Saturday, 21 November 2015

Thursday 12th November 2015 – Brittany Ferries Cap Finistere, Bay of Biscay

So it is the end of another thoroughly enjoyable European Sojourn. We stopped at a supermarket for some Navarra wine and filled up with some diesel at the incredibly low price of €0.949 (70p) per litre. I had plotted two routes to Bilbao port for the Brittany Ferries sailing to Portsmouth. One was a pretty route on smaller roads and the other was a quicker route, mainly on motorways. Unfortunately, fog me    ant that there was no point in taking the pretty route. Having said that, the faster route was still pretty, the sun came out after we had passed Vitoria-Gasteiz and the temperature climbed from a minimum of 5º to a pleasant 17º by the time that we reached the port.
Despite the fact that there had been no wind at all for the past three days, it was surprisingly rough after we left the port but after a bumpy night it was much smoother as we approached Portsmouth. We were almost the last vehicle off the ship and we hit a lot of congestion on the way home, a real novelty as the roads had been empty for all of the holiday.
So back home to sort out the post, catch up with all of our friends and do some planning – where next???

Photos: None 

Wednesday 11th November 2015 – Ayegui, Spain

Mist again this morning but we didn’t have plans to climb any mountains so it wasn’t a problem. We headed to Olite (Erri-berri in Basque), which we had already identified as a place worth visiting and it looked really interesting as we drove through it late yesterday. As always in Spain, we had no problem in finding a place to park very close to the centre. The town has a really nice feeling about it – lived in, not just a tourist resort, with some interesting shops and lovely architecture. Our main target was the Palace Real, once a royal palace of the Kings of Navarra. It was built between 1402 and 1424 on the orders of the French-born Charles III (‘The Noble’), King of Navarre who was not the typical expansionist regent, constantly fighting military campaigns. Instead, he loved culture, living a life of luxury and was fortunate that this was a time of peace. The Navarra Royal family continued to live in the palace until 1512 when Navarre was conquered by Castile and from that time onwards the palace deteriorated. It was burned down during the War of Independence in 1813 and was a wreck in 1923 when the Council of Navarre decided to restore it. They did a fantastic job but it took 30 years and I hate to think how much it cost!
The palace, one of the most luxurious in Europe, looks like one from a fairy tale, with high walls and decorated with a forest of towers. With our English map and guide leaflet, we wandered through the building that is as it was in the time of King Charles III but bereft of furnishings. The King’s Chamber and Gallery and the Queen’s hanging garden on the first floor were impressive but the towers stole the show. I certainly got some good exercise walking up and down the towers and the views were really good, despite the mist in the distance. The most impressive tower was the Four Winds Tower or Tower of Three Windows where the King and Queen would watch the bullfights, jousts and tournaments that were staged in the boulevard below. King Charles loved keeping exotic birds and he kept them in a small walled courtyard that was covered in netting. As was the fashion of the time, he also kept exotic animals such as buffalos, giraffes, lions, camels and wolves in a park close to the castle. It must have been a very comfortable place to live.
The church of the palace, Santa Maria la Real has very restricted opening hours but fortunately is was open as we left the palace. It is a fairly low-key church but has a fantastic altarpiece and is historically important, being where the Navarra royal weddings were held.
We decided to head on to Ayegui and attempt to find a restaurant for a late lunch. The sat nav showed two restaurants within just over half a kilometre of the aire, 
so we parked up and headed for the main street. We found the first restaurant, which was closed and then saw a huge Coca Cola advert on the side of a modern concrete apartment block. This was for a café / restaurant and was the second restaurant shown on the sat nav. The surroundings were not at all inspiring but the café looked OK and the menu was quite impressive. We took a seat and found on the wall a Menu of the Day and that looked very good. I tried to order from the barmaid who looked a little confused and then led me through a door at the back to a very impressive restaurant with immaculately laid tables and plenty of customers. We had another excellent lunch, three courses with water, wine, bread and coffee for €13.50 (less than £9.50) and the roast rabbit was great!
We walked through the fog to the Irache Monastery but found that it had closed a few days before and it won’t open again until the Spring. However, on the way we were able to visit the Fuente del Vino (Wine Fountain) that Irache winery had set up in 1991 to continue the monastery tradition of offering free wine to pilgrims on the Santiago Camino. Small glasses were available for €1 from a vending machine by the fountain. Next to the wine fountain is a water fountain – equally welcome to the pilgrims in hot weather.

Photos: A view of Olite’s Palace Real from the Watch Tower; Just a few of the towers of the palace; A view from the Gateway Tower with vineyards and the wine museum; Two towers – left is the Four Winds (or Three Windows) Tower and right is the Guard Tower; A view through one of the windows of the Four Winds Tower.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Tuesday 10th November 2015 – Falces, Spain

Yesterday at the Bardenas Reales Information Centre, a screen showed the weather forecast for the next week and it looked great – sun, warmth and absolutely no chance of rain for the rest of the trip. However, it neglected to mention fog and that was we woke up to this morning.
Wearing fleeces, we went into the town and spent a happy hour and a half wandering around the streets, discovering a large section of the town that we had missed the previous evening. That included the castle (I am sure that the views are superb when you can see them) and San Esteban church. Building of the church started in 1055 and it was completed in the 12th century. Entering the church we saw a beautifully carved wooden Christ on the cross (Christ of Forgiveness), which was created in the 12th Century and has an elongated face typical of that period. I would dearly liked to have a photograph of that but there was a strict ‘no photographs’ rule rather than just the common ‘no flash’ rule. The same applied to the unusual 18th century organ that appeared to be in good condition, beautifully painted and unrestored. We also saw the 12th Century font where Ferdinand the Catholic was baptised. The crypt involved a long, narrow, spiral staircase but was well worth the effort. Here there were 11th century stone carved capitals and well preserved 14th century murals. We weren’t expecting much to see in the church but were very pleased that we had decided to visit.
The fog still hadn’t cleared so, rather than head for Leyre monastery that we suspected was in the hills and probably fog-bound, we decided to go to Sanguesa. There was some interesting architecture in the town and having heard that the Navarra cuisine is supposed to be the best in Spain, we wanted to try some.
Sos del Rey Catolico is a hill town and as we descended from it the mist started to thin a little. As we approached Sanguesa the sun broke through and it became a very pleasant day. As always, we wandered around, finding the pleasant river Aragon and a couple of interesting churches (always churches) and then we found the ‘Ciudad de Sanguesa’ restaurant that served only a ‘menu of the day’ at lunchtime. There were at least six choices for each of the three courses and wine, bread and water, all for €12 (£9). Not only was it very good value but it was delicious. The highlights were the starters – a seafood mouse and a mixed seafood pasta, but it was all first class.
We decided that we could fit in a visit to the castle at Javier, which has an interesting history. It started life as a 10th Century tower and was expanded to a full castle in the 14th Century and in 1506 the patron saint of Navarra, Francis Javier, was born there. The castle fell into ruin and was abandoned until the 20th Century when it was taken over by Franciscans who restored it and built a monastery next to it. The castle church marks the spot where Saint Francis Javier was born as the son of the wealthy castle owners. He went on to be a missionary, travelling to India, the Far East, Indonesia, Japan and China. He died in China in 1552, was buried in India and canonised in 1622. The 10th century tower is still intact but most of the castle has been rebuilt, although it is still interesting to visit as it houses a museum showing the life of the saint and there were good views from the battlements.
We had a choice of overnight stops – Tafalla or Falces but we liked the look of the aire at Falces and the fact that it had a Roman Villa on the outskirts made the decision easy. We travelled over some high hills and as we approached the summit of one, tendrils of mist spread over and down our side. As soon as we reached the top we entered the fog that had probably been there all day. The fog soon lifted but night had fallen by the time that we arrived at Falces. We settled down for a very light tea and got out the books.

Photos: A Sos street by day; The church of Santa Maria la Real in Sanguesa; Detail of the carving around its door – it is Judgement Day and this is Hell; The River Aragon at Sanguesa; Javier Castle.

Monday 9th November 2015 – Sos del Rey Catolico (Sos of the Catholic King), Spain

I managed to buy some sourdough bread in Arguedas that was really lovely, some of the best bread that we have had in Spain. After a leisurely breakfast we drove 5.5km from the aire into the Bardenas Reales and the Information Centre. There was an auspicious start as the sun was shining, it was warm and at least fifty storks took flight from the marshes – a very impressive sight. At the Information Centre we were issued with a map and guide in English and, having explained that we had a motorhome, we were told suitable routes through the park, all of which were unsurfaced dirt tracks.
This part of the Bardenas Reales is called ‘La Blanca Baja’ and is a white, semi-desert area, hot in the summer, cold in the winter and with little rainfall. Most of the rock is a very soft sandstone with thin strata of limestone and as erosion has taken its toll, this has left an intriguing landscape of strangely shaped hills and low humps topped with limestone hats. When the rain comes, it creates ravines and erodes the soft mudstone of the hills creating folds in the hillsides. A picture paints a thousand words – take a look below – but it doesn’t come close to seeing it in the flesh. This was a magical visit and well worth a trip if you are in the area.
We wanted to travel north, so we exited the park on a long unsurfaced track, a route not used by most of the visitors. In fact four of the five vehicles that we past were motorhomes – it was good to know that we weren’t the only mad people around!
We had a number of sights that we wanted to visit just south-east of Pamplona and the aire at Sos del Rey Catolico was the ideal base. We parked up and set off to investigate the Mediaeval town famous for being the birthplace of Ferdinand the Catholic (1452). The sun was setting and the sky reddening as we entered through one of the gates and got hopelessly lost in the tangle of narrow streets with towering houses on all sides. The sparse sodium lighting gave the town a lovely atmosphere and we found a bar with a terrace to enjoy a glass of wine and a tapas before returning to the van. Another change of plan – we really want to take another look at Sos tomorrow morning.

Photos: Bardenas Reales - this large flat hill is still protected by a layer of limestone but water and wind attack the edges; This hill has lost its hat of limestone and will be gradually eroded until it reaches the next limestone layer; The most impressive feature in the park will surely lose its hat soon; This low-level, clay feature reminded us of an octopus; Leaving by the north track took us closer to these high hills; A street of Sos del Rey Catolico.

Sunday 8th November 2015 – Arguedas, Spain

Our first target this morning was the Monasteries of Suso (upper) and Yuso Lower, both in the village of San Millan de la Cogolla. The sat nav set a cross-country route and all was going well until Jane said “I wouldn’t have chosen this route but the roads are very good”. Within seconds, the wide, deserted, beautifully surfaced road narrowed significantly and the road deteriorated to a patchwork of repairs. A tractor then appeared and I had to go off road for it to pass but the dirt surface was just as smooth as the road. One advantage of the cross-country route is that we were able to see the Spanish men enjoying their favourite Sunday pursuit – hunting. Ahead we saw a man running across the road, shotgun in hand, with three gun dogs around him. Cars were abandoned at junctions whilst their inhabitants trapesed across fields. In one case we saw men hunting through a vineyard – hopefully they only do this after the harvest.
After a few miles of very bumpy road, the surface and width improved considerably and we were soon at San Millan de la Cogolla. We were about to turn off to follow signs to Suso that a sign said that there was no parking and we should use the bus from Yuso. Arriving at Yuso, we rejected the over-crowded car park and used an overflow car park a few metres up the hill. Yuso monastery was built after Suso became too small for their requirements and the site was too cramped for expansion. So Yuso and Suso are inextricably linked and their histories are intertwined.
Visits to Yuso are by guided tour only so we paid our €6 each and, even though it was busy, we were able to start our tour 10 minutes later. We had an English leaflet and there were some boards with English text but the tour was, understandably, in Spanish. The most important aspect of Yuso is the history of the monastery and its importance for the Spanish e.g. the first record of the Spanish language is to be found here, 11th century notes made by a monk on a Latin text. This meant that the tour was heavy on talking and relatively light on sights, an interesting tour but not an unmissable one.
We decided not to go for the Suso tour and probably wouldn’t have been able to do so as the numbers are strictly limited and it was Sunday and busy. We had planned to drive down through the picturesque mountains of Sierra de la Demanda but the heavy mist and low cloud that had dogged us all morning was stubbornly refusing to clear and, if anything, had thickened in the hills above the monastery. We decided instead to go to Navarette, mentioned in the Northern Spain Eye Witness guide and where there was a campsite. OK, I sure that the views from the hill above the town would have been good if we could have seen them but there wasn’t anything else to recommend about Navarette. It had a very tired, down-at-heal appearance with many houses in a state of collapse and very little architecture of interest. All of this is rather surprising for a town on the Santiago route and we saw many pilgrims there. For a second time we changed our plans. Because we had spent so little time in Navarette, we had time to get to our next stop, Arguedas next to the Bardenas Reales National Park. The journey was on fast roads and, with the exception of the beautiful autumn colours in the many vineyards, the scenery wasn’t that exciting but as we approached Arguedas, the mist got thinner and thinner until blue sky appeared and the sun shone.
We drove into the aire and found ourselves underneath troglodytic dwellings cut into the soft rock of the cliff. The houses are now abandoned, but only fairly recently and village has created a walkway that allows people to explore them. A notice on the way says that it is forbidden to enter the cave house in the interest of safety – a warning that everyone ignores as the houses are open and still contain trappings of everyday living such as sinks, cookers and shelves. The evening shone on the cliff, illuminating the interior of the houses and it was easy to imagine the occupants in the houses with their animals in the back rooms and cooking outside in the good weather.
Bardenas Reales

Photos: The ‘Moor Slayer’ doing what he was good at over the entrance to Yuso monastery; View of the troglodytic houses from the aire at Arguedas; Two views of the interior of the houses.

Saturday 7th November 2015 – Casalarreina, Spain

Marion and Derek had told us about a Roman Villa site that they had visited with the campsite owner and that caught our interest. The owner gave us information as to its location and looking at it on the Internet, we discovered that it is the one of the most important Roman sites in Spain. We had thought about visiting it yesterday but decided that it would be better to do it when we moved on.
We said goodbye to Marion and Derek, wishing them a good winter and hoping that our paths would cross again in the future. The campsite owner, having twigged that we were interested in archaeology, showed us a 10th century stone sarcophagus laying in the campsite! He also gave us some anise biscuits an English language brochure on the sights of the Burgos area.
The La Olmeda villa at Pedrosa de la Vega was really in the wrong direction for us but it looked so good that we felt it was worth the diversion. And it certainly didn’t disappoint. It is a huge villa with a large area of mosaics, the star of which, the Achilles mosaic, is absolutely stunning and is the best mosaic that I have ever seen. Although little exists above ground level, the very clear plan and the quality and preservation of the mosaics make up for it. English language boards and interactive stations plus an English version of an informative video make for an interesting experience. A very good visit and highly recommended.
Heading west, we had a few hours of driving before we entered the Rioja region and within a minute we saw our first vineyard of the day. After that it was vineyards all the way until we reached our destination of Casalarreina and the aire at the municipal sports centre.
We decided to eat out but knew that we wouldn’t be able to get a meal until much later so we had a wander around the town. The aire is behind a very large monastery, not open to the public, so we walked into the centre to take a look at the front. It is a massive building with a very impressive carved stone doorway set in a square with other imposing buildings, probably also belonging to the monastery. It must have been a very wealthy monastery and must still have considerable income to enable it to maintain such buildings.
We thought that we would check out the restaurants in the town and followed signs to one. We walked for about half a mile until we found it but it was obviously a very up-market restaurant with sky-high prices to match. Plan B was initiated. There were lots of bars in the centre, some more salubrious than others, and most had tapas. We chose a busy one with a limited selection of tapas and just had one each. They started laying tables for dinner so I attempted to ask the owner about the food and timing. He didn’t speak English but I gleaned that there was no menu as such, probably a set meal or a verbal list of a few dishes but he also told me that they wouldn’t be serving until “nine” – said whilst holding up 10 fingers. I trusted the fingers over the English and ten o’clock was too late for us.
A tapas bar crawl ensued with tapas taken in three different bars. Not only did that give us a great selection of tapas but they also serve small, cheap glasses of wine and we were able to sample six different red Riojas – great fun.

Photos: On our way to Castrojeriz we saw many dovecotes used to supply people with protein throughout the year. Every hamlet had at least one and often many, sometimes restored and sometimes derelict. This was the only one that we saw today but was in very good condition; One of the smaller rooms in La Olmeda but with a most exquisite mosaic of unusual shape and wonderful patterns; Three photographs of the Achilles mosaic, the first of which shows the whole floor with a hunting scene at the front and the Achilles scene in the middle; Detail of the hunting scene; Detail of one of the borders – portraits, thought to be of the villa owner’s family, hang from the wings of birds whose tails turn into dolphins.

Friday 6th November 2015 – Castrojeriz, Spain

Changing plans again, we decided to spend another night in Castrojeriz. We were a little more active today with a longer morning walk around the town and out to the Santa Clara Convent. We had visited another Santa Clara Convent in Zafra where we bought some biscuits (see 15th October) but it wasn’t until we chatted with Marion and Derek that we found out that all Santa Clara Convents in Spain sell cakes and biscuits. Our visit to the convent had many purposes – an excuse for a way, to see the convent and to buy cakes. After ringing the bell we had a difficult discussion through a closed door – the nuns usually take a verbal order and money and produce are exchanged using a revolving hatch that means that there is no eye contact between nun and customer. Our nun however realised that this wasn’t going to work with us so she opened a door and greeted us. We ordered a fruit sponge cake and a chocolate and almond biscuit. They looked great when we got them and there was enough to keep us going for many days.
In the afternoon we climbed up to the castle past a large number of troglodytic houses built into the soft rock of the hill. Many of these houses are still occupied either as permanent dwellings or holiday homes. The castle is impressive, built in the 9th and 10th centuries partly on the foundations of a Roman tower and then enlarged in the Middle Ages. The weather was good and the views from the hill were excellent – mountains in the distance and forests of wind turbines on many of the hills. This was an important area in Roman times and a display panel showed a Roman road running past Castrojeriz and three Roman villas close to the hill.
Walking back down the hill we visited the church of Our Lady of the Apple Tree, although it was closed and then returned to the campsite.

Photos: These cave houses are currently being renovated; Smartly renovated cave houses; Castrojeriz Castle; The Santa Clara Convent viewed from the castle.