Montguyon (Aquitaine), France February 2022 (Tour 5)

And so by 26 February the journey home was well and truly under way.

We were booked to travel through the tunnel to England on 3 March and that gave us a generous 5 days to get through France to Calais although, we intended stopping in Chateauroux for a couple of days to get the dogs cleared for travel back into the UK and to stock up on some of that lovely Reuilly wine we had sampled on the way down through France.

Leaving Zarautz we crossed the border and drove some 200 miles into France. We stopped for the night a little way past Montguyon at a small, quiet site in Le Fouilloux.

There is little of interest around Le Fouilloux but the campsite was pleasant enough and it is within an hours drive of one of the prettier small towns in the area, La Rochefoucauld, where we intended taking brunch the next morning.

And so it was…

Zaurutz (Basque Country), Spain February 2022 (Tour 5)

It was Friday 25 February when we arrived at Zaurutz just 17 miles due west of San Sebastian in the Basque Country. It is 27 March as I write this blog.

It is ironic that we were heading back to England from Spain in such a hurry only because Vanya had a Spanish lesson in Brighton on Thursday 3 March (and we had a place booked on the chunnel train). Crazy or what?!?

We stumbled on Gran Camping Zarautz but what a find! We could spend just the one night there but will certainly return. It’s a beautifully located campsite on Mount Talaimendi, overlooking the Bay of Zarautz, and within striking distance of the Spanish ports of Bilbao and Santander and, better still, the French border.

After a quick look around the campsite (which is one of the best we have stayed at in Spain) I reserved a table in the bar restaurant for that evening and then set off on the path down to the town. They site has a proper restaurant above the bar but we wanted the dogs with us and, anyway, all the food is prepared in the same kitchen.

Zarautz was quiet but it is February and neither the town nor the beach with all its facilities will be fully open until Easter. There was however enough to keep me busy for some three hours. If the truth be known, I could have sat and watched the waves for all that time.

I got back to the Van in good time to try the local, seriously strong, txakoli wine and some cider and then call Vanya for dinner.

The food was excellent. Vanya and I shared a whole Monkfish caught earlier that day and I consider it to be the best food of any of our tours to date. I suspect I enjoyed it most because I ate more than my fair share of the monkfish cheeks. Why on earth restaurants tend to serve Monkfish tails and no head is wholly beyond me. I suspect it is to do with cost. The cheeks taste fabulous.

The next day we crossed the border back into France.

Burgos (Castilla y Leon), Spain February 2022 (Tour 5)

It is 27 March as I write this entry. We arrived in Burgos on 24 February and so I still have a fair amount of catching up to do with the blog. Sorry, not least because this tardiness makes for very much abridged blogs.

Some places are always worth returning to and Burgos is just such a place. We stopped here for a couple of days during July last year, while the 800th anniversary of the building of the Santa Maria Cathedral was being celebrated, and we had a fantastic time. Moreover, we saw a great deal of the city.

The 2022 visit was always going to be a much shorter affair; just the one night. We parked up at the Municipal Camp Site and in the early evening set off along the banks of the Arlanzon towards the city.

The path by the river makes for an easy and interesting four kilometre walk into the city, passing as it does a significant number of landmarks (including the Museum of Human Evolution, the Puenta de San Pablo, the statue of El Cid, the Paseo del Espolon, the Arco de Santa Maria, etc) but I talked about those and other places of interest in the July 2021 blog. This time we were simply out for a pleasant evening walk to a decent cafe-bar. We were satisfied on both counts.

Just the 4 kilometre walk back to the campsite and then an early start towards the coast and Zarautz in the Basque Country.

Caceres (Extremadura), Spain February 2022 (Tour 5)

Still more than a month behind. We arrived in Caceres on 22 February and as I type this blog it is 27 March.

Caceres has much going for it and is now listed among my favourite Spanish towns. We stopped just outside the town at Camping Caceres near the old football ground, Estadio Principe Felipe. At first glance Camping Caceres appears a fairly basic site in a somewhat remote location but, no, it offers everything we require (most especially a popular bar restaurant) and; each plot has it’s own bathroom/toilet and; while the city is a fair walk away, it’s a pleasant walk through and around a series of olive groves.

Vanya elected to stay by the Van and catch up on some Spanish homework which was set by Varndean College before we left England. I left her to it. I exercised the dogs and then set off on a further 10 mile walk to from and around Caceres.

Caceres is a large town by Extremadura standards. It is a university town with some 90,000+ inhabitants and it is split into two very distinct parts, the new town and the old town. Except for Plaza Mayor, which is filled with lively bars and restaurants (and perfect for people watching), the new town does little for me but the old town more than compensates.

I sat for a while outside a bar on Plaza Mayor with a glass of the local wine and planned a route around the old town. Also known as Monument City, Caceres is considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in Spain and in 1986 was the first city in Spain to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It comprises a mix of early Middle Ages and Renaissance buildings all enclosed within ancient Roman and/or Moorish stone walls and it is full of character and quite beautiful.

Entering La Ciudad Monumental from Plaza Mayor through the Arco de la Estrella is like being transported back in time. As you walk the narrow cobbled lanes between the palaces, mansions and churches there is no sign of anything modern in the old town. Little wonder that the place has featured in countless historical dramas (and, more recently, in Game of Thrones although I’m thinking that almost everywhere worth visiting has featured in Game of Thrones).

My earlier route planning over a glass of wine went to pot the moment I entered the old town. It’s a captivating tangle of cobbled streets, small squares and palatial buildings. You go where the fancy takes you and all the better if you end up retracing your steps. You’ll see things you missed the first time around.

This particular blog would stretch into pages if I were to wax lyrical about all of the buildings I visited during my time in Caceres so, I’ll focus on just two of the more interesting places namely, the Santa Maria Cathedral and the Palace de los Golfines de Abajo.

Built as a church fortress, the outside of the Santa Maria looks a very modest 15th century gothic cathedral (with just a small statue of San Pedro de Alcantata outside to set it apart from countless other large medieval buildings in the city) but inside, it is something else. It has three naves each of which hold some wonderful pieces of romanesque art (including a crucifix with a black Christ) but the most remarkable is the central nave with it’s 16th century cedar altarpiece sculpted by Roque Balduque. It is breathtakingly beautiful. The cathedral has many other interesting features, including flagstones depicting the coats of arms of the region’s most influential families and a small museum of religious artifacts both of which I paused to admire but, it is the walk up the spiral staircase to the bell tower with it’s amazing panoramic views over the old town that hooked me.

The Palace de los Golfines de Abajo is the largest and most impressive of the city’s palaces. It was built piecemeal between the 14th and 20th centuries and has long been home to the Golfin family. I visited Caceres out of season and so couldn’t join one the theatrical guided tours which are supposedly quite enthralling but it was still worth going inside. The palace is crammed with historical treasures.

One place I missed during our visit to Caceres is the Cave of Maltravieso which can be found at the edge of the town. Caceres was developed by the Romans at much the same time as they built Merida in 25BC but, there is evidence of ‘human’ life in the area some 350,000 years before then. The Cave holds many ancient painting/stencils dating back to Neanderthal times.

Merida (Extremadura), Spain February 2022 (Tour 5)

Apologies, once again. It is 21 March now and it is just over a month ago that we visited Merida. I’m well behind with this blog.

With some 40,000 inhabitants the city of Merida is the capital of Extremadura but, putting it politely, I thought it a rather underwhelming little city UNTIL we stumbled across some of it’s Roman monuments. Wow! They are everywhere. The city hosts an extensive and seriously impressive collection of Roman ruins (some of them in remarkable condition). This is without a doubt one of Spain’s largest archaeological sites and the perfect destination for anyone interested in Roman history. It came as no surprise to learn it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.

Founded in 25 BC as Augusta Emirita the city grew to become capital of the Roman Province of Lusitania and, with some 90,000 inhabitants, the largest Roman town across the Iberian Peninsula. After the decline of the Romans came the Visigoths (although there is little in the city to mark their presence) and then the Moors who occupied the place for more than 500 years and themselves left a small legacy.

We parked up near the town centre and made our way through some of Merida’s narrower streets (almost all of which are lined with orange trees) towards the town’s main square, the Plaza de Espana. Almost immediately we were passing some quite fantastic Roman monuments. Vanya doesn’t have the same interest as I do in such things and, after a short wander around the main square (pausing only buy a new handbag) she returned to the Van with the dogs leaving me to explore some of the city’s more interesting sights (or should I say sites?).

For my part, the most spectacular of all the surviving monuments is the Roman Theatre constructed between 16 BC and 15BC by order of the Consul (and great friend of Emperor Augustus), Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. This is one of the best preserved Roman theatres in the world. Built to accommodate 6,000 people, the theatre is the pride of Merida and regularly hosts dramatic and musical events, including the annual International Classical Theatre Festival.

Behind the theatre is the city’s amphitheatre (arena) which could accommodate up to 15,000 people and the Casa del Anfiteatro with it’s colourful mosaic floors and murals.

Merida is a trove of Roman buildings and monuments. I didn’t have time to visit all of them but the Los Milagros Aqueduct (one of three aqueducts built to ensure a regular supply of water but which is now home to countless roosting storks), the now pedestrianised Puento Romano Bridge across the Guadiana River, the Temple of Diana and the House of Mitreo (one of the largest Roman houses to be found anywhere in Europe) all deserved a visit.

There is also a Hippodrome or Circus to be seen; there’s the Roman Forum and various Roman Dams (just outside the city) but they must all wait until a next visit as must the Moorish Castle of Alcazaba and the 13th century Basilica of Santa Eulalia. The list goes on but we were bound for Caceres next.

Gibraltar February 2022 (Tour 5)

Visited Gibraltar on 21 February but only now (21 March) able to post this short blog.

We wanted to visit Gibraltar last year but the very hot August weather forced us back to the north of Spain.

With the temperature approaching 20 degrees centigrade and the sun shining, February is a much better time to visit Gibraltar. We parked the Van up at one of the two large car parks in La Linea de la Concepcion on the Spanish side of the border and, after getting our passports stamped, walked across the border (and the runway) into Gibraltar.

We stayed for lunch and a brief wander and were pleasantly surprised. Covering an area of just 4 square kilometres, Gibraltar isn’t very big but there’s plenty there to keep us busy for a couple of days. So much so that, we intend returning later in the year for a long weekend. An Easyjet fly from Gatwick should do the trick.

Linked to Spain by a narrow isthmus, Gibraltar (the Rock) has has a population of more than 30,000 and has been a British Overseas Territory since 1713. The town lies on the west side of the peninsula within a stones throw of Spain and; while there are pubs selling English beer, a Marks & Spencer store, 1960’s style red pillar post boxes and telephone booths (and the shops accept sterling as readily as Euros and their own Gibraltar Pounds); it is not as anglicised as some would have you believe – not during winter, anyway. It has a character all of it’s own.

We started off on Main Street with it’s ‘tax free’ shopping and then wandered the length of Gibraltar to Europa Point before returning via Irish Town and a couple of small but pretty marinas and a beach or two on the west side of the Rock. We paused at Grand Casements Square for lunch and to soak up some of the midday sun.

We missed out on visiting the top of the rock (426 metres high) because Vanya wasn’t keen on walking up there and it is not possible to take large dogs up on the cable car (not that Vanya would ever get in a cable car anyway). A taxi driver offered to drive us to and from some of the more interesting sites and look after our dogs while we properly explored them but we weren’t too comfortable with this idea. We’d have worried about the dogs and rushed through everything. So next time no dogs and, no doubt, we’ll experience some fine views from the top of The Rock and the Windsor Suspension Bridge and the famous ‘Skywalk’. We’ll get a chance too to walk the Mediterranean Steps and some of the Great Siege Tunnels (there’s more than 30 miles of caves and tunnels been dug into the rock over the years) and visit Saint Michael’s Cave (which is used as a theatre now but served as a hospital during WWII). Then there’s the Upper Rock Nature Reserve and the famous bad tempered Barbary Apes, the Alameda Botanical Gardens, the Moorish Castle … Oh yes, there’s plenty to fill at least a long weekend.

And if you need nore, there’s a lot to see in Spain (just a 20 minute walk away) or; a day trip to Tangier from nearby Tarifa (with Morocco just 15 miles away).

Gibraltar is alright by me!

Manilva (Andalucia), Spain February 2022 (Tour 5)

After leaving Mijas we stopped overnight at Manilva Beach (not far from Estepona) with a view to visiting Gibraltar the next morning. That was on 20 February 2022. It is now 16 March and we have been back in the UK since 3 March. Talk about getting behind with the blog!

This will be a very short entry (a) because I have a lot to catch up on and (b) because there isn’t much about this particular corner of Spain that I find very attractive. This area is very much about beaches and marinas and you have to go inland or a little further along the coast to find much else.

The good news is that the weather in this part of Spain is pretty good even in winter time.

And on to Gibraltar…