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Friday, 21 March 2014

Europe Trip 2014 - Palazuelos to Parque Nacional de Cabaneros

27th February, Day 19
We awoke with snow on the ground; our English friends had left at first light. Despite the snow, we decided to do the mountain road to El Escorial as the sky didn’t look too dark and heavy with the white stuff. In fact the drive wasn't bad, some snow flurries, but the road was clear and the weather just wet and misty at 1850 metres. Not too much fun though for the struggling skiers from the resort at the top – tramping along the wet road and moving in and out of the gloom on the slopes.

The snow keeps off the road to El Escorial

San Lorenzo de El Escorial is the name applied to both the Royal monastery and residential palace of the King of Spain, and the town in which it resides. There is another town, called simply El Escorial, a couple of kilometres away.

Arriving at San Lorenzo de El Escorial we nearly twisted our heads off trying to spot somewhere to park a motorhome, eventually electing to deposit ourselves directly opposite the monastery:  €4.60 for 2 hours. That meant I had to dive out of the guided tour half way through to get another ticket, but the tour guide and staff were very helpful – those that could speak English anyhow.

The Royal Palace of San Lorenzo de el Escorial
Perhaps the most memorable fact imparted to us by the guides was that the great monarchs, once their spirits had departed this earth, spent 42 years underground in a sack of lime before being transferred to their splendid bronze and marble sarcophagi and pride of place in the Pantheon. The reason behind this was so they didn't stink the place out in the meantime – the marble being porous to the fluids released by decomposing bodies!

The Royal Monastery of El Escorial

We couldn't find anywhere suitable to stay for the night around the streets, so went to the El Escorial campsite out of town, a huge and at the time, rather empty resort site: 18 euros a night – top rate for an ACSI site. Sue had another battle with reception over wanting to hang on to our passports.

Camping Resort El Escorial
GPS: 40.6254 N, 4.0986 W

28 February. Day 20
A return to the palace to see the art and architectural museums. After that I had seen enough but Sue’s cultural stamina meant she did the library as well, which of course was very interesting!

After this marathon of culture assimilation we drove out of town again, back towards the campsite to see the Civil War monument at Valle de Los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen). Built at the behest of General Franco to honour the dead of the Spanish Civil War, it took 18 years to complete and features a vast basilica hollowed out of the granite hillside. It is a long drive through the woods to reach it and, astonishingly, the interior is larger than St Peter's in Rome. On top of the 150 metre high granite outcrop is a 150 metre high cross, dominating the stupendous setting and visible 20 miles away.

The entrance and cross of Valle de Los Caidos

After that we hit the main roads down to Aranjuez and the campsite on the perimeter of the Royal Palace gardens. A pleasant, friendly campsite with a good shop and a 20 minute walk from town. Quite a few Brit vans around, in transit mostly. We signed up for a weeks wi-fi but it was not very fast and kept logging us out, also you could only log in one device at a time.

Camping International Aranjuez
GPS: 40.0425 N, 03.6001 W

Just as we got into bed, there was a distinct burning smell from underneath it. We couldn't decide whether it was the electric heater, battery charger or battery, so I switched everything off and disconnected the hookup, putting the fridge back on gas.

Day 21. 1st March
It dawned a chill, damp day. I investigated under the bed and concluded that the smell was coming from the electric water heater the battery charger and battery seemed to behaving normally. We left the heater on and the smell dissipated. In my investigations I also found that the whole heater had shifted when going over a large bump in the road and also one of the air duct hoses had become disconnected, there’s a silver lining…

All seemed fine until the evening when the charger kicked in again on its full charge cycle. Peaking at 14.6 volts for a few seconds, then down to 14.3, it became obvious that the charger was the source of the smell and that it was getting rapidly worse. I switched everything off again and disconnected the hookup.

Day 22. 2nd March
We took the opportunity of a free ride into town on the road train or Chiquitren and did the palace first. The Palacio Real de Aranjuez was designed by the same men that designed El Escorial and was to me probably more impressive than El Escorial, especially the Arab room and the Sala de Porecelana, an amazing room of oriental bas-relief porcelain plates which totally cover the walls and ceiling. They are very strict about photography inside, which is a shame, but par for the course.

Palacio Real de Aranjuez

 A sneaky glimpse of the palace's interior splendour

 The Royal Palace of Aranjuez

We then had a fine 3 course luncheon in the Rincon de Godoy restaurant on the opposite side of the square. Traditonal style and service, excellent. With a half carafe of wine, water and coffee, it came to only 32 euros – fantastic value.

Restuarant Godoy

The Chiquitren does trips around the town and royal gardens, including the museum of royal barges, which was fun and saved us a hell of a lot of walking. 

I guess that must be the Royal Barge then...

Interestingly, Joaquin Rodrigo’s glorious Concierto de Aranjuez was inspired by the palace gardens and is meant to evoke the sounds of nature in and around them. 

The road train awaits!

We then had a bit of a wait for the last road train back to the campsite, but a good day, without the rain!

Day 23 to 25. 3rd to 5th March.
The weather got colder, but the skies were clearer and we enjoyed the sunshine and a nice cycle trip into town and some shopping. I stripped the charger down but could find nothing wrong with it. Apart from a little dust inside, it was fine?!

A crisp and clear morning at Camping Aranjuez

Day 26. 6th March
Our day trip to Madrid, and gifted with a cloudless sky. A five minute taxi ride to the station cost €12; the Linea C3 train from Aranjuez to Madrid (very modern, smooth and slick) €8 return for a 50km journey!

Our first stop was for coffee and "tosta rustica" in the Cafe Brilliante, across the roundabout from the station – loud, manic, but a great place to adjust to the buzz of the city.

A coffee and tosta rustica at Cafe Brilliante sets you up for the day

We decided to do the city tour bus: day ticket €21 each. Route 1 before lunch and Route 2 after. You absolutely have to get a top deck seat to get the most out of this, and it's still not easy to get good photos of anything, but the commentary does give you an introduction to the city.

Steering clear of the numerous tourist restaurants on the Paseo del Prado for lunch, we found the local’s Café Bar Roda on the Calle de las Huertas. Menu of the day: Salmorejo, a cold, creamy deep pink-orange summer tomato soup originating in Córdoba, made with tomatoes, bread, oil, garlic and vinegar and garnished with diced Spanish Serrano ham and hard-boiled eggs. Followed by paella, and creme caramel. With a glass of red wine, only €22 for two!

The menu of the day hit the spot!

After that well-rounded interlude, we caught the bus for Route 2 round the city. Having alighted the bus and passing the Naval museum (lots of fascinating stuff for a marine engineer), I managed to drag Sue innot a trick I often pull off (she had the Museo del Prado in her sights!)

The American battleship Maine which accidentally blew up in Havana, Cuba on 15th Feb 1898, precipitating the Spanish - American War!

A reconstruction of the captains cabin in a 19th Century naval vessel

Unfortunately, closing time intervened at the art museum so we missed out on the opportunity to gaze at 1300 artworks based around the former Spanish Royal Collection. Shame however we did have time for  another trip on the bus (Route 1 again) as the sun went down, and a couple of beers before the train back!

The fabulously ornate city hall

The Metropolis building lights up

Day 27. 7th March
A big clean up day before we moved on.

Day 28. 8th March
Preparing to leave the campsite, I finally found the source of the nasty burning smell – the electric hook-up lead was welded to the side of the van! After emptying all the kit from under the bed (no five-minute job) and removing the cover from the fitting, the cause was obvious – a terminal screw had come loose and arcing between wire and terminal had melted the bits together. Getting the plug out called for a little restrained violence but eventually it gave up and we could pack up and leave.

Next stop: Toledo. We picked up some LPG on route and were loaned yet another different adaptor by the garage.

The only campsite in Toledo is Camping El Greco and it’s pricey; although the pitches are a reasonable size, entry into them is cramped and could be difficult if you have a large van. At this time of year though it was fairly empty. 

Good pitches, but tight to get into
Camping El Greco

GPS: 39.8656 N, 04.0467 W

To get us connected to electricity again I removed the hookup fitting and cut out the electrical part, then fitted a plug onto the cable inside the van so that the lead could be passed under the flap and through the hole to the plug. A faff, but it did the job.

Day 29. 9th March

After a late start we just managed to catch the 10.00 am bus into town: just €1.40. It was still cold up on the town square, but the sky was clear and the tourist office was open and they gave us another map with the attractions printed in English on the back. The only way to really see this town is on foot, the ubiquitous road train is limited to very few streets and the City Tour bus only does the town square and then around the outlying countryside.

Toledo, the main square

 Narrow shafts of spring sunshine light up the narrow streets

The low sun was only just reaching its fingers into the narrow streets by 10.30; first stop was the Iglesia de Santo Tomé to see the El Greco painting El Entierro del Señor Tomé, probably his most famous (the one about two saints coming to earth to lay a local notary into his grave). Entrance was €2.50 a head plus one euro for the sound guide. We were just in time, as a coach tour packed the hall shortly after we arrived and individually they never got close to the painting!

Some scrummy (and filling) hot chocolate and churros in here

After some wonderfully warming hot chocolate and churros in the tiny Santo Tomé Churreria, we then headed down to see the El Greco museum, stopping first to look at the Sinagoga del Transito and Museo Safardi. As it was Sunday, entry was free. 

The Museo del Greco was also free, but the sound guides €2 each. The museum is worth a visit for the house and gardens alone, even if you are not a fan of El Greco; a feast if you are.

The shady courtyard of El Greco's house

After some lunch at a cafe in a nearby square, we visited the Monasterio de San Juan de Los Reyes, the bright afternoon sun wonderfully highlighting the intricate stonework. Entrance €2.50

The cloisters light up in the Monasterio de San Juan de Los Reyes

Nearby is the Sinagoga Santa Maria La Blanca, undergoing restoration but some lovely stucco work still evident.

Some impressive stucco in the Sinagoga Santa Maria La Blanca

Working our way back up to the cathedral we looked into the Iglesia del Salvador, an ancient mosque converted into a church. Entrance €2.50

They are big on marzipan in Toledo, so we went for some marzipan refreshment at the Confiteria Santo Tomé, apparently the best stuff in Toledo, for which is is duly famous.

Yes, its all marzipan!

We finally got to the main event, the Catedrale de Toledo, a vast edifice for which you are charged the princely sum of €8 (including audio guide) at the gift shop across the road. It is magnificent nonetheless, probably one of the finest we have seen. 
Toledo Cathedral

Day 30. 10th March

Another glorious sunny morning but still cold. We paid our €60.60 bill for two nights and headed out of town for the Parque Nacional de Cabaneros

Yee ha! the open road!

We found a wonderful lunch stop at Risco de Las Paradas, a spot made famous in a 1928 poem by Spanish essayist Felix Urabayen.

Just room for one...

 ...and a view to die for!

GPS: 39.5849 N, 04.5273 W

Just around the corner on the flat valley floor is vast and elegant Finca. Curiously, the wonderfully smooth black tarmac we had been enjoying so far that morning curved into the Finca entrance and came to an abrupt halt – now, there’s influence for you! Soon after, back onto the rough and broken tarmac we found a fabulous pitch for the night overlooking the valley floor. This space is probably used for parking on hunt days, so is probably a spot to avoid at weekends if you don’t want a gun waved at you!

A perfect spot for the night

GPS: 39.5802 N, 04.5311 W

Monday, 3 March 2014

Europe Trip 2014 - Astigarraga to Palazuelos

19 February. Day 11
We slept well, with only a slight hangover from the mix of young ciders. It was a late start however and by the time we on the outskirts of San Sebastián and had found and parked in the Zerbitzu-eremua Autokarabana or “Welcome Area for Motorhomes”  it was time for a light lunch and a snooze!
Water and waste services are free on this aire but your stay is limited to 48 hrs and you must buy a ticket from the machine. There are strict rules against putting out awnings, tables or cooking outside, though leveling blocks and steadies are allowed.

The magnificent centre, waterfront and old town of this fabulous city are an old haunt from my seafaring days, and from this 6 euro a night aire, only a short bus ride away.

San Sebastian's "Welcome area for Motorhomes"

Overnight stop and service area
GPS: 43.3077 N, 2.0142 W

After debating whether to visit the city or save it for the warmer weather on the way back, we finally decided to head for Estella in the Narvarro region. After many miles of picturesque countryside we found ourselves on mountain road well into the Parque Natural de Aralar, and pulled into a large car park attached to a modest hotel or park lodge on the Basque Country/Navarro border. The lodge was closed and apart from a single car, which later departed, we were on our own. It would do for the night, and as if to welcome us, there was a glorious sunset with golden butterscotch light pouring through the trees. Later, Sue thought she could hear a wolf howling. As we discovered after, this was more than possible.

This spot is a starting point for many walking and nature trails, which are well illustrated on several information boards.

Golden evening sunlight in the Aralar Natural Park

Overnight stopover
GPS: 42.9605 N, 02.0999 W

20th February. Day 12

Early morning mist changes the atmosphere

It was an utterly quiet night, so quiet it was almost creepy... perhaps last evening's Dire Straits had driven all the wildlife back into hibernation! At an altitude of 600 metres the overnight temperature had dropped to 1.5 degrees and an early morning mist shrouded the hills and trees – very atmospheric. As we drove south through the parkland we had some wonderful glimpses of mountain scenery through the mist.

Spectacular sights came one after the other

Today's destination was Estella, another venue Sue had picked from the Green Guide. Founded in 1090 and on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, it appeared not a fraction as romantic as the guide made it sound – if fact we struggled to find what we were supposed to be looking for! We did however manage the Basillica del Puy: a modern but interesting church on the site where earlier pilgrims had set up camp!

Moving on, we got as far as Logrono, the capital of La Rioja, situated on the Ebro river. We availed ourselves of a free pump 'n dump on a vast car park attached to a stadium.

Overnight stopover and service area
GPS: 42.4792 N, 02.4572 W

Then to the Parque de la Grajera y la Barranca, which incorporates a man made lake alongside which a section of the Camino de Santiago passes, plus wooded areas and picnic spots. We put ourselves in the corner of a large and empty car park 3 minutes walk from the lake.

Got the place to ourselves again!

Overnight stopover
GPS: 42.4497, 02.5014 W

21st February. Day 13
Another very quiet night, and even some warm morning sunshine! I strolled to the cafe overlooking the lake to try the wi-fi, but the guy behind the bar was at a loss to explain why it didn’t work despite showing a connection. The trip wasn’t wasted though as I enjoyed a couple of red squirrels chasing each other around the trees!

We decided to take a route through the Parque Natural Sierra de Cebollera towards Segovia, through some fine mountain scenery. We stopped to watch some white water canoeists set off down the river, carefully checking each other's boats and securing their waterproof decks before launching into the rapids.

The mountain river provides good sport for canoeists

Later we came across a massive rock fall which had partially blocked the road. Amazingly a huge caterpillar digger was at a crazy angle halfway up the rock face, trying to remove the rest of the loose rock, mad or what!

We continued on the LR 113 until 8 km before Mansilla de la Sierra, and there in the middle of nowhere on a bend in the road is the Venta de Goyo hotel. We didn’t need any encouragement to park in the nearby empty roadside car park for the night! The hotel appeared to be open and had a fine looking restaurant decorated in traditional Spanish style, but sadly only the bar was serving. However, we enjoyed a few beers and free wi-fi and walked back to the van under a sky studded with bright diamonds, the only sound the River Ventrosa gurgling and giggling below – magic!

Our soundtrack for a nights sleep!

The Venta de Goyo Hotel

Overnight stop and hotel/restaurant
GPS: 42.1732 N, 02.8865 W

22nd February.  Day 14
A grey start to the day, but I went for a walk along the river, and amongst the smaller debris, found a large boulder that had fallen from the roadside cliff and crushed the metal Armco barrier – eek! That would have made a mess of our van!

Then it started to snow. We drove around the beautiful emerald lake created by the Mansilla dam. The snow got heavier and started to settle as we moved on, little villages and hamlets getting a dusting of white as we passed by, cattle and horses grazing free by the roadside.

Free ranging animals add their colour to the landscape

At Salas de Los Infantes we did some food shopping; the people delightfully helpful and friendly, then moved on to an aire at Hontoria del Pinar, a nice peaceful spot a short walk from town. The information office was closed, as did seem much of the rest of the town – just the winter population, behind closed doors.

Overnight stop and service area
GPS: 41.8439 N, 03.1642 W

The El Chatto bar was open however, local people playing games and watching the footy. A group of elderly ladies dressed in their finery came in, hair freshly coiffured. They refused to let us give up our large table for them, insisting instead on huddling around a smaller table; chatting politely away, nodding heads and touching arms – it was going to be a raucous Saturday night!

Sue was desperate for a stamp to post a birthday card and I went through the sign language with the strongly built and slightly sullen looking young barman. A long search and various consultations ensued, and despite my protestations to abandon the search he eventually came back with a big smile on his rugged face and a postcard of the town with the bar’s rubber stamp on it! I thanked him graciously, paid a few cents and ordered another drink!

23 February. Day 15
It was a very cold night, and we awoke to heavy frost sparkling in the morning sun. We left late, stopping for some bread and buns in San Leonardo de Yague, then took the road through the Canon del Rio Lobos to just before El Burgo de Osma.

Canon del Rio Lobos

Not having any information about suitable parking in the town, we found a closed bar/restaurant next to a small derelict chapel alongside the road and decided to stop the night. When the barking dogs arrived later on, we realised that the building was actually occupied, but the owner was quite unconcerned.

Overnight stop and bar/restaurant
GPS: 41.6218 N, 03.0528 W

24 February. Day 16
We drove the short distance into El Burgo de Osma, the cathedral town of the Province of Soria, and eventually found a free parking space on the main road. There is the obligatory bullring, but on the other side of the road, the old town and cathedral have been beautifully and expensively restored, and were pretty deserted at this time of year. It is well worth a visit, with a good sprinkling of specialist foodie and souvenir shops amongst the narrow streets and ancient architecture. On the other side of the river is the separate and smaller Ciudad de Osma.

 Newly refurbished streets reveal the old architectural construction

 Catedral de la Asuncion

Not many people about this time of year

Leaving town in the direction of Gormaz, we found a coach and car park by the river which would have done nicely for the previous night, and given us easy access to the town. Doh! 

Overnight stop
GPS: 41.5866 N, 03.0733 W

The old Arab castle at Gormaz was built around 750 AD and was the largest citadel in Western Europe in its time. It looked spectacular from a distance and the view from the top didn't disappoint either. 

The approach to the Fortaleza Califal de Gormaz

Surprisingly, the place was completely open and unrestricted to visitors: no railings, no warning signs, no visitor centre – just hewn rock, dust and vegetation. Consequently it had an amazing atmosphere. Some parts of it have been accurately and sympathetically restored, and though some don’t like to see that, I do, finding it helps to give a sense of what it would have looked like in its day. Such work can also ensure continued access to the monument.

 Unrestricted access to this amazing monument

 Spectacular views from all sides

Some careful and accurate reconstruction preserves access

Gormaz Castle
GPS: 41.4930 N, 03.0082 W

Moving on through the countryside towards the main road to Aranda del Duero, we passed a vast and amazing plantation of we know not what – nut trees we think – taking up almost the whole of the floor of the valley; industrialised agriculture on a landscape-transforming scale

In Aranda del Duero we found the Repsol LPG station quite easily but discovered that the style of hose fitting had been changed since our last visit to Spain and none of our adaptors were any good! The male attendant hadn’t got a clue but fortunately one of the girls behind the counter knew where a set of adaptors were stored and thankfully found the magic connector.

LPG Autogas station
GPS: 41.6624 N, 03.6918 W

Finding the aire was a bit more difficult as Copilot tried to take us through a new construction site, but another approach got us there – a good size park next to the railway line, with free water again, and just a short walk from town.

Overnight stop and service area
GPS: 41.6684 N, 03.6958 W

Aranda del Duero is the capital of the Ribera del Duero wine region and is famed for having wine cellars that run beneath the streets of the town centre. There is wine festival in September that lasts for nine days. The town square is quite picturesque, and generally there was a nice feel to the place.

The elegant centre of Aranda del Duero

25th February. Day 17
We left fairly late again and headed for the ancient hilltop town of Sepulveda on some very minor roads. On the approach we parked above the gorge that characterizes it and were treated to aerial acrobatics by some Griffon Vultures. They whirled and dived, soaring in the high winds right above our heads – amazing. After a while we spotted them resting and nesting on some ledges on the rock face and I spent some time trying to get some decent photos, but the wind was too strong for my lightweight tripod.

Griffon vultures right over our heads!

We moved to a huge coach/car park well below the town and were once again alone. After a walk around the old town in the chill air to view some churches, we inspected a few bars and restaurants, but despite the towns reputation as a gastronomic centre we didn't feel drawn and after a couple of beers dashed home in the rain for one of Sue's fish risottos.

View over Sepulveda

Overnight stop
GPS: 41.2987 N, 03.7454 W

26th February. Day 18
The air temperature dropped below zero in the night, and the morning sky was dark grey and overcast. Again on minor roads we made our way for a look at Pedraza, but were unable to find any suitable parking that wasn’t a mudbath. The official parking sign took us up the hill around a tight turn to a narrow archway at the entrance to the town – we managed to stop before I took the roof off! I don’t think they had motorhomes in mind!

Segovia can trace its history back to 75 BC and is on the main route of the Camino de Santiago, its Aqueduct and old city was made a UNESCO World heritage site in 1985. We struggled to find anywhere to park, and there was a 2 hour limit on the blue spaces by the Aqueducto Romano. We spotted a coach park on the city map and worked out its position using Copilot. When we got there the car section was packed and the coach section half full, but we tucked ourselves away in the corner of the coach area and nobody seemed to bat an eyelid.

Segovia has a wealth of rich architecture

Unsure of the security situation, Sue went up for a tour of the cathedral, Alcazar, and the main square, then I went for a similar excursion on her return. There is a lot to see in Segovia, so if you want to really do it justice, it’ s probably worth finding a campsite with transport links to the town.

The enchanting Alcazar has much to see inside as well

The  Roman Aqueduct defines the city

After a driving tour around the ancient walls we found our way to Palazuelos, where there is a small Autocaravanas service point and nearby a gravel parking area with two Brit vans already in residence! We later shared the space with another Brit van and a couple of large trucks.

Service area
GPS: 40.9280 N, 04.0577 W
Overnight stop
GPS: 40.9287 N, 04.0544 W