Into the New Year
We had a quiet few days after the birthday celebrations, doing nothing much at all. The camp site was very quiet as so many people seem to have caught the bug that has been going round. I suppose a winter camp site is much like a cruise
ship. If there is a bug to be caught, then we all catch it. Fortunately mine was just a 24 hour thing and I was soon over it. Lesley's is lingering on her chest and leaving her coughing a lot at night.
We did manage to sort the telly out, after a fashion. Because most of our pitches have been under trees the satellite dish has not yet functioned as it should, but the pitches here at El Pinar, as well as having electric and water, also have a TV aerial socket. I had bought a long lead with me, just in case, but of course it was not long enough. I visited an electric shop in Barbate, took my lead in and managed to explain I needed a longer lead so wanted a bit more wire and a junction thingy. The wire turned out to be so cheap I bought enough to do the whole job without a junction, but as the wire had no fittings on it I also had to buy a variety of sockets and joiners and plugs and so on. I bought one of each, to be on the safe side. Back at the caravan I sat down with screwdriver, Stanley knife and pliers and spent a happy hour putting plugs on the end of the wire. Then I found that the plugs would fit into the satellite connection on the pitch, but not the TV aerial. No problem, take the satellite plug off my own satellite wire, attach it to the new wire and then to the back of my satellite box. Switch on. No signal. Tried taking off the satellite plug, putting on an ordinary plug and plugging direct to telly. No joy. Now Pinar has its own Facebook page, Pinar People, and I recall seeing on that a query from someone with a similar problem. Some of the pitch connections do not work, but reception are great and they will sort it. So off to reception to explain. Sadly neither of the two nice English speaking ladies was around, but Mr Pinar immediately said, in Spanish, "Try this" and gave me an extension lead of his own, from a box full of them. Of course the lead fitted into the TV aerial socket, into the back of my TV and instant picture! All that messing around was quite unnecessary. So we now have four channels of rubbish Spanish game shows, ITV, BBC1, two German stations and the Discovery Channel in English with Spanish subtitles. At least now we can get Pointless and the 6 o’clock news.
On New Year’s Eve we decided we had sat around long enough, it was time to get out and about and see some of the famed “Pueblos Blancos”. We set off for Vejer, the nearby Moorish hill town we had visited some years ago, with a view to having a coffee there and then moving on to Medina Sidonia, seat of the Dukes of that ilk, the largest landowners in Spain. The old town of Vejer is set on a hill top, with its Alcazar, Castle and Cathedral, whilst the more modern town is on the slopes of three sides of it, the fourth side being a steep uninhabitable north facing escarpment. There are no straight streets and no flat streets; in fact most streets seem to have at least a 45 degree slope. Occasionally you will come across an archway through the city wall, but by this time you are so lost you don’t know whether it is an entrance or an exit. Then suddenly there will be a small square with a view out over the town below, to help you get your bearings before you disappear into the warren again. That said, the warren of streets are all interesting, white walls, window boxes or pots of geraniums attached to walls, old doorways, decorated window frames, hidden nooks and crannies. I would be quite happy to wander these streets for hours, but legs and feet won’t take it. But, and this is something we should have remembered from last time, there is a dearth of bars or coffee shops. We did find one eventually, of course.
We came across a couple of squares with reminders of some of the darker parts of Vejer’s history. There is a statue to the “Ladies of Vejer” who insisted on wearing a full burqa like black dress and hood, even after it was banned when the Moors were expelled and later by Franco. The garb was common in town even into the late 20th Century, being very practical in the dust and heat of Andalucia. The statue was erected by the Council of Women in 2007, to commemorate women’s equality, but I am not sure, and my research has proved ambiguous, whether it is commemorating the women who wore it in spite of the ban or the women who have broken free of the yoke of having to wear it.
The other reminder is that Vejer has always been a liberal, republican town in an area governed by wealthy landowners and royalists. It was the heart of the free thinking that brought about Spain’s first constitution in nearby Cadiz in 1812 when the French and the monarchy were expelled, and it was the heart of the reprisals by Ferdinand VII on his return. Many republicans were killed here. The bad feeling continued right up to the days of the civil war, when again the town came out for the Republicans and fought fiercely with the Fascist Nationalist troops. When the Nationalists finally took the town they solved the problem once and for all by throwing all the Republicans from the top of the ramparts. Nothing much happens in Vejer now. It is a site of national Interest, so there is some tourist trade. The best quote I found in my research was
“During summer, tourism brings work, but mainly the men of Vejer specialise in standing around and staring, at which they are remarkably accomplished.”
Some 20 miles north of Vejer is Medina Sidonia, another Moorish hill top town and “Pueblo Blanco”, home of the Guzman family, who played a large part in the Reconquest of Spain and were rewarded in 1445 with the Dukedom of Medina Sidonia and the largest landholding on the Iberian Peninsular. Today, the title is held by Don Leoncio Alonso González de Gregorio y Álvarez de Toledo, who is the 22nd Duke of Medina Sidonia and also Professor of History at the University of Castilla La Mancha , one of Spain’s new universities. The family fortunes are much diminished, although I suspect they are now still sitting pretty.
The approach was across a plain studded with modern windmills. This part of Spain must be the wind farm capital of Europe, and where there is shelter from the wind there are fields covered with solar panels. We parked in a huge empty car park at the entrance to the town, concerned that the streets might be narrow and steep and not much parking available. The ascent was gentle at first then got steeper, then up some stairs and we were at the castle ramparts. Or were they? No, it was the council offices. Back down some more stairs and a view through an old archway revealed the cathedral. This is supposed to have an amazing retable and paintings, but it was December 31. .Closed. The outside was nice though. We continued up the hill to the castle, or what was left of it. Two crumbling towers and some old walls covered in rubbish and stray cats. There were some more, restored, parts, but it was December 31. Closed. The views were good though, to Cadiz in the west, to the coast in the south and to the mountains in the east.
We walked back through the town looking for somewhere for lunch. The streets were deserted. The first three bars we tried just looked at us blankly. One had a big sign saying they were serving boccadillos, but no, they weren’t today. It was December 31. Closed, but for drinks. Eventually we found a nice little bar populated by a mad Spaniard with his ancient dog, a small party of Japanese tourists and a very flustered and seemingly overworked bartender who was a bit like Faulty Towers Manuel with glasses. We asked for “dos canas” and he told us to go sit down, he would bring it, then he disappeared round the back to do something. He eventually re appeared with the two beers and we tried to order some food, but he waved his arms in flustered fashion, busy busy busy, and said he would come back. He did, about ten minutes later, and took our order and I have to say the plate of ham egg and chips (oh, how boringly English you exclaim), when it finally arrived, was delicious. Wandering back to the car park we came across the main square, Plaza d’Espana, which was open, full of bars and restaurants and absolutely heaving with people, including a gang of young lads playing with spinning tops would you believe. I am sure that if we had approached the town from this side we would have had a much better opinion. There was certainly plenty to see, with the ruined castle, the lovely church and the remains of the city wall with its Moorish gateways.
The day was still young so we decided to press on northward for another 30 km to Arcos de la Frontera, yet another Moorish Pueblo Blanco, but this time one dating back to Roman and even Phoenician times. Arcos stands impressively on an escarpment above a loop of the river Guadalete and is far more touristy than the previous two towns we had visited.
In spite of this, and in spite of the fact the narrow streets in the old town were barely wider than a car, it was not pedestrianised. There was even a town minibus plying its trade through the town, struggling on some of the corners and well dented and scratched to show for it. We took advantage of free bank holiday street parking in the new town and walked up through these narrow streets, jumping into doorways to let madmen race past. Nevertheless it is a fascinating town with several old churches and a number of wonderful viewpoints with views down to the river, west to Cadiz and Jerez and eastwards to the mountains behind Ronda. One of these, at the end of the main square, had a man with a collection of raptor birds to pose for photos for a fee, which was a little sad.
The square was lined on the other three sides by a grand church, a smart old Parador and, in front of the castle, the refurbished town hall, which had been opened by King Juan Carlos. For this was a Nationalist/Monarchist town, which had surrendered peacefully to Franco’s advancing army. The 86 known Republicans in the town had then been lined up and shot. (by the advancing army, that is, not by Juan Carlos as he opened the town hall).
Time to return to the caravan to eat and get ready for the New Year’s Eve celebration in the campsite bar. Both the camp site bands were scheduled to perform, although sickness was threatening the whole event. We wandered down at about 10, grabbed a drink and went through to listen. We sat with Jill and Don who we had sat with at the birthday party. The bands and audience were depleted by illness but the performance was still good and a great time was had by all. As midnight approached everyone congregated in the main bar area in front of the television, which traditionally shows the Madrid Puerto del Sol clock (the equivalent of our Big Ben). We were all issued with twelve grapes by the bar staff, then as the clock strikes twelve times we had to swallow a grape on each chime. I saw no problem with this, being a habitual pip swallower, but many struggled! Then it was hugs and kisses all around, just to ensure that those who had not had the bug did now get it.
Back in the main room we were chatting to our Dutch neighbours, who had just got back from a week with their family in Holland, when Lesley spotted a familiar face. Towards the end of our original “gap year” in 2009 Lesley had been chatting on a forum to another couple, Phil & Hazel, who were thinking of doing something similar. They too set up a website, “Phil & Hazel’s Adventures” which is in reality as much of a 'Phil’s Daily Rant’ as a travelogue, but we have been following this for four years, with the occasional e-mail exchange. It was from their blog that we learned of El Pinar as a possible Christmas site. We knew that they were spending Christmas in Portugal and were coming here in the New Year. Well, here they were. After four years of knowing them we finally met them! Needless to say much Scotch was drunk as we saw the UK New Year in and before we knew it, it was nearly 4am. By this time the bar staff had formed their own band. One produced a guitar and they started singing some popular Spanish songs then moved on to what Jill called “Joke Songs”, a popular genre, sort of a cross between flamenco and calypso, where a well known chorus is interspersed with topical satirical verses. The Spanish end of the bar was in fits of laughter and applauding, so they must have been good. I have no idea what they were on about, for all I know they were making jokes at our expense, but hey, it was great fun.
New Years day was very quiet as a result of all this. An evening of wine, followed by a huge brandy for the Spanish New Year, a scotch for the British New Year then back onto the brandy and the Ponche (a lovely sweet brandy I discovered that night) was not good for the head.
Moving on rapidly to January 2 we had a nice walk on the beach at the adjacent resort of El Palmar, a long expanse of golden sand backed by a long expanse of surfing schools, shacks and bars, most of which were closed. In the evening we went round to Phil & Hazel’s motorhome for a meal and met Mark, another winter resident here and a very interesting character living under the radar in Galicia. Needless to say that was another long session. During our travels we have met and enjoyed the company of many people of many nationalities and many views. Phil and Hazel one of the few couples we have met who we would really like to meet again. Hopefully our paths will cross again.
All was quiet then until January 5th, which is the most important day of Christmas for Spanish children. Christmas is about religion, New Year is about grapes, but the evening of January 5th is Los Tres Reyes, the three kings. It is celebrating a combination of the three kings visiting the nativity scene and Father Christmas bringing the presents. It is the day that the kids get their Christmas presents, then the family goes out in the afternoon for coffee/coke and a cake, usually a special Tres Reyes cake, which is a large round donut shaped cake, sprinkled with sugar and jelly patterns, and containing a hidden dried bean and a plastic ‘king’, biting into which is good luck, just like the charms in our Christmas Pudding. Then at dusk the Three Kings parade through town on lit up floats, preceded by the town band, throwing sweets into the crowds.
In nearby Barbate nearly 2,000 Kilos of sweets are thrown. I have to say that being hit on the head by a shower of boiled sweets is not as funny as it sounds. We went to nearby Conil to watch the parade. It was great fun and a joy to see the kids scrambling for sweets and at the same time so well behaved. I had gathered a handful and passed them to a young lad and got a really genuine “gracias” in return.
Well, that just about ends our stay at El Pinar. Looking at the site objectively, we have stayed at sites with better wash blocks, ( we would prefer a heated wash block in winter), the site roads were a bit bumpy and the sap dripping from the pine trees has made a bit of a mess of the roof. However looking at the site from a travellers’ perspective, it was great. The atmosphere was good, management was friendly, the shop and restaurant/bar were good and WiFi was both good and free.
At the far end of the site there was, as there are at most winter sites, a group of regular stay Brits, but it was not an exclusive clique, we could join in if we wanted and were not looked down on when we did not join in. We might have been able to find a better site for our first Christmas away, but I don’t think so.
However, it was time to move on. We had been here 18 nights, which is quite a long stay for us, and there is so much to see. We have travelled north east to Humilladero, near Antequera, and next time we will be reporting on flamingos, donkeys and mountains.