Trip Start Sep 11, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Friday, October 14, 2005

After being waved off by family at Plymouth docks, we left Bronwen feeling small sitting with all the lorries down below & looked forward nervously to 19 hours of uninteresting sailing to Santander (why people choose to go there and back just for the fun of it, I shall never know). But hey, we've made it to mainland Europe & travelling starts here!
Head straight for the Picos de Europa National park and the Covadonga lakes, where we spent a couple of days relaxing. The lake areas (Lago de Enol & Lago de la Ercina) are 1100m above sea level, and very alpine looking with the sound of cow bells (and goat bells) everywhere. This is also the area of the old Buferrero mines where I met the tin man (see photo). On the drive back down the 12k of steep, winding road, Bronwen's brakes started to overheat giving us a good excuse for lunch and to buy some local cheese from the side of the road - weird stuff, made from 3 parts cow, goat and sheep's milk and quite smoky with it - not sure if I'll be searching out the woman who made it again...

Start heading for Astorga via a night on a misty layby in the mountains (with more cows and bloody cow bells..) & a detour to Riano for petrol - there's a huge reservoir here with mountains all around - quite beautiful. So, what's Astorga got? - 1) a campsite with our first shower since the UK and 2) (possibly more importantly) a chocolate museum celebrating Spain's first commercial chocolate making. Well it would be foolish not to visit and gorge ourselves. And very nice it was too (I'm afraid I will be keeping none to bring home next year...)
Astorga is also en route to Las Medulas, the site of roman gold mines. The scenery around here reminds me of a mini Sedona in Arizona, although this is manmade (about 2000 years ago) and lacking in vortexes and crystal shops. Mind you, if you want honey and various fruits and vegetables pickled in grappa, this is the place to come and worth the detour, although we never tasted the alcoholic pickled onions.

Decide to start the real drive south after a night in a field next to an old castle, currently being worked on (we hopefully cheered up the builders when they arrived waking us up at 8am). Head for Salamanca, an old university town with gothic cathedral, relaxing Plaza Mayor (main square), and what appears to be the new destination for stag nights. There's also a "game" which seems to be a must for all newcomers to the town - "frog spotting". This entails searching the huge, intricately stone carved entrance to the University for a stone frog. Successful people are apparently fated to a year of good luck and/or marriage within the year. Believe me, we did try and after finding what we thought was a frog (OK, they looked like frog's legs, but I'll admit the head was more cherub than amphibian), we checked the guide book to see if we were right. No chance - I would never have guessed that was a frog, and if anyone has found it recently, they either have fantastic eyesight or had some inside knowledge. Anyway, good thing neither of us are superstitious. I won't tell you were the frog is, just in case you ever find yourselves in Salamanca and fancy wasting a few moments.
With our thirst for driving south (the evenings are starting to get chilly up here...) we hit the community (province) of Extremadura where we spent a couple of days doing old towns (Plasencia and Caceres for gothic and 15th/16th Century buildings; Merida for roman remains. In Merida, we visited the roman theatre and amphitheatre and spent a couple of nights camping beside the Proserpina reservoir (still with its roman damn). It was beautiful and very peaceful staying there, despite the tractors visiting from early in the morning to take water to the road building projects going on throughout the region (plays havoc with the GPS!); and a couple of scooter boys likening us to the A-team (I told Jamie not to wear so much bling).
Got to Andalucia and straight to Cordoba. Cordoba's a nice city - a bit touristy, but fun just wandering round the juderia - old jewish quarter with narrow streets and the oldest synagogue in Europe, plus Mezquita - an amazing and huge muslim structure with a christian cathedral planked in the middle - has to be seen to be believed; then to Granada & the Alhambra - well worth it, despite having to queue for an hour to get tickets.

It was a relief after a week of cities to then head for the mountains and the Sierra Nevada for a few days. Climbed Pico de Veleta, the 2nd highest peak in the Sierra Nevada (3396m). Climbed through the ski fields and between the ski lifts (obviously there's no snow here now!) to get stunning views from the top. My map seemed to think that from this side of the S.N we can drive straight over and to the other side, but unfortunately it's for authorised vehicles only, so drive all the way round, back through Granada to reach the south and Pampiniera, in Las Alpejurras. This side of the Sierra Nevada is quite different - less austere and more agricultural. Pampaniera is pretty - narrow, winding and VERY steep streets (the villagers must have very toned thighs and buttocks, with not an ounce of cellulite...).

And what's to come next - MINI HOLLYWOOD!! It's down in the South East of Spain, near Almeria & it's where some of the filming of westerns such as "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" and "A fistful of Dollars" took place, so we just had to go there! How disappointing can it be - it was a total rip off and to make it worth the money, we spent time watching a Clint Eastwood film in Spanish, a can can routine and the not SO bad, staged shoot out. Next time we ever get excited about going somewhere like that, please someone knock some sense into us! (the only good thing was the camp cowboy photo of Jamie!)

Now on the coast heading towards the Malaga area and past the "Costa Plastica" - the landscape is covered in plastic for forced cultivation of fruit and veg (my mother being the anti-polytunnel queen of Herefordshire, I thought I'd better mention it!) . It really is truly horrible and ruins the landscape, as it's EVERYWHERE.

Catch up before we ferry across to Morocco - we're doing a couple of detours first, so should be another week yet.
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