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Published: December 30th 2011
Fred - December 2012Motorhome News from Europe 47 Limoges, France. Salamanca, Spain and into the Algarve, Portugal.
With the Christmas Crown!
It's a long way.
It's a long way from our home in Norfolk, UK, to Morocco.
It's certainly a long way, driving by motorhome!
And it's a long way when the planned Sea France sailing, Dover to Calais, is cancelled (the fact that the Receiver has been appointed may have something to do with it but nobody told us) and we ended up sailing, half an hour later than planned, transferred by DFDS to Dunkerque!
But what the heck. It's a chance to escape from the cold and damp of wintery England for a while. A chance to visit pastures new, family in France, and revisit some of our favourite haunts en route.
First stop, to see daughter Sonia and her family in their massive barn conversion, still work in progress, a few miles to the east of Limoges. Young Fred will be five in January, and is lively as ever in anticipation of a visit from Santa in just a few days. Bundles of presents, from family back home, have been secreted away out of sight whilst
Cathedrals, Old and New
his back is turned. Imagine the scene on Christmas morning. Thank you for your hospitality, Sonia - and enjoy every moment, Fred!
Who would believe it! It's seven years since our epic 'Tour de Europe', back in 2004. Our journey then took us around the north and west of Spain in bright September sunshine, but this year it's December, the skies are presently a touch on the grey side and the fastest route south towards the sun through France and Spain seems more sensible, particularly when there's a deadline, meeting up with motorhoming friends for Christmas in the Algarve.
Our Ford Transit electronics are playing up again, that red light, the worrying message, 'Engine Malfunction' and consequent loss of power as we course the motorway. It's happened twice over three days, but there are no lasting effects it seems, so we're hopeful it's purely electronics. After a brief stop and general engine inspection, the warning light goes out each time and we continue, hearts in mouths, on our way. This has happened before, on our first trip to France in this motorhome and subsequent checks at our local Ford Dealer found no evidence of other problems, so let's
be positive (and ever hopeful) and get it checked out ASAP.
One city missed on our last visit to Spain was Salamanca, so full of promise from all reports that we have been itching for the chance to pass that way. And indeed this golden sandstone gem is crammed to the rooftops with a stunning architectural display and exudes a sparkling vitality. Salamanca is a lively University city, packed tight with history, graced by not one, but two Cathedrals, the old and new, a magnificent square the Plaza Mayor, and ornate university buildings on narrow paved streets, a wonderful lesson on fine perspective. Don't miss it if you should ever pass this way; stop a while and soak in the ambience.
From Salamanca we turned south to Plasencia before leaving the main highway. There are some old pastures we find hard to resist and our bird-loving friends who know this area will be well aware that Extramadura cannot be by-passed under any circumstances. A short diversion from our 'fastest route south' brought us to the alluring rockface of Penafalcon in the Parque Natural de Monfrague where large numbers of Griffon Vultures gather to test their aerial skills, soaring
Hundreds - yes, hundreds, of Griffon Vultures!
on the thermals and sunning themselves along the ridges; such an ugly bird on the ground but so graceful in the air! This satisfactory fix of birding left us in good spirits to face the final leg of the day on serpentine roads over the hills to Caceres, then west across the craggy mountainous border into Portugal beyond Valencia de Alcantara.
Portugal at last - Into the land of cork oak, strands of olive trees like braided hair, castles set atop hilltop villages, azure magpies, hoopoes dipping and diving in flight, bent little old men with bent sticks, flat caps and black trilbys, storks on their nests on telegraph poles, lollipop pines (as we call them - Stone Pines, I think), spread across comely hills and orange orchards glowing bright. Overnight, we camped at Camping Santo Antonio das Areias, tucked neatly into a tiny corner of Portugal on the Spanish border, just us and the English owner, lost amidst delightful cork oak groves, gentle walks on cobbled tracks beside dry-stone walls, rocky outcrops, tiny farms, and the ubiquitous barking farmyard dog.
A five-minute drive next morning took us to Marvao, a heavily fortified mountain-top village of bright white
Early morning. Just two tourists in town!
houses on narrow cobbled streets winding steeply to the castle perched high on a spectacular rocky outcrop overlooking the Spanish plains some 10km distant. There were only two tourists there when we arrived in bright winter sunlight at 9am, Janice and myself, entering the village on foot through the stone portal to the south, dazzled by streets of white walled houses nestling under a crystal sapphire sky. "Now, that's what we came for," I remarked to Janice. "Blue, blue skies and sunshine - in winter." It didn't last. The temperature dropped to all but zero overnight and a blanket of fog filled the valleys by morning, clearing only slowly on the rising sun by midday.
Whilst tinkering about in the shops one day, we chanced to speak to a young lady shopkeeper who expressed her concern over Portugal's present economic distress.
"We can't expect the richer nations of Europe to keep helping us out in these troubled times. We must find our own way," she said.
I have no doubt about that whatsoever. And there are some tough years ahead for all of us.
Evora, further to the south brought home some of the rich history
of this area. Amongst its secrets are the Roman 'Temple Romano', its pillars remarkably well preserved, Roman baths and aqueduct, and within the walled centre, narrow Moorish cobbled streets radiating from the main square, Praca do Giraldo, oaksmoke rising from an open fire, the sweet aroma of roasting chestnuts and a fine display of recycled Christmas trees!
Much of this south central part of Portugal is new to us and we found it fascinating. The Romans occupied hilltop towns across this area and the Moors followed, fortifying their kingdoms with splendid castles and town walls. After an overnight stop at Serpa with its high arched Roman aqueduct and pump, we dropped down to Mertola above the confluence of the Guadiana and Oeiras rivers. The sparkling white church of Igreja Matriz still bears signs of its Moorish origins and the view over the Guadiana from the castle ramparts towards the Convento de Sao Domingos beyond the town left us spellbound.
Communicating by text, we met up with our four travelling companions in Olhao on the Algarve, a few miles to the east of Faro. There are 800 pitches at 'Camping Olhao', but we found a quiet secluded pitch amongst
the pines for Christmas, close enough to Brian and Kathryn from Australia and Kit and Morag from Norfolk, for us to enjoy the festivities in our own little corner of paradise.
Most of the 800 pitches were taken, many by motorhomes, though there are numerous caravans, some set up for the winter, their origins clearly defined by their number plates: well-travelled Fins, escapees from the Norwegian winter, a lot of Brits doing precisely the same, a small convoy of Swedes parked nose-to-tail, a gaggle of Germans, numerous French, a few Belgians and the odd one or two from Holland; their motorhomes, in all shapes and sizes, dotted amongst the trees.
A couple from Finland occupied a pitch nearby. 'We left Finland in September,' the elderly gent told me, gently massaging his bulging brown stomach with his left hand and brandishing a glass of fine red wine in his right.
"In May we go home, 3,500km, and in September we come back again."
"What do you find to do here for eight months?" I asked.
"Nothing. That's fine." He shrugged his broad shoulders, rubbed his balding pate with the palm of his hand and smiled knowingly.
His wife raised her eyebrows from under her sun-hat.
"I wish I could find the time to do nothing."
"That's where motorhoming is ideal," Janice observed when I related this encounter. "If you get fed up with doing nothing here you can always move and do nothing somewhere else."
Finally it was Christmas Day; it comes around eventually after seemingly months of hype these days, and fairy lights adorned caravans and motorhomes alike, flickering and flashing into the night (including ours). Janice awoke on the dot of seven as seems to be the norm these days and we set about opening our presents in bed to the jingle of Christmas music, accompanied by a fresh pot of good English tea - just like home-from-home. There were six of us for Christmas lunch, each couple preparing a different course, with pauses between each for some extremely competitive Petanque and Hoopla. Lunch started at 12.30 and eventually ground to a halt at 8.30! Many a glass was raised to family and friends; none forgotten.
Camping Olhao sits comfortably beside the Ria Formosa Nature Park and a brisk three-hour walk took us out to some great birding on the
With (L to R around the table) Me, Morag, Janice, Kathryn, Brian and Kit
marshes and an amazing, well restored Tide Mill, a strong incoming tide surging through six arched sluices to a huge millpond, driving a row of six mill-stones in unison. We were joined by Kathryn on this walk; Brian has suffered a fall (not alcohol related, I hasten to add) and has seriously damaged one knee, in addition to dropping his laptop in the process and smashing the screen. They've not been having the best of luck recently. Brian plans to visit the hospital tomorrow to check that there's no lasting damage before they commit to the ferry to Morocco.... and beyond the reach of EU healthcare.
Monday's evening planning meeting, chez Bertie, our motorhome you'll remember, started with generous helpings of Janice's home-made trifle and ended with general agreement to go our own way for a while and meet up again in Algeciras, Spain, on the 3rd January before leaving for Morocco. We turned west, treading old boards, heading out to Vilamoura, to The Old Village a mile or so inland where we once had an apartment on the golf course. On reflection, twenty years or more have passed since we were last there and the world has changed
somewhat; the surrounding fields are now a mass of villas and apartments and it took an hour of driving around in circles before we finally located the village centre. It was perhaps a peek at the past; shaking off the rose-tinted spectacles in anticipation of a run-down ruin. To our immense delight the marble-cobbled streets and manicured gardens have survived the test of time, the swimming pools are immaculate and the buildings sparkling white as we remember them, massed with crimson bougainvillea and shady palms - and the golf course is still tempting though probably still too expensive for its own good. No regrets, it seemed a good idea at the time, but perhaps we were always meant to be nomads.
The Motorhome outside temperature gauge read 22.4 degrees this afternoon and the sun beamed down on us from a faultless blue sky.
"That's what we came for, Janice." Long may it last.
And it is indeed a long way; 1,716 miles by our devious route, from home to Olhao on the Algarve! There are many more miles before we finally reach Morocco early in the New Year.
David and Janice
The grey haired nomads
Todd came too!)
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