2017 Campsites through France, Italy to Greece

Greece (98)

We spent a month driving through France and then touring Greece.  Here are the campsites we stayed at until our dream trip was cut tragically short.

 

Campsite name Comments
Pont a Mousson Aire, France Busy aire by river Moselle and pleasant town, full even in April, shops nearby, toilets and shower until 20.00
Les Cent Vignes Municipal Site, Beaune, France Tidy site with hard-standing near the town centre, facilities clean, showers warm, hot water for wash-up, water on pitch and 6 amps.
Le Bourget du Lac aire near Chambery, France Marked pitches, next to campsite, no EHU, can use campsite facilities, open views
Camping Du Bourg, Digne les Bains, France Good views, chalets, friendly welcome, showers have very hot water but shower head hopeless!  Facilities clean but basic, 10 mins walk to town
Camping Val Fleuri, Cagnes sur Mer, France Marked good-sized pitches, pool, 4 km from sea, facilities clean & modern & showers hot, although push button.  Bread brought to pitch in the morning.
Campeggio dei Fiori, Pietra Ligure, Italy 800 m from the sea but peaceful.  Marked pitches, hot water, showers small, 15 mins walk to shops
Le Fonti, Cervarezza Terme, Italy Large site with lots of bungalows, pitch had spectacular views over the valley, sanitary blocks modern with doors, friendly welcome, roomy hot showers & hot water in sinks
Camper Club Mutina, Modena, Italy Well laid out sosta with some grass & trees, clean facilities & good hot showers, 30 mins cycle ride to centre & given a map at reception
Camping Village Mar Y Sierra, Stacciola near Mondolfo, Italy Terraced site & shaded pitches, lovely views across a valley to a pretty Italian town, peaceful.  Facilities clean & modern, showers cramped but hot, adjustable & continuous
Camping Acrogiai, Riza, Greece Had a pitch facing the sea, lots of statics, right on beach, pitch sloped, facilities clean & spacious, water lukewarm, 2 small yapping dogs run around freely!
Camping Apollon, Delphi, Greece Terraced site with stunning views across the bay.  English spoken at reception, bread, marked pitches with some trees, hot water for wash-up & showers, clean facilities, good
Afrodites Waters, Ancient Corinth Very friendly welcome and given fruit & honey.  Small gravel site with marked pitches but little space, 2 toilets & shower & wash-up, water lukewarm, 10 mins walk to Ancient Corinth
Nicholas II, Epidavros On the seafront and under trees, facilities shabby but clean, water only lukewarm for wash up but very hot for showers
Camping Apollon, Delphi As good as the first time!
Camping Sikia, Kato Gatzea, Pelion Peninsular Simply the best campsite.  Friendly owners, beautiful facilities, peaceful coastal location with lovely views from pitches, great walking from the site, lovely bistro.

Meet a Frustrated Travel Agent!

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If I was a travel agent I might send everyone to Austria!

As Thomas Cook disappeared from our high streets I thought about the travel agent’s role and wondered if it will exist for much longer.  This got me thinking … is this a job I should have taken up as a teenager?  I could see myself sitting behind a desk with a PC and a stack of brochures, getting paid to inspire customers with ideas for their dream holiday.  I would explore with each person what makes them tick, what type of holiday they want, what their interests are and try to fit the people to their ideal destination.  Instead travel advice has become something I do freely and perhaps too enthusiastically.  I am always chipping in to help [or overwhelm] friends, colleagues and strangers in the planning of their trips.

A typical example is a friend who was taking her first trip to the West Coast of Scotland and asked if I had any places I would recommend.  Quite sometime later she left with a long list of what I considered were just a start on my top tips of places to visit in this beautiful part of the world, from the grandeur of Glencoe to the stunning Torridon.  When it comes to travel I can never be accused of being unenthusiastic!

Another friend was beginning to plan a trip to Slovenia and asked if I had any recommendations.  Never short of ideas, I emailed her a list from my own experience in that gorgeous country and last year I was able to help a fellow travel writer with suggestions for places to camp on a a trip across Germany from the Czech Republic.

In this last month I was asked for ideas for campsites in the Lake District.  I had to make myself stop after I had listed ten recommendations, each with a link to the website, a review of each site including its pros and cons and what they can do from the site.  At our tai chi class recently I was recommending at length some nearby gardens for snowdrops to a fellow class mate.  My enthusiasm knows few bounds and I don’t always spot the signs that I am overwhelming people!

I can’t help putting my two penn’orth in on social media too and this is a fantastic place for the frustrated travel agent.  I spot a question about somewhere I have visited and I pile in with ideas and tips for campsites and special places to visit.  People ask so many questions about places that are new to them on the various motorhome and campervan groups and lots of fellow travellers will willingly and enthusiastically pipe up with their own recommendations.  I don’t need to yearn to be employed as a travel agent these days, I can just spend my days [when I am not travelling] cruising social media looking for people that are longing for my input!

It isn’t all one-way traffic, I am a taker as well as a giver and I am inspired by other people’s trips.  I note down new places to visit, ideas for walks and campsites and countries to explore that I find on social media.  I also avidly read other travel writers who generously share their favourite places and secret corners to visit via blogs, MMM and Campervan magazines and books.

It is too late for me to be a real travel agent but I can keep sharing my love for travelling with others so that they can also enjoy amazing trips and on the high street Hays Travel seem to be making a success of taking over Thomas Cook, so the travel agent certainly isn’t gone yet!

 

 

Searching for Lancashire Snowdrops

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One of the stunning varieties of snowdrops at Cobble Hey Farm

If, like me, you look forward to the days getting longer and warmer, you will be noticing the brighter morning light and that the sunsets are just that little bit later.  The seasons are beginning to change!  It is the emerging of snowdrops that for me really signals that winter will eventually end.  Every year I anticipate the arrival of these tiny white flowers that are both hardy and delicate and represent the transition from the quiet of winter to the blossoming of spring.

There are some wonderful snowdrop gardens across the country and you will have your own favourites but here are my top picks of places to see snowdrops in Lancashire.

Cobble Hey Farm, Hobbs Ln, Claughton-on-Brock, Garstang, PR3 0QN

Cobble Hey Farm, high on the slopes of the Lancashire Bowland Fells, is the place to lose yourself in snowdrops.  Edwina, the gardener, has created a unique woodland garden over 20 years in this wild spot and among winding paths and a stream there are collections of different varieties of snowdrops.  The common snowdrops have naturalised under the trees and there are plantings of rarer snowdrops interspersed with occasional pink Hellebore and daffodils.  Wrap up as it can be cold on this fellside and explore this cheerful garden.  I found myself looking more closely at snowdrops than I have ever done before as I wandered around the garden, finding ivory-coloured snowdrops, large-flowered snowdrops, tall varieties and others with daffodil yellow-stems.

If you have time you can walk on the farmland and maybe see the lapwings and there might be new lambs in the barn and goats in the field.  When you need to warm up there is a cafe here too.

Lytham Hall, Ballam Road, Lytham, FY8 4JX

We took the bus into Blackpool and another out to Lytham from Beechwood Carvan Site but you can park in Lytham if you prefer to drive.  Like us, you will want to see the windmill on Lytham’s green, look over the sands and maybe browse the shops or visit one of the many cafes but on a February weekend you will eventually want to walk out of the town to Lytham Hall to follow their snowdrop trail

It was a fine day on our last visit and we were greeted by smiling and helpful volunteers and directed into the gardens.  Lots of people were strolling through the extensive woodland gardens around the handsome 18th century brick and stone mansion.  Occasionally someone would stoop to get a close-up view of one flower in the carpets of bright white droplet flowers.

Lytham Hall was a grand family home and then offices until the 1990s when the 78-acre estate came up for sale.  British Aerospace (a local employer) donated the almost £1 million asking price and Lytham Hall is now run by and for the local community and has a range of different events in the house and gardens.  They also run a popular cafe in the house.

Bank Hall, Bretherton, PR26 9AT

South of Preston and surrounded by trees is the hidden gem of Bank Hall.  The gardens here are open for Snowdrop Sundays through February.  Bank Hall has not been lived in since 1971 and deteriorated considerably.  It’s appearance on TVs Restoration programme and the hard work of a local group are turning its fortunes around and now renovation of the hall is ongoing.  The woodland grounds can be visited on regular open days and wander here in February and you will find rafts of perfect white snowdrops naturalised over hundreds of years in a spectacular carpet.

With two bright green leaves and a dropping white bell-shaped flower, snowdrops are European natives that may be a Roman introduction to the UK.  The Galanthus family, from the Greek meaning milk flower, has around 20 different species, varying in height, size and flowering season, some growing to 12 inches high and others flower in autumn.

We stayed at:

Beechwood Caravan Site, New Lane, Thornton-Cleveleys, Lancashire, FY5 5NJ – a small, reasonably priced site that has good bus links with Blackpool and Fleetwood.

If this isn’t enough snowdrops then Hornby Castle in the Lune Valley also has a snowdrop weekend.

Read my full travel article about seeking snowdrops in Lancashire published in MMM in January 2019.

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A New Year’s Resolution to enjoy a Year of Music

1970s
My ticket collection from the 1970s

My first live music gig was the four-piece Herman’s Hermits.  I don’t know if my parent’s couldn’t get a babysitter or decided to widen my cultural horizons but they took me along.  I can remember being thrilled looking down on four guys on a big stage!  I soon moved on to making my own musical choices and wasn’t even a teenager when I went to see the band Slade play on a memorable November 17 1972 at The Victoria Hall in Hanley.  This atmospheric venue, affectionately called The Vicky Hall was packed with fans and with Suzi Quatro and the amazing Thin Lizzy as the guests it was a night that hooked me into live music, a passion that continues to the present and led to a New Year’s resolution.

This resolution wasn’t in 2020.  It was back in 2002 that I realised we weren’t seeing as much live music as we used to.  This was understandable; a combination of having a young son and little money had got us out of the habit of going to see bands.  Organising and paying a babysitter for a night out meant they didn’t come as often as they did when we were teenagers.  But by 2002 our son was old enough to leave on his own and my New Years resolution was to get us back into the groove and see at least one music concert a month.

In 2002 we were living in Preston, both working in average paid jobs and we had enough spare cash to commit to this target, although seeing a band wasn’t quite as expensive as it is today.  My year of 12 gigs cost us £421.60 for the two of us.  These gigs varied from free pub bands to a day at a festival.  The music varied from jazz and folk to rock music, We were at Leeds Festival to see Muse but this was also the first time I saw Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and became a fan.  2002 was also a memorable year as I saw the Indigo Girls twice, once in Manchester and once, unforgettably, in the open air in Berkeley California with my lovely friend who had moved to that area.

The cost of concerts these days varies wildly.  A day ticket for Leeds Festival has pretty much doubled since 2002 but I saw the Indigo Girls again in 2018 and paid just £25.  I have no doubt you would pay more than £25 to see Bob Dylan today and tickets to see Kate Rusby these days hover around £30.  The Manic Street Preachers are one of the best live bands I have seen [2002 was my first experience & I’ve seen them a further four times] and this summer they are playing in the stunning Halifax Peace Hall for £45.

We still get to as many live gigs as we can but have slipped out of the habit of going so often while we have concentrated on frugality.  Perhaps one year I will want to dust off this resolution and repeat it.

My Year of Music

Band Date Venue Cost
Indigo Girls [American folk rock] 31/01/2002 Manchester University Students Union £14.00
The Sue Parish Band [jazz] 01/02/2002 The John O’Gaunt, Lancaster £0.00
The Hamsters [blues rock / parodies] 09/03/2002 The Platform, Morecambe £8.50
Joanne Shaw Taylor Band [blues rock] 26/04/2002 The Kite Club, Blackpool £6.00
Bob Dylan 09/05/2002 Manchester Arena £25.00
Kate Rusby [folk] 07/06/2002 Accrington Town Hall £12.00
Indigo Girls[American folk rock] 13/07/2002 Greek Theatre, Berkeley £15.00
Leeds Festival [rock music] – The Libertines, Midtown, Otis Lee Crenshaw, The Hives, Ben Kweller, Sum 41, Ash, Muse, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club 25/08/2002 Temple Newsam, Leeds £40.00 (one day)
Oasis [rock] 15/09/2002 Lancashire County Cricket Ground, Manchester £28.50
Robert Plant [rock] 20/10/2002 Apollo, Manchester £20.00
John Mayall & Peter Green [blues] 04/11/2002 Preston Guild Hall £19.50
Manic Street Preachers [rock] 06/12/2002 Manchester Arena £22.30

Hiking, Cycling & History: My Top Tips for Exploring inland Spain in a Campervan

Although I love exploring almost anywhere in Spain, it is inland Spain that draws me and continues to surprise and amaze me.  In inland Spain we have found great walking, fascinating history and spectacular sights.  It isn’t that we haven’t visited the Spanish coast; in 2009/10 we toured along the entire Mediterranean coast of Spain and the Atlantic coast to Portugal.  This was over winter and the coast certainly had the better weather, fantastic amenities and plenty of open campsites.  Now we travel at a warmer time of year we have tended to search out a different Spain away from the sea and have discovered some gems.

Below is a list of some of the wonderful places we have stayed at to help anyone else in their search and planning for a trip to Spain away from the costas.

Aranjuez south of Madrid

The only reason we had pitched up in Aranjuez was its easy connection by train to Madrid, so the lively and interesting town of Aranjuez took us by surprise.  With an ornate palace, large formal gardens modelled on Versailles, an attractive shopping centre and fascinating historical sites nearby there is more to do here than take the train into Madrid [although this is highly recommended].  Aranjuez was somewhere we stayed longer than we expected.

From the campsite, walk towards the town, cross a footbridge over the rio Tajo and you are in the Jardin del Principe.  These shady gardens, where red squirrels play and peacocks preen, are divided into different themed areas.  Another garden, The Jardin del Parterre, by the Palacio Real, an opulent pink and cream building, has fountains that spring to life to a timetable.  If you haven’t seen enough of gardens you can explore the Jardin de la Isla, a wooded garden with paths lined with box hedging, lofty plane trees, more peacocks and some extraordinary fountains.

A short drive away is Chinchón, a Los Pueblos más bonitos de España  set among acres of olive trees.  The big attraction in Chinchón is the circular Plaza Mayor surrounded by charming three storey wooden buildings with balconies, many of these laid out with tables for romantic dining.  The town is famous for garlic, wine and anise that can be more than 70% ABV and you can buy in one litre bottles.

We stayed at Aranjuez Camping – A large organised site about 1.5 km from the town with clean heated facilities and a supermarket

Alquézar, Aragon

We were in Alquézar at the same time as an Ultra Trail event and sweaty competitors were running challenging routes from 14 to 104 km through the hilly terrain.  On our first morning the runners were racing along the Ruta de las Pasarelas, the footbridges route and so this was temporarily closed.  No matter, as we could have coffee lazily watching the competitors arriving to power rock music at the finish line and look around the stunningly situated town and gaze into the gorge of the Rio Vero.  In a small bakery we found the local delicacy, the dobladillo, a pastry with honey and nuts that is perfect for a picnic.

The popular Ruta de las Pasarelas descends to the gorge where we paddled in the shallow water and ate our dobladillo before continuing on the sections of metal walkways that are bolted onto the cliffs at different heights.  It is slightly eerie walking high above the river on a mesh platform and we stopped often to enjoy the spectacular rocky scenery, spotting a kingfisher darting along the river.  The final viewing platform suspended high above olive and fig trees and agave plants gives you a chance to look back along the canyon.  After climbing back up to the town it is not unreasonable to have a cool beer in a cafe overlooking the gorge before exploring the narrow cobbled streets further.

The walking is stunning in the countryside around Alquézar and only limited by the time you have here.  On our second day we took the advice of the Tourist Office and followed the Ruta Quizans and Chimiachas, a 14 km walk to caves where rock art has been discovered.  On the hillside above the town we passed the Balsas de Basacol, a popular swimming pool in summer.  Walking on sandy paths through fragrant juniper and rosemary bushes, for much of the day we had magnificent views into the rio Vero gorge.  The cave at Quizans was somewhat disappointing but we carried on, descending down a limestone gorge to Chimiachas.   Metal steps helped us reach the exposed shallow cave where we found the painting of a beautiful red deer from between 8,000 – 3,000 BC that made the walking worthwhile.

We stayed at Alquézar Camping, Alquézar – Terraced sandy camping site with narrow access routes & trees for shade, small shop & cafe, some good facilities, near to lovely town & good walking.

Albarracín and Teruel, Aragon

The Mudéjar architecture in the city of Teruel is delightful and well worth exploring for at least a day.  We parked the campervan on one of the streets near the railway station and our first introduction to the city was the neo-Mudéjar staircase, the Escalinata, built in 1920.  This ornate stairway copies the Mudéjar style of red brick and coloured tiles.  After coffee in a smart nearby cafe we found the 14th century Torre de El Salvador.  This and other towers are a fusion of Muslim and Christian styles using red brick and green and white tiles.  Built with an inner and outer wall, the staircase climbs between the two walls with rooms on three floors, finishing in a bell tower that has great views over the city.  We also visited the cathedral with a wood Mudéjar techumbre ceiling from 1300 that depicts Islamic geometric images and gothic human images in brilliant colours.  In the Pasteleria Munoz we bought a delicious selection of cakes and chocolates.

The pleasant road to Albarracín passes through a green and craggy valley where we stopped to see some of the Roman aqueduct that alternates between canal and galleries cut through the cliffs.

The campsite at Albarracín is a short walk from the town but has a stunning view of Albarracín, huddled against the hillside, the castle walls climbing up the slopes.  In the mornings the sun came over the hill behind our ‘van and picked out every details of Albarracin.  The town is quite lovely, narrow pretty streets to get lost in and new interesting viewpoints around every corner.  Many of the houses have decorative bars on the windows, timber framing and interesting door knockers, I spotted one made up of three snakes.  In the main square we had coffee in a small cafe before climbing up to the walls, the south facing hillside a sun trap and busy with butterflies on the remaining autumn flowers.  The walls are dotted with towers and crag martins fly in and out of the cracks between the stones.  The views back over the roofs of Albarracín and to the castle are picture-box beautiful.  We walked by the cathedral and castle and then climbed down to the green and cool path by the river that curves around the rocky outcrop the town sits upon and followed this back to where we had started.  Back at the campsite, we watched the sun go down behind the town.

We took a walk through the maritime pine woodland where the trees have long needles, black bark and large pine cones and through the bouldering areas that many climbers come to the area for.  We found caves with rock art of figures and climbed up to a mirador with views across the red sandstone gorge.  On the way back to Albarracín we walked by abandoned farmhouses and came across a shepherd following his flock over a ridge.

We stayed at Camping Ciudad de Albarracin – A terraced site about 1.5 km from the town, with gravel pitches, some in full sun and clean facilities.

Valderrobres and the Matarraña area and the Parc Natural dels Ports in Aragon

We visited this hilly area for the cycling and had a fantastic time exploring the rural tracks and old railway line that is now a cycle route.  Popular with Spanish visitors, we met few other foreign tourists in this area and felt as if we had come off the beaten track and found a gem of an area.  You are near to Tortosa and not far from the coast and this makes it an excellent excursion from the costas to get a feel for Spain with a different vibe.

The Matarraña is a rural area with fields of olives and almonds and, being well-known for its pork, there are plenty of industrial pig units.  Picturesque hilltop towns dot the landscape, each one dominated by a church.

We liked Camping El Roble in Valderrobres, although getting onto the cycle path did involve firstly paddling over the river.  There are stepping stones and if you can manage these while carrying a bike then you are a better person than me.  Once on the camino natural or track it is an easy ride into Valderrobres where there are shops and cafes and a castle.  We cycled from Valderrobres steeply uphill to Beceite but found that the track became too rough for our hybrid bikes and so we joined the road.  In the sleepy village of Beceite we took a narrow road to the Embalse de Pena that undulated through olive and almond trees, occasionally we saw someone checking the olive trees that would soon be ready to harvest.  From the reservoir the road became more pot holed as it followed the river through pine woods, passing occasional abandoned buildings until we joined the road back to Valderrobres after 18 km of pleasant cycling.

Our second cycle ride from Camping El Roble was around 28 km.  This time turning left on the camino natural we headed for Torre del Compte following the rio Matarraña through olive trees and by abandoned houses and stone huts.  Reaching a road we cycled steeply up to Torre del Compte where we found a cafe for coffee before checking out this small pretty town.  The road to the Via Verde took us downhill passing an Iberian burial chamber.  We reached the old railway line that is now the Val del Zafán Via Verde [literally green way] and found a picnic spot for lunch before continuing 7 km to Valderrobres old station.  The Via Verde has a good gravel surface and a steady gradient uphill all the way but with a head wind it was a bit of an endurance test.  Valderrobres station is some distance from the town; an undulating minor road took us there.  We stopped at the castle and then walked down through charming narrow streets, many of them stepped and lined with stone houses with small balconies and deep eaves, some painted an attractive powder blue.

We moved a short distance to Arnes for some more cycling in the dels Ports.  It was a bank holiday weekend and on the Friday evening the site filled up with Spanish families and groups of young people here for walking and climbing.  Arnes is a small town of warm stone buildings and a short walk from the campsite.  There is a bakery and grocery store for basics.

Cycling out of the campsite we were soon on the Via Verde and enjoyed 34 km of traffic-free cycling to Bot and back.  The track to the Via Verde goes steeply down to a bathing pool on the rio Algars, where we spotted a cray fish in the shallow water, before ascending to Arnes station.  Here we joined hordes of happy cyclists, all enjoying the sunshine and countryside.  The track is gently downhill and has a lot of tunnels with varying amounts of lighting, so your own lights are a must, although other cyclists will help you out if, like us, you have forgotten to bring yours!  The cafe at Bot was doing a roaring trade.

On another day we drove from Arnes to the village of El Pinell de Brai, home to the ornate Catedral del Vi, built in 1922 and designed by a student of Gaudi [where we parked our campervan].  This wonderful church-like building is decorated with tiles of images of wine drinkers.  We bought a couple of bottles of excellent wine from the shop, then set off on a glorious day of walking on the 12 km long Vall Closa walk which is way-marked from the village.  This takes you through a battle ground from the Spanish Civil War and has information boards in English which I found fascinating.  If the history of the area doesn’t interest you, then you can just enjoy the craggy and wooded scenery, although I challenge anyone not to be moved by the woodland memorial to dead soldiers.

We also drove to Corbera d’Ebre, parking on the main street.  Here is the 115 Dies [days] museum which tells the story of the Battle of the Ebro over 115 days from 25 July to 16 November 1938.  The museum explains the complications of the Spanish Civil War very well with interactive maps of how the front line moved each day and static displays of armaments, uniforms and an abandoned house.  The information was in Castillian and Catalonian but we had a booklet with English translations.  Later we walked up to the old town which was destroyed during the fighting and left as a ruin as a symbol of remembrance.  For a small fee we wandered the ruined streets and into the roofless church, thinking about the people that had called these houses home and how they felt seeing them destroyed in just a few days.  The Alphabet of Freedom are letter sculptures dotted among the ruins.  After this sombre visit we drove the short distance to the charming riverside town of Miravet, picturesquely topped by a castle.

We stayed at Camping El Roble, Valderrobres – A small gravel site by the road with a friendly and helpful owner, modern facilities, good hot showers and marked good-size pitches.

Camping Els Ports, Arnes – Large site with marked pitches and good facilities, 1 km from small town, the site is alongside a main road & there is some noise.

The free aire by the cellar in El Masroig – a small car park.  You can buy wine from local wine producers during shop hours.

Sierra de Gredos, Central Spain

It was September and although the days were warm and sunny, the mornings were chilly in the Sierra de Gredos and this encouraged lazy starts to the day.  We spent a pleasurable day cycling along the old drove road by the campsite, following the rio Tormes.  This old road varied from tarmac to gravel and was mostly fine for cycling for some distance through woods and pasture.  As the track became steeper we resorted to walking, walled fields of long horned cattle either side of us.  At a viewpoint we had lunch watching griffon vultures soaring overhead.  Returning to the valley we cycled up a 15% steep road to the villages of Navarredonda de Gredos and Barajas, where we had a deserved beer in a bar and talked to the local fire fighters.   Returning to the campsite we stopped at Las Chorreras, refreshing waterfalls and shallow pools among a confusion of granite boulders, perfect for paddling or bathing.

We drove to the end of the road and the large car park at La Plataforma in the Sierra de Gredos.  We were here to walk the 13 km return trail to the stunningly situated Laguna Grande, the most popular hike in this area.  The well-graded ascending path through the desolate high pasture is mostly made of stone sets and passes two fresh water springs.  The Gredos is home to 5,000-8,000 ibex and these are easy to spot and we saw a short-toed eagle that circled and landed on a crag.

We stayed at Camping Gredos, Hoyos del Espino – A sloping peaceful site where you are surrounded by the smell of pine trees.  Excellent hot showers.

Segovia, Central Spain

If Segovia only had the aqueduct it would still be worth visiting.  This impressive monument is Segovia’s must-see sight but wandering through this mostly traffic-free city we found much more.  We explored the Jewish quarter and visited a former synagogue and cemetery.  We followed the old walls and climbed to El Pinarillo, a delightful green space with unrivalled views back to Segovia and the Alcazar.  The cafeteria in the Alcazar has panoramic views over the countryside and we treated ourselves to tapas and beers there, watching birds of prey soaring over our heads.  At the Cathedral we paid for the tour of the Torre which was in Spanish so we missed the detail but it gave us access to the tower and there was a film with English sub-titles.

We stayed at Camping El Acuedecto, Segovia – On the edge of the city, marked pitches, buses to city, clean facilities & roomy showers.

Salamanca, north-west Spain

You need to know that I fell in love with Salamanca!  The day we arrived, our campsite reception told us there were fireworks in the city that evening, so we were soon cycling along the river into the city.  It was the annual fair and in the city there was music, processions and at 22.00 we stood in the crowds watching fireworks over the river.  Salamanca had welcomed us so warmly, I was smitten.

Over the next few days we explored again and again, seeing the Roman Bridge, the Cathedral and the elegant Plaza Mayor in daylight and relaxing and soaking in the buzz of this wonderful city that was busy with tourists, locals and students.  Salamanca is a delightful mix of narrow winding streets and bright plazas.  Around every corner are classical sandstone buildings that glowed pink in the bright sunshine and we sought out shady colonnades in the mid-day heat.  The university buildings are monumental in scale with intricate carvings and reliefs, some of them fun to find.  Under the colonnade of the Plaza Mayor we found Cafe Novelty, with more than 100 years of history this cafe has a statue of a former customer inside.

Away from the bustle, we rested in a cool green garden among the old walls and visited the calm of Convento de las Dueñas which has an unusual two-tiered five-sided cloister.  We came out with a box of delicious almond cakes made by the nuns which we shared with our neighbours on the campsite.

We stayed at Camping Don Quijte, Salamanca – A popular site with large level sandy pitches and a good cycle route to the city

Parque Natural del Canon del Rio Lobos, northern Spain

This stunning canyon offers different opportunities for walking.  We began by following Las Gullurias trail, a 9 km walk through fragrant woodland of juniper, lavender and thyme and over limestone.  The vegetation changed to thick pine trees as we approached the view point or mirador.  With a precipitous drop we had a spectacular view over the canyon, our eyes dazzled by the caves, pinnacles and limestone in different colours.  The calls of griffon vultures echoed around the canyon as they swept onto ledges to feed young.  After lunch we walked down to the floor of the canyon and the Ermita San Bartolome, scrambling up to peer through a rocky ‘window’ in the limestone that gave a view further up the canyon.

From the campsite we walked to Ucero Castle, crossing the river and taking a narrow stony path that broadened out to a soft grassy route.  Looking back we had expansive views of the limestone pinnacles and the canyon.  The castle sits above Ucero and has multiple walls and a tower that is fairly intact.

On another day we walked beyond the Ermita towards Hontaria del Pinar.  This part of the canyon is more lush, the crags are less dramatic but the canyon here is quieter and it has a beauty of its own.  The narrow rocky path follows the river, sometimes over stepping stones and occasionally there were pool covered in water lilies.    We watched large flocks of crag martins, with some house martins, high on the cliffs and as the air warmed griffon vultures appeared.

We stayed at Camping Carion del Rio Lobos, Ucero – Lots of shade under the trees, clean facilities

Monfrague National Park, Extremadura, western Spain

Monfrague National Park is rightly celebrated for bird watching and we certainly saw plenty of birds during our trips to this park.  We also enjoyed a number of walks in the national park.  The information centre and parking is in Vilareal de San Carlos and you can pick up a map in English here.  We drove to the viewpoint at Salto del Gitano to see the vultures circling around the impressive limestone crag and walked up to the Ermita and Castillo de Monfrague, an excellent viewpoint over the river and the national park.

We enjoyed two hikes, the 7.5 km green route and the 9 km yellow route.  Both started at Villarreal de San Carlos.  The circular green route took us to the top of Cerro Gimio and was a lovely way-marked trail.  The narrow path contoured the rounded hills and traversed the hillside, winding up and down through trees.  The craggy top of Cerro Gimio was a great viewpoint over the rio Tajo and we perched on the serrated ridge enjoying an airy lunch stop.  On the return section the trail took us along wooden walkways hanging over a gorge and through a shady canyon where we paddled to cool our hot feet.

The yellow [amarillo in Spanish] route was a contrasting walk.  We saw lots of deer on this route that had less shade as we hiked mostly through low-growing shrubs.  The path traverses the hillside above the river Tietar.  At Fuente Los Tres Caños, a shady picnic spot, there was a welcome cool spring.  Around La Tajadilla there are plenty of opportunities to see griffon vultures and black vultures.

We stayed at Camping Parque National Monfrague Malpartida de Plasencia – A large site a short drive from the national park.  The pitches have some shade and the facilities are good.

Caceres and Los Barruecos Monumento Natural, Extremadura, western Spain

Caceres is a popular city packed with sights and we enjoyed exploring it for a day.  Starting with coffee in one of the many cafes in either the sunny Plaza de San Juan or the elegant Plaza Mayor is a great way to begin your day and people watch for a while.  The Ciudad Monumental, the old walled city, is a traffic-free maze of narrow streets that are a pleasure to walk through.  Entered through impressive sandstone gates, inside are ornate buildings and winding lanes that offer new vistas at every corner.

About 20 km west of our campsite in Caceres is Los Barruecos Monumento Natural, a spectacular landscape of granite boulders that have eroded into weird shapes.  We parked our campervan and before exploring the granite boulders we visited the old wool washing station that is now a museum displaying the works of Wolf Vostell, a Spanish-German post-war artist who had strong connections with the area.  Here the installations ranged from a ‘class room’ of old TVs and other pieces that use cars, motorbikes, TVs and concrete to make a statement about the 1980s and 1990, all housed in beautiful old barns built for the 18th and 19th century wool washing complex.  Outside there is an extraordinary sculpture of cars in a totem pole arrangement with bits of aeroplane and adorned with a storks nest.

We followed the 7 km long green route around the two reservoirs, a walk that offers little shade on a hot day.  A kingfisher flew over the reservoir, we saw lapwings, little egrets and a heron, we were followed around by crested larks and spotted one hoopoe.  Near the cafe we watched azure winged magpies.  Many of the granite boulders have been given names and we searched out interesting shapes in the rocks.  Under a blue sky, the reflections in the still water of the reservoirs were stunning and we felt like we had been transported to a Pink Floyd album cover.

We stayed at Camping Cuidad de Caceres – Terraced site that is popular & large, each pitch with bathroom, some road noise.

Hecho, Aragon, Spanish Pyrenees

The Ordesa Valley is spectacular and justly popular and is a favourite place to visit for us but the nearby Hecho valley is a quieter and also worth a visit for some hiking.

Hecho is a pretty stone-built village with a maze of narrow streets, tightly packed houses with geraniums on the balconies and lots of cats to stop and fuss.  There is no sense of a main street and cafes, shops and a small supermarket are dotted randomly around the village.  From the village we walked on the GR15 to Collada Fuen d’a Cruz along a stony ravine busy with butterflies and crickets.  Views to the rocky crags opened out and we could see the village of Siresa and its abbey below.  We climbed steeply to the coll through pine trees on a well marked path with signs for distances and times.

On another day we cycled to Siresa, the next village, and onto Plan de Santana, where we left the bikes and took the old Roman road on the GR11 above Boca del Infierno.  This was a surprisingly lovely wide path with open views, edged with colourful flowers and butterflies.  It is a path to linger on and soak in the beauty of the landscape, the flowers and the wildlife.  In the woodland we came to a ruined castle before descending to the river.  Returning on the lane we had great views into the rocky chasm created by the river, the more adventurous can walk through the canyon.  Back in Hecho we had a glass of local beer at a sunny cafe.

We stayed at Camping Valle de Hecho, Hecho – a terraced and slightly neglected site in trees, close to the village and good walking from the site.

Aínsa, Aragon, south of the Pyrennes

Aínsa is an exquisitely preserved small town with narrow cobbled streets, views to distant mountains and an interesting line in door furniture including knockers shaped like a penis and testicles.

The campsite gave us a booklet with numerous local walks and we followed one to San Vicente de la Labuerda.  The booklet led us to expect an easy two-hour stroll but as the day wore on we realised the time was for one way only.  The undulating tracks were mostly through fragrant pine trees, often alongside steep sided gorges and we spotted red squirrels in the trees.  We were almost giving up when we had a distant view of a chapel and the views opened out on the final section to San Vicente de la Labuerda, a 12th century abbey.  As we sat in the shade of the abbey’s gate having our lunch we watched a lammergeier flying low over a deep gorge, soaring and casually twitching wing feathers to change direction.  We decided to return via Labuerda, picking up the path along the wide and beautiful river Cinca.

We drove a short distance for the short but dramatic trail along the Entremon Gorge, another walk in the campsite booklet.  The narrow and in places airy path has a precipitous drop in to the flooded gorge below.  In most cases there was a wire hand rail to help but not always.

We stayed at Camping Pena Montanesa, Ainsa – Large site with open views to mountains, information about walks, 2 km from Aínsa.

The Ojos Negros Cycle Route, Valencia

We enjoyed a mixture of cycling and walking around Navajas.  Anyone visiting here will want to walk to the steep-sided gorge for the waterfalls and fountains at the Salto de la Novia near the town.  We visited after a heavy rain storm and the river was muddy brown and the waterfalls spectacular.  We followed the goats, clambering over the opposite hillside to the falls for the view.  We also explored the wooded hill on the edge of the town around the Ermita de la Esperanza and found the 11th century Torre Arabe.

The Ojos Negros is 67 km of cycle route inland from Valencia and could be accessed directly from our campsite.  The cycle route climbs steadily uphill and has a good surface of either tarmac or gravel.  We cycled to Jerica and to Caudiel, a total of 15 km one-way.  In Jerica we walked through pretty narrow streets to the Torre Mudejar, an unusual tower with Islamic origins; crag martins flew around the curious walled tower.  Caudiel is a hilltop town and climbing up to the church and square we were delighted to find a brass band playing and dancing to celebrate a saints day.  After watching the spectacle we set off back, resting to enjoy the view over the Pantano del Regaja reservoir on the way.

We stayed at Camping Altomira, Navajas near Segorbe – A terraced campsite by a small village with views from higher levels and an excellent restaurant.

 

My year of walking 2,019 km in 2019

This post isn’t about a New Year resolution [I don’t do these] but it is about my 2019 walking target.  Friends would generally describe me as an active person but just over 12 months ago I realised I had no idea how far I walked in a year.  So, at the beginning of 2019 I set myself a target of walking 2,019 km during 2019.  I thought this wouldn’t be too demanding but really had no idea how it would pan out and as the year rolled on I became surprised how challenging it was to reach that mileage.  Half way through the year I reported that I was over target, having walked 60.5 km more than 1,009.5 I needed to have walked at that point.  Maybe I sat back a little in the second half of the year and perhaps moving house messed up my routine but it was touch and go whether I would reach 2,019 km before the end of 31 December 2019.  But I got there and after some long winter walks actually walked 2,073 km in 2019!

I didn’t count walking around our home or nipping out to the shops as part of my 2,019 km, this was not a step counting exercise and distance was only counted when I had kitted up for a walk.  It was okay if this was a utility walk such as to the supermarket or to an appointment, the important thing was that I had chosen to walk rather than cycle, take the bus or drive.  My partner has joined me on most of these walks but hasn’t quite reached 2,019 km himself.

2,019 km averages out as around 5.5 km each day.  Not a great distance but I found that to reach the target there was no chance to let up.  Yes, there were days when I walked 20 km but there were other days when other activities got in the way and I didn’t walk anywhere at all.  A couple of days like that and a long walk counted for little and I needed to catch up.  There were a staggering 56 days when I didn’t go outside and put one foot in front of the other.  In the first half of the year I had 30 none-walking days and 26 days in the second half as by December I was dashing out every day to ensure I reached the target!  Of course, on some of these apparently inactive days i might have been to my tai chi class or more recently packing and unpacking boxes or gardening; but there were days when we were driving or I was writing at home and being fairly inactive.  I know that I feel happier if I have got outside and taken some exercise and certainly if I am writing it is a break from staring at the laptop and it helps my brain to focus and come up with new ideas.

Most of the distance was either around Salford or, more recently, Morecambe but there were plenty of memorable days out in other places, here are a few highlights:

  • Climbing Ben Nevis wasn’t my longest day of walking at 17 km but with all that altitude to climb it was the toughest day and the most emotional.
  • Walking with friends is always special and provides me with good memories.  We have had some fantastic walking days with other people in Wharfedale, the Lake District, Scotland and Anglesey in all sorts of weather from wet to almost hot!
  • The coastal walking in Shetland was unbeatable and well organised and during our spring holiday there we clocked up 127.5 km on these stunning islands.
  • Walking from Eastbourne to Beachy Head on a warm February day was an unforgettable experience and sitting on the cliffs as a peregrine falcon landed next to us was a bonus.
  • We walked around Rivington Pike in Lancashire on a couple of occasions, both blue-sky winter days that were perfect.
  • The two longest walks were both 21 km and were  both summer walks but on both occasions there was more drizzle than sunshine!  The first was around the green hilly land around Hexham in the north of England through lush dripping forests.  The second was up and down the Derbyshire dales around Longnor on what I had sold to my partner as a pub crawl but turned out to be more of a walk between closed country pubs!
  • On one pavement bashing day I wore through some shoe leather walking 18.5 km around Salford and Manchester, mostly to hand deliver a parcel someone had purchased on Ebay [they left very good feedback!]
  • Dodd in the Lake District is only a small hill but on the January day we climbed it there was enough snow for a snowball fight!
  • One of my favourite walks in Salford is around Salford Quays and Media City.  Having recorded all my walks for the year I can see I did this on 28 different occasions between January to November 2019.  Now we have moved my favourite walk is down to Morecambe Bay, a handy 6 km circuit.

What about 2020?  As much as I have found it fascinating to keep a check on my mileage for the year I will not be setting a walking target again.  As the year moved on it had started to feel a bit tiresome to keep working out distances I had walked and make a note and I won’t miss being free of that.  I know there are good apps that will record distances but I don’t necessarily trust their accuracy, particularly in the mountains.  Another reason for making this target a one-off is cycling.  Our bikes have languished in the shed gathering dust for much of the year and we are looking forward to getting out and exploring the fantastic cycle routes around our new home in Morecambe now we don’t have to keep walking and walking and walking.  My partner has threatened to set a demanding cycling target for 2020 but I think / hope he is joking!

 

 

 

 

2019 spending £22,478 / year: Our most frugal year & below household average

05.29.2019 Eshaness (1)
Is there a pot of gold?

2019 has been an unusual year with no trips abroad in our campervan and a house move.  We have stayed alive and healthy and we spent two months touring Scotland in our campervan, learning to love that country even more and visiting Shetland for the first time, leaving a little bit of our hearts there.  Financially it has been good too.  We have stayed within budget; in 2019 our household spending was as low as £22,428.  The ONS calculate that the average household in the north-west of England spent £26,062 a year in 2017-2018.  Of course, this average will include large families and single-person households, households that have expensive hobbies [like a campervan], those who are home all day and people who have little money or are super-frugal.  Although we don’t consider ourselves to be average, we generally aim to spend less than this average.  I had hoped that our frugal fail in 2018 was a blip [we spent over £28,000] and it certainly seems that we have got back on track in 2019.

annual spending graph
Our household spending from 2010 to 2019

Despite the rigour of my spreadsheets, our annual spending creates a graph that looks like a roller coaster and this does make a bit of a joke of the budgeting we do.  Over the last nine years our spending has ranged over £6,000 from £21,972 to £28,107, not allowing for inflation.  All this information really tells me is there are expensive years and cheaper years and that our budget for 2020 of around £26,000 doesn’t look too unrealistic.  What is interesting is that our 2019 spending of £22,428 is our next to lowest spending year [and a rough online inflation calculator suggests that £21,972 in 2011 is now the equivalent of over £27,000] so for us 2019 has been a frugal year.

This household spending does gloss over the £36,000 plus that has disappeared from our savings and been spent on our recent house move and the improvements to bring our 1960s bungalow into the 21st century.  It seemed fair to leave out these one-off costs as they would have massively skewed the figures but it also seemed best to fess up about this spending here.  Of course before we took the plunge of moving we did the sums and, although when our pensions start paying in 2026 we will have considerably less savings in the bank, we felt it was an outlay that was manageable … but time will tell.  The move became essential for our well-being and we are reasonably comfortable that we will have enough of an emergency fund to take us into our old age.  Who knows what will happen with the cost of care by the time we are in our 80s and whether we will need any.  We certainly won’t have much money spare for anything expensive but we live in hope that a fair system will be in place by then.

Our own expensive hobby of running a campervan and having lots of holidays continues and this is generally our downfall.  If we never went anywhere our spending would be much lower!  Everyone spends their money in their own way, this is how our 2019 spending pans out:

Essentials – total £7,721 [35% of total spending] [2018 £9,654 / 34%]

Food – £3,491 [2018 £3,870] – This is an essential but also an easy area to control and after the shock of 2018 we have been careful to use the cheaper supermarkets.  We cook mostly from scratch, including making bread, only ever buy what we need and rarely waste anything.  We now have a garden but don’t expect to start growing food, as this doesn’t really work with taking a long holiday.

Utilities, insurance & service charges for a 2-bed 58 sq mtrs [624 sq feet] flat for 10 months & a 2-bed 57.2 sq mtrs [615.7 sq feet] bungalow for 2 months – £3,974 [2018 £4,841] – We have been home more than previous years but try and restrain our use of the heating and water.  Our bungalow is more expensive to run in terms of utilities than the flat, despite good insulation, so watch this space for 2020.  But a big plus of not living in a flat is that we no longer have service charges of over £1,000/year!  On the flip-side we are now responsible for the upkeep of our four walls and roof, not to mention a garden, this feels a bit daunting just at the moment.

Our health [including tai chi classes] – £256 [2018 £943] – We had no expensive spectacles or dental work this year, hurrah!  We were lucky to find another reasonably priced tai chi class in Morecambe, at £3 each a week this is manageable and we can afford to attend regularly.

Stuff (electronics, newspapers and other kit) – £3,151 [14% of total spending] [2018 £3,333 / 11%]

Household spending [everything from glue and newspapers to parts for the bikes and a new kettle] & miscellaneous un-identified items – £2,300 [ 2018 £2,364] – We are a long way from a no-spend year on stuff but I’m relieved that this spending line is similar to 2018 as I thought that moving house might have spiralled this into another realm as we splashed out on new [to us] curtains, gardening equipment and a Remoska oven.

Clothes & accessories – £851 [2018 £969] – I am really pleased this spending line is lower than last year, particularly when I take into account that over half of this is accounted for by new waterproof jackets.  We took a deep breath and bought quality so hope they will last for years and years – maybe until we die?

Experiences – £10,952 [48% of total spending] [2018 14.095 / 51%]

Holidays [our favourite spending line] – £3,601 [2018 £4,681] – Our holiday spending is less than other years as [thanks to the house move] we didn’t get abroad but we did spend a fantastic two months touring Scotland.  Factor in the cost of the ferry to Spain in 2018 [about £900] and this line would have pretty much stayed the same; the ferries are really the biggest chunk of our holiday costs.  We spent only 108 nights away in our campervan, less than previous years [again due to the house move] but campsites in the UK are often more expensive than mainland Europe.  We took ourselves off for 10-days during the house buying process and returned to a pile of paperwork waiting to be signed, after that we hardly dared venture away.  This does include a splash-out weekend in a swanky Lake District hotel to celebrate a significant birthday.

Restaurants & cafes – £2,418  [2018 £2,963] – This is another chunk of spending that we can keep under control if we need to but we love meeting friends for meals out and sitting in friendly cafes.  So I am surprised [and pleased] this spending is lower than in 2019 as we seem to have been out with friends on plenty of occasions … but the numbers don’t lie!

Running the campervan [servicing & insurance etc] – £1,931 [2018 £2,578] – I was excited to find that moving to Morecambe from Salford reduced our insurance costs on our campervan, although it is no longer parked in a gated car park!  2018 was an expensive year for our ‘van and in 2019 we didn’t take such a hit spending £800 on fixing things on our campervan to keep it on the road.  Our ‘van is almost five years old and has driven around 50,000 miles and among other things it needed new brakes and reversing sensors.  I think the ‘van might be saving everything up for 2020 though!

Diesel for the above ‘van – £1,500 [2018 £1,937 ] – This is lower due to reduced campervan trips and lower mileage through the year.

Tickets for concerts, football & attractions – £941 [2018 £1,114] – A cheaper year but we have still had lots of fun experiences seeing bands, going to the football and getting face to face with a pine marten.

Transport costs included buses, trains & parking – £561 [2018 £670] – My target to walk 2,019 km in 2019 kept this number down as I was constantly choosing to walk rather than take the tram or bus.  We have spent more for the last two months of the year since moving to Morecambe, as not wishing to pollute the world more than we need to we have taken the train to Manchester on all but one occasion.

Giving – £654 [3% of total spending] [2018 £1,025 / 4%]

Gifts & donations – £654 [2018 £1,025] – Another discretionary spending line and we can only hope our family and friends understand why presents, although still thoughtful, have been small in 2019.

TOTAL SPENDING FOR 2019 – £22,478 – staying comfortably within our £26,000 budget helps to give us some financial resilience for future years.