Why on earth did we go to La Jonquera? Vanya had been told that the cheapest wine in France or Spain is to be bought at a retail outlet called La Jonquera on the Spanish-French Border where Spain’s Els Limits meets France’s Le Perthus. So off we set.
In reality Els Limits/Le Perthus is a shabby run down border town whose main claim to fame until recently was it’s roaring sex trade. Even though prostitution is legal in France, brothels are not and when the Paradise Club opened in 2010 (in Els Limits on the Spanish side of the border where brothels are legal) it’s 90+ rooms became quite a mecca for prostitutes and their clients (and it very much remains so today if the number of scantily clad girls hanging around the various lorry parks is anything to go by).
It seems the present mayor of Els Limits is trying to clean the place up (some hope) and a massive retail park has opened. Apparently it is the largest border outlet centre in Europe and if you are into last years labels and designer gear it is a must. For my part it is one of the shabbiest and seediest places I have ever been and it is to be avoided.
We moved on to Cala Montgo and by far the most expensive camp site of our tour to date. It wasn’t a bad camp site being well situated (right on the coast) and with excellent facilities and Cala Montgo is a very clean, tidy and quiet little Spanish holiday resort with a large sandy beach and a handful of cosy bars and cafes but, you don’t expect Spain to be more expensive than France.
L’Escala is well thought of by the Spanish but we were not that impressed by the town itself and I wish we had gone just a little further north, more into the Bay of Roses. I didn’t reach Spain during my trip last year but I did a fair amount of research on this coast and I recall there is an excellent coastal walk going north from L’Escala through St Pere Pescador, Castello d’Empuries and Cadaques to El Port de la Selvas. Isn’t hindsight wonderful?
The three best aspects to our camp site were (a) the swimming pool and (b) a nice restaurant just next door which provided great views over the Bay of Roses and (c) the short cliff walk (some 2 kms) to L’Escala. It was the swimming pool (and the weather forecast of 34 degrees centigrade) and a great veal steak that persuaded us to stay on in Cala Montgo for an extra day.
The stroll along the clifftop from Cala Montgo to L’Escala was brief but pleasant; L’Escala itself was disappointing.
Vanya chose our next stop and a great one it was too. We intended stopping for a single night but quickly added a second.
The camp site she chose was Camping Rio Vero and as the name suggests it sits on the Rio Vero, one of many rivers in the Sierra de Guara – a small mountain range that runs parallel with the Pyrenees. The site is at the end point of the Rio Vero Canyon and the owner has strategically dammed the river to create two small natural swimming pools at each end of the camp. With it being sunny and the temperature hitting the high 20’s it wasn’t long before our two dogs were in the cool crystal clear pools and we were of a mind to do the same once we had gathered sufficient courage to enter the cold mountain water (perhaps in the morning?).
This area being loaded with rivers and streams it came as no surprise to learn the camp site could organise canyoning and rappelling in any number of local gorges and Vanya and I were both up for it until we were told it would be a full day affair and we would have to leave the dogs behind. Some other time perhaps.
The next morning, after an early breakfast and instead of canyoning, we elected to walk the dogs some 4-5 kilometres along the old road to Alquezar; have lunch at the village and; return by way of the river bed. I had been told by the campsite owner it was possible to walk along the riverbed all the way from the village back to the campsite and that the experience and scenery would be well worth the effort. Both these points were confirmed by the tourist board office in Alquezar.
The walk along the old road to Alquezar was easy and within an hour we entered the village and what a place! Beautiful!
The Moors built a fortress there in the 9th century and it wasn’t long thereafter before houses were being built around the base of the fortress (the Arabic word for which is Al Qasr) and that is how Alquezar came to be. Christians took the town from the Moors in 1064 and over a period of time the fortress or at least part of it was converted to a collegiate church, the Colgiatte Church of Santa Maria la Mayor. Just down from the collegiate a newer church, the Iglesia Parroquial de San Miguel Arcangel, was built between 1681 and 1708 and both buildings very much command the village.
Alquezar is a small village of little more than 300 people and despite being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, I am delighted to report that it has not yet been overrun by tourists. In fact it was not at all busy as we arrived.
Almost all of the village is pedestrianised and it is a warren of narrow winding lanes with all the houses made of the same rose coloured limestone, brick or mud. Many of the lanes are covered with passageways as inhabitants extended their homes for more space.
We have seen a great many wonderful medieval villages during this tour (both in Spain and France) but what sets this one apart are the uniform pink buildings and panoramic views over the Rio Vero Gorge. There are fine viewing points all over the town and especially from the collegiate church / castle but my favourite is from outside one of the restaurants that we passed on our way into the village and we returned there for lunch.
After a mixed platter of starter size dishes and a couple of beers it was time to head down into the Rio Vero Gorge and make tracks downstream to our camp site. It started off quite well with Vanya managing her fear of heights (although she did complain a bit) as we very slowly descended the dirt track road to the bottom of the gorge. A footbridge at the bottom marked the start of our river walk…
The dogs very quickly took to the water. Vanya followed a little later holding her handbag clear of the water and muttering incessantly about how cold the water was but, otherwise, it seemed to be going quite well. Then the water got a little bit deeper and somewhat rockier and, if you believe her, colder…Well, I’ll let the photos do the talking…
Forget the pictures. It is not in my best interests to show more or relate further on this matter. It will suffice to say that the wade went on for a while longer and Vanya’s humour darkened as the day progressed but we all made it back safe and sound…
…and we’re heading for the coast tomorrow – a place called L’Escala. She’s always in a better frame of mind when at the seaside.
Cannot believe I have never heard of Anso. Vanya found it although after the drive up she probably wished she hadn’t.
We left Hendaye later than anticipated and headed across to Spain by way of Saint Jean Pied de Port and the D128 / N135. Our original plan had been to stay at a small campsite up in the Pyrenees so that I could do some hill walking but within an hour or so of reaching the place we changed our mind and decided to make for the Yesa Reservoir instead. That’s one of the advantages of van life – total flexibility.
Almost 10 kms long the reservoir is also called the Sea of the Pyrenees and we thought it could be a nice place to swim and catch some rays and; it would have been except there is no official campsite in the immediate vicinity and we couldn’t wild camp for lack of water (we have been driving on minimal water for days) and food (we hadn’t passed a decent sized shop since crossing the Pyrenees).
After a short stop at the Reservoir taking the obligatory photos / videos, we started googling for an alternative campsite and it was then that Vanya found a small site up at a place called Anso.
The Yesa photos were taken near Embalse De Yesa and it was from there that we programmed the Satnav to take us to Anso. The route took us via the N240 past Sigues to the A1602 (the Ruta de los Valles Occidentales de Aragon) and what a final leg that was!
Following the Rio Veral for much of the way the A1602 is a single track road that clings to the steep craggy side of the Rio Veral Gorge and snakes around and sometimes through numerous rocky outcrops that tower over the fast flowing river below. Progress was slow because I couldn’t help stopping to take in the sights. What started off as thickly wooded hills gave way to some amazing mountain scenery. There were knife edge arretes, cavernous drops down into the gorge and some amazing rock sculptures caused by the erosive effect of wind and water on the mix of soft limestone and hard granite that form this part of the Pyrenees. I just had to pause to take these sights in.
And Vanya? It will suffice to say she was not happy. She hates heights. Just as well it was her who chose our destination or I would have been in deep trouble.
All too soon we arrived at our destination but Anso itself was a revelation. It is a remote traditional stone built village resting on the banks of the Rio Veral in the Western Aragonese Pyrenees and it is stunningly beautiful – Uno de los Pueblos mas Bonitos de Espana.
The next day I set off on a bit of a walkabout. I had no idea where I was going but Anso sits within the Valles Occidentales Natural Park and I was spoiled for choice. Everywhere you look there are U shaped valleys, leafy forests, mountain lakes, rivers and waterfalls and, best of all, lots of limestone peaks.
The area is supposedly teaming with chamois, fox, wild boar and the odd brown bear. The odd brown bear!!! Mostly however it is about birds here. It is an ornithologists paradise. Leaving aside the alpine birds (too many to mention and, to be honest, I could barely tell one from another) there are numerous raptors (i.e. vultures, kites and eagles). I was lucky enough to stumble on a bird watchers hide and the check charts inside helped me identify three different species of vultures (Griffon, Bearded and Egyptian Vultures) and two of kites (the Red Kite and the Black Kite). I missed out on the Golden Eagles.
It was easy to stay on here for a couple of three nights. The campsite bar helped as well inasmuch that it was the cheapest we had happened upon – 3.60 Euros for a large beer and a wine.
On the opposite bank of the Bidassoa river to Hendaye, in Basque Country (Euskal Herria in Basque, Pais Vasco in Spanish and Pays Basque in French), is Hondarribia (once known as Fuenterrabia).
Hondarribia is one of the most beautiful cities in the Basque Country and a must see if you are visiting Hendaye. Don’t be put off by its “city” status; with a population of little more than 15,000 people it is not that big. It was granted city status in the 17th Century after fighting off the French in a number of battles. In reality it is an old and very colourful Basque fishing town split into two main areas – the Old Town and the La Marina District.
There is a ferry boat service that took us across from Hendaye for the day and it took just minutes and cost only 2 euros each with the dogs travelling free – a nice little trip and a great taste of Spain. There’s no doubt but that we will head into Spain after this, if only for a few days.
The Old Town dates back to the 15th and 16th centuries and it is filled with narrow cobbled streets each lined with ancient stone houses (most of which have ornately carved eaves and balconies) and it is rich in architecture and history. It is identified as the “Old Quarter” which for the most part sits within the original city walls – It is a must see.
The Santa Maria Gate is the primary entrance into the old quarter and it leads via the Calle Mayor to the Plaza de Armas where the cities two most famous buildings stand – The first of these buildings is the Church of Santa Maria de la Ascuncion y del Manzano which was built in the 15th and 16th centuries on top of the ruins of old walls and a Roman Church.
The second main building on the Plaza de Armas is the Charles V Castle (parts of which have been in place since the 10th Century although the original structure was much developed in Medieval times by Charles V). This castle was destroyed by the French towards the end of the 18th century and remained a ruin until 1968 when it was transformed into the Parador Hotel.
The La Marina neighbourhood is famous for its high concentration of pintxos bars and restaurants (including two with Michelin Stars) and is best visited in the evenings (especially on a Thursday which is Pintxos Day in Hodarribia). We ate lunch in a very plain and simple cafe but the food was seriously good (and a lot cheaper than in France – isn’t everything?).
I wish we had stayed longer but it wouldn’t have been fair on our dogs. If we were to do this again I would visit in July when the four day Hodarribia Blues Festival is on. I would make a point too of eating out in the La Marina area on a Thursday and I would try Txakoli – a slightly sparkling very dry white wine which is unique to the Basque Country.
There was just time to pop inside the Iglesia Parroquia de la Marina before we boarded our ferry boat back to Hendaye… I love the simplicity inside that church.