I’ve left it too long again and now I’ve got a whole load more places we’ve stayed (12 in total over 20 nights) and experiences to write about. We’ve travelled back South from pretty Porto Covo through inland Portugal then along the coast and into Spain again, where we’ve skirted Seville then struck South to the coast, driving all the way to Gibraltar. Now we’ve left the coast and headed back in a Northerly direction into the mountains. We’re spending the night in a tiny pueblo blanco (white village) of Benarrabá in the official motorhome aire which has just five spaces, of which only one other is in use. We have panoramic views over the mountains and it’s beautifully peaceful with just the birds singing and the odd rooster crowing. We’ve seen lots of Griffin Vultures soaring above (as well as other big birds I can’t identify).
We really enjoyed Portugal, it has a wonderful, old world charm that’s hard to beat. The people are so friendly and the scale of development on the coast isn’t anywhere near as all-consuming and high rise as on the Costas in Spain which are conspicuous in their over-development. By contrast, its easier to find an unspoilt coastal town in Portugal.
Having said that, it’s hard not to be impressed with Spain. The scale of the country with its incredible history, castles and diversity of beautiful landscapes and wildlife is amazing. The excellent infrastructure makes it easy to tour in a motorhome. Everything works, the roads are good and many motorways are toll-free. There seems to be greater investment in and maintenance of public spaces and you can pay by card everywhere which makes it super convenient.
If I had to gripe about something, it would be the litter which is just everywhere. It’s shocking how some natural beauty spots and public spaces are just covered in rubbish – even next to lakes and rivers I have often picked up fishing twine that has been cast aside. I don’t sense a big concern for the environment here. For instance, you can’t buy eco-friendly household cleaning products in supermarkets. I could be wrong and I’m not on Spanish social media so maybe I’m missing something.
The Moorish legacy is unmistakeable here. Much of Spain and Portugal were ruled by them for hundreds of years and the names of places clearly bear this out – Zahara de los Atunes, Algeciras, Tarifa. Any name ending with ‘de la Frontera’ means it was a frontier town between the Castilian Crown and the Moors (later the Berbers). The village we’re in now and many others around were founded by a Berber tribe and the name Benarrabá is derived from ‘Son of Rabbah’. The Moors and Jews were expelled as part of the Reconquest in the 16th Century and is ironic because of the Moors’ tolerance of other religions including Christianity – although admittedly I need to do more reading around this as I’m no expert.
This all coincided with conquests of the new world and we stayed just outside the Museum of the Caravels (the type of ship Columbus sailed to America on) which sits in an enormous and grand park at La Rábida in Huelva, Spain. The park is situated a stones throw from where Columbus prayed his last prayers in the local church, filled his ships up with water from the well at Palos de la Frontera and embarked on his voyage Westwards into the unknown (he hoped towards Asia) and which celebrates the so-called discovery of the Americas by Columbus and the other Conquistadors. On a hill is a huge marble column which stands unfinished but which is based on the ancient Roman Trajan’s column – a triumphal monument of victory. On the reliefs you can see Columbus, flag in one hand and sword in the other – energetically striding onto the land he is claiming for Spain and the Pope. That he is holding a sword does not fit with the narrative I learned at school. The image of Columbus I have from my childhood is one of a benign explorer and adventurer. In reality though, he was an avaricious and violent tyrant.
This sparked my interest in the other Spanish explorers. My history knowledge is absolutely rubbish and I read a great book by Michael Wood in his book ‘Conquistadors’ which I enjoyed because he brings the stories to life and tries to get across the personalities involved. It’s hard not to be impressed with their brave (but also often insane) explorations into the completely unknown world and some of the stories are unbelievably dramatic as feats of survival and determination, particularly by Hernando Cortes and Francisco Pizarro. But all the adventuring was driven by greed for gold. The brutality, violence and deception shown by these men is jaw-dropping and they ended up destroying the entire civilisations of the Aztecs and Incas in order to attain unimaginable wealth for themselves and the Spanish Crown.
We travelled down towards Cadiz, and stopped off at Jerez de la Frontera and a place near SanLucar de Barrameda. These two places are part of the Sherry triangle. SanLucar sits just at the estuary of the Guadalquivir river which is navigable all the way to Seville. In fact the very first boat load of Inca gold was sailed up there past the point where we were camped, which was a curious thought.
I really wanted to go and visit Seville and Cadiz, but the curse of the city strikes once again. With the dogs it’s just too hard unless we can park the Elf close to the centre, which we couldn’t do in either case. Cadiz sits on a spit of land and I’ve heard really good things about it from other travellers. I console myself that we can’t see everything at once and that it saves some places to see next time, which matters because that sense of ‘discovering’ a new place when travelling is lovely.
Speaking of which, we found a fantastic little seaside town called Chipiona and it was one of the most authentically Spanish and attractive seaside places we’ve been. It’s a bustling, buzzing place full of people, bars, restaurants and sunset gazers. We camped in an aire by the marina and next to a little sandy beach where dogs were welcome. We stayed two days and I also enjoyed running along the promenade and the cycle lane which runs through the country side alongside plantations and smallholdings. To run along with the scent of orange blossom has to be an abiding memory. We also got to see a big Santa Semana (Holy Week) procession and got a real insight into an important part of Spanish culture.
Next up we headed to Gibraltar. I was curious to see what the place is like and as we pulled up on a hot, cloudless day, the Rock did not disappoint. It soars impressively hundreds of metres high. We stayed a stones throw from the border in the Marina de la Alcaidesa where we rubbed shoulders with some extremely large, smart yachts. We didn’t venture over the border that day but looking back we should have done. That night we were woken in the middle of the night as wind buffeted the Elf and in the morning the weather had changed to a dark, murky grey with high winds. I couldn’t for the life of me find out online if dogs were allowed on the buses, so I walked to the border, went through passport control and walked up to a bus driver to ask. He said yes, so I then walked back through the border and all the way back to the van. We cycled with the dogs in the Bodgemobile to the border again, passed through with the queues of cars and parked up in a car park before buying a very expensive bus ticket. The airport runway sits between the border and the main town and all the traffic was at a standstill while we waited for the runway to be clear as a plane was just about to take off. After that it was no more than half of a mile to the Market place but definitely still too far for Bodger to walk.
I learned that Gibraltar is 2.6 miles square and home to 35,000 people – which makes it the most densely populated place in Europe (yes, even more so than London !). I also happen to know from my professional experience that it’s the hub for several UK online gambling firms, because of lower corporate tax than in the UK.
I have to be honest, Gibraltar is better from a distance. The place was mobbed with tourists, choked with traffic and the main high street was tacky – full of tourist tat, perfume, jewellery and sunglasses shops. The worst bit was there was no Boots pharmacy which had been there when Tim last visited and which I wanted to go in. There was a Marks and Spencers, Debenhams and Morrisons but we didn’t go in any of them. Every now and again a space would open up with some interesting historic place – like the courts of justice, or the Trafalgar Cemetery and lots of places with ‘bastion’ in the name in big capital letters. Other than that the 1960’s characterless buildings spread up the hill and it was a bit depressing and claustrophobic. I had fish and chips served by a surly and unsmiling Gibraltan and then we went home. I would have liked to hike around the rock and perhaps spot some of the flowers and wildlife it’s home to and see the incredible views, but the weather was forbidding and I didn’t feel like going on my own. It’s a curious place and maybe I’d warm to it a bit more if I spent more time there, but right now give me the space, air and mountains here on the Spanish side any day.
The glitz of the marina wore off a bit when I noticed a small dog always on it’s own who seemed to live there. It appeared well fed but didn’t seem to have any owner and I was sad to see it alone on the dock late at night. I tried my best to make friends and succeeded in feeding her some of Charlie’s dog food (sshhh don’t tell him!) from my hand which she took extremely gently. But if I tried to stroke her she jumped back. She was very wary and had a chain for a collar and no ID. I looked up some animal charities and ended up contacting Spanish Stray Dogs UK about her (this was after I asked and Tim said no we couldn’t take her back to the UK with us ;). They responded by email almost immediately which was amazing and the founder recommended catching the dog to take her to a vet to see if she was chipped. If not, she gave me the name of two local dog shelters I could take her too. I was in two minds as I had actually seen two people on two separate days come to feed her some food, so obviously she had been noticed and was why she appeared well-fed. Was a life in a dog shelter – potentially for years – going to be any better ? I wasn’t sure how worried to be. I learned that there are thousands of unwanted dogs in Spain and the dog pounds are overstretched and under-resourced. I think the little dog had some Podenco hunting dog in her and its a fact that hunters dispose of them at the end of the season. She seemed very intelligent but a bit anxious and quite feral, as if she’d never been a pet in a loving home. All my sweet-talking and offer of treats could not persuade her to trust me and in the end I admitted defeat. I had done what I could and she was in no immediate danger.
Next up, we’re heading through the mountains to Ronda and beyond. Our journey North has begun !