a hike to the range’s highest peak.  We walked up easy gravel paths, through the low forests with views to our left across the valley we recently drove through.

serra-aitana-on-walk-up

There was low cloud rolling in quickly, and the top peaks were rarely visible, so we always expected this would remain a low level walk, without a summit.  After 8km we stopped at a fork in the path for a bite of lunch, then instead of continuing upwards into the cloud, we made the sensible decision to retreat by the same route.  The actual highest peak is a military installation with no public access, so we had seen all that we could on this day.

serra-aitana-low-cloud

Guadalest

We returned to Benny and drove on to the next large town, at Castell de Guadalest, where we planned to spend the night.  We arrived at the central car park and the delightfully helpful assistant, who was also in charge of the Tourist Office, let us in for free, said we could park in the larger bus spaces at the rear and gave us the password to the Tourist Office staff private wifi – very generous of him and an auspicious start to our short visit.

guadalest-a-at-castle

We later walked around the town as dusk was approaching, with little expectations but to stretch our legs, but were pleasantly surprised by what we found.  Along with the dominant eponymous castle, the town was a veritable goldmine of interesting titbits and quirky, eccentric displays. It had a number of interesting museums packed with curiosities, such as the museum of micro-miniatures, with tiny models of famous landmarks set on pin heads or within the eye of a needle.  Another housed replicas of Goya paintings dotted on a fly’s wing.

guadalest-lakes

There were many local craft shops and neat, twee stores to satisfy the tourist hordes.  The views over the azure lakes behind from the mirador Penya del Cullerot, the main cobbled plaza, were quite spectacular.  It was the sort of quaint place that my mum would love to spend time in, browsing shops and exploring niches , and whilst not exactly to our tastes we could definitely see the appeal as a day trip to the constant busloads of tourists arriving early the next morning.

We drove south, in the direction of Benidorm.  We had considered another walk, to summit Puig Campana, but the low cloud still lingered here, so we didn’t.  We passed through Benidorm and along the coast before we stopped for a break in the seaside town of Carp.  We walked along the beachfront and around town, enjoying the December sunshine, the first real sunny spell we’d had for a few weeks. The large prominent rock at the end of the headland somehow added grandeur to the built-up frontage, lifting what could otherwise be a generic stretch of Spanish coast to something just a little bit more enticing and special.

calp-beachfront

After changing our minds on where to stop, we skipped away from the coast again in favour of the small town of Simat de la Valldigna, with our only expectation being to use a free aire there for a simple one night stopover.  The aire, although nicely positioned near to the town, was a sandy piece of waste ground surrounded by a wire mesh fence that looked tatty with puddles and tiny rivulets as it had been raining hard as we arrived.  We parked up adjacent to an orange orchard and settled in for the night, without taking a proper glance at the town itself.

simat-arrival-in-aire

Simat de la Valldigna

But after the grimy first impressions formed in the dull weather and late afternoon drizzle, the town quickly won us over with its beautiful setting, and we decided to stay longer.  The town sits in a bowl surrounded with neat, cultivated slopes blanketed with hundreds of hectares of orange orchards.  The small tourist office was very helpful and had lovely maps of local walks and cycle routes, so we decided to complete a few of these before moving on.

We walked to a ruined castle on the hillside, passing through the vast extent of orange orchards in full fruit.  The Castell d’Alfandec was our target, a short walk and climb up a small hill set around 4km from the village. First we decided to pass through the main attraction in the village – the Monestir de Santa Maria de la Valldigna.

simat-monastery-entrance

simat-monastery-entrance-courtyard

The Monastery, founded in 1297 CE, was a surprise and delight that we returned to several times.  A small private church with an archway formed the entrance, through which the bell tower and the main domed monastery building could be viewed.  A beautiful new visitor centre with detailed information, drawings and models of the complex had been installed within the stone walls of a previous ruined building, with only a new roof structure added to protect the exhibition.

simat-monastery-arch-view

simat-monastery-side-courtyard

There were orange trees planted in the courtyard gardens in neat rows, heavily laden with fruit.  The interior of the monastery was vast, and exceptionally ornate, with acanthus leaf scroll mouldings and ceiling murals of cherubs or angels giving an almost excessively garish impression.  Externally, the grounds mostly consisted of stone ruins, with portions of stone arches that were previously vaulted roof supports, set between more orange trees; a wonderful space to wander through.

simat-monastery-overview

simat-monastery-arches

The 1964 movie “Tintín y el misterio de las naranjas azules” was partly filmed at the monastery.  Out of curiosity, we later watched it on Youtube (it was terrible) and the improvement works that had occurred since the filming rendered the monastery and overgrown grounds almost unrecognisable to us.

simat-monastery-ceiling

simat-monastery-interior

On our walk, there were orange trees everywhere, with many dropping on the ground and rotting in piles, whist the trees continued to struggle under the weight of huge, ripe unpicked fruit.  The walk was an easy stroll past a few local landmarks, before a more challenging last kilometre uphill on a stony hairpinned path to the castle ruins.  The climb was only to 237m, but still afforded an impressive view across the valley and all the way to the east coast.

simat-walk-to-castell

simat-at-castell

The following day we set off on a longer walk to the highest peak in the region, set in the Sierra de Montdúver.  Again we passed copious orange trees, then a long and steady climb up through low forests to a locally celebrated Font del Cirer that was no more than a sink and tap.

simat-valley-view

simat-cim-del-penyalba-summit

From here we continued up through scrub on steep and slippy stony expanses, the most difficult part of the climb, to reach the Cova de les Malladetes, at 635m.  An easier gravel path led from here around the mountain contours then steadily climbed up to our goal for today.  We reached Cim del Penyalba, at 772m, the highest point of the mountain and were rewarded with quite fantastic views over valleys on both sides of the ridge.

simat-cim-del-penyalba-ridge

simat-geocache-on-summit

We found a lovely personalised metal box positioned on the summit that we assumed was a popular geocache.  It housed a notebook and pen that we duly utilised to mark our arrival.  A blanket of low cloud moved in quickly from the north, taking away our visibility on one side, so we decided to head down before it settled on the entire summit.

simat-cloud-rolls-in

We descended into the village of Les Foies, passing the similarly underwhelming Font Nova, before following the easy path all the way back into Simat.  We sang Christmas songs and hymns on the long descent, to try to capture some spirit of the season, but the shorts, sunshine and oranges just made it feel false.  We passed the La Xara mosque, reborn as the Saint Ana chapel after the expulsion of Muslims from the region in the 15th century.

simat-la-xara-mosque

We returned later to the monastery with sketchbooks in hand to sit in the pleasant courtyard and draw the bell tower and church, passing a very peaceful hour resting our weary legs.  Our practical stopover proved to be a most interesting town with fantastic history and hill walking, so we were very happy to have made its acquaintance.

simat-monastery-oranges-context

Murcia, Cartagena and around

Day 1 – Los Alcázares and Torre Pacheco

Leaving Totana behind, we made the short journey east to the coast, for a bit of a treat event.  Our destination was the town of Los Alcázares, there to pick up Mummy Finch, Nicky’s mum, in the centre of town.  She had flown out to visit us the day before and stayed overnight with friends, a British couple who had moved to Spain in their retirement 14 years ago.  They, Ron and Margaret, turned out to be a wealth of information about the local area and this got us started on where to visit over our next five days.

los-alcazares-margaret-margaret-and-ron

The weather was back to its grim, rainy best, so after saying goodbye to Mum’s friends, the three of us began by taking a short drive to the northern part of the local coast around El Mar Menor, a large coastal lagoon and wetland area, stopping at the Salinas y Arenales de San Pedro del Pinatar.  Here we had a quick lunch in Benny, and the girls had a sneaky gin, as we watched the wild sea and waited for the rain to abate a little.

los-alcazares-gin-oclock

We then enjoyed a bracing walk on the salt flats.  There was a strong smell of rotting seaweed on the coast, so we stepped inland across patchy dunes to the edge of the salt flats where the lingering smell didn’t penetrate.  The sandy paths meandered between clumps of prickly grasses, sea holly and multi-coloured samphire, the vibrancy of each muted by the dark skies above.  Distant mountain peaks ran across the horizon.

los-alcazares-salt-pans

We spotted many flamingos, waders, avocets and charranes mingled together on the pans.  We saw masses of black, white and pink feathers settling, resting and then suddenly taking off in waves.  We walked along the rugged coast of the salt pans, with windmills visible across the water to our right, and the garish strip of high rise apartments that lined the entire Mar Menor peninsula to our left.  The contrast between the two views was overwhelming; one of a tranquil nature reserve set on calm inlets and the other of rough seas with tall, ugly towers imposing themselves on the horizon.

los-alcazares-n-and-m-in-salt-pans

From here we went straight to our base for the duration of our stay in this region; Torre Pacheco.  Slightly inland but central, this pueblo had several fancy golf resorts set on the edge of town.  In one such huge complex, imaginatively named ‘Mar Menor Golf Resort’ was where we would find our apartment, a treat from Nicky’s mum for the days she was visiting us.  Spacious luxury (with a washing machine and a bath) awaited us – wonderful.

After locating the apartment manager to gain entry, we then settled in, cooked dinner, opened a bottle and enjoyed the expansive rooms and balconies overlooking the golf course and swimming pools.  This was such a change from our usual tidy little boxy home and we revelled in the relaxing break from our daily routine as we all caught up.

Day 2 – Murcia

The weather had brightened considerably, lifting our spirits and demanding that we readied ourselves for a day exploring the local region.  Today we had scheduled in a trip to the district capital city of Murcia, around a half hour north of our base.

murcia-town-hall

As was the norm for large cities, we had parking issues.  We drove an entire lap of the city centre, hoping to find suitable parking, but there was nothing but underground lots that we couldn’t fit into.  We then decided to give up and headed back out of the centre.  This proved fortuitous and we were amazed that, passing just beyond a large ring road, the feel of the city suddenly became rural rather than urban and we managed to find a suitable place to park on a dusty side road.  As it turned out, this was no further from the historic centre than many of the other parking spots we’d tried, so with a quick jaunt over a pedestrian bridge we were on our way. It took us less than ten minutes to reach the central historic quarter, so we were rather pleased with ourselves for this find.

murcia-national-palace

The sun was out this morning, with clear deep blue skies, although the air still retained a chilly coolness.  We walked first to the pretty town hall, surrounded with neat beds of bright red poinsettias, attractive stone water features and a large golden Christmas tree. The Town Hall itself was pink and white with gold tinsel surrounds added to all the windows.  The adjacent square and the building colour made it a little reminiscent of the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires.

Behind this square we found a tourist office to mine for information on future stops, then on exiting we suddenly realised we were in the main square, Plaza Cardinal Belluga, with the Cathedral right opposite us.  The impressively detailed Baroque façade presented a beautiful view, lit with the morning sun, to really kick-off our Murcia sightseeing.

murcia-cathedral

We walked along the central streets and pretty plazas, peering into small boutique shops and enjoying the buzz of the cafes as we passed.  We peaked into the Casino building with its huge stained glass door leading to an internal foyer covered in intricate Arabic plasterwork and tiling, reminiscent of the Alhambra in Granada or the Alzácar in Seville. We turned right, following small streets and walked out past La Condomina, the bullring.  For a bit of highbrow culture, we entered the Museu de Belle Artes, with galleries on several floors, that gave us a variety of historic paintings and sculptures to admire.  The museum was closing at 2.00pm so we had to hurry through our visit.

murcia-bullring

Hungry from our exploits, we passed through the Plaza de Santo Domingo, noting the church and adjacent palaces, then around the Romea Theatre before we headed back into the maze of narrow streets in search of a quick bite to sustain us.  We picked up some takeaway snacks and sat by the poinsettias at the town hall and enjoyed them with the warmth of the sun on our faces.  We’d passed a very pleasant few hours in Murcia, and the weather had been kind.

torre-pacheco-apartment-pool

On our return to the apartment, before settling in for the night we had a quick local walk to the nearest swimming pool of the twelve dotted around the grounds of the golf course.  Nicky’s mum couldn’t resist a quick dip in the very cold water, showing up her daughter and son-in-law, the self-proclaimed hardy open-water swimmers.

Day 3 – Cartagena

The weather today looked reasonably fair, with white clouds providing a solid blanket far into the distance.  Not much chance of sunshine, but we hoped rain would keep away as we explored today’s chosen town – Cartagena.

We parked in the harbour region then walked along the front of marina, with a light drizzle beginning to fall just as we reached the turn to head into town.  We ducked into the nearby tourist office for a few moments, then across the street to visit the Roman amphitheatre.  This site was only recently discovered following plans to build a new amphitheatre, which now ironically sits only fifty metres or so behind and above the ancient version.  We enjoyed reading the history of the amphitheatre, and seeing the architecturally sensitive transition spaces from the museum to the main amphitheatre space.  Much of the original stonework has been uncovered and set back into place, with some new supplementary pieces cut to match, recreating the overall vision of the original.

cartagena-roman-ampitheatre

cartagena-n-on-steps-in-ampitheatre

We wandered the streets of the city, more grimy and urban than Murcia, with less obvious kerb appeal.  In one plaza dominated by huge trees, we found a popular tent housing a huge animated model nativity, complete with many other biblical and desert scenes, including a view of the Treasury building in Petra, Jordan.   We walked up to the viewpoint near the castle that overlooked the port to the left, the town to the right and the previously visited Roman amphitheatre in front.  This vantage offered us a good understanding of the layout of the city, and of its geographical position between sea and high hills behind.

cartagena-nativity-display

cartagena-casa-mila

cartagena-view-from-above

We were treated to a rare lunch out in a restaurant overlooking the city hall; a lovely treat from mum.  With full bellies we walked back past the marina, seeing the Batel Centre, a multi-coloured conference venue.  The exterior was covered with striped and slatted dyed plastic tubing that created a rippling visual effect.  The whole building was architecturally interesting, including the similarly coloured bent re-bars forming the entrance to the underground areas.

cartagena-town-hall

cartagena-batel-centre

Later we drove out to Cabo de Palos, the lighthouse on the promontory at the south western edge of the region.  We enjoyed a short walk up to and around the lighthouse and its coastline, dropping down some steps into a few inviting coves. We all quite fancied a swim as we saw the smooth waters of the sheltered bay rippling gently, but we didn’t indulge on this occasion.

cabo-de-palos-the-lighthouse

cabo-de-palos-mother-and-daughter

Day 4 – El Carmoli (and an early Christmas Day)

The weather forecast had tipped us off it would be a grim, rainy day, so we’d decided, rather than visit far afield, to host an early ‘Christmas Day’ with Mum, as this would be our first Christmas not at home.

After a lazy morning start, the weather wasn’t actually looking too terrible, so we decided on a bracing walk to climb a nearby hill, an old volcanic caldera a short drive away.  Volcano El Carmoli is one part of a chain of volcanic outbursts from over seven million years ago, around Mar Menor, La Manga and many islands of the Mediterranean Sea.

el-carmoli-m-on-summit

el-carmoli-all-on-summit

We parked up in the town and followed a scrappy gravel pathway upwards.  The actual route, if there was one, was unclear so it was a bit of a scramble up the sharp basalt rocks.  The painted and graffiti-covered summit post offered a good panoramic view back towards where we were staying, and out over the Mar Menor sea inlet and the hideous La Manga strip.  It was a nice, revitalising one hour walk to the top and back, for a bit of fresh air and exercise.  We stopped briefly at the local beach on the way home for a quick look, then back to the comforting warmth of our apartment.

torre-pacheco-monopoly

We got home more or less dry, just before the heavens fully opened, and after a brief lunch we began an afternoon game of Monopoly, a traditional Christmas favourite.  Snacks and alcohol played their part, with Mummy Finch finishing as the ultimate victor.  We then had our tasty, and very English, roast dinner with all the trimmings.  As it was a Saturday night, and for the first time in months we had UK TV available on satellite, we watched Strictly Come Dancing – the recognisable normality of everything was quite a treat.

Day 5 – Cobaticas walk and beach swim

With Mum’s flight home late evening, we still had most of a day available to us.  The weather looked dry so we prepped to undertake a long coastal walk.  We started in a natural park by the sea, then looped inland over undulating terrain which became more pretty as it offered views of the sea.  After several miles, we saw rocky coves with sandy beaches ahead. We had worked up quite an appetite, so headed down onto one of the beaches, signed as a nudist beach, and sat on rocks with our picnic lunch.

cobaticas-coastal-walk

cobaticas-lunch-on-beach

For an early December day it was very pleasant and mild and a great spot with the sea gently lapping next to us.  We continued on passing several sandy beaches before completing the circle and arriving back to Benny.  We were all warm from having completed our hilly 9km walk so we chose to drive back down to one of the beach car parks for a splash and swim in the sea.  It was pleasantly warm and beautifully refreshing and rounded off a lovely day.

cobaticas-n-and-m-enjoy-swim

cobaticas-playing-in-the-sea

We headed back to the apartment for an early dinner and for Mum to pack.  We dropped her back to the airport for her flight home before returning for a final night in the apartment.  We’d had a lovely few days of catching up with Mum, enjoying luxury and indulgence of the apartment, but back to life on the road awaited.