Monthly Archives: June 2019

Spanish road-trip – The home stretch…

Viva España – The Road Back from Cazorla (Southern Spain) (7)

18th – 20th April 2019

‘Another one???’  I can hear you sigh…  ‘Haven’t we heard enough about Spain?’

I cannot but agree, but alas, spinning out the few highlights in my life, means spinning out the tales of Spain, extracting every bit of juice.  So it is only fair to those who have doggedly followed my exploits that I should see it through to the bitter end.  We made it back to the UK, in one piece…

We left Cazorla at the crack of dawn in the pelting rain, not another soul in view.  Not the best start for a drive that would take up the best part of the day.  As we were keeping to our original plan of avoiding all major cities, our destination was just south of Barcelona.  A smallish coastal town with the pretty name of Sitges, next to the grander Sant Pere de Ribes.  Of course, forever budget conscious, reasonably priced Airbnbs had been easier to find in less glamorous cities.

Even before we made it out of town, we attracted the attention of the local Guardia…  Our misdemeanour?  Nothing more suspicious than stopping by the side of the road to study the route suggested by the various satellite navigation systems at our disposal.  With all the space around the car obliterated by blackness and no visible landmarks to guide our departure, we were at the mercy of technology.  Having had our fingers burnt on previous trips, we weren’t taking any chances and before putting our foot down on the gas pedal and speeding off in the wrong direction, a bit of map scrutiny looked like a very wise move… To us any way. 

Blue lights sneaked up in the rear-view mirror.  No sirens to alert us. The Guardia car first passed us slowly, casting a beady eye over our ‘guilty-looking’ behaviour.  Scanning Google Maps on a phone???  They turned and pulled up alongside us.  We wound down the window and showed them the phone as we indicated, ‘We’re OK, just checking the route…’ in our best, non-existent Spanish.  It is however quite plausible that they just wanted to help some stranded travellers; the British number plate would have been a give-away..  Thumbs up on both sides and off they drove into the black gloom.  Still, on the upside, it was nice to see police vigilantly patrolling the roads and taking safety seriously…

With dawn approaching and heavy rain melting into drizzle, we finally managed to see a bit more of the Spanish countryside: small villages, vineyards springing into leaf, bud and fruit, and, as we approached Valencia, orange groves – minus the oranges.  Too late for the harvest and too early for the sweet-smelling blossoms, they looked a rather dull boring green…

The seaside on the other hand – when we finally reached our bed-for-the-night destination – was a welcome sight. Although we had hoped to arrive early enough to dip in a toe or two, wild, tempestuous waves tempered our craving. No need to get splashed by turbulent waves unless the weather was more forgiving… It didn’t spoil our enjoyment though: there’s nothing quite like wind-tussled and salt-misted hair.

Still, the best part of our visit to Sitges was savouring the glorious delicacies in NeM, a restaurant renowned for its tapas and recommended by our excellent Airbnb hosts. Rather than the tired and ubiquitous patatas bravas, tortillas and chorizo slices, the menu featured mind-boggling concoctions such as ‘Roast Beef, Thai curry , Peanuts and Basil’; ‘Kofta of Lamb, Tomato, Chili, Tahini and Yoghurt’, ‘Passion Sorbet, Coconut Tapioca, Tangerine and Malvasia’… Not your ordinary Spanish fare, but daring combinations of the best flavours borrowed from diverse corners of the world. Tapas gone global!!

Roast Beef , Thai Curry, Peanuts & Basil. Photograph from )
My photograph of the Roast Beef and Thai Curry. Finger-licking awesome!! ‘Pan con tomate’ at the top.
Kofta of Lamb, Tomato, Chili, Tahini and Yoghurt ( )
Passion Sorbet, Coconut Tapioca, Tangerine and Malvasia. ( )

Day two of our return travel took us across the border, into France. Our foray into B-road adventures backfired rapidly and instead of having plenty of opportunity to shoot some better photographs, we had plenty of opportunity to curse the slow traffic and photograph non-stop strings of angry red braking lights. I restrained myself, and refrained… Still, the splendid views of the snow-capped Pyrenees were definitely easier to capture at this leisurely speed.

We spent the last night of our trip on the outskirts of Lyon and, to the disappointment of our Airbnb host, arrived rather too late to venture into town. She had already merrily unfolded her map of the locality to show us where to find the best museums and viewpoints of Vieux Lyon and the Rhône. In the end, we were just content with the quickest route to food and opted for some local French cuisine. Delectable, I would say, however my companion would probably disagree. In his haste, he rashly order ‘boeuf tartare’, expecting steak of some sort, but certainly not the raw, ‘haché’ variety. His loss was my gain! I love ‘steak tartare’, although in my native Belgium is has a different name. But to savour the delicate spiciness, spiked with heavenly tabasco and accompanied by pickled gherkins and silver onions was to be transported to my youth…

No time to lose on our last day with a deadline to meet at the channel tunnel. Calais, here we come. A race across France using the toll roads as we reveled in the beauty of the yellow rapeseed fields streaking past.

We made it to Calais in plenty of time; settled our car on the train and were taken across the Channel in comfort. Only a few more hours driving on the correct side of the road, and we were home. Mission accomplished.

Plans are already brewing for another adventure…

The gorge-ousness of the Sierra de Cazorla.

Viva España – The Road to Cazorla, Southern Spain, (6)

Days 4 – 9

In my book, no trip or holiday is entirely complete if it doesn’t involve at least a small amount of hiking..  And with our accommodation perching on the edge of the Sierra de la Cazorla, we had definitely ended up in the perfect spot to dust off our hiking boots and head for the mountains that were teasing and tempting me from our rooftop terrace.  Nothing too strenuous though, doctor’s orders, but there were plenty of flattish walks meandering next to sheer rock faces and along rivers carved by water and time through the Parque Natural Sierras de Cazorla, Segura y Las Villas.

The Natural Park, which covers an area of over 800 square miles, was established in 1986 and is the largest protected area in Spain and the second largest in Europe.   UNESCO had already declared it a biosphere reserve in 1983, and in 1988 turned it into a Special Protection Area for migratory birds.  The park includes two high mountain ranges – the Sierra de Cazorla and the Sierra de Segura – as well as the headwaters of major rivers such as the Guadalquivir and the Segura.  The awesome countryside and the diversity of the local flora and fauna, combined with a rich cultural heritage, have made the region an important tourist destination.

No wonder the brochure we picked up from the Tourist centre in town described the Sierra de Cazorla as ‘…so much more than you imagined… The Sierra de Cazorla is nature and countryside… high peaks, deep ravines, woods, valleys, semi-desert areas, woodland flora and fauna…, it is heritage … castles, churches, shrines, Iberian and Roman sites…, it is culture…museums and thematic centres, festivals, theatre, music and dance…, it is health and sport…natural therapies, fishing, hunting, mountaineering, climbing, cycling…, it is a place for leisure activities and for relaxing, for going for a stroll, eating and shopping, a place for enjoyment…you will enjoy a different experience with each visit’.

And on our first hike – following the Rio Borosa, passing the Cerrada de Elías and onwards to the Embalsa de Aguas Negras – we could, first-hand, admire the spectacular river views and impressive waterfall extravaganzas that have made this area of Spain such a popular tourist attraction.  Even before we reached our starting point at the Torre del Vinagre tourist centre, we stopped at awe-inspiring viewpoints along the route: olive groves undulating into eternity, mountain peaks bluish in the morning haze; frosty, far-away crests stubbornly clinging to a coating of snow.

Not sure of how long the hike was, and none of the fellow hikers we met on the trail any the wiser either, we didn’t make it all the way to the Embalsa de Aguas Negra – the Reservoir of Black Water.  A shame really, as after the long, sweaty trek, a cooling dip would have been most welcome…  We just had to cope with a refreshing splash on the way back…

Our next excursion took us in a different direction and a bit further afield, all the way to the Embalse de La Bolera, a large reservoir created by a dam completed in 1967 and fed from the waters of the surrounding rivers.  Not only do the crystalline and unpoluted waters promote healthy and richly varied flora in the area, in the hotter summer months the lake attracts swimmers and bathers, as well as more adventurous water sports enthusiasts.  In the freshness of early April, we had to make do with spectacular panoramas enjoyed from different viewing points and platforms and the terrace of our lunch retreat.

With a whole afternoon stretching ahead of us, we allowed ourselves to be swept along twisting off-the-beaten-track roads, through mountain ranges and ridges and past castles and caves. We didn’t have time or opportunity to stop everywhere and take it all in.. Even though there was less traffic, the roads were narrow and windy, zigzagging most of the time, so photo stops were not always possible.

We briefly stopped at the Cueva del Agua, where legend has it that the first known miracle of the Virgin of Tíscar happened. It is said the Virgin Mary appeared to the Moorish Chief, Mohammed Andón, to persuade him to convert to Christianity and as such save himself, and all the people seeking sanctuary in his fortified castle, from certain death. We clambered through the narrow tunnel and down the steep stairs to a viewing platform inside the grotto where a shrine has been erected: a statue of the Virgin, with the infant Jesus, El Niño, at her feet. On the rocks below we spotted votive candles and photographs and speculated how on earth anyone would have been able to reach the other side as water thundered down from the waterfall.

Our exploration of the mountains curbed by my limitations, we opted for a last unchallenging hike around the Utrero Gorge. It pained me to have to submit to a route described on the map as ‘Difficulty: Low’; it seemed such a cop-out after having reached Base Camp Everest with relative ease last October… But that was then and I was facing a new reality now.

In spite of the route around the Cerrada del Utrero being fairly short (less than 2 km), it passes through one of the most impressive corners of these mountains. The trail runs along the side of the leafy El Lanchón ( a lapies rock formation created by the erosion of limestone by water) carved by the Guadalquivir River, just a few kilometres from its source. Over the course of thousands of years, the rock has been worn away, slowly chiseling one of the most spectacular gorges in the mountain range: Le Cerrada del Utrero. The exit to the gorge has been blocked off by a small dam and on both sides of the path, interesting vegetation has adapted to this stony landscape, clinging to the rocks and growing in the smallest of cracks and crevices, seemingly defying gravity.

Steep steps lead down from the wall of the dam and follow the river as the water hurls downwards in a series of waterfalls. On the opposite side, a group of dare-devils were canyoning down the Cascada de Linerajos, an impressive waterfall on the River Linerajos, whose waters feed into the Guadalquivir River. The path continues as it skirts around more of the stunning rock formation of El Lanchón.

Not quite sated with the exercise involved in a hike of ‘low’ difficulty, we decided to add on a little extra. The girl in the Tourist Centre was all too keen to point out other possibilities to us, although she suggested driving a bit closer to the viewpoint she had in mind for us: the Mirador de Linarejos. From there we would have a much better outlook on the waterfall…

It may be that we were slightly on the wrong path, we didn’t exactly have a proper map with us, but we seemed to be teetering precariously on the edge of a vertiginous riverbank, clawing our way through overhanging branches and roots jutting out from nowhere. With x-ray vision of an imminent future, I could see an accident waiting to happen. ‘Simon,’ I proposed, ‘Let’s be sensible and walk on the riverbed. It’s dry and bound to be less hazardous than walking on this riverbank…’

Famous old words. Simon obliged, of course… it made sense. So we descended into the abyss, balancing on jagged rocks, traipsing over enormous boulders, taking snapshots of the waterfall, and decided to keep to the riverbed on our way back. I have no idea how it happened: I may have slipped; a momentary lapse of concentration; I possibly looked back to take a quick picture and with Simon well ahead in the distance, I may have rushed… Whatever the cause, I ended up on all fours, toppling over and bashing my knees and shins on the ancient, solid boulders that certainly weren’t in any mood to budge for anyone..

I admit I needed a minute or two – more like ten to be honest – to recover… A nice Spanish gentleman who chivalrously came to offer me a hand to get up, was unceremoniously brushed aside. ‘No, thank you,’ I insisted, gritting my teeth, ‘I am OK, totally OK. I just need a moment,’ as I stared at the ground waiting for the wave of nausea to pass.

‘Simon,’ I called, ‘Simon, stop!! Come back!!’

Luckily, no broken bones. Just bruised shins, cut knees and hurt pride… I would live. Onwards and upwards, back to the car we went.

Cazorla’s take on Semana Santa.

Viva España – The Road to Cazorla, Southern Spain. (5)

Days 4 – 9

We took to Spanish life with unabashed ease…  Lazy mornings in the ‘Plaza de la Corredera o del Huevo’ or the ‘Plaza de la Constitución’: sipping away on fragrant café con leche or cappuccino, feasting on a breakfast of divine chocolate-dipped churros followed by fresh bread liberally drizzled with local virgin olive oil and piled high with fleshy tomatoes or cured jamón.  Who needed lunch when every drink we ordered after eleven in the morning was accompanied by mouth-watering tapas, their variety only limited by the chefs’ imagination…  But with such an abundance of fresh produce at my fingertips in the local supermarkets, we savoured most of our lunches and dinners on our rooftop terrace, indulging in heart-healthy salads and my own Jamie Oliver-inspired, spur-of-the-moment concoctions whilst enjoying the unending views of olive groves.  No need for a cookery book, we were on holiday, and so was everyone else it seemed..

We hit Cazorla at the start of Semana Santa.  And whereas in secular Britain the significance of Holy Week is rather glossed over by all but committed churchgoers, in Catholic Spain it is a time for festivals and parades that bring whole towns together.  In all honesty, we were quite oblivious to the advent of Easter, and apart from the pang of guilt at not yet having bought chocolate eggs for my now adult offspring, this most auspicious day on the Christian calendar hardly featured on our agenda until we ventured into town on Sunday morning in search of freshly baked bread.

It was nearing lunchtime and the plaza thronged with people milling around without apparent purpose, little clusters blocking the pavement, the air heavy with expectation. The main road leading towards our house on the hill was cordoned off, a clear no-go area for cars.  It was obvious something was imminent, but it wasn’t until I spotted long and short palm leaves being waved about that I had an inkling…  Palm Sunday, perhaps.  We quized a young-looking couple but our lack of Spanish and their lack of English left a lot to the imagination.  Our only option was to join the crowd and wait to see what all the fuss was about…

And indeed, eventually our patience paid off.  To the upbeat sound of a live marching band we saw them approaching the roundabout, a massive cross at the head of the parade… Lines of strangely costumed people, wearing long, white, flowing robes and yellow conical hats with just circles for the eyes.  Ku-Klux-Klan revisited?  What may have looked like strange, Ku-Klux-Klan-imitation attire to tourists was the traditional garb of the ‘brotherhoods’ or cofradías, worn during the Easter observances and Easter re-enactments of The Passion of Christ.

Many participants in the procession dress in the penitential robe, consisting of a tunic and conical hood – or capirote – which conceals the face. Although today the capirote is a symbol of a Catholic trying to redeem himself in the eyes of God, and only members of a ‘brotherhood of penance’ are allowed to wear them during solemn processions, its origin is far more sinister. The use of the capirote dates back at least as far as the Spanish Inquisition, the witch hunt instigated in 1478 by the fervently Catholic Spanish rulers to rid the country of Jews and Muslims. People condemned by the Tribunal were obliged to wear a yellow robe – sacobendito, aka blessed robe – that covered their chest and back. They also had to wear a paper-made cone on their heads with different signs on it, alluding to the type of crime they had committed. The hat’s colour reflected the sentence meted out.  Red ones were for the death penalty…  In time, the cap was adopted by the Catholic brotherhoods as a voluntary guise for flagellants as they walked along the streets whilst flogging themselves to make amends for their sins.

These days, cofradías are generally Christian voluntary organisations of lay people, associated with a particular church, and are involved in charitable or religious work.  Each brotherhood has its own set of rules, and membership may be very exclusive to include only men, only women, or only youth.  During Semana Santa, the brotherhoods are bestowed with the honour of carrying large floats, or pasos, adorned with religious sculptures depicting the various stages of the Easter story, starting on Palm Sunday with Jesus’ jubilant entry into Jerusalem.  Many of these pasos are quite old and have been preserved by the brotherhoods for hundreds of years.

The members of the cofradia may no longer be indulging in flagellation as a form of penance, but taking part in the Semana Santa processions itself is seen as an act of atonement. And it sure is no mean feat to be underneath the floats in the heat of the April spring sun… We tried to count the number of feet, clad in black shoes or not clad at all, peeping from under the long skirt draped over the float. In the region of 32 men were shouldering the paso burden, shuffling along short distances at the time, to the tune of either uplifting or solemn music and the command of the foreman who decided the time between the paso being lifted and put down again – just enough time for a quick quench of thirst..

No sign of any Semana Santa processions on Monday; of course, it may have been that we were otherwise engaged and not in town.. But there was no mistaking the Tuesday extravaganza. Enjoying a spot of sun on the rooftop terrace, the afternoon peace was suddenly interrupted by the vibrant sounds of a brass band. ‘More entertainment?’ we wondered as we, curiosity roused, made our way towards the commotion. Turning the corner in front of Iglesia del Carmen we bumped into the musicians, smartly dressed in black and red and belting out cheery tunes. No way through for us, but with the road on a steep incline we could just get a glimpse of the procession leaving the church.

With a quick detour, negotiating other narrow streets, we found ourselves ahead of the parade and in a perfect spot for taking a few shots. At the fore of the procession, a red-hooded member of the Hermandad de la Juventud – a youth brotherhood – carrying the cross, a couple of Roman soldiers close on his heels.

This time, the sides of the paso were not covered and the porters, both boys and girls, were in full view as they carried the heavy float through town, followed en masse by what looked like the rest of the inhabitants of Cazorla.

Unfortunately, we needed to start our return journey to the UK on Thursday, so we missed out on the complete Semana Santa experience. But by Wednesday, we had figured out that more events were planned. Shop fronts displayed posters with the start and end points of the parades, as well as the planned route and timings. And Miercoles Santo 2019 was an evening parade…

The procession pretty much followed the familiar pattern: cross-bearer at the front; two lines of hooded and cloaked – blue and white this time – members of the brotherhood ; a weighty float with statues of Jesus, some disciples and a Roman soldier; a marching band.

But this time, there was an additional cofradía : a ‘brotherhood’ of women wearing La Mantilla – the traditional outfit made up of the lace mantle, stiffened by shell or another material, and a black dress – and all holding a rosary and a lit candle. The women’s sober cortège preceded a second paso, one depicting a glorious Mary in all splendour.

Of course, Semana Santa is celebrated all over Spain and the parades of the bigger cities, such as Seville, Malaga or Granada are probably much more elaborate and attract many more tourists than the modest one in Carzorla. But if anything, Semana Santa in Cazorla was a humbling experience… When all my Easter thoughts before had focused on chocolate, it seemed fitting to be reminded of the real meaning of Easter.

Viva España – The Road to Cazorla, Southern Spain (4)

12th – 17th April 2019

Day 5 or so…

‘Are you sure this is a wise idea?’ I asked hesitantly…  

Fed up with the long-winded one-way system built to negotiate the twisting, spaghetti-thin streets of Cazorla, Simon grinned confidently.   ‘We’ll be OK, you’ll see… There must be a way down in this direction..,’ he insisted.  Since I was not in the driver’s seat, who was I to stop him from resolutely ignoring the ‘dead-end’ sign at the bottom of our road…

Key in ignition, down we rolled.  By then I had almost overcome the spasms of vertigo that accompanied all our trips in and out of town.  Driving around Cazorla felt like being in the clutches of a perpetual, unending roller-coaster: swept along bend after tempestuous bend, drum-roll climbs followed by plunging depths.  Hold on to your stomachs…

Perched against the western slope of the Sierras de Cazorla at an elevation of 836m, the town had not exactly been constructed with the motorist in mind.  Simon’s cousin had kindly offered us the use of her house on the edge of the old part of town, where parking spaces were at a premium at best, and non-existent most of the time.  ‘You may find it easier to park at the bottom of town and walk up the rest,’ we had been advised.  But the trek up was pretty strenuous, arduous almost, and not without its perils.  On occasions we only just saved life and limb by tightly squeezing into shallow doorways to let raging cars charge past.  The temptation to claim that one vacant parking spot near the house often proved hard to resist…

If parking was a challenge, so was finding our way through the maze of lookalike streets… Not everyone is as sold on Google Maps as I am, ….hence ‘the’ plan of taking a short-cut into the unknown. Needless to say, that ‘dead end’ road indeed meant dead end road, no way out… Make a u-turn… Easier said than done with a large Range Rover wedged in the middle of a two-pronged fork, each end tapering into a sliver of nothingness.. Of course we could have coaxed the car into reverse and edged our way back up the precipitous, narrow street, but with just a few centimeters to spare either side of the car, this was madness, a last resort. So Simon set about the three-point turn whilst I, nerves a-jangle, stood guard on the side to prevent damage to the car and the surrounding masonry…

It didn’t take long for our futile attempts to attract the curiosity of the locals. Dolores – for name’s sake let’s call her Dolores, as we never made it to first-name terms – waddled from her front door surveying the racket, the smell of burnt tyre, brake fluid and diesel perfuming the air… Frustrated with our ineptitude and lack of progress, she decided to lend us a helping hand.

‘Gire, gire!!!’ Dolores commanded, followed hotly on the heel of ‘Pare, pare…!!!’ or ‘Izquierda!!!’ ‘Derecho!!’. Wildly gesticulating with Spanish gusto, she bombarded Simon with Spanish instructions, whilst I took a seat on the sidelines leaving it to the experts… In the end, it took the appearance of Pedro – whose name could easily have been Manuel – to get us on the right track. Whereas the verbal language was mostly lost on us, the body language made up for it. Simon turned the wheel left or right as directed and stopped when Pedro’s hand indicated a close encounter with a wall. The speed and efficiency with which Dolores and Pedro orchestrated our getaway led us to conclude we were not the first ones to find ourselves in this predicament… They were pros, they had done it all before…

All credit to Simon though. If I’d been the driver – apart from the minor fact I would have avoided going down a ‘dead-end road’ – I would have had to hand my keys to Pedro or one of his compatriots. It’s not my fault really, poor spatial awareness courses like an untamed river through the female line of my family…