Candas (Asturias), Spain September 2022

Until quite recently Candas was a major fishing village on the Asturian coast. Villagers were whale fishing here as long ago as the 13th century and the village was the first in Asturias to salt, pickle and can fish. Indeed, as recently as the mid 20th century, there were 24 canning factories in what from here on in I will call a town (because I’ve just read that the place has a population of 6,500+).

Fishing remains important, as is evidenced by the statues and murals across the town (they are nearly all concerned with fishing and the restaurants serve some of the best shellfish along the north coast of Spain) but, the fishing boats are largely gone from the town’s harbour and it is tourism where all the money now comes from.

We parked up at a good campsite on the edge of the town. It is only a short walk along the promenade to the town. It was a weekend and the small beach was full of visitors taking advantage of the warm weather and mild sea. Almost everyone we met was Spanish and we rarely heard anything other than Spanish spoken throughout what became a 4-5 day stay.

Candas from the campsite.

My first walk into town took me along the promenade, the beach, the harbour and up on to Cape San Antonio to the Candas Lighthouse and then; down into the town for a beer or two. I identified a couple of decent looking restaurants by the harbour and thought to return in the evening with Vanya and the dogs. My first impressions of the town were not that positive; I think they were clouded by the high number of holidaymakers I had seen on the beach and around the harbour area. As it happened, I needn’t have been concerned. The people we met later in the restaurant were engaging and great fun and, besides, all the holidaymakers (other than us) seemed to disappear once the weekend was over.

As I returned to the Van after that first foray into Candas I couldn’t help but notice some of the town’s statues and murals and their association with the sea. The most impressive is perhaps one of the smallest which I found down on the Plaza El Cueto. It was created by a local sculptor known as Anton (real name Antonio Rodriguez Garcia) and it is called La Marinera. It was inspired by the suffering of mothers who lost sons to the sea.

To summarise the following few days in Candas – fantastic.

At heart this is still a local fishing village with warm and friendly people, some of whom went out of their way to make us welcome. That first night in the restaurant, one of the diners at a table alongside us offered me a glass of his sidra (the local cider) and proceeded to pour it from on high, as would an Escanciar (see last year’s Oviedo blog). Before you knew it, other diners were pouring from much higher heights than was the case earlier. Of course, our waiter simply had to show the amateurs how it should be done. I too had a go but the less said about that the better. It will suffice to say that Nala who invariably lays at my feet while we are in a restaurant was somewhat splashed and moved away.

The welcome we received in other bars and restaurants was equally friendly. My favourite ‘local’ however has to be El Barcon. It doesn’t do food. It simply serves drinks and the occasional free tapas / pintxos / pinchos. You couldn’t find more welcoming hosts – Spanish hospitality at it’s best.

I must mention the seafood. The shellfish we tried in a couple of the restaurants were outstanding. The scallops were good, the langoustines were excellent and the mussels in the vinaigrette were the best. Oh, and Vanya adores the local anchovies.

I’ll not say anymore about Candas. A few photos will suffice.

Crnice (Vipava Valley), Slovenia August 2022

The drive to Crnice took us no time and we passed two favourite places of mine on the way – Lake Bled and Postojna.

We had booked into the Camp David site in Crnice for two nights because in July and August it is very difficult to find accommodation almost anywhere in Slovenia (or Croatia or Italy for that matter – it is the holiday season) and the prices are ludicrously high. This inland site was to serve as a base until the weekend when we would move into a hotel in Padua in Italy for a couple of days.

A local I met at Camp David told me about an old iron age fort up on the hills behind Crnice and I thought to take a look. It took about 40 minutes for me to find the place. There is nothing left of the fort which used to stand on this hill, now known as St Paul’s Hill after the small chapel which was erected there in 1946, but it is a pretty spot with some fine views down into the Vipava Valley. Also, on the way up to the old settlement there are the remains of an old Roman (5th century) water tower. I carried on from St Paul’s Hill up to the top of Zasod Hill but it really wasn’t worth the extra effort. I’ve not been able to discover much about the old settlement although it seems that people were living here 2,000 years ago and in the 5th century the population of Ajdovscina (then the second largest town in the valley) withdrew to the hill for safety after the Huns attacked their town.

It was a day “of some small energy expenditure” and I was ready for the wine tasting we had committed to at Camp David that evening. Over a period of 1.5 hours we sampled and reviewed 6 local wines, including two which are peculiar to the Vipava Valley (the Zelen and the Pinela) but, while all were surprisingly good, the best of the day for me was a Barbera Merlot cuvee which was outstanding. It seems the Vipava Valley has a number of unique premium wines but, with the vineyards all being so small they can produce only a limited yield and so are relatively expensive.

The weather during our second day in Crnice was even hotter than the first, getting as high as 37 degrees centigrade. It would have been cruel to take the dogs out in that sun. Leaving Vanya with the dogs in the Van with the air conditioning on (so pleased we bought that before leaving the UK) I went off in the direction of the Vipava River to see if I could find a swimming spot for the dogs later in the day. I found a good spot on the river but it was simply too far away for the dogs to walk even late at night. At nine o’clock in the evening it is still up in the high twenties.

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!

Vannes (Bretagne), France September 2021

What a place! A sizeable town of 52,000 people, near the Gulf of Morbihan on the southern coast of Brittany, Vannes is one of the most charming towns we have visited during this tour. We only had the one day in Vannes and it would take considerably more than a single day to do this town justice but, we’ll be back.

We parked up close to the town centre and walked northwards down the long ‘finger like’ harbour (plenty of boats moored along both sides) towards the old town.

We passed into the mostly walled off, pedestrianised old town through the 16th century baroque gate of Porte St Vincent (which is named after the Spanish Dominican friar, Vincent Ferrer, who died here in 1419 and subsequently became Vannes’ patron saint) and entered a wholly enchanting world of cobbled streets and pastel coloured half timbered 16th century buildings

I read that there are no less than 170 listed half timbered buildings in the old town centre and although the ground floors of many have been converted into modern shops, boutiques and cafe bars it was easy to imagine we had been transported back into the 16th century.

The Porte Saint Vincent gate took us directly on to the Rue St Vincent which in turn brought us to the Place des Lices. There used to be jousting tournaments on the Place des Lices but, that was a long time ago and as we arrived, a street market was in full swing.

It was a most complete market with the widest range of goods and produce, full of colour and wonderful aromas not just from the many local fruit & vegetable stalls but from traders selling spices, flowers and various differently scented handmade soaps. The market stretched across numerous streets and seemed to have almost everything. There were carpets & furniture, craft ornaments and jewellery and food & drink stalls. There’s also a fish market on the Place de la Poissonnerie.

Of course the street market is surrounded by plenty of cafes and bars and it wasn’t long before we were seated at a table outside of one of them while I tucked into some really delicious local oysters and a glass of muscadet. It was almost noon and it was either that or we would have to visit one of the many Michelin Star restaurants in the town. Next time?

There is so much to see in Vannes. We could have carried on to the Jardin des Remparts with it’s geometric lawns and flowerbeds and topiaries and it’s views of the Garenne Bastion and three towers but Vanya was looking for something to eat (she doesn’t do oysters) and so we turned back to the harbour where she had seen a menu she liked.

On the way we paused at the granite Cathedrale St Pierre. This cathedral took some 700 years to complete and is a real mix of styles (romanesque, gothic, Italian renaissance, etc) with the oldest original feature being the 13th century bell tower. I went inside the cathedral but a service was underway and while that was on I was never going to feel comfortable looking for the tomb of St Vincent which is housed in in one of the Cathedral Chapels. Anyway, there was a pretty good harpist busking outside the cathedral and Vanya wouldn’t mind me listening to just one song.

From the cathedral we left the old town via it’s north west corner; walking past the impressive Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) on our way to the harbour for Vanya’s brunch and for me to finish my lunch. Vanya’s chosen restaurant was right on the harbour – a great place to eat, drink, people watch and admire some of the boats in the harbour. A couple of the boats have some stories to tell too.

Except for the harbour we didn’t really get to see much outside of the town walls; which is a pity because heading south from the harbour (just beyond where we had parked the Van) is the large Parc du Golfe where there’s the Jardin aux Papillons (a glass dome housing hundreds of butterflies) and an aquarium with a huge collection, more than 50 tanks, of mostly tropical fish. Again, maybe next time.

Conleau (Bretagne), France August 2021

We parked up at Flower Camping Conleau just outside of Vannes for a couple of days. Flower is not a bad campsite chain and staying in Conleau allowed us to both take advantage of the Region’s good weather and visit Vannes.

Conleau on the Gulf of Morbihan (Gulfe du Morbihan) is one of Europe’s, if not the world’s, most beautiful bays. ‘Mor bihan’ is Breton for ‘little sea’. It is separated from the Atlantic Ocean by a one kilometre wide bottleneck and yet covers an area of about 100 square kilometres (between Vannes and Auray to the north and Arzon and Sarzeau to the south). In different circumstances we would have stayed longer and taken a boat trip around the forty or so islands and islets which fill the bay. The Gulf is a listed Regional Nature Park and the whole area is beautiful.

After checking out the small peninsula next to the campsite for a suitable bar or restaurant for the evening (easy – there are only two and one had shut down because of Covid), I paused to watch a game of Palet Breton that four local guys were playing. The game is played with contestants taking turns to throw cast iron palets (discs), from a distance of 5 metres, at a maitre or jack which sits on a poplar board (measuring 70 cms x 70 cms). The individual or team getting closest to the maitre wins the round and receives one point for every palet which is closer to the maitre than their opponent(s). First to 12 points wins the match. This is not an easy game to play but these guys were seriously good, hardly ever missing the board. Could be a great lockdown game.

Having been suitably impressed by the Palet Breton players I decided to work up a thirst with a long walk. The area is full of walks and the one I chose took me through some beautiful marshland along the banks of the River Vincin almost all the way into Vannes (and back). This is an area of incredible natural beauty full of assorted plant and animal life, especially birds.

That evening we enjoyed a couple of drinks at the restaurant I found earlier in the day but we didn’t eat there – they had run out of oysters! No matter, we drank and reserved a table for the next evening, leaving specific instructions with the “Maitre D” to keep some of the local oysters back for me.

I take Van in the Van to Vannes tomorrow…

Riano (Castile y Leon), Spain July 2021

The journey south through the Picos de Europa was full of beautiful views (mountains, gorges, rivers & forests) all wasted on Vanya. She really cannot cope with hairpin mountain roads and even the entrance to our campsite included a steep winding ascent (although nothing like the ascent at Lekeitio).

However, upon arrival and seeing the views from our spot in the camp site she began to change her mind about mountain views. The view down over Riano with the reservoir and mountain range behind it is as picturesque as anything we have seen. We immediately decided to stay at least two nights.

The next morning, after I had walked the dogs up the hill behind where we were parked, Vanya and I strolled down to the town for a look see.

Built as recently as the 1980’s, Riano (or New Riano to use it’s proper name) is one of the the youngest towns in Castile y Leon. The old Riano was demolished when a number of rivers in the area were dammed. New Riano is a well laid out little town of some 450 people and is now almost entirely given over to tourism. A pretty pedestrian area and market place has been built around the new church and it is filled with interesting features reflecting different aspects of life in the mountains and, of course, the local wildlife (which includes brown bears and wolves). These features presented Vanya with plenty of photo opportunities for Beanie.

The evening we spent eating tapas and drinking Asturian Cider in the friendly camp site restaurant and bar while planning what to do and where to go the next day. We had already decided to go on a boat trip around the reservoir but that was as far as we got. The fact is, I was enjoying the apple cider and Vanya was enjoying the local wine.

The following morning we were up (relatively) bright and early for the boat trip. This one hour trip provided some fine photo opportunities but otherwise was a bit of a disappointment.

Of more interest was our subsequent walk along the side of the reservoir. We were keen to take a last look at the town (especially the Iglesia de Nuestra Senora del Rosario) and as we made our way along the reservoir path we came across a number of photo boards with some information and pictures about old Riano – very sobering…

…It is a tragic story. A plan was made during the 1960’s to dam three rivers in the area (the Esla, the Yuso and the Retuerto) so as to create a large reservoir for both irrigation purposes and to generate hydro electric power. The decision would ultimately impact on the population of seven villages (Anciles, Escaro, Huelde, La Puerta, Pedrosa la Rey, Riano and Salio) and various historical structures including the old Roman Bridge of Valdearana and the hermitage of (La Ermita de) San Bartolo. Over the ensuing years the local population showed intense resistance to the plan (which included the suicide of Simon Pardo) but to no avail. By 1987 all seven villages were demolished and the total population forcibly removed. The largest of the villages, Riano, is now several metres under the new bridge across the reservoir.

Only one building in old Riano was saved. The 16th century Iglesia de Nuestra Senora del Rosario was moved brick by brick to a new site by the bridge in New Riano. Not everything in the church could be saved but an 8th century baptismal font was moved as were some murals from inside the church.

Time for one last look at that great view…

Valfarta (Aragon), Spain July 2021

Back to Spain. Drove back down from Andorra via La Seu d’Urgell (stopping at the supermarket to pick up some food – No really, it was just food this time – don’t forget that Andorra is duty free) and then on through Catalonia to Aragon and the very small village of Valfarta.

On the way to Valfarta we paused briefly at Coll de Narga by the Oliana Reservoir (the Panta d’Oliana); as much for photos and to break the journey as anything. This place is renowned as a climbers paradise (witness the 27 crags) but it is also known as the last area on Earth to be inhabited by dinosaurs, some 65 million years ago. We didn’t visit it but there is an area open to the public here called the ‘Mirador del Creataci’ where you can see dinosaur footprints, fossilised plant and animal remains and dinosaur nests and eggs (including the largest dinosaur nest in Europe, belonging to a titanosaurus).

Vanya chose Valfarta as an overnight stop on our way to Logrono and, while it is quite remote and there’s little to see or do in the village itself, it worked well for us. It’s dirt cheap and very clean with friendly management and all the facilities you need (and more) and; it is situated right next to the village swimming pool and just 5 minutes walk from the village bar – restaurant. You couldn’t ask for more.

Andorra La Vella (Andorra), Andorra July 2021

And so we set off for Andorra – a new country for both of us – Vanya’s seventy first and my ninety eighth. We have visited more countries but for this count we only include countries which entail a stay of at least two days and require a sleepover (airport sleepovers not included).

No problem getting into Andorra. It isn’t a member of the EU but clearly has special status since there was no sign of immigration or customs as we drove across the border from Spain. It was different coming back when we were stopped by Spanish customs and asked how much alcohol and cigarettes we were carrying into Spain. There’s no VAT in Andorra and the Spanish are concerned about cigarette smuggling and the like.

The Principality of Andorra was formed in 1278 after a lengthy feudal conflict was resolved between the Comte de Foix (a position now held by the President of France) and the Bishop d’Urgell. That arrangement was updated in 1993 when a more appropriate constitution was formulated and today Andorra is recognised as a sovreign state and is the 184th member of the United Nations. It has the largest land area of all Europe’s micro states (468 square km) but only a small portion is urbanised; the great majority of it’s area being peaks, lakes and rivers. It’s capital, Andorra La Vella is Europe’s highest capital at 1,023 metres and it was to Andorra La Vella that we made our way.

Andorra La Vella has a small old town, the Barri Attic, but most of the city (and, indeed, much of the country) is modern and given over to tourism and shopping. The country’s initial prosperity was very much due to it’s tax haven status but with that status having been eroded by the European Union it is now more reliant on tourism (hiking in the summer, skiing in the winter and VAT free shopping throughout the year by nearby French and Spanish).

One intriguing feature of the city is the amount of modern art dotted around the place – the city has it’s fair share of museums and galleries but, honestly, there is enough on display on the streets and squares to keep me happy. The first examples we stumbled across were the Seven Poets by Jaume Plensa which stand on plinths at various heights in front of the Parish Council Building.

Some of the sculptures in the Barri Attic (but by no means all) have a more traditional flavour (the ‘Fountain of El Ball de Contrapas’ by Sergi Mas being one example).

My favourite of all those seen (and we saw many, many more – they are all over the city) is ‘La Noblesse du Temps’ by Salvador Dali which is down by the Pont de Paris Bridge in the newer part of the town.

We spent as much time in the new part of town as the old, window shopping and eating and drinking. We had one great evening at a restaurant right next to the Dali Bronze, sharing a Cheese Fondue and two bottles of Sauvignon Blanc. Another dish we saw included on a menu here and which I wish in hindsight I had tried was ‘Tartiflette’ made with the Reblechon Cheese we sampled when passing through Canet de Salars. Next time.

It was the old town, however, that most captivated me. There’s not a lot of it if you take away the Church of Sant Esteve and it’s immediate surroundings but it is this area which, for me, best reflects the lively cafe-bar culture that is very much representative of the city of Andorra La Vella.

I was never going to visit Andorra and not do a little hillwalking but, if I am honest, the trails I walked just outside the city are not that good. One particular walk to the ‘La Comella Viewpoint’ is supposed to offer “a spectacular panoramic view of of the Principality…and is one of the most photographed postcards etc” but it was a huge disappointment. The trail up through the woods to La Comella was never going to be straight forward after the heavy storm we experienced two days ago (fallen trees across the roads had quickly been removed by the local authorities but those which fell in the woods, and there were a great many, are a lower priority and will take weeks to dispose of) but, having made the climb, I found the views wholly unexceptional. They didn’t even warrant getting the camera out. Okay, so I did get the camera out and I did take some photos but they weren’t worth the effort.

I’ll not end this entry on such a sour note. Three days and two nights was time enough to see and enjoy the capital but there is clearly much more to Andorra and we are both keen to return We didn’t get to see the TdF because of poor planning on our part – perhaps next year?

Montagut (Catalonia), Spain July 2021

Day 15 of our Tour saw us visit Besalu and then move on to a very quiet campsite just 13 miles away near Montagut i Oix on the edge of the Garrotxa Volcanic Zone National Park. There is very little of any interest in the area (unless you enjoy walking rough woodland trails up and down hills) but that suited us fine because we had booked in for two days with a view to simply chilling. We did that alright and enjoyed ourselves so much we stayed for a third night.

One absolute must during our stay was to watch the European Championship Semi-Final match between England and Denmark and that was achieved despite the camp having only very weak 3G and seriously poor Wifi. Vanya managed to stream the match on to two different I-pads (don’t ask me how) and while the I-pads took turns freezing one at least would work sufficiently well for us to follow most of the match. It wasn’t ideal but it worked and of course England won!

About 400 metres from our campsite alongside the road to Tortella is a narrow 28 metre high single arch 14th century bridge which crosses the River Llierca. Would you believe, Vanya actually made it to the top of the bridge? It was the river flowing very slowly under the bridge which most impressed the dogs. It became their private swimming pool with Beanie in particular loving the daily swim.

Of course, I cannot sit and do nothing even on chill days and so on two of our three days at Montagut I wandered off into the Garrotxa Park on short walks. They weren’t brilliant walks because (a) many of the trails are indistinct and (b) the tree line in this part of the world is so high that it is virtually impossible to get decent views but they kept me occupied.

My first walk was along part of Spain’s GR1 route and it took me from the Pont de Llierca up to and well beyond the Oratori de Plansalloses which chapel is popularly known as the ‘Saints Bodies’ after a legend that tells of the small bodies of numerous children being found there.

My second walk, the next day, was a longer route which took me in the opposite direction from the Pont de Llierca up to Montsiposit and then on to la Creu de la Ripolla. Absolute waste of time. The Santa Creu cross at the top of Montsiposit was more of a disappointment than the Oratori de Plansalloses. I had to fight may through a mass of thorns which cover the Montsiposit summit only to discover it the Santa Creu is little more than a small trig point with a cross on it. If that wasn’t bad enough, La Creu de la Ripolla proved to be nothing more than a yellow signpost pointing the way back to my start point and various other destinations.

Leaving the walks aside, we still enjoyed our stay in Montagut.

Colmar (Alsace, Haut Rhein), France October 2020

We arrived late at our campsite on the edge of Colmar by the River L’Ill but the receptionist, bless her, had stayed late to check us in. I stopped there two years ago for a few nights and knew it would be open this time of the year but, because of the National Covid Lockdown starting the next day, I wasn’t sure if we would be allowed to stay the two nights we needed (we had to get the dogs seen by a local vet for tapeworm tablets before they would be allowed back into the UK) but, I needn’t have worried. The receptionist told us that whatever happened we could stay the extra night. Again, bless her.

We were happy staying over, it gave us a chance to wander around Colmar, a small town in the Alsace Region of France not far from the German border. Vanya had never seen the place. I walked the largely pedestrian old town on my own that first morning and I had never seen it so quiet. It was the first day of the Lockdown in France and the place was virtually deserted. It was much the same in the afternoon when I showed Vanya around the town.

The old part of Colmar is a labyrinth of cobbled streets and timber framed chalk box coloured houses with steep pitched rooves and wooden shutters and it is truly beautiful. When I last stayed there, in 2017, it was packed (not least because it was the day of the town’s annual 10 km run) and I arrived as the runners were finishing. Not so this time.

What is particularly sad is that prior to our arriving the local authority had been putting up the town’s Christmas decorations. Ordinarily, Colmar has 5 weeks of Christmas Markets which are supposedly amongst the best in France – I suspect that will not happen this year.

I probably mentioned this in my earlier blog on the town in 2017 but, amongst other things, Colmar was the birthplace of Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi who created the Statue of Liberty. The house he lived in is now a museum dedicated to his work and there’s a statue of Bartholdi in the Parc du Chateau d’Eau with him holding a small replica of the statue of “Liberty Enlightening The World”.

Oh, and we made it to the vet. Would you believe it, he charged a staggering 91 Euros for administering two tapeworm tablets?!? Robbery!