Happy Christmas after all
A number of our faithful readers have expressed appreciation of John's descriptions of our travels so far, but in case you think it’s all been plain sailing, Lesley will now tell you the downside of all the lovely sightseeing!
To be honest we started having problems before we even left home. John dropped and broke his mobile phone when we were in Oxford, and although he got it repaired before we came away, issues with the insurance claim have followed us on our travels. So have banking problems. We recently changed our account from First Direct to Nationwide, because abroad, with their credit card, there is no transaction fee, and no fee for cash withdrawals with their Flex Plus current account card. John changed the pin number when he got the card, but on first using it abroad he got the number wrong – he tried other numbers and ended up with a blocked card. Sorting that out has taken a lot of time, not an easy matter when we haven’t always had reliable internet access! Luckily it’s all sorted now, but is a symptom of our increasing forgetfulness as we get older – for example I forgot to pack several useful things including our pocket Spanish dictionary, so we had to spend quite a bit of time trying to find one (Salamanca had lots of bookshops but, being a university city, they were full of academic tomes. We finally found a simple Collins Gem dictionary in Caceres.)
Of course getting older does have its advantages, one being that we don’t get colds so often. This is because after several decades of exposure to germs we have built up our immunity. However, travelling abroad exposes us to new germs, and I realised I had caught my first cold in more than a year, probably exacerbated by the cold weather we’d experienced on our way down through France and northern Spain. Defensive measures were required. At the Caceres site each pitch has its own little wet room with loo, washbasin and shower, but the room is unheated and the water not particularly hot, so I decided to forego cleanliness in the interests of my health! If given a choice between being cold but clean, or warm but whiffy, I’d go for whiffy every time!
Our next stop, El Puerto de Santa Maria, on the Costa de la Luz near Cadiz, should have been pleasantly warm and sunny, but turned out to be very disappointing. Of the four days we spent there, the sun only shone on one! At least on that first day we got out and about, walking on the beach, and exploring the town which has an old castle and a church with a splendidly elaborate façade. I was pleased to see a good number of storks nesting on the towers and pinnacles or simply standing on the heads of saints. Storks are my second-favourite birds (seagulls are number one!) and have always been considered lucky, so communities usually welcome them.
An hour or so later, on passing the church again, we were horrified to see a man on the church roof busy destroying all the nests! Apparently they can become so heavy they damage the fabric of the building, but it was an unlucky omen, for during the rest of our stay in El Puerto there was thick fog and it was horribly cold and damp.
We’d expected occasional rain and cool early mornings and nights, but fog isn’t something you normally find in Southern Spain! The local people we talked to all said it was most unusual. The Jefferis Extreme Weather Effect strikes again! It meant there was no point doing any sight-seeing, although we were determined to visit Sanlucar de Barrameda, one of the three points on the Sherry Triangle, and the only one we hadn’t previously visited. So we drove through 20 kilometres of white blankness, parked and felt our way to one of the bodegas famous for making Manzanilla, a particularly dry sherry with an almost salty tang. On the way a helpful local chap told us how beautiful Sanlucar was in fine weather and how unfortunate we were to pick one of the worst days ever to visit it. That cheered us up no end.
We were the only two customers on the tour of the bodega and our guide spoke about as little English as we speak Spanish, so we only understood about one word in ten of his spiel, but the tasting at the end of the tour more than made up for this. In fact after a few glasses we seemed to be able to understand and speak fluently, but in what language I have no idea!
Even our favourite Spanish supermarket, Mercadona, let us down. In the past we’ve always been able to buy fresh milk there – the Spanish all prefer longlife milk. But the branch in El Puerto had none, and their meat selection was also disappointing. We wanted some casserole beef for our slow cooker, so we tried another supermarket, SuperSol. They had fresh milk, but the butcher’s counter was a nightmare for non-Spanish speakers, with huge nameless slabs of meat and hordes of very choosy shoppers giving the butcher detailed instructions on how to prepare their choices. After half an hour of waiting we simply pointed to something we recognised – oxtail – and ended up with enough to feed six people, and very expensive to boot! However it did make a nice casserole and we got two good meals out of it.
I also had to make a visit to a pharmacist, as Spanish supermarkets don’t sell any sort of over-the-counter medicines, not even paracetamol. We had prepared for this eventuality by bringing plenty of medications with us, including Lemsip and Strepsils, but no cough syrup, unfortunately. With the aid of my new dictionary, and a demonstration of my coughing technique, I managed to get some "jarape expectorante" for my “tos irritante”. It helped a little, but it took several more days and disturbed nights for both of us before I started feeling better.
I’ll skip over the other annoying features of our stay at El Puerto, such as the ridiculously complicated system for using a washing machine and the impossibility of getting any washing dried in thick fog. We decided to move on to our next destination a day early, and after barely 20 minutes’ driving we were out of the fog and into the sunshine, and it’s been warm and sunny ever since. We’re only about 60 kilometres south east of El Puerto, at a small place called Canos de Meca, on the Costa de Trafalgar. Camping Pinar San Jose is a pleasant, laid-back sort of site, set amid the sand dunes and umbrella pines. This area used to be a hippy hangout and it still has a sort of 60’s vibe to it.
The beaches are huge and deserted, although in summer they’re a magnet for surfers. Cape Trafalgar is nearby and at night we can see the beam of its lighthouse sweeping over the campsite.
There’s a supermarket and a restaurant, and on Christmas Day they laid on lunch for 46 people, with crackers and a visit from Santa (one of the regular campers – many of them return year after year). It was a very different sort of Christmas dinner, with not a sprout or turkey in sight! There were lots of tapas-type starters, then deep-fried fish, followed by the main course, a choice of pigs’ cheeks or tuna steaks (this coast is one of the main centres of tuna fishing). And finally, plates of delicious little sweets and cakes. All washed down with plenty of wine of course!
We’ve spent our time here so far relaxing, sitting in the sun, and making an occasional foray to a beach. There’s a friendly donkey in a field nearby, which makes up for the lack of cats here (there were several at El Puerto.)The temperatures are quite cool in the early morning and evening, and we sometimes need to put the heating on at night, but from about 10.30 to 4.30 it’s warm enough for shorts and tee shirts.
One of the nicest things about winter in warmer climes is the flowers, some of which seem to go on blooming all year. We’ve seen bougainvillea, hibiscus, aloe, lantana, angel’s trumpet, and – appropriately for Christmas – poinsettia growing outdoors to a height of six or seven feet. There are trees heavy with ripe oranges, and the usual huge, spiky cactuses. There are plenty of butterflies too, and the pine trees are full of small songbirds (and, at night, owls!)
John now takes over as Lesley has gone off for a walk to enjoy the sun, find some flowers and bring back some sea shells, while I sit mouldering having picked up the back end of Lesley’s bug. Fortunately it is not as bad as hers was, and I won’t have to suffer it through the cold wet rain of France and northern Spain, so a day in the caravan should sort it.
Let’s finish on a high note. Yesterday was my birthday. For the first time since childhood I wore shorts on my birthday; just for the morning though. Afternoon was party time. Marie, one of the Pinar regulars, was also celebrating her birthday and she invited us down to her do at a strange little bar a couple of miles away. As Lesley said earlier this area is an old hippy hangout, and this bar was certainly a relic from then. Run by a hippy dippy couple with a passion for music, the bar was virtually open air, the walls, floors, seats and tables all festooned with blankets, posters on the walls, including the iconic portrait of Che Guevara, an open weave rush ceiling, toilet in a cardboard outhouse, a tiny kitchen and a beer pump behind a serving hatch. Entertainment was to be provided by the Pinar Camping 'band’, a group of winter regulars of varying talents who started by “jamming” together for their own pleasure, but now put on the occasional concerts in bars in nearby towns. To be honest we did not know what to expect but were prepared for the worst and I was already making up excuses before we got there, ready to make an early departure after a polite length of time. Well, what a pleasant surprise. The company was good and friendly, the beer went down well (it would have gone down even better if the car hadn’t been parked outside) and out of that tiny kitchen Mrs HippyDippy kept sending plate after plate of food. Tomatoes in vinaigrette, grilled sardines, calamari, salad, fish croquettes, battered fish fillets, battered whole fish, chips, bread, cakes. All delicious. And when the band struck up they were a pleasant surprise. Don’t give up the day job, boys, and steer clear of Leonard Cohen, but otherwise pretty capable. One excellent guitar player had a good repertoire of old Blues songs which we particularly enjoyed.
And talk about a small world. Years ago, when we lived in Roundhay and used to go on Canvas or Eurocamp holidays, wherever we went people, on hearing we were from Roundhay, would say “don’t suppose you know Jane Fox do you?”. Well now Roundhay Jane has been replaced by Retired Yorkshire Bank recent new motor homer Doug Lowther. We met Doug out of the blue at Lake Iseo a couple of years ago when they were on their first motor home trip. Yesterday we were chatting to a couple from Scarborough, now living in Spain, who, on hearing the Yorkshire Bank mentioned asked if we knew one of their good friends Doug Lowther. And on the subject of Yorkshire Bank, we ex Yorkshire Bankers of a certain age have a thing about National Australia Bank, the Oz bank that took over YB (and Clydesdale) and tried to make it into something it wasn’t, wrecking it in the process. Well one of our neighbours here, Adam, worked for National Australia and came to London as part of a team briefed with extricating NAB from the mess they made. Adam now works as a self employed finance broker for the Film Industry, jumping between London and New York but living most of his time in a motor home travelling Europe while collecting rent on his two apartments.
So that’s your lot for this year. We are staying here at Pinar at least until after January 6, the Three Kings Festival which to Spanish children is more important than Christmas. We’ll report on that next time.