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…

Viva España – The road to Cazorla, Southern Spain. (3)

11th April – Escalona to Cazorla, via Toledo.

Finally some reprieve.  With Cazorla only four hours’ drive away, we relished the chance of a little sightseeing on route.

A speedy breakfast and quick outing with our host’s dogs later, we set off to explore the pretty little gem of Escalona. Although Escalona Golf Village may have been a little underwhelming, the town itself was quite a revelation, with its rich heritage dating from before the invasion by the Muslim Moors in the early Middle Ages.  And to think that just a day before we hadn’t even known Escalona existed.

At first a Roman villa, then a Moorish fortification near the Alberche River, in the hands of King Alfonso VI of Castile around the 12th century, the town developed into a stronghold for attacks on Toledo.  Escalona’s most emblematic monument, the Castillo de Escalona, was built in the 15th century; its moats, walls, towers and walkways still dominating the town.  The castle is currently privately owned and open to the public, but try as we might, we could not find an entrance to explore what lay beyond the walls and towers. Being a little pushed for time, we only sneaked a cursory glance at this main attraction and it wasn’t until we stopped to top up with petrol and looked back that we could truly appreciate the vast scale of the ruins.   

Of course, we managed a quick dash into the town to look at the walkways and walls, but were easily distracted by the abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables in a grocery shop.  Rather than spending time being impressed by the architecture of the central square, we were seduced by a glut of Spanish strawberries, their sweetness and succulence irresistible…  For the next couple of days we overindulged devouring the largest two kilogram punnet of strawberries I have ever paid for, the fruits only second to the best strawberries in the world that used to grow in my Cotswold garden.  OK, it is possible I am a little biased, but they were definitely more mouth-watering and delectable than any shop-bought ones, even the Spanish ones…

With our sights set on an extended lunch break and playing tourist in Toledo, we headed for the city’s old historic centre.  Whereas Escalona’s legacies had come somewhat as a surprise, Toledo’s cultural heritage is well documented and had piqued my curiosity.  After a well-deserved coffee, I left Simon on a quest for antiques in town and forged my own route through the winding, narrow and steep roads that characterise Toledo’s old centre. 

Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes.

Toledo is a fascinating place, blending the architectural styles of its past cultural influences: Moorish, Christian and Jewish.  Moorish mosques have been built on Roman foundations;  an early, primitive mosque minaret houses the bell tower of the Catholic Mezquita-Iglesia de El Salvador; the old Synagogue of Santa Maria La Blanca, now owned and preserved by the Catholic Church, was constructed under the Christian Kingdom of Castile by Islamic architects for Jewish use.  Santa Maria La Blanca is considered a symbol of the cooperation between the three cultures that populated the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages.

Mezquita-Iglesia de El Salvador.

Another impressive example of this unique blend of architectural styles and religious tolerance is the Toledo Cathedral, considered to be one of the greatest Gothic structures in Europe.  Construction of the current building was started in 1227 on the foundations of a former Visigoth Cathedral originating from the 6th Century. During the Moorish occupation of Spain, the site was also used as a Mosque.

Santa Iglesia Catedral Primada (Toledo Cathedral)

And when in Toledo, the El Greco Museum, which displays some famous paintings by ‘The Greek from Toledo’ himself, is a must. But with Easter only a few days away and schools clearly in holiday mode, the place around the museum thronged with teenagers, chaperoned by teacher-lookalikes… and blocking the entrance to the ticket boot.  Free entrance for students, so no hope of me securing a ticket during our brief visit to town…  A mural inspired by some of El Greco’s masterpieces was plastered on an adjoining wall!  A perfect photo opportunity for the youngsters, trying to match their outfits with the colourful attire of the adulating apostles… But for now, this was the only El Greco work I would feast on, unless of course I ventured into some of the Toledo churches where other El Greco famous works can be seen. In his heyday, El Greco was quite prolific and whilst in Toledo received several major commissions and produced his best known paintings.

On my way back to meet up with Simon, I lost myself in the tangle of small roads cluttered with tourist bagatelles… Oils and olives, sweet turrón, caramelized nut brittle, churros con chocolate offered by nuns, and of course the famed Toledo swords. As early as the 15th century, a Toledo sword crafted by Toledo bladesmiths marked a warrior’s superiority.. Musicians, displaying their prowess on stringed dulcimers, mesmerised passers-by into buying CDs, or just dropping a few euros in a box.

Still, we needed to continue our journey, our last leg, onwards to Cazorla where we would spend the next six days. And Tarja, our last Airbnb host, had not been exaggerating when she told us the best of our road trip was still to come. For miles we traversed across an enormous valley, stretching from Toledo all the way to the Sierra de Cazorla, a massive area of seemingly drought-stricken lands where agriculture thrived. Row upon row of neatly trimmed vines thirsting for rain and drenched by the sun; unending grassy slopes dotted with lonesome trees; the green of olive groves as far as the eye could see …

‘Can we stop, please, Simon,’ I gently nudged my companion, ‘I’d like to take some better pictures of the olive groves. They may well be the last ones we come across.’ We were no longer using motorways, so pulling off onto the roadside was finally within our grasp. I clicked away merrily, as if there would be no tomorrow… I needn’t have worried about olive groves. Little did I know then that Cazorla happens to be surrounded by olive groves and we would be spending most lunchtimes and evenings gazing at them from our rooftop terrace…

Viva España. The road to Cazorla, Southern Spain (2)

10th April: La Rochelle to Escalona

Having learnt our lesson the hard way, on Day Two we consulted every means of up-to-date navigation available to us:  Simon’s iPhone and the trusted Google Maps on my reliable Androids phone!  Obviously, nothing as solid as a road atlas. They went out of vogue years ago and are probably out of date as soon as they roll off the printing press anyway.   A little bit like ‘Satellite Man in the Know’ in Simon’s car who had probably missed out on an update or two… 

To ensure a timely arrival, our next Airbnb host – Tarja from Finland in Toledo – had lavished us with plentiful advice on how to reach her home via ‘the scenic route’ and thus avoiding getting trapped in or around Madrid.   Rather than putting Toledo as our final destination, she suggested using exotic sounding locations such as Vitoria-Gasteiz, Burgos, Valladolid, Segovia, Avila as waypoints…  ‘May add more miles to your journey, but the scenery will make up for it..  providing you get here before dark…’ she had tagged on. 

Somehow I got the better part of the deal on our trip; navigation was mainly in the hands of modern technology, and I was relegated to being passenger, a role I embraced with plenty of gusto…   I love road trips!!  Trains, buses, cars.  Gazing through the window at ever-evolving landscapes.  The greens and yellows and pinks of a budding spring.  The curves and folds of gently sloping hillsides. The crags and peaks of rugged, snow-capped mountains.  Plains that stretch as far as the eye can see.   And the South of France and Northern Spain did not disappoint with the rapeseed fields in bloom, vineyards stretching upwards to catch the sun, the Pyrennees still clinging to their winter robes…  It’s that part of Spain that most tourists never lay eyes on taking flights to the more popular beach resorts to soak up sea, sun and sangria…  

The biggest drawback of mostly sticking to motorways was that taking photographs was nigh on impossible.   Just as the next amazing landscape unfolded, a line of trees would block the view…  Cars and lorries would whizz past just as I pressed the button…  The foreground blurred into the haze of an impressionist masterpiece, leaving just the distance razor sharp.  I did my best whilst the windscreen slowly but surely filled with splatters of insect adding their finishing touches to my digital canvas..  Luckily the odd heavy shower along the way, washed the most offending blotches away. Anyway, as befits a road trip, my photographs show plenty of road…

‘Simon,’ I pleaded, ‘on our way back, we must try the B-roads.  We can actually stop to take photographs…. and it will also be a lot cheaper…’  The French motorway system is terribly efficient but its use comes at a sizable cost with every few miles yet another toll booth demanding a hefty Euro contribution to the upkeep of the network…  Even so, when speed is of the essence, there is no alternative and the drive from La Rochelle to Toledo would take us around 9 hours, the best part of a full day allowing for regular top-ups of solid and liquid refreshments, as well as much needed rest breaks.

As we neared our destination, Google Maps suddenly drew a blank.  Tarja’s address was nowhere to be found in Toledo.  After a few frantic attempts to get hold of her, she finally replied to fine-tune her information. ‘Try Escalona instead,’ she urged, ‘Toledo is the name of the province’.   How were we supposed to know… Not only was Google Maps more obliging after receiving further instruction, it also shaved off a fair bit of mileage from our day’s journey.  We would definitely arrive before the onset of darkness.

Tarja lived in a lovely house, in the middle of nowhere. A brand new estate next to an abandoned and desolate golf course built at the height of the economic boom of the noughties and now providing luxurious living at a fraction of the intended cost… And as for the golf course?? Left to the dust of time whilst nature was happily reclaiming its territory. Perfect for Tarja with her brood of dogs and a horse…

Still, we were not in any mood to try out the golf course and headed into Escalona, in search of dinner. ‘Too early,’ the restaurant owner shook her head. ‘The chef only starts at 8 pm. But you can have a drink whilst you wait…’ Of course our Spanish left a lot to be desired but with a bit of French, our imagination and plenty of hand gestures we got the gist.

So we had our drinks first, accompanied by tasty tapas. The shape of things to come.

Viva España – The road to Cazorla, Southern Spain. (1)

9th – 20th April 2019

Day 1: 9th April

‘Simon,’ I shrieked, ‘we’re in Paris!!’ 

How the hell did we end up in Paris?  I know, it is probably many a girl’s dream to be whisked off to Paris, but we had been on a mission to miss the place altogether…

On a road trip to Southern Spain, our first stop was La Rochelle, a picturesque seaport on the Bay of Biscay.  We’d carefully studied the route on Google Maps on my laptop and phone: a blue line snaking down the length of the French Atlantic coast.  Nowhere near Paris…  Only, when we set off in the very early hours of the morning to catch the train across the channel, we’d put Google Maps to sleep.  No need for instructions to the port of Folkestone.  And once we reached France, Simon’s car, equipped with its own navigation system, took over.  My navigation skills totally redundant!!  Music on full blast and ‘Satellite Man in The Know’ only sporadically interrupting, we let ourselves be guided..

But with the car’s satnav only revealing our route an inch at the time, we had been lulled into a false sense of complacency.  Apparently, there is more than one road that eventually leads to La Rochelle…  and some of those indeed skirt the lovely city of Paris, its ring roads as notorious as its centre. I must admit I had pondered why the distance between our car and Paris seemed to shrink as we drove along.  But then again, British cars talk in miles, whereas the French signs speak an entirely different metric language, as one would expect…  and neither of us had really considered the possibility that the car was sending us into an entirely undesired direction…  Paris was definitely not a place to get stuck when all we wanted to do was hurtle down the motorway with a deadline to meet. 

We had booked our accommodation a few days ahead, an Airbnb find we hadn’t been able to resist.  Sleep on a boat in La Rochelle in the largest yachting marina in France:  Les Minimes, Port de Plaisance des Minimes??  Rock that boat.  Awesome!!  But in our rush to book, we hadn’t noticed the small print requiring a check-in time before 6pm…  ‘Of course, monsieur,’ we had argued, ‘we will get there in good time.’  Our host, Maxime, was less convinced and suggested maybe we should cancel.  ‘Annuler..?? Mais non… Miss out on rocking that boat?’ we gulped.  We took an earlier train across the channel, put our foot down as we raced through France, ground to a halt around Paris as we snailed through standstill traffic and took the wrong exits on the ring roads..  But we made it!! With about two hours to spare and a speeding ticket in the post!!

Although we had hoped to spend two nights in La Rochelle, the boat was clearly in high demand and there was no availability to stay for a second night.  A shame really, because La Rochelle’s old harbour and city are certainly worth a day of exploration.  With another long drive ahead of us the next day, we had to content ourselves with mingling with the locals over a couple of glasses of crisp white wine and oysters.  Of course, La Rochelle and oysters go hand in hand…   

We watched the sun go down as cooler air breezed in, and woke up with the squawking seagulls to greet the sun. No time to dawdle though. After a quick breakfast, onward to the Spanish border and the Pyrenees. Next stop somewhere near Madrid and Toledo…

As UK winter morphs into spring… I practise patience!!!

December 2018 – May 2019

When I landed back in the UK at the end of November, winter hardly registered on my mind.  My UK visit was to be brief: a six-week interlude, a mere interruption of some well-laid travel plans… Alas, as plans go, they often need adapting to the changes in reality, and so it is that this six week break is turning into a six month break and beyond… 

Of course this doesn’t mean I am entirely at a standstill and not going anywhere.  Only, after a while the scenery along the motorways that link Southampton in the South, where my daughter lives, and Birmingham in the middle of the country, where my son lives, has become a tad monotonous.  The same hills, the same plains, the same tarmac…  In my stubbornness I continue to hike, or walk and complete daily one hour treks to the local shops, or the train station, or the local park or along the canals.  I no longer own a car and refuse to fork out on unnecessary buses or taxis as long as my legs and other essential body parts are willing to cooperate in my quest. Or, as long as I am not in danger of being doused by the persistent drizzle and unrelenting showers that are the hallmark of British weather…  Walking is my contribution – or lack thereof – to climate change!

At first it was passport woes that interfered with my return to the Far East.  Who would have thought that renewing a British passport would be such a long drawn out process??  Whereas a few years ago the Belgian Embassy employees in London hadn’t batted an eyelid over the discrepancy in surnames on my passports, their British counterparts were less forgiving…  I was given a stark choice: renounce my Belgian nationality (Who on earth would give up a European passport with the spectre of Brexit on the horizon???) or produce a brand-new Belgian passport in my new name as it appeared on my current and still valid British passport…  A name change that had been so flawlessly accepted by the British authorities at my naturalisation now proved a serious hiccup.

Although the British Passport Office returned my defunct and expired Belgian passport, they kept the valid British one firmly in their grip.  Still good for another two years, but so full of stamps that when I entered Malaysia in early November, the border control official had looked rather worried.  ‘No room in your passport,’ she argued until I pointed out that the Malaysian visa stamp was hardly going to cover more than a half page, of which I still had two left…  What was the problem?? Plenty of room for one last entry and exit stamp…

With no valid passport or other legal travel documents, I was stuck in the UK.  A process that should have taken two weeks at most, dragged on for almost two months.  Why women should consent to giving up their own name on marriage is beyond me..  A bureaucratic nightmare which I refused to buy into until about 10 years ago when I finally became British after passing the Britishness test with flying colours and sitting through the British Citizenship Ceremony…  Having moved to the UK in the 80s and married in the 80s, it took me until the late noughties to accept the British nationality along with my Belgian one.  Don’t get me wrong, I am proud to be British and I definitely feel more British than Belgian..  In the end, my concession to name changing at marriage (22 years after the event…) was annexing my husband’s (now ex-husband..) short English name to the end of my maiden name: an addendum or a kind of afterthought.  Aren’t hyphenated, double-barrelled surnames the latest rage anyway??   

Several weeks later, in early January, with my Foreign Office authenticated Deed Poll* in hand, I made it to the Belgian Embassy, along with numerous other dual nationals who suddenly discovered the value of a Belgian passport…  Brexit was still ticking down, 29th March had not yet come and gone…  Finally, by the end of January, I had completed the mission: two brand new passports.  Ready for Europe after Brexit and beyond…

1st February 2019, the one and only day of snow during my UK stay.

One silver lining of my rather protracted UK visit was being in the country when my tenants moved out and new ones moved in.  Being in a rush to get going, I had allowed myself a mere week for the turnaround: just one major issue and a few minor issues in the house to deal with.  It was 31st January and an escape to the Far East at the end of the next month still looked a distinct possibility… What could possibly go wrong?

The weather. Hard to believe that with last winter’s (February 2018) ‘Beast of the East’ – and the resulting deluge of snow that paralysed the country – still on everybody’s mind, the workmen who were scheduled to start a two-day repair on an inside wall should decide to follow their Sat Nav’s advice instead of using common sense…  On the one and only day this winter that heavy snowfall made travel tricky, they decided to trundle along the smaller, hilly roads across the Cotswolds..  No surprise they got stuck just a few miles from my house!!  Sandwiched between masses of snow in front of them and the snowplough on their heels, they were well and truly snookered on a hill crest and had to wait to be rescued.  Another well-laid plan scuppered… Luckily, the setback was not insurmountable, but it piled on the pressure on those already very tense few days between tenants..

Whilst February marched on, other issues reared up their ugly head. In my ‘wisdom’, I was persuaded by my GP to make use of the free National Health Service, rather than giving in to my gut feeling and make a quick escape back to Vietnam, where private health clinics offer the same good quality care at a fraction of the cost of private clinics in the UK… When a hospital appointment that was supposed to happen within two weeks failed to materialise, my telephone enquiry about its progress was hardly encouraging. The stern and toneless voice at the other end declared, ‘Well, at the moment we are seeing people who have been referred to the clinic in August… Your GP letter is from January… ‘ Basically, don’t hold your breath, nothing’s going to happen anytime soon.

I discussed the issue over lunch with ‘Red Porsche Andy’. ‘Well,’ his reasonable advice sounded, ‘if you want to get things moving on the NHS, there’s no surer way than ending up as an emergency in A&E (accident and emergency)’ ‘ How about a little panic attack?? Might just do the trick…,’ he suggested.

In the end, after the stress of getting the house ready for new tenants in record time, I had no need to pretend and wholly justifiably called the NHS 111 number. Not 999, the emergency number, but the next best thing. I felt sure I would be able to make it to the hospital on my own steam, but there are certain key words that ring alarm bells with the 111 service… Ambulance was on its way. A gross overreaction, I thought, but at least someone was taking notice. After 16 hours in A&E, an ECG, several blood tests and an X-ray later, I was discharged as dawn was breaking. Urgent appointments for diagnostic tests to follow in the post…

At least the weather didn’t disappoint. After an abysmal start, February turned out almost spring-like. Plenty of blue skies in Southampton,

Sudeley Castle and the Cotswolds offering a great hiking reprieve,

and the smooth mirror canals of Birmingham reflecting “winter-scapes” in all their glory.

Onwards to March… Hospital letters started arriving. Somewhere in between the early hours of my hospital discharge and the doctor’s recommendations landing on the desk of the appointments clerk, the word ‘urgent’ had taken on a different meaning. With no immediate escape from the UK in sight and the first signs of Spring in the air, I relentlessly carried on stomping the by now familiar grounds of Southampton and Birmingham…

Still, with a five week break between hospital visits on the horizon, April got off on a pleasant start. A quick 10-day getaway to Spain and the birth of grandchild Number 1 later, there was cautious optimism in the air whilst the English countryside streaked yellow, the woodlands sprouted blue and the leaves on the trees unfurled in verdant extravaganza. Maybe, just maybe the end of April appointment would signal a turning point and I would be on my way… or at least in a position to fix a date for my return to the Far East…

Nope… At the onset of May, the NHS is keeping me stubbornly within its grasp. More tests, more appointments, no quick exit route ahead… I have decided I might as well plan for the long haul and aim for a return to warmer shores nearer the end of the summer… Surely, an English summer isn’t all that bad…

Southsea, May 6th 2019

*In the UK, a surname can by changed by Deed Poll, an official document that shows the transition from the old name to the new one.  As my Deed Poll was required by a foreign embassy (Belgian Embassy in this case) I also needed to have the document authenticated by the British Foreign Office.  Not only time consuming, but also adding cost…