Zaurutz (Basque Country), Spain February 2022

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

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

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

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.

Manilva (Andalucia), Spain February 2022

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…

La Garrofa (Andalucia), Spain February 2022

How we stumbled on La Garrofa, I do not know. On our journey south we had arranged to visit some old family friends (John & Ann) who have lived in Fuengirola (Mijas) for many years (We last saw them some time in the 1980’s) and we were looking to overnight somewhere that would be within easy reach of Mijas. We found La Garrofa.

The write ups on La Garrofa are not all that good but, ignore them. It is one of the oldest campsites in Spain, having opened in 1957 and so, yes, some aspects of the place are a little dated and; it is small and; it is in the middle of nowhere but; it has all the amenities you could want (including a bar and restaurant – and the food is not bad) and it has it’s own pebble beach. We were parked so close to the water’s edge that there was no escaping the sound of the waves. It was perfect for an overnight stay.

There’s not much else to say except that the owner and the bar/restaurant staff were very friendly towards us. I’ll let the pictures do the talking…

Not bad at all!

Mar Menor Lagoon (Murcia), Spain February 2022

From Peniscola we continued further south pausing only at Camping Mar Menor on the Mar Menor Lagoon in Murcia.

Camping Mar Menor is a good campsite in a wonderful (albeit somewhat isolated) setting, right on the waters edge in the middle of a small nature reserve. I’ll qualify ‘isolated’ – There’s an easy half hour walk through the nature reserve and then along a quiet beach promenade to Los Alcazares. There is also a military airport nearby but there were no flights during our short stay (not that Vanya would have been bothered – quite the reverse).

The campsite has a good restaurant, the Kinita, specialising in seafood. There is an outside seating area right on the beach but while the weather was bright and sunny during the day it was too cold at night to want to sit outside. We stayed inside and had one of the best meals of our tours to date; Turbot for me and a large Sole for Vanya followed by two very decadent desserts.

The campsite was really very good with massive, shaded pitches and all the facilities you need for an extended stay (and, believe me, we seriously thought about staying on) but with this being such a short tour we reluctantly elected to move on.

Peniscola (Valencia), Spain

Staying in the province of Castellon we moved further south this morning to Peniscola (pronounced ‘pen-yiss-cola’), a popular tourist resort in the summer but fairly quiet this time of the year. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

Peniscola has a fine wide sandy ‘blue flag’ beach (Platja Nord) some 5 kms long which is overlooked at the town end by a 14th century templar castle which was built on the site of a Moorish citadel. The official name of the castle is the ‘Pontifical Templar Castle of Peniscola’.

Both Peniscola Castle and the Platja Nord Beach figured prominently in the 1961 Anthony Mann film ‘El Cid’ starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren. The castle was used as the setting for Valencia and it was along the Platja Nord beach that Charlton Heston, in the role of Don Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (El Cid), rode his white charger at the end of the film. The castle was also used in ‘Game of Thrones’ as the setting of the fictitious city of Mereen.

Peniscola Castle was home to Pope Benedict XIII for 8 years until his death in 1423. This was the time of the great schism which saw three popes being elected at the same time, one in Rome, one in Avignon and Benedict XIII (often referred to as Papa Luna) in Peniscola although Papa Luna was later declared an anti-pope and excommunicated by Rome.

Peniscola’s old town is entirely enclosed within the walls of the castle. It is small but very pretty with narrow, cobbled streets; most of which are now lined with small bars and craft & souvenir shops (although absolutely nothing other than the castle itself was open in the old town throughout our short stay).

Quite often during these tours, I go walkabout for a few hours to explore (while Vanya caches up on her sleep or on her Spanish language studies) and then, later in the day, I return with Vanya to eat and visit the more interesting sites. We did the same in Peniscola and, while (at least during the close season, there is little of real interest in Peniscola outside of the castle and the beach, the town is one of those places that has to be seen at night. It is very pretty.

Cambrils (Catalonia), Spain February 2022

And so, on our way to warmer climes, we arrived in Cambrils (some 20 kilometres south of Tarragona) and decided to stay for a couple of days. Our reasons were that firstly, it was getting warmer by the day (and the forecast was even more promising); secondly, there is far more to Cambrils than L’Estartit (and for the most part it is open) and; thirdly and perhaps most importantly, we arranged for a local vet to see Nala and Beanie about a Spanish Pet Passport (now that, because of Brexit, their existing EU Pet Passports have been made redundant).

Our decision proved to be good one. The fact is, we needed a rest. Ordinarily we take our time on these tours, driving as little as possible and properly exploring and/or experiencing the places we choose to stop at. That wasn’t the case on this particular tour. Storms and freezing weather across the whole of France had compelled us to head south as quickly as possible. It was time to get back to doing things right and that day’s sunset promised great things…

We stayed at Camping La Llosa which sits on Playa La Llosa and was an easy 15 minute walk into the town. Cambrils could be described as just another Spanish summer holiday resort, albeit one with 9 kilometres of 10 blue flag, golden, sandy beaches but, what sets it apart is it’s proximity to the three mountains of Llaberia, Argentera & La Mussara (water and mountains go so well together) and it’s many fine restaurants, including at least one holding a Michelin star (the Ca L’Estrany).

Ca L’Estrany was not to be but, on the seafront we found a small restaurant (Braseria de Porte) which had an appealing menu and we sat and ate and stayed until they closed. Vanya rated her meal, Crayfish followed by a Seafood Paella, as one of the best of her life. I tried Razor Clams for the first time in my life but found them a mite rubbery. No matter, we would both recommend the Braserie de Porte.

Razor Clams. They were a tad rubbery but I’ll try them again. I’ve seen a Rick Stein recipe which appeals

The next day I went for a long walk along the coast to and from Salou – no reason other than that I fancied the exercise.

During my walk along the coast I stumbled across a rather intriguing work of art which I subsequently learned was created by David Callau Gene in 2011. They are sculptures of three fishermen and two mermaids and were put up to mark the 100th anniversary of a great storm which killed 140 Cantabrian fishermen, many of them from Cambrils.

Yes, we enjoyed Cambrils – as much for the rest as anything. And yes – we managed to get Spanish Pet Passports for the dogs. They now have dual nationality.