Spain – detour to Madrid

After a few lovely days in Valencia, the predicted cold front hit us and we decided to move on.  We drove inland to the heart of Murcia province and the unspoilt highlands of the Sierra Espuna natural park.  We left the motorway and drove quiet winding roads which climbed ever higher and higher.  The campsite here is, once again, in the natural park and is small and friendly, nestled on a mountainside just outside the village of El Berro.  The weather forecast was not good so having found out that our friends Annie and Gaudy would be in Madrid for the weekend for Gaudy to run the Madrid Rock’nRoll marathon, we decided to leave Bambi in the camp and drive up to Madrid to join them for the weekend.  We certainly timed our trip north well, as we missed 2 days of solid rain in the Sierra Espuna and Madrid, although freezing cold by marathon day Sunday, was at least dry.

The weekend was great; we hired a tiny studio apartment in the area that is the Dalston of Madrid; described in the Lonely Planet as “quirky, alternative and a melting pot all in one … with a reputation both for antiglamour cool and as a no-go zone, depending on your perspective”.  We loved it!  The streets were lined with small bars, restaurants, galleries and literary cafes and lots of graffiti; with the beautiful buildings (it is also the city’s oldest barrio) in varying states of repair.  We arrived late Friday and immediately explored the neighbourhood, stopping for drinks and tapas in several places.  Having planned things with Annie, we surprised Gaudy the next morning, and spent the day taking in some of the sights of the city, as well as carbo-loading with Gaudy – a particular highlight was tapas that evening at Estada Puro, a tapas bar with a chef trained under Ferran Adria of El Bulli fame.  Our favourite was the 21st century Spanish omelette; real molecular gastronomy, served as an egg foam in a glass with caramelized onion at the bottom, rather than anything resembling a traditional tortilla!

Marathon day was freezing – it was all over the news that the country as a whole was at it’s  coldest; a complete contrast to the warm sunshine of the past weeks.  We spent a busy morning racing the streets and navigating the metro following the race; we managed to see Gaudy 5 times along the way as well as on the finishing stretch.  I think Annie, Leigh and I got nearly as much exercise as Gaudy did!  We had a relaxed afternoon, sampling more of Madrid’s fine cuisine and said our goodbyes at the airport that evening, before getting on the road and heading back through driving rain to our mountain camp, where, thank goodness, the rain had actually stopped.

Gaudy's winning smile - in training for the Comrades

Gaudy’s winning smile – in training for the Comrades

Spain – on to Valencia

We so enjoyed our time in the Sierra d’Irta and were really sad to say goodbyes to all at Camping Ribamar, including our lovely neighbours, Karl and Marita who sent us on our way with a parting gift of Lindt chocolate, which is made in their home town, Aachen and which did make the onwards journey sweeter!  We spent the last few days there exploring the coast south of Alcossebre, cycling as far as Benicassim among orange orchards and along coastal paths, as well as heading out once again into the mountains.  Another highlight of our time here was breakfasting at Casa Julian in the tiny village of La Barona in the mountains.  Not much to look at from the outside, we entered to find a room full of locals breakfasting; groups large and small, all with large amounts of food and drink (wine, beer, whisky and brandy!) in front of them and in great spirits taking a break from the working day.  We had pan con tomate, there version of which is a huge round of bread which is served with a plate of olives, onion and alioli and we also had a meat and cheese plate; simply wonderful.  We decided to join in the drinking with ice cold beers – we are on “holiday” after all – but didn’t indulge in the brandy coffees everyone was finishing with.  It was a fascinating place, with really good food and, even better, was cheap as chips!

We’re now staying in another natural park, the Albufera de Valencia, just outside Valencia city.  The Albufera is mainly marshland with a large lake in the middle, surrounded by rice paddies and is the birthplace of paella.  There is a great network of cyclepaths, which connect the park to the city, and we’ve so enjoyed exploring Valencia by bike.  Valencia is an architect’s dream city: intricately preserved Roman remains including an elaborate baths complex; the Cathedral with its mish-mash of Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque style; wonderful art-nouveau modernista markets and grand houses; the almost space-age splendour of the range of buildings making up the new City of Arts and Sciences complex; a 9km green belt of cycle and running paths, fountains and lawns along the path of a former river; and a myriad of tiny squares among beautiful buildings and cobbled streets in the old town.  It is a vibrant yet laid back city and we’ve soaked up the atmosphere, taken in art galleries, got lost while looking at modernista architecture and, of course, sampled the local delicacies including horchata, a very sweet drink made from tiger nuts into which you dip brioche fingers called fartons.

The student vibe of Valencia got to us and we have bought a 44” longboard, the “luxury sedan” of the skateboard world; we plan to skate our way past the mid-life crisis!

Our new skateboard - a cruising machine!

Our new skateboard – a cruising machine!

Spain – exploring moutainous Castellon province and the Costa del Azahar

We’ve spent the last few days exploring both the coast and the mountains.  Cycling along the coastal roads (both tar and dirt) has been wonderful and we fully understand why the coast here is known as the Costa del Azahar  or “orange blossom” coast – the coastal plains are filled with orchards and the smell of the blossom is simply wonderful.  There are also fields of artichokes, apricot orchards and the obligatory olive groves, all which make for beautiful riding.  The coast is home to several nature reserves, the Sierra d’Irta (where we are staying) which links Alcossebre to Peniscola, with its cobbled old town nestled on a rocky outcrop into the sea and protected by stone walls and a castle built on Arab foundations by the Knights Templar, and the marshy wetlands of the Prat de Cabanes-Torreblanca.

Castellon province, despite being on the coast, is the second most mountainous region of Spain and day trips into the interior have been spectacular; steeply winding mountain passes, hilltop castles, ancient villages nestled sleepily on steep hillsides.  A particular highlight was the whitewashed hillside village of Vilafames.  Rising out of red rock and literally built on and in amongst rocky red outcrops, the village is topped by a ruined castle and is a maze of winding medieval streets and churches.  It is also home to a contemporary art museum, exhibiting mainly local Spanish artists, housed in a fifteenth century former palace, itself an exhibit in its own right, its multiple stories hiding nooks and crannies all used as part of the gallery space.  Another highlight was swimming (well, it was more like wading) in the warm spring waters of the Fuente de los Banos, which are crystal clear and warm at 25 degrees.

Spain – the Ebra Delta and Castellon province

We’re now about 150 kms further south along the coast, in a natural park and marine reserve, the Sierra d’Irta.  We stopped to explore the Ebra Delta, a flat wetland area known for its rice paddies and bird life along the way.  It is obviously still winter here, as the rice paddies were dry and barren and dust storms were caused by farmers ploughing, getting ready for spring planting; we imagine it must look a world apart when green and lush with rice.  There were flamingoes and lots of ducks and coots, as well as sandy roads, kite surfers and whitewashed tiny houses dotted here and there and villages seemingly existing in another world.  We also explored nearby Tortosa, a town first settled more than 2000 years ago and presided over by an ancient castle complex.  The town, like the green Rio Ebro which flows through it, was sleepy, but filled with beautiful architecture and an unusual Gothic cathedral.

While in the Sierra d’Irta we’ve done a lot of exploring on the mountain bikes and Bambi has become a bit of an attraction in the campsite – she certainly is a good way of meeting people.  The camp is small and friendly and we’ve made friends with a lovely Belgian family Natacha and Pim and their young girls Emily and Hannah.  Following a hard day out on the bikes, where we followed a recommended route which unfortunately took in several hiking trails up three of the mountains (so for us was more of a hike-a-bike than a cycle, and ended up an all day affair), we did a gentle trip into nearby Alcossebre with Natacha, Pim, Emily and Hannah.

We also found out about a local cycling club hosting a mountain bike race, which we did this morning.  Mountain biking in this terrain certainly takes some getting used to, with the terrain mostly covered in huge stones which means a lot of climbing on narrow stoney tracks and loose gravel … not great for the tires!  We were made to feel amazingly welcome and were pleased we didn’t quite come last (that pleasure went to two girls, one of whom turned to Leigh at the start and said, looking at her basic Decathlon own brand mountain bike, “I thought I had the worst bike here until I saw yours” – needless to say Leigh was mortified; but the locals did think he was a bit of a hero to be doing the race on a steel bike with no suspension!).  The feast at the end was certainly worth the effort of the 4hours 15mins, 45kms and multiple punctures!

Spain – Catalan festivities

The week has flown by, spent exploring the local villages on the bikes, running through the pine forests from castle to castle and – a real highlight – having a dinner of rustic Catalan fare with an ex-Taylor Wessing colleague, Sarah Walshaw, and her husband Jose at their home in nearby Creixell, with produce from the nearby family farm.  The starters included pan con tomate, a simple Spanish dish we both love, was served in typical Catalan style, with tomatoes that had been stored from the previous season, halved and simply smeared across the garlic coated toast and finished off with first press olive oil. The main course was a wonderfully simple rustic dish of artichokes, baby tomatoes and olive oil – delicious!

We were also lucky enough to be here for the beginning of the Castelleres season – a Catalan tradition where neighbouring villages compete to build human towers or “castells”.  The tradition is so important that it’s been designated as among the “masterpieces of humanity” by UNESCO.  We watched the reigning champions, from Vilafranca de Penedes, compete against Altafulla and St Pere i St Pau in the centre of Altafulla.  A castell is built in two phases, first the base is formed using strong men, who both support the upper tiers, sustain the weight of the castle and form a safety net in case of tumbles.  Then the people forming the upper layers climb into place, the music starts (traditional Toc de Castells music, played on the Catalan flute and drums) and the highest layers are built as quickly as possible.  A castell is judged a success once it has been both assembled and disassembled without mishap and there needs to be continuous movement throughout the build.  Additionally, once assembled, the “rider” or “enxaneta” who is the person – usually a young girl – who tops off the castle, has to raise one hand with four fingers out to show that the build is complete.  The atmosphere was incredible and even as a spectator you felt a part of it all, holding your breath as the strong men at the bottom started shaking from the signifcant exertion, cheering successes as towers of up to 7 levels were formed and gasping in terror as one tower collapsed, sending the small girls in the top tier plummeting from the top of a 7 layer castle (only to be caught by those at the bottom).  This was certainly one of our top experiences of the trip so far, and should be something added to the lists of things to see before you die!