Sea and mountains (or more highs and lows)

11. Feb, 2018

We spent a quiet first morning at our new campsite, which is very well equipped, with a bar, restaurant, supermarket, swimming pool and several very clean toilet blocks. I took advantage of the excellent weather and laundry facilities to do a big machine wash. Followers of our previous blog will know that nothing gives me more satisfaction than seeing a load of clean washing flapping in the breeze!  
 
We made a brief excursion after lunch to the nearby small resort of Comillas.  We could see there was something going on down at the harbour, judging by the crowds, so we went to investigate.  There were some notices pinned up but our Spanish wasn't good enough to understand them.  Suddenly we were being shouted and waved at – a film was being made and we’d wandered right into the middle of it!  At least we knew how to say "I’m very sorry" as we withdrew, red-faced.  However we were able to join a crowd of spectators watching the scene being filmed, which seemed to be a strange contest.  Projecting from the quayside was a narrow pole with a small flag on the end, and a succession of young men tried to inch their way along the pole and grab the flag before falling into the sea, egged on by cheering from the crowd.  Whether this was a traditional local pastime, or entirely made up for the film, we never found out!
  
Next day we returned to Comillas to explore the town itself, which has a surprising number of Modernista buildings, including one by Gaudi.  This style is mainly found in and around Barcelona, but it also flourished in this Northern outpost because the Marquis of Comillas married into the family of Eusebi Guell, Gaudi’s patron.  

The day got off to a bad start when we decided to have hot chocolate and churros in a cafe in the main square.  We got a nasty shock when the bill came – 7 euros each, instead of the going rate of 2.50.  There was no point arguing so we paid up, but it left a nasty taste in the mouth – not literally, because they were delicious, but it was one of the very few occasions on our trip when we felt we’d been ripped off.  However, we were soon laughing again when in a nearby toyshop we saw a large, pink, tutu-clad My Little Pony with the unlikely name of Lovely Neddy.  When Helen used to collect these garishly-girly toys I don’t recall there being a transvestite character!
 
We picked up a plan of the Modernista trail from the tourist office, but it even defeated John’s legendary map-reading abilities, so we ended up wandering about at random.  The Gaudi house, “El Capricho”, isn’t open to the public but we got a close view of the very colourful exterior, complete with a sort of Lego minaret.  We were also impressed by the amazingly ornate faux-Gothic Sobrellano Palace designed by Martorell, who was also the architect of the huge university building which overlooks the town.
 
A few kilometres beyond Comillas is the pretty little fishing port of San Vicente de la Barquera.  After walking round the medieval battlements we sat by the harbour enjoying large, delicious ice-creams which cost no more than a nasty, artificial Mr Whippy-type cone back home.   Why is the ice-cream always so much better abroad?! 
  
Driving back to the campsite we passed some wonderful, uncrowded beaches, huge expanses of golden sand with big waves ideal for surfing.  The surrounding countryside is very pretty, green and fertile, with little stone houses with wooden verandas, and distant views of the Picos.  It’s totally different from the landscape of Southern Spain.

Next day we set off for a day in the Picos.  We were lucky to have beautiful clear skies and soon saw snow-capped peaks in the distance.  The road took us through a long, narrow, twisting ravine, the Desfiladero de la Hermida, before arriving in Potes, a picturesque old town in a valley surrounded by mountains.  
 
After a pleasant lunch in the town square opposite the medieval Torre del Infantado we carried on to Fuente De and took the cable car up into the peaks to a height of over 6,000 feet.  We took sweaters but they weren’t necessary.  It was as warm up near the snow as it was down in the valley.  The ground was carpeted with alpine flowers, including gentians, and there were eagles overhead.  We didn’t spot the famous, and rare, chamois, but we did see a little mountain mouse!
 
After that excursion we spent most of the next day just relaxing in the sun, apart from a visit to Santillana del Mar, a very picturesque old town described by Jean-Paul Sartre as the prettiest in Spain.  It was chock-full of medieval buildings and fine town houses with coats of arms over the doors, and an extraordinary Romanesque church.  Despite the tourists and souvenir shops it maintained a remarkably unspoilt character.
  
We’d been wondering whether to stay longer in this very pleasant area, or move on, but our mind was made up for us on returning to the campsite.  A large party of teenagers had arrived, filling the cabins and pitching tents in the woods, where they played bongos endlessly and generally ran around screeching until the early hours.  So it’s not just UK teenagers who are unruly!

Apart from that one incident we had really enjoyed the campsite and the area, but there was so much more to see so next day we drove east along the coast of Cantabria and back into the Basque Country, stopping about 80 kilometres beyond Bilbao.  Camping Itxaspe at Itziar (the x’s and z’s show we’re back with the Basque language!) has a stunning setting high on a headland above the sea.  There’s a very steep path down to a deserted, stony beach.  It takes 10 minutes to walk down but an exhausting 40 to climb back up!  The site should have made for an idyllic stay, but we were allocated a rather grotty pitch, very cramped and right next to the toilet block!  I suppose we could have complained and asked to move but being very British we didn’t.  The only good thing about the pitch was that for once the satellite TV reception was good, so John was just in time to watch England play Slovenia in the World Cup.  He’d had to watch previous matches in various campsite bars.
  
Next day we drove to Bilbao, or Bilbo as it’s called in Basque.  We took the scenic route along the coast, stopping for coffee beside the beach at Lekeitio, then passing through Gernika, site of the infamous bombing raid in the Spanish Civil War.  There is a reproduction in the town of Picasso’s famous painting of the atrocity, the original of which is in Madrid, but the Basques hope it will eventually be transferred to the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

It was the Guggenheim we had come to see, and the weather was extremely hot, too hot for sight-seeing but perfect for spending a few hours in an air-conditioned art gallery.  The building is quite extraordinary, and its titanium-clad form is said to resemble a ship or a flower, though it looks more like an exercise in alien geometry.  It’s set in a beautifully-landscaped area beside the River Nervion, and has almost as many amazing sculptures outside as it does inside.  My favourite was Jeff Koon’s huge, flower-covered Puppy, which the Bilboans have adopted as their mascot.  
 
The building is just as unusual on the inside, but is so well-designed that its strange form enhances rather than detracts from the art work on display.  It has a core collection of works on permanent show but most of the exhibits are temporary, changing every few months.  When we were there the three major exhibitions were Anish Kapoor, Rousseau and Rauschenberg, all interesting in very different ways.  

After viewing the first two floors we decided to splash out on lunch in the award-winning restaurant. The chef,  Josean Martínez Alija , trained at “El Bulli”, for many years voted the best restaurant in the world.  Recently he was voted best young chef in Spain and, in Italy, best foreign chef.  We had five courses, all small but beautifully prepared and presented, with a bottle of Rioja, a bottle of mineral water and lots of home-made bread, for 23 euros each – you wouldn’t get that in England!  Then we completed our tour of the third-floor exhibits and visited the shop.  All in all a very enjoyable and interesting day.

Next day, a Friday, we explored the coast to the east of the campsite, heading towards San Sebastian through a series of attractive fishing ports and resorts – Zumaia, Getaria and Zarautz.  The latter has a fantastic, long, sandy beach which attracts surfers from all over Europe, not to mention plenty of Spanish holiday-makers, but seems relatively unknown to the British.  After enjoying a coffee on the promenade we walked through the streets of the old town and came on an amazing scene, a mini fiesta, with gigantic carnival figures dancing around to the music of a small band. 

From Zarautz we drove on to San Sebastian, the major resort on this coast.  It was very fashionable in the Edwardian era and still has the sort of old-fashioned elegance of some French resorts.  It sits on a large, semi-circular bay with an island in the middle, and has two good beaches, a busy harbour and an interesting old town. We headed for the fish restaurants lining the harbour and had chipirrones (baby squid) stewed in their own ink, washed down with a bottle of Txakoli, the local sparkling white wine which, like cider, is poured into the glass from a great height.
  
Back in Itziar, the campsite was filling up with the usual Spanish weekenders and was rather noisy.  There were lengthy family barbecues going on until late in the evening, and some people were still washing up noisily after midnight – rather annoying, as the washing-up area was right beside our caravan!  As I’ve said before, we like the Spanish but they don’t know the meaning of the word “quiet”!

Next morning it was time to pack up and head back towards France.  Rather than try an unfamiliar site we headed for St Emilion again, as it had been so pleasant on the way down.  This time we had a lovely big pitch backing onto the lake.  It was very hot so, after sitting outside with a cool beer, we headed for the swimming pool.  In the evening we sat outside until late, watching the ducks and enjoying the peace.  It was good to be in a campsite with civilised rules.  No noise or washing-up allowed after 10.30, and even the French children seemed to be quieter than their Spanish counterparts!
  
We awoke next morning to the sound of friendly ducks wanting their share of our breakfast baguette.  Since we were here 3 weeks ago a pair of white ducks had had a brood of tiny yellow ducklings, and we sat in the shade all morning watching their antics.  The mother, a real Jemima Puddleduck, had a funny little tuft on her head, and so did 3 of the babies!  We spent the afternoon in the pool, though John left halfway through to watch the England v Germany match – what a waste of time that was!  Again it was a very warm evening and we sat outside until bedtime.  This is a very relaxing site!
 
Next day it was time to pack up and set off on the long haul to Dieppe.  Our ferry wasn’t due to sail until the early hours of the morning so there was no hurry.  We had plenty of breaks en route but even so it was a long, tiring day.  Come dinner time, with rumbling stomachs, we started the search for somewhere to eat where we could also park the caravan.  Supermarket car parks often provide a solution, with French supermarkets usually good for a tasty meal.  Unfortunately this time the restaurants were closed.  This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as we happened upon a wonderful Chinese restaurant on the outskirts of Nonancourt, between Dreux and Evreux.  Think how much better French cooking is to English, then make the same comparison between English Chinese and French Chinese.  Delicious.

We reached Dieppe at midnight.  The ferry car park was closed so we drove round looking for somewhere to park the caravan and have a couple of hours’ sleep.  So far the holiday had gone without a hitch but at this late hour disaster struck.  There were a number of parks for motor homes, which had places too small for car plus caravan, and a number of car parks, which had height barriers too low for us to get in.  We drove along the dockside looking for somewhere, to find we were in a dead end street.  A U-turn, executed with some difficulty, took us back towards town and into a one way system, a narrow street with cars parked, French style, on both sides.  We just squeezed through, to get to the T junction at the end where we had to turn right.  No way.  With cars parked round the corners it was tight enough to get the car round on its own, never mind with the caravan.  Easy answer.  Unhitch the caravan, drive the car round the corner, then move the caravan round the corner and hitch up again.  Except the caravan would not fit round the corner to the right.  There was just enough to turn it left, against the one way system, and 100 yards down the road there was space enough to swing it round and drag it back to the car.  All at one o’clock in the morning, after a 12 hour drive, trying hard not to waken any more of the residents of the street other than the ones we could hear guffawing behind their windows. Nightmare!  Fortunately the street we were now on led to the seafront and we were able to park up for a couple of hours shuteye.

At the allotted time we drove back to the ferry port to check in. By this time I was desperate for a caffeine fix, so I wandered down to the terminal building for a “leak and a refill”.  The ferry leaves Dieppe twice a day, at about 5 am and 5pm, give or take.  The vehicle access opens two hours before each sailing.  So when do they open the cafeteria/bar?  Lunchtime, 12 until 2.  Even the coke machine was broken.  We finally got on the ferry, got a drink and were able to relax in the lounge.  Unfortunately the carefully chosen video on television was showing a French documentary about rock pool fishing in Normandy, with lurid views of cutting open live eels and crabs, followed by views of a red deer hunt, also well laden with gore.  Not ideal viewing for anyone prone to seasickness. Fortunately, it was a very calm crossing!

After that it was good to get back to Newhaven and Seaford, to home and to the cats, and to reflect on another memorable trip.

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