In Search Of The Holy Grail
It is a month now since we settled here, and it seems strange to be writing a travel blog when we haven't travelled anywhere! Most of the time we have been relaxing, reading and walking along the coast path, but we have had days out to a number
of nearby resorts and villages. We thought we should split this blog into two parts. First I will write about the area, why we are here and why we like it. Then, in the next blog, Lesley will write about some of the places we have visited.
I suppose for most Snowbirds the Holy Grail is the perfect campsite in the perfect position with perfect weather. Like the Holy Grail, such a thing cannot be found, but every year they try and often they get very close. Many look for a large campsite with lots going on, lots of their own countrymen to form cliques with, looking to form a "Little England" (or Germany or Holland) so they can feel comfortable. Many, like us, prefer a smaller site with a mixed cross section of nationalities, where one can actually enjoy “being abroad” and where we don’t feel like party poopers if we don’t join in the Bingo/Quiz night/Disco.
What we all look for though is a site with good sized, well drained, level pitches with a good amperage electric supply and with fresh water and waste water drainage close to hand. We look for a reasonably modern, clean, well equipped and heated shower and toilet block. We look for friendly and helpful reception and cleaning staff. Fresh bread and hot croissants in the morning is a plus. The site we are on, Ribamar in Alcossebre, has a very bold tick in all those boxes.
The perfect position covers two factors, the immediate location and the hinterland. Being close to the sea or having a sea view is always a plus: even if the weather is not good enough for swimming you can’t beat a walk along the beach or along the prom before your morning coffee or chocolate and churros. Similarly the proximity of restaurants, bars and cafes (the latter for said chocolate and churros) is important. The nearest supermarket should not be far away, particularly for those in motor homes who have to rely on bicycles or shank’s pony to do their shopping. Here Ribamar scores again, although not quite so strongly. Its downfall is that getting to the shops, bars etc entails a mile and a half walk along a very rough stony coastal path (albeit with superb views) or a mile and a half drive along a very unmade up road. The road is so rough in places that after a recent storm half of it disappeared into the ditch. It is this road that puts many people off coming here, which is in itself a plus, because it means the site never gets overcrowded. However the campsite does recognise the problem and provides a twice-weekly minibus trip to the supermarket, and the staff regularly fill in the worst potholes in the road, although the improvement doesn’t last long!
Some like to go to the big resorts where they have the high rise hotels and apartments, John Smiths on tap and bacon and egg for breakfast. Others prefer the low key resorts, of which I am glad to say there are still plenty. Alcossebre is one of them. It is very undeveloped, with no high rise buildings, very little on the sea front, a little closed down out of season but enough still open to provide what we need, and a proper little town behind the seafront.
As far as hinterland is concerned, there are four main “Costas” to which the snowbirds migrate. The most popular is perhaps Costa Blanca, with, of course, Benidorm, along with Calpe, Alicante and La Manga, but also with less developed towns such as Mojacar, Mazzarron and the Cabo de Gata National Park. This is followed closely by the Costa del Sol, famous for Malaga, Fuengirola, Torremolinos and Marbella, the sort of resorts about which tales are told, not all of them good. But also there are Torrox, Nerja and Almunecar, much less intensively developed and much the better for it. Least popular, because it is the furthest away and because in winter and spring it suffers very high winds, is the Costa de la Luz, stretching westwards from Gibraltar towards Cadiz, Seville and the Portuguese border. This is a magnificent and comparatively undeveloped coastline with high cliffs, sandy beaches, Roman and Moorish remains and lovely old villages. The two Costas to the north of the Mediterranean coast, Brava and Dorada, are important in the summer, but are not snowbird territory.
Alcossebre’s Costa is the Costa del Azahar, the Orange Blossom Coast. It stretches from the Ebro Delta in the north and the border with Catalonia, past the popular resorts of Peniscola and Benicassim, the provincial capital Valencia and on to the smaller resorts of Gandia, Oliva and Denia. As the name implies it is where most of Spain’s oranges are grown. The coast alternates between long sandy beaches and wild rough volcanic rock. Alcossebre is on one of the sandy bays, but two miles north, where the campsite is, is the Sierra de Irta National park, one of the wild rocky areas. Inland is the El Maestrat mountain range, which forms the edge of Spain’s central plateau and rises up to over 2,000 metres (6,000 plus feet).
So having found the right sort of site in the right sort of locality in a nice area, you can see why we have stayed put for so long. The only thing left to consider is the weather. Well it’s safe to say we’ve had lots of it. Most days have been clear, sunny and reasonably warm, in the high teens and low twenties. Some days have been a lot cooler, and we have just started a run of several days of quite chilly weather, down in the low teens with quite a strong wind. For the past two days that strong wind has been almost at gale force, with the caravan rocking and the awning trying hard to take off. So bad in fact that I had to get up in the small hours last night to secure the awning with the washing line as the storm guys had snapped!. It has been mostly dry; although early in our stay we had some very heavy rainfall. In fact the area had more than its usual November allotment of rain in just a couple of days. We escaped the flooding seen in the Malaga area, and are glad to be so far away from the floods currently sweeping England.
The sea has been wonderful. It has varied so much, from a calm clear blue Mediterranean to really stormy, almost Atlantic-like turmoil of huge waves crashing against the rocks, quite audible in the caravan at night. The shore here is a volcanic conglomerate in horizontal strata with sandstone. This means that much of the shoreline is undermined by the sea, which forces its way up through blowholes to form amazing waterspouts. There are a few sandy coves in the National Park and these are littered with masses of shells, much to Lesley’s pleasure. Our pitch here on the site is decorated with little installations of shells and interesting pebbles.
Lesley will tell you all about our trips out in the next blog, but I will recount the tale of our trip to Valencia. Because we are away for so long and travelling so many miles (17,300 to date) it is inevitable that the car will need servicing during the course of our travels. We had already had it serviced in Perpignan in May, but the next service was overdue. There is a Hyundai dealer in Valencia and with the help of David at the campsite reception I had managed to explain to the garage what I wanted and booked the car in. There is a metro station just 100 yards from the garage, so we saw this as an ideal opportunity to spend a day in Valencia, one of the few major Spanish cities we had not yet visited.
So we turned up on the appointed day at the appointed hour armed with dictionary, phrase book, registration certificate, warranty book, insurance certificate, passport, driving licence and the last service bill to explain what we wanted. In England it would be an easy, “give me an 80,000 mile service please”. In Europe they work in kilometres, the service intervals are different and what they do at each service is different, to allow for the very different driving conditions. Having booked in we asked the way to the metro station. He took us through the workshop, out a little back door, across a yard, through a padlocked gate and pointed over the road. Easy Peasy. We did not worry at the time about how to get back to the garage later. Would you believe that here we have a large shopping centre, with supermarket, furniture outlets, DIY outlets and car dealerships, with its own dedicated metro station and bus interchange, but to get from the station to the shopping centre is a half mile walk round the outside of the centre and up a back alley! What planning skills the Spanish have at times!
At the metro station we wanted to buy a day rover type ticket, to give us the freedom to see not only the city centre but also the fabulous new science park. There was a very helpful ticket clerk, who saw us struggling with the ticket machines and came out to assist. Turns out if you want any sort of day rover or season ticket you have to first buy a little plastic card, with a memory chip, for €2 then load your required journey onto it. But even the friendly clerk could not tell us whether what we had bought included buses, whether the science park was in zone 1, and how to get there. Eventually we were on the train and ten minutes later at Plaza d’Espagna, which we assumed to be close to the centre….. Not……It was a good 20 minute walk from there to the old quarter and the cathedral. Fortunately on the way we spotted a coffee shop offering coffee and ensaimada for €2 each, which when it came was served as a desayuno (breakfast) with a glass of fresh orange juice too.
Suitably refreshed we walked on, the shops gradually getting posher and the buildings grander, until we spotted the Plaza del Ayuntamiento (city hall). This was a lovely triangular park surrounded by very impressive buildings (most now banks, of course) and a splendid City Hall. We called at the tourist information office and picked up a map and got confirmation of the way to the science park. Armed with the map we walked on towards the cathedral. On the way we spotted a lovely little church, with a statue of St Martin on the front, where we spent some time wandering. At last we reached Plaza de la Reina, the central square, backed by the cathedral. We had not really walked far, but it felt like it, so time for another drink. On the square we spotted a branch of Valor, a posh Spanish chocolate house, so we sat outside with a cup of hot chocolate. Here the hot chocolate is not as we have in England, a cup of hot milk and/or water with cocoa or chocolate powder. Here you get what it says on the menu. Hot chocolate, chocolate melted into a cup and served with a spoon, probably about 5,000 calories a cup. I had one flavoured with orange; Lesley had a Mayan chocolate with cinnamon. Delicious.
Then it was on to the cathedral, dodging round a number of school trips. Here, at noon each Thursday, they have an interesting ancient custom on the steps outside. The Tribunal des Aquas is held to settle any disputes about water supply to the farms in the region. A panel of representatives, decked out in black gowns, from each of the eight regions, listens to disputes and makes an immediate ruling, against which there is no appeal. We were expecting something traditional, but to be frank it looked more like a Rotary Club committee meeting. The representatives filed out of a council building and sat in a semi circle, while the town crier, wearing a traffic warden’s hat, called, in Valencian (a similar language to Catalan) for disputes from each of the eight regions. In the absence of any dispute, they all filed back to the council building.
The cathedral itself is mainly Gothic, 14th & 15th Century, with later additions. There are pictures by Goya, and the overall impression is of magnificent opulence. Just outside the main cathedral is the Chapter house, now the Capilla de Santo Caliz. Behind the altar, in the centre of a set of reliefs by Poggibonsi, is the Holy Grail. Yes, your actual Holy Grail, which King Arthur’s knights, Crusaders and even Monty Python had failed to find. Surely they would have known it was here all along. This 1st century agate cup,taken to Rome by St Peter, brought to Spain for safety during the 3rd century, is claimed to be the actual cup used by Christ to drink wine at the Last Supper and offer the first communion.
After the cathedral we wandered the streets some more, past the Lonja, the 15th century Silk Exchange, built in the Flamboyant Gothic style, to the central Market, an amazing stone and glass Modernista fabrication, where we browsed the stalls with watering mouths.
Which reminded us, lunchtime! After lunch we walked up to the north end of the city to see the Torres de Serranos, the old city gateway. Here there is a wide valley sweeping round the city where the river Turia used to flow. The river was diverted in 1957 after yet another flood and the valley is now a park, with cycle paths, sports fields and lush gardens. Imagine doing that in York! At the southern end of this parkland lies the Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciencies, Valencia’s huge science park. We walked back to the Plaza del Ayuntamiento and took the bus out to this.
The 420,000 square yard science park is a collection of ultra modern steel and glass structures set around an artificial canal. At one end is a huge concert hall, at the other Europe’s largest maritime and sea life museum, with tropical and polar settings, lakes, underwater glass tunnels and everything you would expect. Between these is a science museum and an exhibition hall. Just beyond is Valencia’s Grand Prix circuit. It all sounds amazing, and it really is an architectural masterpiece, but when we visited there was hardly anyone else there.
Many people in Valencia Province regard the park as a huge white elephant, one of the main reasons the province is bankrupt. As an indication of how bankrupt the province is, pharmacies have not been reimbursed for prescriptions dispensed for four months now. Many are struggling and most are not able to re-order drugs. Most are on strike three days a week and are refusing to dispense prescriptions unless paid for in full. There is a shortage of important drugs such as insulin. But that is digressing.
Back in the city we sat with a beer while I phoned the garage to see how things were going. They told me that they had not had time to change the cam belt and there were some things they needed to discuss when I got there. It would be ready in 45 minutes. So back to the metro, round the back of the shopping centre, a quick call at the supermarket and into the garage. First things first, we did not have time to change the cam belt but here is a written estimate of what we would charge if you brought it back. Secondly you need to change all four tyres as a matter of extreme urgency. Thirdly the heat sensor in the exhaust catalyst is not working, but we did not have the part. And here is your bill for what we did do, €800 plus. Gulp.
So it was off to the Spanish equivalent of KwikFit to see about tyres. The law in Spain is that all four tyres must be the same make and specification. It is ok to come into the country with a foreign registered car with tyres that conform to their own country’s rule: in the UK tyres on the back axle must match and tyres on the front axle must match, so it is possible to juggle around. However if you change tyres here it must be in accordance with their laws, so I had to have four tyres, even though two of the existing tyres were still good enough to pass a UK MOT. Now I am as bankrupt as Spain.
I phoned my Hyundai dealer in Seaford to discuss the cam belt situation. He was surprised. The cam belt change is at 100,000 miles or 6 years, so it was not due anyway. As it happens the price quoted me was about right. So the car is now booked in to Seaford for its MOT when we come back for Christmas and Mark will check it over then. I suppose doing 17,000 miles in a year, much of it fully loaded and towing nearly two tons of caravan, would take its toll.
So we found the Holy Grail campsite, and even the Holy Grail itself! Read the next exciting episode for an account of the other places we’ve visited while staying at Ribamar.