You might recall we’re trying to keep within a budget and that this year achieving this has proved to be tough going with our spending feeling somewhat out of control. I was therefore keen to keep costs low on our fantastic autumn trip to Spain from September to November. So how did this plan go and what did we spend?
Diesel – £390 (we avoided the temptation to visit all of Spain and travelled 2,430 miles)
Supermarket / food shopping – £536 (around £100 less than we would have spent at home and we returned with dozens of bottles of wine for the cellar!)
Cafes & meals out – £326 (Coffee in a cafe is inexpensive in Spain and we do this much more on holiday than at home but we ate out in the evening less and so spent almost £100 less than we would have spent at home so a small gold star to us)
Campsites – £708 (we had a few nights wild camping to keep costs down but could have done more)
Public transport – £51 (we stayed off the motorways with tolls in Spain and managed to spend a little less than we would if we’d stayed home)
Entrance fees – £98 (similar to when we are at home)
Miscellaneous – £80 (new sunglasses, maps, washing machines, occasional wi-fi)
Ferry Portsmouth to Bilbao – £895 (ouch! A lot of money to suffer the high seas of the Bay of Biscay)
Fixing the power steering & a new wing mirror for our van – £377 [power steering electrical fault]
Total spent £3,461
I’m feeling reasonably pleased with this total. It really is not that much more than we would have spent if we’d stayed at home so hasn’t had a massive impact on our budget. The lesson is that there are really no excuses not to go away again!
Knock Knock, Who’s There? Theodore! Theodore who? Theodore wasn’t open, so I knocked!
On the first house I lived in one of my favourite things I bought for the house was a cast iron door knocker of a cat happily sitting on top of a dog kennel. This door knocker made me smile every time I arrived home. The door knocker moved with me to a couple of houses but eventually it got left behind somewhere. I’ve not had a door knocker that has made me so happy since and on our flat we don’t have one at all [electric intercoms don’t give me the same pleasure but they are practical]. Nevertheless I have retained my interest in handsome door knockers.
All over Spain we found plenty of door knockers worth stopping and admiring on their magnificent doorways. On our latest trip I first started to give door furniture a thought while we were in the charming town of Aínsa. Look carefully at one of the photographs above and you will see a door knocker in the shape of a pair of testicles. Having this sort of fertility symbol nailed to your front door is apparently traditional in Spain.
After Aínsa I started to notice all sorts of decorative door knockers. Some were fierce and unwelcoming or perhaps protective. In the hill village of Pedraza I spotted a dragon, in Burgos I noticed a somewhat fierce dog [nothing like the cute one I had owned] and the magnificent door knocker with three snakes was in Albarracin.
As well as protective or bringing good fortune, these decorative and ornate door knockers are an outward display of wealth and status. Attached to a front door they are often the first thing your visitors will note and are a visible indication of taste or your financial standing. My cute cat and dog door knocker must have said oodles about me.
We spent over two months in Spain this autumn and stayed mostly on campsites where we could use our ACSI discount card. We had an occasional night staying on an aire. These were all good and as we are trying to save money we could have done more. Most campsites were a reasonable price but the one in Toledo was exceptionally expensive. The list is below with my notes on how we found each spot.
Bakio Motorhome Parking near Bilbao
Sloping parking area near the beach popular with surfers and peaceful enough, public toilets nearby
Camping Etxarri, Etxarri Aranatz, Navarra
Hedged camping pitches & lots of bungalows & permanent caravans, some pitches very shaded, facilities reasonably clean, showers cramped & push button were only warm. ACSI
Camping El Molino, Mendigorria
Large organised site with some shade & some grass, clean facilities & powerful showers with adjustable temperature & hot, nice walk by river, ACSI
Camping Valle de Hecho, Hecho
Terraced site with trees, near to village, scruffy year-round caravans, facilities clean, showers cramped but mostly hot, wash-up out of doors, no bread out of season
Tarmac car park with reasonable size bays near to the town, very popular, quiet by 23.00, bells & neighbouring buses noisy in the morning
Camping Ordesa, Torla
Terraced site with fantastic views of mountains, facilities dated but roomy and good hot showers
Camping Rio Ara, Torla
Terraced site, grassy with trees and tidy, steep access road, lovely modern facilities and good hot showers, adjustable & free flowing, supermarket & bar, good size pitches
Camping Pena Montanesa, Ainsa
Large site with open views to mountains, information about walks, 2 kms from Ainsa, a lovely old town, facilities a bit scruffy but good hot showers & bread, ACSI & bottle of wine on leaving! (Ainsa has an excellent aire too)
Alquezar Camping, Alquezar
Terraced sandy camping site with narrow access routes & trees for shade, small shop & cafe, some good facilities, near to lovely town & good walking, ACSI
Camping El Roble, Valderrobres
Small gravel site by the road, pleasant & helpful owner, modern facilities, good hot showers, marked good-size pitches, cycle routes from site, ACSI
Camping Els Ports, Arnes
Large site with marked pitches, 1 km from town on main road & some noise, facilities clean & okay ACSI
Celler El Masroig
Flat parking by the wine producer with emptying point, quiet village, car park used by staff from around 07.30
Nicely laid out small site with marked pitches, facilities clean & showers okay, friendly welcome & peaceful, ACSI
Los Pinos, Peñíscola
Gravel marked sunny pitches with narrow access roads, 1.5 kms from the town, clean facilities, good hot showers & good value
Aire at Morella
Pleasant gravel aire by picnic site with views to hilltop castle and town, popular
Camping Altomira, Navajas near Segorbe
A terraced campsite by a small village, views from higher levels, English at reception, underfloor heating in toilets but facilities a bit dated & showers only warm, cycling nearby, ACSI
Camping Ciudad de Albarracin
Terraced ACSI site with gravel pitches about 1.5 kms from old town, some in full sun, clean facilities & excellent hot continuous showers, great views & walking
Large organised site about 1.5 kms from lovely town, English at reception, facilities dated but clean & good hot continuous showers & heated, supermarket, trains to Madrid, ACSI
Camping El Greco, Toledo
Level site with marked pitches 3 km from the city, hourly bus service, 30 mins walk from town, clean facilities & good hot adjustable & continuous showers
Camping El Escorial, El Escorial
Level ACSI site with lots of tree cover & some frames to give shade, scruffy, busy reception, no heating in toilets, showers hot, disco can be noisy
Camping Riaza, Riaza
Level site with grassy & sunny pitches, some road noise but mountain views, near to pleasant town, facilities clean, showers continuous & very hot ACSI
Camping Fuentes Blancas, Burgos
Level grassy site, some trees, 4 buses a day to Burgos, some road noise, shower block 3 is heated with good continuous hot shower, block 4 is unheated, wash-up is outdoor, ACSI
Port at Bilbao
Flat tarmac area with toilets, cafe only open in the morning this time
Spain is beautiful … this goes without saying. One of the things that added to the allure during our trip this year through September, October and November was the autumn colours. They were stunning! We spent a lot of time in Aragón and around Madrid and in so many places we visited I would stop and exclaim at the variety of the colours as the trees turned from green to shades of yellow, bronze, orange and russet.
I think of myself as a spring-soul rather than an autumn-animal so this excitement by what I generally think of as an ending, rather than the new beginning of spring, was a bit of a revelation. Did all that sunshine turn my head or am I changing as I reach my own autumn years?
We visited so many dazzling places but a few stand out for the autumn colours. Torla and the Ordesa National Park is an area we had previously visited many years ago in high summer. Our trip here in early October had a different vibe. The crowds were less, many of the campsites were closed, the nights were chilly and the Ordesa Valley had an autumnal feel with the leaves on the trees just beginning to turn. Of course, the days were warm and sunny and it was perfect hiking weather.
We spent a few days cycling along the Val del Zafán Via Verde near Valderrobres, a route on an old railway line that runs around 105 km from Alcañiz to Tortosa. While the pine trees and olive trees remain green, the leaves on the vines, beech, plane and sweet chestnut trees were turning golden. The landscape, dotted with stone houses and barns, was a rainbow of colours and this made for glorious cycle rides.
Albarracin is famed for being Spain’s prettiest town and it is certainly gorgeous. In the autumn it is spectacular as the colours of the red sandstone boulders among the dark green pine trees are complemented by the brilliant yellow of the deciduous trees. A walk along the river around the town is worth exploring at any time of year but in autumn the turning trees change it in to a passage along a radiant corridor.
We spent a few days in the lovely town of Aranjuez and every day we walked in the gardens of the Royal Palace. These gardens are full of trees that give welcome shade in the summer but it was the arcades of plane trees, heavy with russet coloured leaves, that were the star during our October visit. Kicking dry leaves as you walk brings out the inner child in everyone.
Burgos is a city that is made for walking and the city centre has tree-lined pedestrian routes. Most popular is the Paseo del Espolón where, once again, plane trees provide the shade. Following the river, this paseo is made for strolling and in autumn sunshine the colours of the leaves is an added bonus. We were here on a sunny Sunday and Burgos residents of all ages were out sharing a family walk.
Spring will continue to be my favourite season but I think I am learning to enjoy the back-end of the year too.
Looking over hundreds of olive trees, fringed by fragrant thyme and rosemary, it was hard for me to cast my mind back to the bloody scenes in February 1937. We were south of Madrid at the site of the Battle of Jarama and between 1937 and the end of the Spanish Civil War around 15,000 people from the Nationalist and Republican sides lost their lives here.
We had driven our much loved campervan along more gravel tracks during our seven weeks in Spain than the ‘van had been on for all of it’s previous three and a half years and every time we were searching out something relating to the Spanish Civil War. Off-road driving was starting to become the norm and the blue of the ‘van was disappearing until a layer of dust.
It was a sunny but breezy Sunday morning when we bounced down the tracks above Morata de Tajuna looking for an insignificant memorial to the International Brigades who had fought in the battle for Madrid. It was a Sunday morning and on the tarmac roads we had passed hundreds of cyclists in large groups and on their own, all out for a ride, this is clearly a Spanish thing.
After parking up we stood looking at the slightly disappointing memorial of rocks and rusting tins and other debris. This isn’t the stunning clenched fist memorial in the photograph and I was struggling to take much from it as we tried to read the faded plaque. I guessed it related to the Spanish Civil War but couldn’t be sure. Then a knight in shining armour / cyclist pulled up and said, ‘I guess you are from the British van’ in excellent English. Remarking on his fantastic grasp of our native tongue he explained his mixed European heritage and that he had lived in the UK for around 15-years but now lived near to this hill of olive groves. He explained that cycling around the area every week he became interested in the history and had done some research.
He told we were standing on Suicide Hill and the Republican 15th Brigade, including the British Battalion [not all of them were from Britain], were killed in huge numbers over three days of fierce fighting here in February 1937. A few of the 500 – 600 men in the British Battalion had seen previous combat but many had never fired their weapons and ill equipped, unprepared and newly trained, these volunteers faced an attack from Franco’s elite Nationalist Army of 40,000 experienced troops that were well armed, had some air support and tanks. The Nationalists had control of most of the main roads to Madrid and had a clear objective to cut the Madrid to Valencia road, thus circling and isolating Madrid and forcing its surrender.
The numbers and certainly names of the soldiers who died here are mostly unknown. It is estimated 600 British soldiers fought for the Republicans at Jarama and many died on the first day of fighting. Remarkably, although so many lost their lives, courage and conviction enabled the Republicans to more or less hold their positions and after three days of desperate fighting the two armies dug in here until the last days of the Spanish Civil War in 1939. The name Suicide Hill started to make sense.
Our guide told us that on his regular cycle rides he passes the remnants of old trenches among these olive groves and bullet holes are still visible on the tree trunks. This is a landscape still scarred by the war but does not receive the huge numbers of visitors seen at the World War One battle areas. After sharing the history of Suicide Hill, he pointed us in the direction of the stunning memorial in the photograph and recommended the small and moving museum in Morata de Tajuna at Mesón El Cid and open at the weekends 12.00 – 14.00. If you’re passing I recommend you take a look.
The mishap came as a bit of a surprise. The road from Torla to Aínsa in Aragon is a secondary road but a good one and we were pottering along in the sunshine, enjoying the views over the Rio Ara and of the villages perched on hilltops. The road has a white line down the centre but the carriageways are on the narrow side and the light traffic was driving considerately giving enough space to oncoming traffic.
Coming towards us were two massive white motorhomes in convoy. The leading motorhome was taking up more than his fair share of the road and we moved over to the edge of the road to ensure everyone could pass by safely. We assumed the big guy would do the same but it seemed he too had been watching Game of Thrones and fancied a bit of wing mirror jousting with our Blue Bus. Bang! We both cursed him as our passenger side wing mirror was slammed inwards and the glass broke.
We know this isn’t a tragedy, it is really just one of those things that will happen to lots of people in campervans. Those big wing mirrors are a perfect target after all and this is the first time we have broken a wing mirror in our 13 years of having a ‘van. The idiot in the motorhome didn’t stop – to be honest there wasn’t really anywhere safe to stop – and we limped along for a couple of kilometres until we found a lay-by to pull in to. Shaken we gave each other a hug and investigated the damage. The glass of the main mirror was shattered but fortunately the small blind spot mirror at the bottom was still intact. The mirror no longer responded to being moved. Our only consolation was that the big white motorhome would most likely have the same damage to his wing mirror and we hoped his replacement mirror was even more expensive than ours.
Our Renault has no internal central mirror, so the wing mirrors are essential. We had a go at fixing a shaving mirror we carry in to the housing of the wing mirror to help the driver see behind but we couldn’t get this to work. We have since found that you can buy temporary ‘mirrors’ and may invest in one or two of these. After some thought and consideration we felt it was safe to drive using just the blind spot mirror for the remaining 25 kms to Aínsa. Although this mirror is small it functioned pretty well.
A call to our breakdown sorted out a garage that was expecting us and the mechanics there spent some time ensuring they were ordering the correct mirror for our Renault. The next day it took them 15 minutes to fit the new wing mirror and it cost us around £200! An expensive jousting session.
Fortuna was the Roman goddess of luck and fate and she must have been smiling on us benevolently the day we decided to meander up to Baños de Fortuna, approximately 25 kms north-east of Murcia some years ago. In pursuit of the Spanish coast, many people overlook small inland Spanish towns and yet we constantly find such places are well worth a stay and offer a different perspective to Spain that is a million miles away from the Costas.
Baños de Fortuna is a village developed around a hot spring and on the edge of the Sierra de la Pila. It is three kilometres from the small town of Fortuna with a population of over 9,000; enough to ensure it has a supermarket and a weekly Saturday market, as well as a useful tourist information office eager to give out leaflets. Situated in a dry and arid landscape that will bring to mind cowboy films, this part of Spain has warm and sunny winters that suit us northern Europeans.
The Romans must also have thought that Goddess Fortuna was smiling on them, when they found running hot water near Fortuna. Banos de Fortuna has now developed into a small settlement, with two campsites and a spa resort. We chose Camping La Fuente, a very well provisioned and excellently presented site; the main attraction being a large naturally heated swimming pool. The site has generous gravel pitches, many with their own bathroom and all with sun-shades during the summer. Laid out in crescents and small terraces you never feel that you are surrounded by lots of other campers, even when it is busy. Around the pool are a bar and reasonably priced restaurant with terrace, the staff are helpful and knowledgeable and the campsite facilities include a hotel and bungalows. At around 08.30 every morning we heard the welcome horn of the bread van that tours the campsite and tempts you with crusty bread and Spanish cakes.
Campsite guests can use the pool for a reduced daily rate and with a temperature of 35C some campers will spend most of the day lounging and chatting in the warm spring water, relieving their aches and pains and putting the world to rights. A dressing gown, flip flops and swim wear is almost all the clothing you need if the pool is your prime reason for staying at Camping La Fuente and clearly many people visit to relieve their mobility problems. The site is popular with German visitors and is busy through the winter months and it might be worth ringing ahead and booking if you plan to be here from January to March.
Fortuna continued to smile on us and during our week long stay in November. We enjoyed sunshine and temperatures in excess of 20C each day; warm enough for shorts and to sit outside and enjoy a breakfast of fresh bread rolls from the bread van, greeting early morning swimmers on their way to the pool.
Lovely as the baths are, it would be a shame to come here and not explore the area. We enjoy walking and cycling and found this was a campsite with plenty of opportunities to indulge in both. Just a few minutes’ walk from the campsite is the spa resort, this has been renovated and the hotel buildings have been painted in bright colours that pick out attractive plaster work details. There are benches and shady gardens of palm trees dotted around the spa and a smart souvenir shop which are certainly worth a wander around.
Using a photocopied map from the campsite reception and Spanish instructions, we set off to climb the 585 metre high hill visible from the site. The walk was graded on the map as being of medium difficulty and it proved to be a steep and interesting climb through aromatic scrub of fragrant rosemary, lavender and thyme, with occasionally yellow and white splashes of paint on jagged rocks to assist our route finding. The last few metres were a scramble that required hands and knees, but we were rewarded with extensive views across the dry, semi-desert landscape, dotted with brilliant green areas of cultivation and a peace and quiet you don’t find on many British hills on a sunny day. We managed to navigate a less precipitous route back down the northern flank of the hill, eventually finding a trail through bushes and past tall agave plants.
The main road to Fortuna is a fairly busy one and the fast rumbling lorries from nearby quarries mean this isn’t a pleasant route for a leisure cyclist. However, there is no shortage of quiet minor roads that make for very pleasant cycling. The road to Capres from Banos de Fortuna is a little used, but well-surfaced road that climbs steeply up to the village for around five kilometres. We rested on benches outside the low white church in Capres while we ate our picnic, the only thing to disturb us were the sounds of sheep grazing among the trees above the church, watched over by a sleepy shepherd.
La Cueva Negra, north of Fortuna, is also worth a trip. This large cave, as the name suggests, has black walls which are covered with graffiti inscriptions, some dating back to those Fortuna seeking Romans. There is plenty of parking here and public barbeques and it is clearly a popular spot at weekends, although on a November weekday we had it to ourselves. We walked up to the cave and watched the Crag Martins and Black Wheatears flitting around the rocky cliffs as we looked down over an expansive landscape of low modern villas and citrus and olive trees. On the same cycle ride we took in the Ermita at Cortao de las Peñas on the edge of the Parque Regional de la Sierra de la Pila, a roadside monument painted white, that is an extension of the surrounding cliffs.
A different day’s cycle ride found us exploring the area to the east of Fortuna and the nearby town of Abanilla. We cycled through a confusing criss-cross of lanes, through lemon and orange groves and small housing estates, past industrial farming units and along irrigation channels. This area is less hilly and more suitable for the lazy cyclist. Although arid, many crops are grown in this area, as well as citrus fruits, peaches and olives, you will spot almonds and market gardening. Abanilla is a pretty little town, with an attractive town centre and steep narrow streets and steps leading to pleasant plazas. This is not an area where you will find stunning crowd-puller attractions, but we always enjoy the chance to explore small towns that are off the tourist circuit and ignored by the guide books. Our 35-kilometre cycle ride saw us returning via La Huerta and on the eerily quiet A-21, through a landscape of dry gorges with peregrine falcon’s calling overhead.
Once you have exhausted all the nearby attractions, or if even the hot springs can’t ease your saddle sores, there are places of interest to visit in your campervan. We had a splendid day driving along the Rio Segura valley north of Murcia to Archena, another ancient spa town and Cieza, where the huge fields of peach trees must be a riot of colour in spring. To the south east is Orihuela, a charming town on the banks of the Rio Segura with fine buildings, a hillside castle, swathes of palm trees and a fascinating underground museum, the Museo de la Muralla, where you can see the remains of the old city walls and Arab baths
Hopefully, the Goddess Fortuna will smile on me and let me visit more of this interesting area of Spain at least once again.