Tuesday 30 March 2010

Cordoba, nearly the end!

Off to Cordoba, for the culmination of our medieval explorations, and also of our 'religions of the world' topic. We spent ages in the Mezquita, trying to draw bits of it, then wandered around the town a bit.

Cordoba is like Seville: there is a modern sprawl and an old quarter which is very touristified. Except I remember the modern sections of Cordoba being quite nice actually. In the afternoon, we had to wait for the Sinagogue to open, so we visited a small museum of Sephardic culture. It wasn't very bit, but had an interesting collection of menoras, and some beautiful modern paintings dedicated to medieval women of Andalousia, mostly poetesses, I think, of various cultures.

Our drive to Jaen was quite interesting because Gamine the gps, picked the shortest way. Actually, it's the way I would have chosen, looking at the map, but I wouldn't have stood a chance of finding it by myself. When Gamine told me to leave the motorway and turn right into what appeared to be a cart track, I demurred at first and went to get gas instead. Then, I decided it would be an adventure, so I went. It turned out that the cart track really was the main road to a whole bunch of places. It had once had tarmac, but not it just has signs warning you of holes in the road, and suggesting 20 km/h as a reasonable speed limit. I managed to go a bit faster than that most of the time, and it was kind of fun. There was nothing between me and the fields and olive groves but a ditch.

Now for an evil secret, we are actually sleeping in a hotel tonight. This was planned, partly because there are no campsites in my book between here and coast, partly because I figured we might need a bath by now, and partly because I wanted to give Antonia the experience of staying in a castle and behaving nicely at dinner! We have just had a two hour bath, and are chilling out till dinner at 8:30 pm.

I stole their picture! Hopefully, they will regard it as free advertising.

Tomorrow, I'm supposed to drive about 500 km. Urrrgh! I expect Antonia will make great progress on her book about dragons!! We would like to get back to the Malvarosa campsite.

The Real Alcazar in Seville

Today we went on a round-trip to Seville to see the Real Alcazar. We also found time to wander round the old town and laugh at the outrageous, and outrageously priced flamenco dresses. It rained hard while we were having lunch in a tapas bar, and we had to make a run for the palace. We wandered through the beautiful tiled and stuccoed rooms and courtyards in Islamic style and the sun came out in time for us to explore the even more beautiful gardens.

We spent four hours in the palace altogether, exploring and drawing things. The birds (doves, parakeets, peacocks, ...) were really excited about the sun coming out too, sometimes we could hardly hear each other in the garden. This is one of my favourite places in the world (better than the Alhambra!) I could spend days in here.

Antonia was in charge of photography today!

Actually, I've got my eyes closed because she told me too, so I wouldn't comment on her having the camera upside down.

We didn't leave Seville until 6:00pm so we got back to Fuente more or less at sunset and ate a quick supper in the van. There may be a lot of orange trees in the gardens of the Alcazar, but the landscape around between here and Seville is pretty much covered with olive trees. Some of them are now sitting in large, unexpected puddles of water.

Sunday, farniente...

We are in Fuente de Piedra, a little town with several things to recommend it:
a) it is small and sweet and has a famous fountain that cures all ills, even if it did stop working when there was an actual epidemic!
b) it has a 'laguna' outside - a brackish lake filled with flamingoes.
c) it is just about equidistant from Sevilla, Cordoba, Granada, Ronda and the coast.
Maybe that recommendation could have come first and most importantly, but its trump card is the presence of a campsite that's open year round, in a country where inland campsites appear to be quite sparse. This one might feel a bit too much like a car park in high season, but as things are, it's virtually empty. We can take up about three spaces, and move our little table around to the sunniest spot. Actually, by the time you read this, we will not be in Fuente anyway, as there is no Internet access here.

We had a leisurely campsite lunch and then went for a walk round the laguna to look at flamingoes. It reminded me quite a lot of the Camargue except for the hills in the background.

It's also true that you can't get quite as close to the birds as in the Camargue park I usually go to. There are also lots of swallows flying very close to us, and quite a high wind, both of which also reminded me of my childhood. The local people seem to like it here as well - they were out en masse for their Sunday afternoon walks.

Back at out campsite we drew, read and cooked a camp dinner for the first time: actually we just heated up a Spanish tortilla and some mixed vegetables from the supermarket - still, pretty healthy.

Sunday 28 March 2010

Wicked Camping

Today, we've decided to just chill out and enjoy camping. Some of the point of this trip was to test out the camper van concept to see how it might work on a longer term basis for the American trip.

Antonia and I both like the camping part of our trip. We would camp for ever... or at least until it gets cold! (I'm not sure if I can really say the same for the driving!). Crocodile Camper has everything we could possibly need. At first, we thought we would probably leave the bed out all the time, especially as we have an outdoor folding table and chairs. Then we realised that it is still cool enough some mornings or evenings that we might want somewhere to sit indoors. Fortunately, it is quite easy to change everything from night to day mode. There is plenty of space for the two of us, though I wonder how we would manage with three. I think we would need a tent as well.

Keeping everything in order does require quite a lot of discipline and organisation. There is no question of getting anything out and leaving it out. As time goes on, we are getting better at organising the van so that we don't have to rearrange all our stuff every morning and evening. Also, with just two people, we can more or less manage to each have our own private spaces, but with three that might become doubtful. Hopefully, the camper we would rent in the US would be slightly bigger. But.. how can I put this... I'm a bit concerned about how Mike would fare in such a setting. It's a shame we can't have a practice run. Of course, it would also be possible to get a real motor home, but they have disadvantages in terms of cost and maneouverability. The great thing about Crocodile is that it can pretty much go where a car can go.

Camping also requires a certain amount of discipline in keeping clean and tidy ourselves. I have been pretty strict about showers, even if they have been cold. I don't want to end up with dirty bed linen! And Antonia is starting to mutter about laundry, so maybe that will get done this afternoon.

On the roadschooling front, things are going pretty well, because Antonia has been using much of the hours on the road to work on things like maths and writing and she has been reading the books I brought for her. She is doing quite a bit of drawing from life which is important to me. I think the quality is not quite what she can do at home with fewer distractions, but that almost doesn't matter. It's good to learn to work under different pressures. I have given her most of the day off.

As for me, I'm a bit frustrated that I don't get a lot of free time, what with the driving and the organising, but that is partly because we are trying to do so much on the trip. Ideally, travelling days would be completely separate from sight-seeing and hanging out days, and we would spend two or three nights in each campsite.

As I said, driving Crocodile is a little bit of the downside. It is not a smooth ride! Apart from the fact that it is an automatic, it's engine seems really badly tuned and it feels like it backfires constantly. Driving with the window open, I realise just how horrible the engine sounds, and I'm a little embarassed to be seen in such a conspicuous vehicule while sounding like an army of teenagers on motor scooters!

What with one thing and another, we decided to scrap the part of the itinerary where we drive down to Gibraltar just to see if we can see Africa. Instead we are going towards Seville about one hour to a rural campsite where hopefully we will spend a couple of nights and see Seville and Cordoba from there.

What we really did on Saturday!

Mojacar in the morning with the light in the right direction:

So backtracking a bit, yesterday we were in a campsite near Mojacar. We rolled down to the beach front for dinner and discovered that this end was really Englandtown. I think the red 'pueblo' climbing halfway up the hill is one of those timeshare things. There are lots of restaurants and they all serve English breakfast and fish and chips. They don't bother to even try to speak to you in any language but English. After finding lots of sea urchins and a few fish at the rocky end of the beach, we had English pub food, and went back to our nice deserted campsite for a good night's sleep.

In the morning we headed west into the badlands of Tabernas, on small roads this time. It was a really enjoyable drive through spectacular country. From where we come from, most of Spain can look pretty arid, but this is one of the few parts that is officially desert. And I think it's technically a badlands because the soil erodes very easily into canyons and pinnacles. It looks so much like the south west United States (apparently) that they used to use it to film 'paella westerns'. What we really visited was the film set. And actually the most exciting thing that happened to us was some character practicing driving his car at mach speed and skidding it all over the dirt road, just behind us. You'd think when we got to the end of the road some young guys would pour out of that car, wouldn't you? Instead a man, a woman, and four kids wielding plastic bows and arrows, who definitely could not all have been fastened in!

It was really fun seeing the mishmash of architecture, from New Mexico/Arizona style to what seems more like Montana or the Dakotas, the 'Indian village' with plastic wigwams and the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada twinkling over them, the Fort Bravo with a real ruined fortress over it in the distance. We arrived in time for the fake gunfight. It was in Spanish and apparently the dialogue was quite funny, but we just followed the plot which was completely obvious

We had to get back on the autovia as being the only direct route to Grenada. We made a brief stop at Guadix to look for troglodytic houses that are supposed to be there. I got into a bit of a traffic jam heading into town, and decided I wanted no part of it. I figured troglodytic houses were more likely to be in the hills behind me. Sure enough, when I turned around, I found a whole neighbourhood of them. Many of them have fronts that make them look just like modern houses if you don't pay attention. Higher up, several have obviously been renovated as holiday accommodation. At last, we found two ruined ones right on the road. Swallows were flitting in and out of the doorways and it seemed as though dogs might hang out there (hmmm). Apart from troglodytic houses we wanted a supermarket, but we completely failed to find one (without negotiating the traffic jam), so we continued on our way to Grenada.

I had forgotten what a sprawl Granada is! And how impossible it seems that the section with the Alhambra is hidden away in genuinely beautiful surroundings. To get in the Alhambra, you really do have to book your tickets in advance, but it was the gardens and the Generalife that I really wanted anyway. I enjoyed them so much last time I came, and they are just as beautiful now. We explored for a while, but we were both starving. We kept seeing this little restaurant tucked away under a bridge between two sections of the garden. Eventually we decided we just had to go out and find our way there. 4.00 pm is late for lunch even by Spanish standards and we were just in time to get served a really delicious salad and scrambled eggs. We went back in the gardens and drew a bit which was very soothing.

At about 6:00 pm we set the GPS (who has been christened Gamine), to navigate us to a campsite in the heart of the Granada. Personally, I still find it hard to believe urban campsites exist, but this is the second one I've been in, and its perfectly nice, although a bit busier than anywhere else we've been so far. There is a supermarket right outside, and at about 8:30 pm we remembered to go there today, since it is Sunday tomorrow. Luckjly, lots of places stay open quite late in Spain.

Saturday 27 March 2010

Riding into the sunset

Actually, it was a bit of a fib about going to Spain. Sneakily, we headed off for the south-western United States. Antonia decided to take up a new life with a native tribe while I strolled into town. There seemed to be a spot of trouble going on:

This young man had just come into some easy money and obviously needed a manager. I felt sorry for him. Nothing to do with his looks whatsoever.

Eh, what? Travel journals are supposed to tell the truth? Oh well, you'll have to check back later when I've made something 'truthful' up.

Friday 26 March 2010

Botany Afternoon

This is Antonia doing what I wish I'd had time to do today:

I'm not sure if Crocodile Camper is the vehicule to change my mind about automatics. I suppose if that's all you've ever driven you can't understand the sense of responsibility that the manual driver has for every whine and shudder and misjudgement made by the engine. I'm starting to remember some of my New Zealand tactics, e.g make sure that there is so much noise going on that you can't hear the engine.

It's not Crocodile Camper's fault though, that it's further to Andalousia than I would like it to be. We hit the road about 8.30, and after a while if felt like I was just driving and driving and Andalousia was getting further and further away. We crossed plain after plain and crumbling sierra after crumbling sierra, but gradually conditions started to get more desert-like, and spring was clearly further advanced. At a quick stop at midday we were obliged to change into tank tops and sandals (are you sorry for us yet?). We reached Mojacar Beach after 5 hours, including stops, and with the whole afternoon before us.

Mojacar is a spectacular white village perched high on a hill. Mojacar Beach is about a mile and half away across open, hilly country. After hanging out on the beach a bit, we walked there! We are seriously into botany, as plant life is one of the most striking differences between home and here. The only plant I can name is wild thyme, but the ground was thick with bright yellow flowers, and many other more discreet kinds. There are many palms and cactus around here, though I think they are mostly planted by humans. One cactus species is growing wild, but I don't know if it is really native.

I wanted to draw plants, but I haven't really had time yet. After our little hike, we went to look for a campsite. It is really essential to have the book of campsites to find which ones will take you for only one night, as they are kind of a minority. We are in a place, it is so peaceful it's untrue! We are surrounded by mimosa (I think) in blossom and birds singing. In a minute we're driving about five minutes back to the beach and hopefully we'll find an open restaurant somewhere... or if not, a supermarket.

Crocodile Camper and the Motorway Monkeys

It's hard to believe, when you're walking along a moonlit beach admiring faint constellations that you were in the noise and strife of a big city only the same morning. Antonia and I were both ready for some peace and quiet, and we have come that far, and it wasn't always easy. We started the day by exploring the local covered market in Barcelona. They sell rabbit, stripped to the bone (rabbits haven't much else) but with their eyeballs still in situ! hmmm! Our little rabbit hid in the bottom of Antonia's bag.

After more ultra sweet pastries, we got a taxi driven by what appeared to be a very large monk to our designated bus stop. It was supposed to be outside a sex shop. When I eventually found this place it turned out to be extremely small, discreet, and dare I say it, tasteful. But the bus stop outside it was being torn up by big burly workers. I found the new right bus stop, we did get out camper about half an hour late, but it has a crocodile on it so that was worth waiting for. It also has right-hand drive and is an automatic so it's a good job I got some practice in New Zealand.

We ignored our kind camper dispenser's suggestion to set the gps to avoid toll roads and belted south as fast as we could. Antonia is writing a book about dragons, or she was until I called on her to try to navigate. The fruit orchards are in blossom and Spain is looking greener than I think I have ever seen it, though many of the rivers are still dry. Even though Crocodile Camper has a tendency to want to drive at 130 km/h when the speed limit is 120, I soon decided that we were not going to make the originally intended first stop. In fact we are in a campsite near Valencia. We are parked within 5 seconds of the beach, it is warm and oasis-like, though a bit humid now it is night, and we have strawberries for breakfast.

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Barcelona, Views From On High

The Sacrada Familia from the top of the Catedral.

I liked both the churches and got quite interested in sketching bits of the western facade of the Sacrada Familia. There is a lot to be said for art that gives people something to look at. If it had been a warm day, I might have stayed there longer, exploring my way over the facade with a pen. But it must be said that the Sacrada Familia is currently a cross between a construction site and a circus with huge bus loads of people all over the place. I suppose they have to pay for it somehow. The Catedral charged us less to go in, it was nice and peaceful, and had a beautiful cloister garden which mixed plants and animals with architecture and sculpture. The inside was full of art of a medieval religious kind, full of gold, which is what I like. I am like a Terry Pratchett dwarf when it comes to gold, gold, gold... at least in paintings!

Antonia's goal for the day was to take the cable car that goes right past the port zone to the base of a hill on the other side of Barcelona. Today's roadschooling consisted of her finding the way to the base using the city map, and I just followed her. I think she had fun doing that. I have never been on a horizontal cable car before, but this one ends at the same altitude that it starts and it is very long. It is supported on two large towers. We had a great view of the various portuary areas: recreational, fishing and commercial. I think Mike would have loved to see that. He will have to wait till I can sort out the photos though. As you can see it is not the greatest day weather-wise or for photography, but we are still coat-free, so that is something.

I thought we might walk around a bit in the park at the end of the cable car, but we were way too tired, so we just came back to the hostel. It is opposite the best tapas place so we won't have to go far for dinner! We are just about living on tapas, postres and sumo de naranja! What is our hostel like? Very, very basic, but OK I guess. I'm glad I had the duvet we need for the camper van, because we both slept under it last night in one single bed, otherwise we would probably have frozen. And we have no table in the room, so we are in the common room, but that is OK, as it is rather pleasant here.

Tomorrow, we head south!

Tuesday 23 March 2010

Barcelona, Objective Achieved

At last, a beach, some sun, and the opportunity to walk around barefoot!

After various vagaries of fortune (strikes, wrong addresses, and more) we reached the beach at Barcelona. It's all palm trees and fancy architecture. The beachcombing turned up some cool rocks, including lots of manmade bits and pieces, but few shells. Antonia found a 'treasure' that was once part of someone's floor, made of sparkly bits of rock set in cement. We walked along the beach and through the old town, picking up some cool pastries on the way and enjoying the atmosphere. Then we came to... the Mammoth Museum. Ok, ok, I have my doubts that any of this stuff you can touch and climb on is real, but it's the best thing that ever happened to Antonia in her entire life, so what can you say to that.
The guy who showed us round was pretty friendly and educational as well, so hey, it's all part of the roadschooling.

Antonia and I both like the old part of town best, but where we are staying is nice too. It's where all the art deco (or is it nouveau?) buildings are, and some of them are really beautiful. Plans for tomorrow include taking the outrageous cable car (Antonia), seeing Gaudi's famous church (Penny), and the other half of the old town I guess.