Tuesday 1 to Friday 4 November 2005, France
We started the journey south in good spirits, the sun was shining and it was warm. We had decided to skip the autostrade in France and take the national roads instead. These took us through villages with stone houses and public places with beautiful flower displays using pelargonium, petunias and pansies, and along roads lined with London Plane Trees. The autumn colours were there but not as spectacular as in Yorkshire. The roads had cutouts of the number of people killed there. I am glad this does not happen in SA, on some routes the verges of the road would not be large enough to take the cutouts.
The first night we could not find any campsites or service areas. The national roads do not have them, there are service stations, local shopping areas, campsites and hotels instead. We ended up in the parking lot of a Champion supermarket. This is a chain of supermarkets. It was cold, drizzly and windy. We did not have much water and no means to obtain any but at least the porta potti was available. Wednesday night was cold again and we could not find anywhere to stay. We decided we would be much happier in a hotel. The Formula 1 hotels are cheap, basic and warm. Dinner was cooked and eaten in the car.
Thursday started well as we headed south to Lyon then the weather deteriorated. The road signs are not always there and we ended up on the alternative route south. This took us to the west of Lyon away from the Rhone River valley through hilly country. It was beautiful with trees and small streams bubbling along. Eventually we managed to find our way back to the main road. We decided that tonight we would stay in a campsite. When we saw a sign we followed it about 20k only to discover it was closed. Then, on the way back we took a wrong turn and had to do a U-turn. Ever tried that on a narrow busy road with wet verges and deep ditches either side? We ended up with both back wheels in the ditch and Grom taking up half the road. Before help arrived the sun set causing even more of a problem for the traffic. Eventually a farmer with a tractor came along and pulled us out.
At least we had been told of a campsite on the national road, Camping des Nations, that was open. The facilities were good with lovely hot showers to warm me up before bed. Next morning Pieter rinsed out our water tank and filled it. Now we could be entirely self sufficient. Water is not that easy to get hold of in Europe, the taps all belong to a businesses or households and filling stations do not necessarily have taps. You actually have to go to a campsite to find a one.
Friday we stayed in a Formula 1 hotel in Nimes. All that wonderful accommodation in Groningen seems to have spoiled us for camping. That or the cold wet weather.
Saturday 5 to Tuesday 8 November 2005, Spain
Saturday we returned to Cadaques. Pieter has been there many times and we took the children there in the early 90s. The road along the coast was through mountains and had its fair share of 360 degree turns. The small pieces of land available by the Mediterranean Sea were built on commercialized. At least in Cadaques they were building holiday homes in darkish brick, the same colour as the soil. The campsite was closed so we parked for the night on some empty ground nearby. Later we were joined by 2 other sets of travelers. Sunday we walked down into the village for bread. It has not changed all that much and brought back happy memories.
The snow on the mountains and cold wind told us we needed to go further south.
South of Barcelona the coast road literally goes along the coast. The railway line is on the water's edge, then the road, then the houses. Most of the time the mountains came down almost to the sea so it would not be great for holiday homes.
We saw many fields full of caravans stored for the winter. There were Christian shrines along the road, same idea as in Ethiopia and signs in Arabic script a reminder of the Moors.
All the houses have shutters on the windows, still closed even though the sun is not very strong at this time of the year.
The sky was striped with the exhaust trails from planes - mans impact on the planet is even there.
Barcelona was crazy to go through because of the lack of signs, so we gave up and went on the toll road again. At least we had service areas to stay in for the next 2 nights. By the time we reached Almeria we decided it was warm enough to stop. We found camping at Roquettas and booked in for a month.
Wednesday 9 November 2005 to Wednesday 1 March 2006, Roquetas de Mar
The camp site has good facilities including endless hot showers and is within walking distance of a decent supermarket, Internet cafes, heated swimming pool and the beach. It also has a swimming pool (closed for the winter), small supermarket and a restaurant. It is a place where retired north Europeans come in their caravans and motor home to sit out the winter. We fit right in except our equipment is definitely more rugged. However, we are very cozy in our tent with our heater and have more room than the smaller motor homes. Everyone is very friendly and we have made several English speaking friends and are on smiling, nodding terms with the German speakers. I go swimming twice a week with Doreen and occasionally do some Yoga. Pieter has started running again. We also keep fit by walking the kilometer to the supermarket and internet cafe every second day or so. Pat and Brian take us to a larger supermarket further away when they go in their car.
The weather is variable. It is definitely NOT sunny Spain. Some days are glorious with lots of sun and a mild breeze. Other days are terrible with wind, rain and even some snow on the mountains. Everyone is complaining that it is unusually bad weather. Apparently the weather in northern Europe is really bad so they also acknowledge that they are comparatively better off.
It is a very comfortable quiet life, but our feet are starting to itch. We will just have to persevere for a few months though. At least it is good for our budget. And something else, entirely different, has made Pieter happy as well. He phoned Allan of LEGS in England, the people who fitted the reconditioned gearbox, to ask him something. Apart from giving him the requested info, he also told him they had stripped the gearbox that came off our car. And guess what! It appeared that the main shaft inside was broken near the end ball-bearing! They didn't know what they saw and called it a miracle we had been able to run the car in that condition. To Pieter that was actually good news because he had been somewhat nervous about the possibility of spending a packet where there had been no need for. And so you see: when you say that Land Rover has a rotten design gearbox, you should not overlook the fact that it will go with a broken main shaft in it!
Various celebrations covered the weeks before and after Christmas.
The first was Graham's 40th birthday party. He invited a large number of people, all friends he and his wife Rachael had made over the 5 years they had been coming to Roquetas. They included both German and English people although Graham himself is English. The party started at 13h30 with the Germans arriving promptly and singing Happy Birthday (!). The English arrived in dribs and drabs over the next half hour. Tables, chairs and drinks were supplied by the guests. Thy food was great, prepared by their long term friends. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed themselves, catching up on old friendships or making new ones. The Germans are very good at partying and went on a long time after the English had gone home. The last left at about 21h30.
Christmas day was spent with Pat, Brian, Doreen and Alex. Pat loves cooking and preparing for Christmas and put on a fantastic meal with all the trimmings including roast turkey and Christmas pudding. I cannot put into words the pleasure we had in each others company. Thanks Pat for all the work put into making it great,
Then there was the New Year's Eve party. This was held on the road as the pitches used for Graham's birthday party had been taken. Once again the guests provided the tables, chairs and drinks. We all pitched in to provide snacks and champagne for the midnight toast. The same cooks who prepared Graham's party food, prepared the curries and stews that were brought out hourly to soak up the alcohol. At midnight, Spanish time, we all hugged each other and sang Auld Lang Syne. Some stayed for the English new year an hour later. There were many firecrackers let off in the surrounding area, frightening the dogs in the campground.
Spain celebrates Christmas until 5th January, the eve of the 'Reyes' (the Kings). The tradition is based on the arrival of the three kings at the manger bringing gifts. Shopping centers have kings to listen to the requests for presents from children just like Santa Claus. The presents are brought by the Kings during the night and the children leave out food and drink. Roquetas has a parade on the evening of the 5th with floats, men on stilts, marching girls and lots of sweets. The sweets are thrown to the children along the route. There was much scrabbling around and some children scored big, everyone managed to get at least a few. There must have been millions of sweets thrown around. The cleaners followed the parade so that within minutes of the parade passing, there was no evidence of the parade on the street, only on the pavement.
We also received a present of 4 bottles of wine and sweets from the management of the campground. It was a nice gesture.
Pieter spent much of his time in November and early December on the Internet looking for a mobile home. We decided that although the Land Rover was great and could take us anywhere it restricted us from traveling in Europe in autumn and spring. It is not nice to put up a tent in the rain and there is very little sitting space inside, we wanted some additional comfort. We reasoned that the Land Rover was for young people not the young at heart.
He put in a bid on a Renault on e-Bay and we 'won' the auction. The terminology on e-Bay is not about buying and selling but about winning and losing! Of course the Renault was in England, near Manchester. We decided that Pieter would fly to Manchester and drive back rather than both of us going in the Land Rover and driving both vehicles back. The English weather was not where we wanted to be.
Pieter took a cheap flight from Almeria to Manchester on Thursday 15 December. Stephen, the owner of the van met him at the airport and took him home for the night. Friday they tried to sort out the payment. Stephen could not take a credit card and the bank would not give Pieter such a large amount from a foreign bank account. In the end they signed a contract that payment would be finalised by the end of December, Stephen signed ownership over to Pieter and Pieter left Manchester by mid-day. He was in a hurry to get back and made it by very late Sunday. This takes quite some effort. He was in Dover by 17h00 but decided to take a cheap early morning ferry to Calais. Early as in 02h30! He had to doze in a freezing van without any extra blankets or clothes. Once in Calais he set of on the motorway, eventually stopping at a Formula 1 in Rochefort, France. After a good nights sleep he sped southwards, arriving at 23h30. Not bad for 3,000 kilometers.
The van had been converted from a delivery truck with insulation, overhead cupboards, bed, seating, basin, stove and bathroom. It looked great but needed some extra storage space. There was no way we could fit the contents of the Land Rover in it. There are no places selling mobile home furniture in Spain and certainly not to match the existing cupboards. Pieter had to rely on Leroy Merlin, a large British hardware chain with a branch in Roquetas, for the materials. Pieter put in 2 large plastic cupboards over the bed and filled in the space at the top of the bed with additional cupboards. (Having first removed the original ones over the bed.) We could now move in our clothing and sleep in the van. What a contrast. We were used to our queen size bed with extra room on the length. We now had to fit into a short three quarter bed. The first few nights we could not find space for our feet and seemed to be sleeping on top of each other, but as with all things, time has allowed us to get used to the space available and we now sleep very comfortably.
The next problem was the fridge, there was none! We heard about Al's Camping in Torre del Mar near Malaga, apparently the only camping shop in Spain. So we went off to investigate. He did not have any fridges in stock but could order from France. We looked at the brochures and chose a 12 / 24 volt 39 litre upright fridge. The picture showed quite a lot of goods in the fridge and our Engel chest fridge was 35 litre. We ordered and it arrived in January. After picking it up we took a detour through some of the mountains, up above the snow line. It was a marvelous break from sitting at the campsite.
The problem with the fridge was that the picture really overstated its storage ability. If that many goods were put in, the door would be unable to close! It actually takes about one third of what the Engel can. It does have a freezer section for ice though. This left us with a dilemma. Should we use the new fridge or stick to our Engel. If we used the Engel it could not be hung over the bottom of the bed as we had planned for the upright. After several days of frustration with the expectations created by the brochure versus the reality we finally decided to put the Engel in the doorway of the van. This is not as crazy as it sounds. The doorway is quite wide and we can still get in and out without problems. The benefit is that now we can put a cupboard above the Engel and above the bottom of the bed - extra easily accessible storage space, something which is still in short supply. The upright fridge will go in the Land Rover.
The bathroom is small but adequate. It has a toilet, basin and shower with cold water and fits nicely into the van. It now sports a cupboard, towel rail, mirror and 3 small drying lines enough for a change of underwear, very handy when staying in a parking lot for a week!
The kitchen stove / sink combination is neat. There is even space for drying the washing up. Unfortunately the gas stove creates a lot of soot. It is almost as bad as the old coal stove we had in Comptonville. Soot gets everywhere and is difficult to clean up. Naturally I expected Pieter to have a look at the jets and be able to adjust them properly. This is an English gas stove though with a regulator and who knows what else so Pieter cannot find anything to adjust! We asked a German gas expert who had come to fix the stove in another caravan. His conclusion was that it was the gas. In Spain you get butane, the stove is apparently for propane gas. I am still not happy though. We have used both propane (from SA) and butane (from Uganda) in the stove in the Land Rover. The only difference between the 2 was that butane did not burn as hot. There was no soot. I have developed a routine to reduce the mess from the soot, so at least we can live with it. Perhaps we can ask a gas expert in England.
Saturday 21 January to February 1 2006, Alpujarras and Granada
Tired of camp life and working on the van, we decided to take a short trip through the Alpujarras mountains before finishing off the van and cleaning the Land Rover. Our route took us through magnificent, wild mountain scenery with multitudes of little white villages nestled on the slopes. In the flatter areas the plastic greenhouses are starting to be built, but as yet not very many. It was great to be on the road again! We spent Saturday night in a caravan park in Oliva. Sunday we tried to cross the Sierra Nevada, a mountain range north of the Alpujarras. Nevada means snow in Spanish, Sierra Nevada means snow mountains. They were covered in snow at the top. We went quite a way up and ended in a traffic jam. The Spanish had all come out to play in the snow. The traffic jam was the highest anyone could go without snow chains. Of course everyone was trying to turn around in the only available place. It was even more difficult for us with our long wheel base, large turning circle and front wheel drive. Eventually we managed and further east found an easier road across. The road was free of snow because at the top was the Puorto de la Ragua Resort. Again filled with people enjoying the snow.
This time we camped wild in a parking area near the bottom of the mountains where it was warmer.
Monday we wanted to do a loop through the town of Sierra Nevada. Again the scenery was lovely. Unfortunately, within a few kilometers of the town, the van overheated. It took quite some time to cool down sufficiently to start the engine. The cooling did not kick in though. At least Granada was only about 50km away and all downhill, so we headed down. Near the bottom an unholy clanking started. Pieter pulled into a service area and spoke to a mechanic. He could not help and phoned another mechanic. His prognosis - needs a new engine! Pieter was devastated, well beyond anger or any other emotion, we both felt this sense of deja vu.
The flatbed finally arrived to take us through to Renault in Granada. What a contrast to Egypt. His truck was well maintained; he used thick gloves, he had a remote for moving the chain; he had legs to stabilize the back of his truck; he took care to make sure the wheels of the van were aligned correctly; both back wheels were secured to the flatbed; he had a special license plate which was tied to the back of the van; he had a hands free cell phone for talking as it is dangerous to hold the phone to talk while driving but of course it was quite OK to dial numbers and use a calculator while driving.
Renault confirmed the diagnosis but they would only be sure once the engine was out. This happened on Tuesday. It is a Fiat engine and the problem was caused by being driven without sufficient oil at some stage. Parts were ordered and expected on Thursday. Thursday came and there were no parts as Madrid did not have them. They had to be ordered from France!! Deja vu
In the meantime the van had been moved out to the parking area and that is where we stayed until the engine was overhauled. It was not too bad. We had water, gas, our own toilet and access to off-cold showers used by the mechanics. Renault also provide transport for their clients to and from Granada several times a day so we could go shopping and catch up on the Internet.
Then it snowed. I never wanted to camp in the snow. Snow is cold and wet. Luckily Pieter had chased up additional gas on the assumption that the gas would as usual run out on a weekend. The insulation worked wonders and the lit grill kept the chill out of the air. We were really quite comfortable. It only snowed overnight and it took a few hours in the day before the sun came out again. In any case there was always the Renault showroom to run to with warmish air, plugs for the computer and a coffee bar selling delicious 'cafe con leche'. This is half espresso coffee with half warm milk. Delicious.
The parts arrived on Tuesday and the van was ready by Tuesday evening, just over a week - much much better than Egypt. Then there was the problem of payment. Again the transaction would not go through even though we had the money in the credit card account. It was already 9:00pm and time for Renault staff to go home. Spanish working hours are from 9:00am to 1:30pm and 4:30pm to 8:00pm. We decided to stay the night and sort it out in the morning when SA banks would be open. It turned out to be the same problem as when purchasing the van. There is a transaction limit which we do not seem to have any control over. In the end Renault divided the bill into 2 and sent through 2 transactions, one after the other. It worked although I cannot see the difference from the point of protecting the customer, perhaps there is another reason for the limit.
I have become friends with Doreen Botha (her husband left Rhodesia before it became Zimbabwe) and we decided to do the type of sightseeing that neither Alex nor Pieter are keen on. The first trip was to Almeria. We went by bus from near the campsite into Almeria and walked around from there. The tourist information office gave us loads of information and a map of the town. The main attractions are the cathedral and the castle. We had to walk through narrow streets to the Cathedral and then onto the castle. It was lunchtime by the time we came near the castle where we expected a selection of restaurants. There was one, a Moroccan restaurant where we had some soup. Then a steep walk up to the castle or Alcazaba. The construction of the Alcazaba was ordered in 955 AD and under the Muslims Almeria became the best market in Moorish Spain and the most important maritime outlet in Andalucia. The castle was the core of the city. Water was stored in an aljibe, an underground chamber for collecting and storing water. The area became dry after the 1522 earthquake sent the rivers underground. The aljibe would have been very useful then. The population built their small houses within the walls. We had a nice day out, but I would not go there specifically to see the sights. There are similar sights elsewhere.
While in Almeria we enquired about trains to Granada as Doreen had never been there. We also looked up day trips and decided that by the time we had paid our train fare and entrance fees to the Alhambra the day trip, door to door, with guide was great value and much easier than do it yourself.
Pepe Tours picked us up at 8:15 at the entrance to the campsite. This is an ungodly hour for people used to rising at 10:30. The group consisted of Germans and one English couple. Pepe himself was our guide and he was excellent, full of information and funny comments. Some information given while passing many orchards of olive and almond trees is that there are 250 million olive trees in Spain and Spain is the second largest producer of almonds after California.
We had to be in Granada before 11h30 as we had the 11h30 to 12h00 slot to enter the Nazaries Palace. There are 6,000 visitors every day and each person is given a time slot to enter the palace to prevent congestion. The palace is the one part of the Alhambra that everyone visits. The gardens, Alcazaba and other areas do not draw the crowds so well. Doreen and I missed the gardens as we ran out of time. We were given English language audio guides. These are a fantastic innovation as they allow each person to go at their own pace while still getting a fully guided tour. It was in Chester's cathedral, England that we had been introduced to them for the first time
The palace was the first on our list. It is as beautiful as I remember from the early 1990's when we came over with Pieter Frank and David. It is spacious, harmonious, elegant, serene, simple in overall design but intricate and delicate in the details. The Buildings from the Catholic period are blocky, heavy and over the top in comparison to the Moorish buildings. Granada was the capital of the Muslim Empire in Spain and when it was finally re-taken by Fernando and Isabella in the late 15th century it became their capital. The Moors had been in Spain for about 300 years by then.
We went into Granada for lunch and then headed home. I finally found out about the towers we had seen along the coast. They were built, presumably by the Catholics (forgot to ask) as they are quite blocky, every 10 to 12 kilometers as lookout towers to warn the major towns of imminent attack using smoke and light for communication. Today they have been replaced by radar to prevent Moroccans from gaining illegal access to Spain.
Spain is not warm in winter according to me. The English and Germans think it is fantastic and often wear short sleeves and shorts. I always have long sleeves and long pants. The snow on the mountains is visible from the campsite. It is rather like winter in Johannesburg with daytime temperatures up to 20° centigrade. It is hot in the sun but as soon as you move into the shade it is cold. It is cold at night and most people retire into their mobile homes by 18h00 and watch TV. We sometimes play domino's. It has also rained occasionally and then everyone is a bit miserable because we are all confined to small spaces.
Besides working on the van we spend our time socialising, reading, watching DVDs and playing Majong on the computer. Pat and Brian introduced us to the game and I can play for hours. I have reached the status of scholar, about a third of the way up the scale. Pieter really has started to read novels, something he has never had patience for. He sometimes reads 3 in a week. It really is time to move on!
Plastic greenhouses currently predominate around Roquetas covering all the available space, winking in the sunlight. Along the coast where the mountains go down to the sea the ground is terraced to accommodate them. They are well constructed and maintained. The vegetables (tomatoes, green pepper, cucumber, zucchini) are grown in bags of pre-prepared soil, presumably with lots of compost and watered by drip irrigation. In the 1960's the area contained only sheep and goats as it is dry with poor soil. The population were poor. Then they started building the greenhouses and supplying vegetables throughout Europe. The population became richer. Now the coast further north is over-developed. The farmers are selling their land at a good profit and moving inland to start again. The greenhouses are being replaced with apartment blocks for both Spanish, retired northern Europeans and holiday makers. The apartment blocks in this area are restricted in height to about 5 stories. Even then a clutch of 5-story buildings rising from a flat area looks strange.
Chocolate and smoked ham is pervasive. Biscuits without chocolate are rare. If you order a croissant, it is assumed you want a chocolate one. There are many different varieties of chocolate milk and lots of chocolates. Smoked legs of ham are everywhere; most of the luncheon meats are based on ham; pork is the most readily available meat. Wine is also very popular, cheap and available in all supermarkets
We went to a restaurant and had a wonderful paella to celebrate Pieter's 70th birthday. The accompanying sangria was potent. After lunch we went back to the van, parked in the street, and had a snooze before driving off. Just shows the pleasures of taking your bed along.
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