Malcolm & Tracy visit

Spain, June 2006.

Index | Click on an image to enlarge it (JavaScript is required).


Sat 10th June 2006

From sunny London to sunny Gibraltar in a couple of hours, plus another couple of hours to get back through the border traffic jam from Spain where we had to pick up the hire car. If I had read the guidebook I would have known that it was pointless to have a car in Gibraltar where it is easier to walk.
The hostel we have booked into is deserted so we walk into the nearest square for some lunch. The large square is packed with football fans waiting for the 3 pm kick-off which will be displayed on a screen the size of a small house.
The centre of town is pedestrianised and nice to walk through but down towards the coast it becomes obvious that this is a shipping port and British naval base. The small botanical gardens are a pleasant place to stop for a kip to catch up after our early morning rise.
As we have a car we decide to drive round the rock to see all there is to see which does not take long as it is only 6 km long and 1 km wide. Past the lighthouse on the southernmost tip, the road runs up the eastern side a little before it is fenced off but on the way back up the western road we find a way up and as the rock is almost half as high as it is wide, this is by far the most interesting aspect. After only a few million revs of the engine we are experiencing fantastic views down to the town and out over the water to the southernmost part of Spain and indeed, Europe. All the tourist attractions are closed by now but a few stops at lookout posts and gun emplacements are entertainment enough for us in the evening sunshine.
Back down in the town there are lots of English pubs all selling fish and chips and a selection of English beers, at least, the ones that travel well but are tasteless. Gibraltar looks like a Mediterranean town but in most other respects is an English one.


Sunday 11th June 2006

The compliment of English shops includes Marks & Spencer's and Morrissons (still badged as Safeway here) so we pick up some lunch and walk to the cable car for a ride up to the top of the rock. There is a cafe on the top patrolled by Barbary Macaques (apes) ready to steal any food that foolish tourist attempt to eat so we save the packed lunch for dinner and eat lasagne in the cafe instead.
There is a fair breeze blowing today which is forcing moist air up the eastern face of the rock. Before it reaches the top it condenses into cloud that jets up over the summit like there is a big kettle on the boil. The cloud swirls about in large eddies before spreading out to form a large canopy that shades the whole town from the sun. When we look down the eastern face we can see down through the cloud to the sunny beaches below. The seagulls seem to like the ridge-lift and float about in it all day.
After a pleasant stroll along the ridge top path we arrive at St. Michael's Cave. The rock is described as a chunk of limestone that was rolled on top of younger rock during some extreme geological activity a few million years ago. The limestone has since been worked upon by the magic of acid rain to form caves of stalactites and other pretty stuff.
At the northern edge of the rock, in the 1780's, the British dug siege tunnels through the rock with port holes so that they could fire canons out upon the Spanish and French forces trying to recapture the rock. Now there are 33 miles of tunnels but we did not explore them all. Thankfully, the stroll back to town was all down hill.


Monday 12th June 2006

It was another windy day as we set out from this little bit of Britain, stopping only to stock up on provisions, and head out into the Andalusia region of Spain.
Our oddly shaped little Citroen C2 skittered merrily down the wrong side of the road, but that is OK because they all drive on the wrong side of the road here. In no time we were out in the country and up in the mountains heading for Jimena in 'de los Alcornocales', 'Parque natural'. After very few kilometres we could not resist taking a sidetrack down a tiny road to Castillo de Castellar. The deserted, windy road took us past a lovely lake and up a steep hill to a castle. Inside the curtain wall they seemed to be converting the tiny contained village into holiday apartments. It looked like it would be a nice place to stay, but not for us today. Just outside the walls a cafe served up a nice cafe Americano while at the bar two men cooked sausages over their own personal barbecue of flames in what looked like a gravy boat.
Further up the road, just past Los Angeles, we reach Jimena de la Frontera, with its own castle and village on steep slopes. Apart from a few men sitting outside bars there is no one about as we meander to the top of the hill to the castle. Muslims seem to have been in this area quite allot in the 1300's, building or adding to castles in the area.
The mountainous, tree covered countryside with streams and pools looks like perfect rambling country so we set off to find a place to stay. In the town, a sign points to a camp site which turns out to have log cabins for rent, and nice little log cabins they are too. We seem to be the only ones here which suits us just fine so we make ourselves some pasta and settle down to drink red wine in the evening sun.


Tuesday 13th June 2006

Having our own cabin allowed us to rise more casually and besides, our planned walk was just outside the door. We headed down the valley to the river (Rio Hozgarganta) below where a bushy plant with bright pink flowers seemed to thrive. The river was just a stream between pools at this time but the marks on the banks suggested it flowed in torrents on the odd occasion. Faint paths above the high tide marks guided us through the thick and spiky undergrowth. Most all the flora and fauna we could see were unfamiliar and most of the vegetation has spikes to scratch at the passing rambler. Turtles and little green frogs plop back into the water as we approach, lizards scuttle under rocks while birds of prey float overhead trying to spy them. There is little evidence of human population, not even the sound of road traffic that is ever pervasive in England.


Wednesday 14th June 2006-11-25

We were lulled to sleep last night by a rain storm with thunder and lightening that just about rained itself out by the time we got up. An ideal day for a road trip.
We travelled north from Jimena where our cabin is, along an all but deserted mountain road, through wonderfully scented pine forests and cork oak trees, stripped of their lower reaches of bark. From the top of each mountain were views of yet more forested mountains, sometimes streaked with rocky outcrops.
We headed for a lake and a village called Garcisobaco thinking of lunch, but the road was closed off and derelict with only gates to a private house of the same name. The lake seemed to be submerged fields with fences and trees, surrounded by mud flats so we decided to press on.
At Ubrique we stopped to wonder at a fountain far more wonderful than the surrounding town. A model of a ship in the centre of a circular fountain that played varying jets of water all about it, a little out of place here in the mountains so far from the coast? Across the road in a large but quiet café we ordered a flan and a tart from the menu. We had hoped for savoury snacks but what turned up was crème caramel and cheesecake, oh well!
Through yet more kilometres of stunning scenery we arrive in Rhonda, recommended by one of Tracy's patients as a pretty place to visit. We park up in a notably dull part of town and head off on foot to find some proper lunch. In one of the pedestrianised main streets we find some real tapas in a grotty little bar that is empty and half asleep. The dried meat sausage in lard is a bit off putting but OK once the lard is scraped off. The anchovy and potato dishes are quite good. Judging by the size of some of the girls walking by the window, lardy sausages must be a real favourite. Just as back home, some have made their wobbly bits into a fashion statement by tightening a belt around it to form a double water balloon effect, very fetching.
The end of the street opens out a little, mainly in a downward direction. So this is why Rhonda is described as so pretty, the old town is perched on an outcrop of rock with sheer drops all over the place. Some long forgotten mayor must have thought it would be a great tourist attraction if they built a scenic bridge across the gorge between the two halves of the old town. It worked! We even trekked down a steep path to get a better view. Or was it the bull fighting that Made Rhonda so famous, who knows?
An empty tourist restaurant served us a nice pan of paella before we set off to cross the windy mountain passes in the dark back to our cabin.


Thursday 15th June 2006

We are reluctant to leave our cabin it is so nice (apart from the little flies whose mission is to tickle us to distraction) so we arrange to stay for another couple of days.
We set off down another walking path that takes us down the Rio Hosgarganta towards Jimena. There are a few houses this way, nestled into the hillside just out of reach of the river. A bit further down we find a very old stone built water mill complete with water race and mill stones. Not surprisingly the water wheel was missing and a bat had taken up residence. It was hard to see how the mill could work except when the river was flooding but perhaps that always happened just after the grain harvest. There are a number of other building along our path by the river, some derelict, others looked lived in or perhaps were just barns.
Near the town we came across an odd construction. It was described on a signpost as 'canal' but it was 5m deep and only 3m wide and ran along the bank of the river. Sluice gates in the outer wall to let water in or out. Strangely, a broken wind-surf board was at the bottom. In all, it may have been a quarter of a mile long. My best guess is that it was designed to catch water during the flooding of the river for use in the town during the subsequent dry period. Speaking of which, as we sit down to eat our lunch of bread and sardines, we hear thunder over the mountains and the rain starts to fall. The rain seems to bring out the scent of the flowers even more and is only a minor inconvenience as we head back along the track. Along the way we meet a white horse. All the hair is worn off his shoulders and the skin is scabby and sore. His front legs are hobbled with a piece of rope which has worn his ankles to sores with a trickle of blood running down one ankle. The least we can do is untie his legs and tell him to be glad he is not a bull.
Back at the cabin we are visited by a plague of cats that start to follow us about. This cannot have anything whatsoever to do with Tracy feeding them. The mini-monsoon has abated for a while so we walk into town in the warm moist evening air to eat at 'La Casca', a little restaurant Tracy noticed on our first day, and very nice it was too.
The town is just as you would expect a small Spanish town to be, all white washes walls and terracotta roof tiles. The streets are narrow and often steep with minimal footpaths. Locals sit in the street and chat or sit inside with their doors open. Even at 10pm a little food shop is open to provide us with tomorrows breakfast.


Friday 16th June 2006

Another road trip today, this time to the west through the mountains and out onto the flat agricultural lands of the province of Cadiz. At Barbate on the Atlantic coast we turn north and fins a parking spot where we can walk on the sandy soil through the pine trees and down to the coast. I call them pine trees because they smell right and have needles but the branches form a globe on a stick rather than the usual upward pointing arrow shape. On the sandstone cliff edge we find a good spot with a view for our lunch of bread and olives. The sound of the breaking waves, the afternoon sun and the warm wind were so soothing that we succumbed and joined the rest of Spain in a siesta.
We watched as a little motorboat sped out from the harbour into the bay. One of the two occupants went skin diving while the other kept the boat. I dosed again. The cliff we sat on was mainly sandstone that had mainly turned back into sand making the climb back up to the car quite arduous. The road north to El Palmer seems to be packed with hostels. Many look closed. The one we chose to stop at was not serving food so we head on to Vejer de la Frontera, a nice but typical looking town perched on a hill with a church on the top. All the houses are white washed and tile topped, the roads are narrow and steep. The very top is surrounded by old stone walls and towers that create a pleasing break to the whitewash. We find a Caribbean restaurant for dinner which seems plain wrong while in Spain but the food was good so what the hell.
It was late by the time we set off for home and it was soon dark. On the way along the windy roads through the mountains we caught quite a few deer in the headlights, winged a bird and applied tyre tread to a bunny. There is loads of wildlife out there, or was. During the day we saw 20-30 large gliding birds circling in the thermals with their wingspan of well over a meter and a half.


Saturday 17th June 2006

Instead of walking down to the river as we had before we walked north from our cabin and up the hill. A carefully constructed 3m wide, dry stone path led up from the road to nowhere. A sign at the bottom suggested that Ubrique was only 9.5 hours away. We decided to give it a go.
As we walked up the hill we regularly heard goat bells and occasionally saw them in a field but although we heard the whoops of the shepherd we never actually saw them. I imagined them lying in a sleepy hollow somewhere only waking to make the occasional whoop. We kept our eyes open for the rare Ibex, a type of mountain goat but all we ever caught a glimpse of was the common mountain cow. At the top of the first hill we get a good view of Jimena with its castle on the top of its hill. In the far distance to the south we can see the Rock of Gibraltar and to the east the Sierra Bermeja. Along the path we see so many butterflies of differing size and colour, more than I have ever seen in the wild. There are strange many legged creatures, flying things, crickets with blue wings. Perhaps it is because this is a national park, or the farming is not intensive or fewer pesticides are used. Either way it is good.
We find a spot where a cool scented breeze wafts up through the shade of some pine trees and sit down for lunch. Then we lie down and then we dose.
Back down in the previously deserted camp site the Spanish have arrived for the weekend and the Gibraltans for a bank holiday weekend and filled up the place. The peace is shattered so we plan our escape. But first, dinner. This will be our last dinner in out little cabin so we make it last till 11pm; melon and ham followed by beans and asparagus finished with a citrus cheesecake and washed down with lots of local wine. We slept well that night.


Sunday 18th June 2006

The morning was surprisingly quiet so that the birds and the bees could still be plainly heard. Anyway, we have had enough of Jimena so we made a break for the hills and Sevilla. After the mountains, the landscape falls to rolling hills of cultivated fields. They love their sunflowers here and sometimes they cover entire hills. We find Sevilla rather difficult to navigate with its shortage of road signs, redirections, one-way streets and closed roads. Parking is almost impossible. Finally we find a little hostel named 'Atenas' which appears to be no more than a door in a wall but turns out to be more like a hotel. By this time we need a beer but as our map seems to bear little resemblance to reality so we go out for a wander leaving a paper trail of useless maps to return by. At last we find the café district and settle down for beer and tapas. Hundreds of house martens zoom and swoop up and down overhead screeching as they go. No matter how many flies they catch there are always enough to irritate us.



Monday 19th June 2006

We have given ourselves a day see Sevilla which seems more than enough. From what we have seen so far it is just another busy, noisy, smelly city so we head for the parks and river. All the streets are narrow and one-way for cars with little or no pavement. The little parks are a nice escape from the traffic and the trees give welcome shade from the sun. The 'Plazza de Espania' built in 1929 is a lovely piece of architecture with a great sweeping arc around an inner arc shaped pond, plaza and central fountain. The pond is currently dry for restoration to the ornate bridges over it.
There are so many little churches down the little narrow streets they must have to compete for their congregation. The main streets are lined with orange trees which is not much of a surprise but the oranges look like they have been left there rather too long and have gathered a layer of dust. It is 38°C in the city by now but the local men are still wearing trousers instead of shorts but do not appear at all hot.
The cathedral is spectacular inside and out, much like the ones we have in England. As hoped it is cool inside so we sit for a while to take it all in.
Back out in the heat there are hundreds of tiny streets to explore and if you are careful you can pick the ones too small for cars to go down. Colourful tiles and pottery seem to be a favourite in the trinket shops so we buy a few house numbers to take home.
Finally it is time for beer and tapas again. One of the dishes we pick is blood pudding in pastry which turns out to be just like Yorkshire black pudding in filo pastry, right down to the plastic packet the black pudding comes in.
A short walk up 'Maria Auxiliadora' brings us to 'El Palacio Andaluz' where we have booked to see a show of Flamenco dancing and music. The guitar, singing and girls in fancy dresses are great but I can do with out the stamping of feet.


Tuesday 20th June 2006

Tracy devises a cunning plan to extricate us from the warren of crazy one-way streets of Sevilla and out to the hills of the north. It is 33°C by midday and even in the hills it does not feel cooler. The landscape is hilly but not quite mountainous with rocky, sandy red soil that eucalyptus seem to like growing in. It reminds us a little of the outback of Australia. I would not be surprised to spot the odd Koala.
Our map shows two campsites near 'Cazala de la Sierra' but all the road numbers have changed since our map was printed last year! And even so there are very few road signs so we have to traverse each road in search of a campsite. Down one of these routes we come across another lake that on the map looks to be a vast blue expanse and we imagine it to be surrounded with trees, grass, flowers and have people splashing joyfully in the water or have boats sailing gently upon it. We envisage log cabins for us to stay in with little bars serving cold drinks. But no, this is just a mirage if the mind brought upon by heat stroke. Out of the car the air smells like it has been baked relentlessly for weeks. The water is a pitiful puddle within a dusty valley surrounded by the parched twigs of desiccated plants. No one but us has ventured down the bumpy track to this desolate spot.
We finally find a campsite in a greener, more welcoming part of the hills but are told that there are no cabins or caravans to rent and are directed back to Cazella. We head on to Constantina instead where there is supposed to be a hostel. It turns out to be a youth hostel and full of noisy youths, not the place for us. This place must be well off the tourist track for there are very few hotels or hostels and absolutely no B&Bs.
We finally find a hostel in Cazalla but it is closed. Everyone we ask about the campsite directs us back to San Nicholas. We end up settling for the only, and far too posh hotel in Cazalla. Still, we do find a nice little bar in town for beer and tapas and then stroll back through town watching the swarms of House Martens filling the skies and the storks fussing about their chimney top nests. While wandering we stumble across the Tourist Information office, which is only open from 10am to 2pm so it never would have been any use to us. We decide to visit it in the morning.
The hotel is very nicely presented, reminding me of a Roman country villa with a horseshoe shape of connected buildings around a central courtyard containing fountains and potted plants. Around the corner a swimming pool afforded us a cooling dip. It was a nice place but a little too pretentious for me.


Wednesday 21st June 2006

Up at the tourist office a little sign says something like 'back in 10 minutes' so we take a look at the church to pass the minutes. A little old lady sitting outside lures us into the church. She shows us all the treasures inside while speaking in rapid Spanish. To my mind the inside is more agreeable that the cathedral in Sevilla which was so full of detail it was hard to know where to start looking so that in the end I felt that I had missed most of it. Here, the treasures could be viewed easily in a few minutes, after which I felt ready to move on to the next. The exterior of the church did not reflect the beauty of the interior so that if we had not been lured inside I might have dismissed it as derelict.
Back outside, the tourist office was still closed but after I rattled the door someone came to open it. After trying the campsites for us without success he tried a 'rural house', which turned out to be better than we had ever hoped for. Only 4km out of town but off the beaten track, a little white house stands alone on the hillside but shaded by trees. With its own garden, patio, pool and barbeque, excellent views and the possibility of good walking it is the ideal spot. Once the owner had driven off, the only sounds were the birds, crickets, the occasional cow bell or dog barking. We felt very alone. In fact, when we looked at the surrounding hills there was no sign of any other habitation. Even the dogs were housed in old farm buildings with no one else around. By this time it was midday and getting very hot so we had lunch and relaxed by and in the pool.
By the time dinner was over it was cool enough to walk down the steep slope from the garden to the valley far below. The sweet smell of herbs wafted past our noses borne upon the warm evening air but we could only recognise sage and lavender from the selection around us. Most of the other plants were just spiky things growing out of the dry red dust and rocks. A scattering of dry leaves and bark smelt as if they had been baked for a long time.
We tried to reach the stream running along the bottom of the valley but it is hidden by a protective thicket of vegetation and barbed wire so we head back up the track before it gets too dark. Chilled red wine and chocolate cake awaits us.



Thursday 22nd June 2006

This is such a peaceful idyllic paradise that we do not want to move. Fortunately we have everything we need so after a short stroll up the hill to verify that everything up there looks just the same as down the hill, we settle in for a day of R&R. Occasionally we stopped to check that the temperature of the pool was just right or that the scenery had not changed but other than that we just relaxed. I would have liked to find a thermostat to turn the temperature down a little bit. Every now and then someone would open an oven door and a great wave of baked air would waft over us. Some of the cicadas sounded just like automatic lawn sprinklers, even down to the pause as the jet moves back to the start. Unfortunately it was just the cicadas and there was no cooling spray. A highlight of the day was watching the trains trundle up and down the valley far below us.
In the evening as the sun was going down and the air was cooling, although imperceptibly, we went for a walk up the dirt track that led to the tarmac road over the hill somewhere. We stopped to feed the remains of our pasta dinner to the big dog that had been chained to a tree since we had arrived. It was a friendly and placid dog although very big and we were secretly pleased that it was chained, as it would have bowled us over in its excitement to see us. The herd of goats soon came along on their evening stroll so we joined them for a walk to the gate that was guarded by slightly smaller but more timid dogs. The dogs and goats seemed to hang out together like best mates, which seemed a little odd to me.
Past the gates a herd of pigs in a pen rushed up to oink at us and try their best to wag their curly little tails. Just around the corner a cage full of dogs barked in a most unwelcoming manner but were nothing compared to those further up the hill that growled and bared their teeth until I said 'boo', whereupon they ran and hid. Just to complete the menagerie there was also a rabbit enclosure.
From the top of this hill we could see our own house across the valley in one direction and some other houses in the valley on the other side so we were not quite as alone as we felt.



Friday 23rd June 2006

With great reluctance we left our remote rural house in the hills and drove south through the winding roads of the 'de la Sierra Norte' and out onto the flat plains of Sevilla. Through the fields of sunflowers and orchards of oranges we drove, past the industrial sprawl of Sevilla and down the motorway, past Jerez and way down to Tarifa. This little town claims to be the most southerly point in Europe. In the centre is an old walled town with narrow, quiet streets full of bars and restaurants. Outside the walls an urban sprawl has grown and outside that hostels line the beach road. Tarifa is known as the wind surfing and kite surfing capital of Spain but could also be termed the windmill capital for the hilltops all around are smothered with them. We end our culinary tour of Spanish food with pizza and sangria at a little café just outside the walls.