Pilgrim’s Progress

757 nights : 28,768 miles travelled : countries visited: 27

‘(A) journey becomes a pilgrimage as we discover, day by day, that the distance traveled  is less important than the experience gained.’     Ernest Kurtz

We first saw them as we drove north out of Portugal. Usually in ones and twos, often with a stick and always with a backpack. In rain and sun, heads were down looking at the path directly ahead. We were confused, as we thought the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela was one path across northern Spain from the Pyrenees.  But the promise of a sunny weekend by the sea distracted us from seeking an answer straight away.

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There is nothing so relaxing as watching azure waves foam white against rocks. Listening to the same would have been nice, but for us that was drowned out by the wimpering and whining of a spoiled bratdog nagging for yet another game on the beach. Yes life is hard!

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The Costa de Morte is punctuated by crosses marking the scenes of shipwrecks but on a more positive note is known for the regular sightings of dolphins. Well not so regular; it took many hours of gazing to see three. As I say….a hard life!

There is a good reason why Spain’s north western corner is so green and the blue skies soon gave way to the threat of rain. So we retraced our trail and headed to the destination of the pilgrims that we had passed.  The cathedral of Santiago de Compostela houses the tomb of whom many believe to be St James the Apostle and while the scaffolding disguised the splendour, it could not hide the sheer scale of the facade.

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Many believers queue to embrace the statue of the Apostle behind the altar
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Pilgrims arrive in the Plaza del  Obradoiro
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The fabulous Hostal  de los Reyes Catolicos is now a fabulously expensive hotel!

Neither of us have a religious faith but it does not take much to imagine the joy felt when arriving here after walking hundreds of kilometres and when you multiply that emotion countless times over many centuries you can’t help but get caught up in the atmosphere of the old streets.

It would seem that the Camino de Santiago or ‘The Way’ is not one path but a network of pilgrim routes. What we knew of was the Camino Francés or the French Way. Others include Camino Portugues from Oporto  which explains the pilgrims we saw, and Camino Ingles from A Coruna and Ferrol on the north western tip of Galicia. This English way is one of the shorter routes (less than 100 kilometres) and dates back to the 12th century when thousands of pilgrims from England and the Nordic countries began their walk from the ports they disembarked at.

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The scallop shell has long been a symbol of the Camino de Santiago

Our walk from the camperstop into the city was lined with hairdressers and barbers. This was too good an opportunity to miss so I dived in to find one with availability. We have had several fun experiences trying to communicate what we need with a mixture of sign language, photographs and google translate in salons in Bulgaria, Greece, Portugal and Italy and this was no different. Smiles and nods reflected in a mirror saw me leave happy, more Judy Dench than Clare Balding once again!

Lugo has the finest Roman walls in Western Europe and it is possible to walk the two kilometres encircling the old town. We didn’t, as we seemed to get even wetter on top than in the streets below, which goes to show that we probably aren’t cut out for any pilgrimage routes!

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Going up!
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The wall is up to 7 metres wide and had 85 towers
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The town has encased the wall as it has grown over the centuries

As we drove around Galicia we noticed that many properties had strange little buildings in the garden. These grain stores, or horreos vary in  age, size and construction but all were of the same basic design and are a real feature of this part of Spain.

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The trail hugged the coast heading east and we enjoyed spectacular scenery as we drove between mountains and sea. The somewhat hairy La Hermida gorge drive took us up to Potes on the edge of the beautiful Picos de Europa National Park with dramatic peaks and crisp air.  They may not be the highest mountains in Europe but they were our favourite.

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Potes
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The walk back to the campsite
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Fiat 600s making their own pilgrimage!

The landscape levelled as we headed further inland but was no less cinematic. Ancient villages and twisting roads slowed us to a crawl, perfect conditions for our snail. We took a break and stood in awe at the transition before us, from castle topped hills  behind to a vast plain ahead.

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The ochre earth of La Rioja made this wine growing region distinctive from other areas we had driven through.

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With more time we could have followed a pilgrimage trail of a different kind, as wine makers seem intent on outdoing each other in the quirky architecture of their bodegas. We made it to Ysios near Laguardia where the bodega sits so perfectly with the mountains, which gave us the desire to come back to see (and taste) more!

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Labastida is a perfect example of our favourite kind of stop on the trail. The camperstop is free and next to the leisure centre. A historic little town is within easy wandering distance with shops and bars where we can buy local produce to repay our free stay!

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Many properties in Calle Mayor  have an aristocratic heritage 
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Old fortifications now form part of a town garden

We snaked around the Camino de Santiago and crossed it’s path several times.

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Waymarkers guide pilgrims along the whole route

This made us wonder why journeys feels different when they have a purpose and appreciate the time we have enjoyed travelling with none. Nevertheless we were delighted to meet Lorraine who was walking the camino, with Larry in the support vehicle at the camperstop in Ayegui. We were drawn here by the stories of a wine fountain for pilgrims on The Way. Amazingly it was true, but having only walked about 500m  we felt it would be wrong to help ourselves and bought ours from the winery!

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Exhausted in less than a kilometre!
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Kipper had a sly taste while Graham was still trying to believe his dream was true!
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The Monasterio de Irache was one of the first hospitals on the Camino de Santiago

Puente la Reina is a beautiful Romanesque bridge and the medieval town has a constant stream of pilgrims passing through as it is where two main routes meet.

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The Church of the Crucifixion was founded by the Knights Templars
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The stillness and simplicity of the chapel felt more spiritual than all the grand cathedrals

It felt appropriate that we spent our last night in Spain in Sos del Rey Católico.

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This is the birthplace of Ferdinand II of Aragon, one of the Catholic Monarchs and we had crossed their paths many times. Not deliberately however. We have not made any plans beyond the following week on our trail. It is less of a pilgrimage more of a coddiwomple, travelling purposefully towards an unknown destination, but no less meaningful for that.

M & G xx

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Treat of the week: We left Spain with some nice chocolate and delicious aniseed biscuits which we’ll be trying to recreate when we get home!

Renewable energy

733 nights : 27,517 miles travelled : countries visited: 27

‘Perhaps the earth can teach us,     As when everything seems dead,       And then proves to be alive’       Pablo Neruda

Sorry Portugal.  Lo siento.  Pardon.  Entschuldigung.  Mi dispiace……  Desculpe Portugal! Our poor brains have hit a wall and we haven’t been able to remember even the polite basics of the language. I tried to buy some stamps in the post office and asked for them in Franglais with a German accent! It is not that Portuguese is particularly difficult but because after more than twenty countries, we have run out of  grey cells for learning new words.

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We didn’t see the Algarve at it’s best. Almost as soon as we crossed the border , the wind blew in and filled the sky with blue-grey cloud. Even so, we always feel energised by a new country and our senses pick out every difference. Fig trees growing in rust red soil. Half naked cork trees. An abundance of  beautiful wild flowers. Spring is a wonderful time to visit Portugal.

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The town beach at Carvoeiro

 

We skipped across the southern coast, happy to leave the lively Algarve resorts to others. Towards the western edge we found a chilled out camperstop in Figueiro, an unspoilt village  with a busy bar and a quiet track that led to a tiny beach.  This was the first time we could imagine why people would escape a whole winter in one place.

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Kipper  spotted the beach first!
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Naughty spots and bat ears!

We bounced off yet another corner of Europe at Cape St Vincent and in a way,  this most south westerly point really did feel like the end of the world.  This is where we turn north for the long trail home.

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As far as we can go!
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Carpets of wild flowers at the ‘end of the world’ 

The Alentejo region has a dramatic coastline but we resisted buying surfboards and opted for bracing clifftop walks instead. It was just as exhilarating driving inland through ancient cork oak forests which felt like miles of English parkland. The cork oak sit in open pasture grazed by cattle in between, we loved it!  The bark of the tree is stripped away every nine to  ten years and it renews itself in that time.  Only on the third harvest is the bark suitable for wine stoppers and a tree can be harvested for around 200 years.   It would be tragic if  this unique sustainable form of production were lost to plastic stoppers and screw tops so we have made a commitment to consume as much wine as possible….. ideally with cork in the bottle!!

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Zambujeira do Mar

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This cork oak had not long been harvested

We felt very at home in Portugal and we don’t think  it was just the frequent threat of rain. Like Great Britain this is a tiny country with a rich history based on world exploration and battles with it’s neighbour in the middle ages. We joined the dots on a string of  fortified hill towns through the interior .

We arrived in Evora just after Liberation day which commemorates the end of  the modern oppressive rule of Salazar via a bloodless coup. We had seen individual carnations being sold everywhere and then learned that these are the national symbol of freedom as they were the flowers that soldiers put in the barrels of their guns in 1974.

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Giraldo Square once saw the burning of victims of the Inquisition…
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…now sees the affirmation of  freedom

Evora is an incredibly well preserved medieval town with a roman aqueduct and temple thrown in as a bonus. My day was made complete when we found a book fair set up in front of the cathedral…heaven!  Graham was initially relaxed but I spent an hour talking to the town archivist,  found an excellent history book translated into English…and best of all, we had to spend some money in a wine shop to break a fifty euro note to pay for my book. Happy times!

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Count to 10 ….!
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In medieval days the temple was bricked in and housed a meat market

Elvas is closer to the Spanish border and so has impressive fortifications, but the 16th century aquaduct which brought water seven kilometres to the town is breathtaking .

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We moved closer still to the border, so that we sat and looked out at Spain from the camperstop at Marvao . Tucked into the hill below sturdy town walls, we marvelled at how modern life sits around historic bones.

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Keeping an eye out for Spanish invaders!

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Thankfully the dog had more sense than the human on this occasion.

 

Tomar is a well preserved riverside town but what makes it special looms high above.

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The Nabao river

The castle and Convent of Christ was originally built by the Knights Templar but when the order was banned in the 14th century, it transferred to the Knights of the Order of Christ.  Incredibly well preserved, it is easy to imagine medieval life within it’s walls.

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The 16 sided Charola is the main church
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The circular interior is decorated with Gothic painting and sculpture
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Several of the eight  cloisters are  lined with  beautiful ceramic tiles

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Whilst the Order gained great wealth, individual poverty was an important value, here expressed in long dormitories of simple cells.

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The refectory

We have often spoken to people who have travelled all of  Europe and then settled on one place where they feel most happy. We have so enjoyed the diversity as we have followed the trail that this was hard to imagine. Until we saw the Douro Valley.  The  dramatic  patchwork of steep vines can be enjoyed in a few intense miles and feels like a world within a world.

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One of life’s little ironies is that we keep visiting wonderful wine producing areas at a time in our life when we cannot tolerate a great deal of it! But it was fascinating to see the grapes for the production of Porto with vineyards loudly displaying  producers names, some world wide brands, some unknown. We spent a blissful couple of days high above the valley at Quinta Da Padrela , a family winery which welcomes motorhomes onto the meadow and where Jose showed us the farm, the winery and the wine.  Okay, you’re right…we didn’t just look at the wine! The hospitality and weather were so warm, we stayed longer than planned and wondered whether we had found our one special place in Europe.

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The winery at Quinta da Padrela
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The farm

We like to think that life on the trail helps us to make less impact on the environment. Despite driving a diesel engine, we do many less miles than in our life at home. Having to find and carry every drop, we are very conscious of water usage and food waste is negligible. Spain and Portugal offer many opportunities to buy organic produce and to recycle waste.  Portugal has gone one step further and set high targets for energy efficiency and a multi-source approach to renewable energy. In 2016 there were four consecutive days where power was sourced from just solar, wind and hydro-generated electricity. Parabéns Portugal!

Pinhao is a quiet little stop along the Douro river and the train line that used to transport Port Wine to Porto. The station is decorated with  wonderful Azulejo panels depicting the region and a shop offering local produce.

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Rabelo boats that used to carry wine barrels, now offer tourist trips

 

Having moved north, we were rocked by storms next to the River Lima in the Pineda-Geres national park. Kipper is quite keen to sit inside at any hint of rain and we were quite happy to sit with him! Eventually the skies cleared long enough for a walk and we were shocked at the damage done the night before.  Eucalyptus trees were introduced to Portugal in the 19th century to produce pulp for paper making but being invasive they have created poor habitats for wildlife … and an obstacle course for us. A dip in the river was a just reward!

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Ponte De Lima is an ancient town with a gorgeous Medieval bridge, lovely old streets, and a bizarre reminder of it’s origins!

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The bridge offers safe passage for pilgrims walking to Santiago De Compostela
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The town is one of the oldest in Portugal
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Legend says that Roman Legionnaires refused to cross the river believing it to be the mythical River of Oblivion so they would lose memories of all that had gone before. Their Captain broke the ‘spell’ by calling each one over by name.

Portugal feels larger than it is because there is so much variety and our interest was renewed with each change of region. It is much greener than we expected, much older than we thought and even more friendly than we hoped! It is great that the trail still manages to surprise us.

M & G xx

Treat of the week: We saw all sorts of things made from cork in souvenir shops. Graham’s favourite was a bikini he spotted in Elvira and has promised to make me one from some bark he found by the road. Personally I don’t think there are nearly enough raw materials there!!

 

Outside In

697 nights :  25,671 miles travelled : countries visited: 26

“We are happy when for everything inside us there is a corresponding something outside us”  W. B. Yeats

It is ridiculous to try and squeeze our entire time in Andalucia into one blog post. We have been here for six weeks gathering countless multisensory memories but we can’t move on until we have absorbed and shared the experience. Photographs cannot describe the heady scent of orange blossom, the birdsong on full volume or the shivers that evening brings as the hot sun gives way to a chilly night. But there are plenty (!) of pictures to show you the wonderful places we’ve seen and to remind us how lucky we are when we return home.

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The A92 a scenic (over)drive

It’s always a good sign when the road on our Michelin map is accompanied by a green line. The A92 is a spectacular road gradually climbing around the Sierra Nevada, through a wild west desert which gives way to olive plantations, a sunny plateau filled with almond blossom and finally on to magical Granada.

The headline act in Granada is the Alhambra, a complex of fortress and palaces occupied by Moorish and Spanish rulers for centuries. The Moorish architecture is breathtaking with the use of courtyards and water keeping the heat of the sun at bay while bringing the outside in. Tessellated tiling is symbolic and inscriptions of poetry and spiritual texts surround the rooms with blessings and praises.

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“When the rest of Europe was building castles in the air, in Granada they were constructing castles upon water.”   Jesus Bermudez  Pareja
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The Courtyard of the Lions. The thousand year old lions represent the sun, the source of life

 

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The austerity of the sixteenth century Charles V Palace is a dramatic contrast
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The Torre de la Damas offers views over the wonderful gardens and terraces
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Even cabbages are required to grow in geometric order
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The Alhambra has a close relationship with the city below

Unfortunately in Spain we cannot take Kipper on public transport so we have to find camperstops close to where we want to be. Fortunately we were able to sleep on the car park of the Alhambra which meant we were within steep walking distance of the narrow streets of the Arab quarter and the historic centre of Granada. We got up early to explore the city and to view the Alhambra from afar.

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The biggest surprise was as we turned a corner and the cathedral unexpectedly ‘found’ us . It was built by Isabella and Ferdinand, parents of Catherine of Aragon, who rest in a crypt in the royal chapel next door.

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The gothic splendour of  the Capilla Real, burial place of the Catholic Monarchs

The woodland around the Alhambra gave welcome shade as we walked back up the hill to Brian, while the irrigation channels gave Kipper the most fun walk in days!

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The boys settled into the gentle rhythm of life in Humilladero while I had a quick trip back to the UK. This is a small village close to the rugged hills of the Paraje Natural Torcal de Antequera and was the first place we saw evidence of the financial crisis, with many plots and buildings unfinished. However the surrounding countryside was soothing and the biggest stir of the day was the movement of sheep and goats to new grazing areas in the village.

We were drawn to the Fuente de Piedra Natural Park by the promise of flamingos and they were there but very low water levels on the lake meant that they were barely visible. We didn’t need a telescope to enjoy the sky though!

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The rabbits were very close!

My brother joined us for a couple of weeks and we moved on to Olvera which has a stunning hilltop castle and church. However, the camperstop was at the bottom of the hill. We were at the end of the Via Verde de la Sierra, a walking and cycling trail along a disused railway and this was an easy way to enjoy the gorgeous  green countryside.

 

The two parts of Ronda are bridged across the dramatic El Tajo gorge and we found it’s setting and varied history fascinating. Popular with tourists but the uniqueness and charm of the town shines through.

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Fortifications date back to Moorish times
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Ronda is one of Andalucia’s spectacular ‘white towns’
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The old bridge on a narrower part of the gorge

Spanish towns come to noisy life at weekends and we were lucky to catch a marching band competition and an exhausting cycle race.

The eighteenth century Puente Nuevo spans a 100 metre chasm and gives wonderful views of the Serrania de Ronda mountains. We were drawn back here again and again.

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Ernest Hemingway celebrated the complexities of Spain’s character  and describes this area’s dark Civil War days in For Whom the Bell Tolls. There is a memorial to him close to the town’s bullring. Ronda is regarded as the birthplace of modern bullfighting and the Plaza de Toros is now a museum. Graham and Kipper created a less bloodthirsty entertainment for the tourists. No animals were harmed in the taking of these photographs!

 

A stunning mountain road took us to the coast once again and as we descended we could see our destination from around fifty kilometres away. Our son was flying into Gibraltar and the camperstop gave us a front row view of ‘the rock’.

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We were a ten minute walk from the frontier and almost the first thing encountered is the airport runway. It was amazing to stand and watch Rob’s plane circle and then land right in front of us!

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Across the runway a further fifteen minutes on foot takes you into the heart of town. Walking around Gibraltar is like walking around with your underwear inside out. It all looks familiar but something doesn’t feel quite right. It was very strange to be suddenly reading signs in English and using sterling again. The shopping streets hark back to the 1970’s and there is a faintly colonial air to official buildings.

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The boys took the cable car to the top of the rock for a spectacular view down to the marina where we were parked and across to North Africa.

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Looking back down to the airstrip and to Brian parked in the very centre of the picture
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The ubiquitous Barbary ape. No humans were harmed in the taking of this photograph!

 

Within minutes of arriving at the camperstop in Jerez de la Frontera we were poured glasses of ice-cold sherry of varying tastes and colour by the enthusiastic site manager. Not speaking each other’s language, our judgements could only be expressed via facial expressions. It is surprisingly difficult to lie when not using words!

Gonzalez Byass is the largest producer in a city full of bodegas and has a town sized complex within Jerez, given over to producing and storing wine, sherry, brandy and whiskey. Tio Pepe is a worldwide brand, recognisable by the sombrero wearing bottle and it was fun tasting that alongside the British brand Croft Original.

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Gustav Eiffel (yep the French guy!) was commissioned to create a special sherry store in honour of a royal visit in 1869.  The Real Bodega de la Concha holds 214 casks of Amontillado, bearing flags of the regions of Spain and the 115 countries where the wines are exported. The smell walking past the casks in all the bodegas was heavenly!

 

It is always dangerous visiting somewhere with high expectations but we need not have worried with Seville. It is a fabulous open city that could consume weeks of your life and still leave more to see. But mostly it is a friendly place to wander or sit at a table and watch the world pass by.

The cathedral is one of the largest in the world and is Gothic with a capital G! It was started in the 12th century on the site of the Great Mosque and the bell tower, once a minaret and Orange Tree Courtyard date from before then.

DSC_1344DSC_1387 The tomb of Christopher Columbus is carried aloft by four figures representing the regions of Spain at the time of his death. However because his remains have been moved between continents several times, there have been questions raised as to whether it is actually him held high.

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The university campus is based in what was once a tobacco factory, the fictional setting for the opera Carmen. The wall is inlaid with plaques demonstrating Seville’s distinct style of ceramic decoration.

The Metropol Parasol claims to be the largest wooden building in the world and is known locally as the mushroom. It houses restaurants and shops and a museum displaying roman ruins unearthed during it’s construction but Graham and Robin most enjoyed the views of the city from the undulating walkway on the roof.

Our camperstop was just across the river from Maria Luisa, one of the most beautiful city parks. Grand pavilions house museums at one end while nearer the city,  the magnificent Plaza de Espana features symmetry, ceramic decoration and the Andalucian art of mixing outside with in perfectly.

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The Mudejar Pavilion houses the Museum of Art & Popular Costume
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Cooling off!
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Plaza de Espana
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Does it get more Spanish than this?!

 

The third in our golden triangle of car park accommodation was by the city walls of Cordoba. Here the Mezquita stands out, a unique curious blend of mosque and cathedral. No amount of reading prepares you for it’s beauty.

 

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The Courtyard of Orange Trees means you enter the Mezquita before going inside
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Running water in the Courtyard helps pilgrims keep their cool
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The Mosque is a forest of columns and arches

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At the heart of the Mosque is a Baroque Cathedral including mahogany choir stalls
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The Roman Bridge was originally built in the 1st century

Cordoba’s hot dry climate has meant homes are built around a central patio since Roman times. Filling the patio with plants and water features helps to keep it cool and once a year a competition is held and visitors get the chance to see behind the iron grills and enjoy the colour and scents. We were too early for the festival but found a food market with a sequence of patios in which to sit outside in.

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There is nowhere quite like El Rocio. The tarmac ends at the edge of town and Kipper skips as though we are at the beach when we cross the ‘road’. At weekends we dodge horses topped by people of all shapes and ages and carriages filled with smiling families.

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There’s no need to dismount to enjoy a beer!

We are on the edge of the Donana National Park, home of the Iberian Lynx which is very hard to spot and countless amazing species of birds, which are joyfully easy to see. Throughout our time in Spain we have seen storks nests with storks in them! Here we have also seen eagles, ibis, spoonbill and more flamingos than anywhere else. If only either of us was a skillful photographer we could prove it….but this is the best we could manage so you’ll just have to believe us!

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Easter is a low key event here, compared to the festival at Pentecost which attracts a million people . On Good Friday we watched the Crucifix being processed around the town, followed by a faithful congregation, curious visitors and children on horses.

We are finding it hard to leave the neat campsite here. We love the alternative feel of the town. The sun is hot every day and our limbs are still looking dip dyed as we expose more of them to the light. But we are within a whisper of Portugal and it would be a shame not to go and have a look.

M & G x

Treat of the week:  For me, sharing part of the trail with Rob and Robin on Mother’s Day!! For Graham it was a road sign which gave rare advance warning that Brian would definitely not squeeze through!

 

Pump up the volume

682 nights : 25, 518 miles travelled : countries visited: 26

“Spain is different”   Manuel Fraga

Okay… now we see why Spain is so popular with visitors!

Our last view of coastal towers was an eerie mirage on the horizon. Los Alcazares looks out across the sea to la Manga del Mar Menor, a narrow strip of land covered in apartment blocks. We understand that tourism transformed the economy of Spain and realise that millions of people want to enjoy the sun, sea and sand on offer, but this is a big country that offers so much more.

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It says something about us that we felt much more comfortable sleeping next to a service station than on all the immaculate camperparks along the coast. But at least we have become more proficient in using apps on our phones. Camper Contact helps us to find somewhere to sleep,  podcasts allow us to keep up with our favourite Radio 4 programmes and Google Maps prevent us getting completely lost when exploring. We checked the latter before walking the two kilometres into Cartagena and a big blue line promised a riverside stroll. However Kipper wasn’t going to get the opportunity for a dip here!

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Cartagena is an archaeologist’s dream that seems to be actively peeling back it’s present to expose the past. It was fascinating to walk from traditional Spanish plazas into partly demolished streets.

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Access to the Molinete Archaelogical Park is via a bizarrely placed escalator which lifts you into an area blending Mediterranean planting with Roman ruins, a 16th century defensive wall, remnants of the 19th century red light district and a refuge used during the Spanish civil war in the 1930’s!

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Monumental steps leading to the site of a Roman shrine next to a 19th c. mill
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The canopy protects the remains of  Roman thermal baths and the atrium
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The park is on one of five small hills giving great views of the city

We walked across town, stopping for a break at a bar which promised afternoon tea with scones. I couldn’t resist, despite being snooty about full English breakfasts and fish and chips on the costas. Graham sensibly stuck to a beer while I crunched my way through biscuits sandwiched with cream and a glass of lukewarm water with a teabag in it. I learned my lesson!

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The Roman amphitheatre pushes the modern city aside
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Looking down onto ancient and modern theatres and across the Port of Cartagena

We found a complete contrast in the hills and trees of the Sierra Espuna regional park but the direct Spanish sun has the same effect. Everything seems brighter and louder.  In the city, reflections are blinding and scooter engines and barking dogs reverberate through you. In the countryside, shadows seem alive and birds and crickets sing a piercing chorus.

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We were on high alert as we enjoyed our first proper hike of the year.  Pine Processionary caterpillars are covered in thousands of irritating hairs which can cause severe reactions in humans and animals. We have heard horror stories of dogs losing tongues and often their lives after coming into contact with them. In spring, the caterpillars create distinctive cotton-like nests which they sleep in and leave to feed. They move about in nose to tail processions which would make them interesting to a curious Kipper.  We kept him on the lead and skirted around the scores of trees which hosted the nests.

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There was a treeless daily walk along the irrigation canal which fed into the lemon groves surrounding us. It was much safer to stick our noses into the delicious produce boxes!

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The hilltown of Mojácar was saved from extinction by an enterprising mayor who offered cheap accommodation to artists and craftsmen and is now a significant tourist spot.

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Impossibly narrow streets offer shelter from the heat
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The Indalo symbol is used everywhere as a lucky charm

Views from the town look one way to the modern seaside resort of Mojácar Playa and inland towards the volcanic plugs in what is known locally as the valley of pyramids.

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You approach the Cabo de Gata nature reserve through the shimmering sea of polytunnels which provides northern Europe with out of season vegetables. Rolls of waste plastic  and the shanty style accommodation in outlying villages made us think of the tension between bringing prosperity to the Spanish economy and the human and environmental cost of giving us cherry tomatoes at Christmas.

The nature reserve beyond offers a glimpse of coastal Spain before the arrival of mass tourism. We based ourselves in San José and loved walking to deserted beaches through a technicolour world of poppy reds, acid yellows and spring greens.

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Genoveses Beach

At last Mr Kips was able to run off the frustration of all those No Dogs signs higher up the coast! The volcanic formations on Mónsul beach were a backdrop in scenes on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade which inspired Graham to get out his favourite sun hat…any excuse!

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Building within the reserve is governed by strict planning law and restoration work is carried out here where it may be ignored elsewhere. This satisfies the aims of the park, attracts tourists and means that human impact sits better in the environment. We appreciate that this is not possible everywhere but were very happy to find this beautiful corner of Spain.

 

San Miguel de Cabo de Gata has an incredibly long beach lined with old fishing boats. A road divides this from saltworks which date from Roman times.

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The saltworks still produce 40,000 tons per year
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The flooded land creates an ideal habitat for flamingos
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The old church at Las Salinas de Cabo de Gata has been restored

The long road ends in a lighthouse, which gives a great view of Arrecife de las Sirenas or Mermaids Reef.

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The lighthouse is on a point used for reference by sailors since the Phoenecians
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Mermaids once lived on the reef, or were they monk seals?

Ironically it has been the quieter parts of our trail that have  surrounded us with sights and sounds that mean we’re getting the message loud and clear. Spain is amazing!!

M & G xx

Treat of the week: Afternoon tea…..what was I thinking??

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People like us

652 nights : 24,534 miles travelled : countries visited: 25

“People go to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the people they ignore at home”.   Dagobert D.Runes

While we try to travel with an open mind, we were hesitant about taking our snail to Spain. We had heard about the huge flocks of ‘snowbirds’, people who escape northern European winters to the kinder climes on the Spanish Med. In addition to those permanently resident are hundreds who chase the sun in motorhomes and it was suggested we call ahead to reserve spaces on camperparks and sites. This turned out to be excellent advice. Initially snooty about all the motorhomes casually parked on any available ground in Peniscola, Calpe and El Campello, we soon realised that most local sites were full and many people were waiting for a space to become available. Ironically, it sometimes seemed as though we were paying for less space than those squatting on every corner!

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We spoke to some campers determined to avoid paying to pitch at all costs

We paid to cosy up with others but at least we were close to the bar in Calpe  !

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Mr Kips made full use of the limited available space outside the door
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The Penon de Ifach in Calpe is Spain’s northern rock

We found more breathing space on a campsite near to the port town of Sagunto. Our route took us via a flooded road which was closed but it would seem the usually conformist Graham lives more in fear of Lucy the satnav than the Spanish authorities!

We were lucky to be on a pitch on the beachfront and soon understood why so many of our neighbours had returned many times to spend winter here. The site was a little frayed around the edges, but there were no tower blocks and a quiet dog friendly  beach where we could gently stroll and register that we had made our own escape from the grey skies at home.

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We had our own path from the  sand to the motorhome
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A great place to blow away the winter cobwebs

We have avoided the tolled motorways and have been pleasantly surprised at the quality of the roads in Spain, many of which are accompanied by cycleways and lycra clad athletes.   Cycling  seems to be really popular and our weekend in La Vall de Laguar was enlivened by excited Spanish families taking part in a local cycling festival and professional teams whizzing past on off season training routes. We enjoyed the hills and views at a more relaxed pace.

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Valley terraces host olive, nut, cherry and citrus trees
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Campell

The whole valley was sprinkled with springs and the one just outside the campsite still had Campell’s traditional village laundry, fed directly by mountain water. (There was no hot wash cycle offered!)

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This spring basin needed to be cleared of stones. There was a willing volunteer!
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Still a well used facility (no pun intended)

Whilst our wheels did not stop turning in Benidorm, we experienced mass motorhome migration all along the Costa Blanca and met people like us who enjoy motorhoming, but who are happy to pitch up in one spot for months on end next to people like them. There is nothing wrong with that but we would miss the excitement of constantly changing vistas, the thrill of finding new local delicacies to enjoy with our coffee and the warmth felt when clumsily greeting someone new in their own language.

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We know that is achievable here in Spain so we are snailing hard to avoid the all too common clichés from hereon.

M & G xx

Treat of the week: The N332 defines the margin of high rise coastal resorts from the rural plains where arid land miraculously produces many different crops. It is a road where you see two Spains meet. We found somewhere to stop and stare towards the saltpans and lagoons, home to flamingos and avocets and a different kind of tower.

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 16th century watchtower in Salinas de Santa Pola

Allez Allez Allez…

632 nights: 24,148 miles travelled : countries visited: 25

” A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving”   Lao Tzu

Here we go again…snail trails part trois!

We left the UK under grey skies and drizzle and drove the first few hundred miles south under the same. The difference was that we’re now on quiet D roads  carving straight lines through long villages oozing French rustic charm. There’s more wooden shutters, twisted ironwork and faded paint on gable ends (advertising Dubonnet or Michelin), than you can shake a baguette at. The mood inside our snail  lifted. The winter months at home saw us become happily enmeshed in the life of family and friends and the temptation to hibernate next to a log burner was almost overwhelming. But the return to familiar routines enforced by motorhome life is comforting, and constantly changing scenery distracts us from any home sickness.

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Mouliherne

Fog and rain deterred us from lingering too long among all the Gallic gorgeousness but we did enjoy revisiting old haunts and some wonderful free stopovers on France’s network of aires.

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Early morning  alarm bells from the lovely church at Cubnezais, Aquitaine

Many villages have at least an overnight parking place for motorhomes or a service point for fresh water and disposing of waste. They are often provided free in the hope that local businesses will benefit and we always enjoy visiting local cafés or the boulangerie.

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Emptying the toilet and living the dream!

The internet allows us to benefit from other traveller’s experience and we found a leisurely but direct route , largely avoiding toll roads, down to the Spanish border. We were still being chased by wet weather so we sat out a stormy weekend and did the laundry at a friendly campsite ,which hosted campers from all over Europe, on their way to or from sunnier skies.

Our first miles in Spain were masked by a net of mist so we didn’t see much of the Basque region on either side of the border but the light was more promising by the time we reached our first overnight stop in Olite. This modest town was once home to the royal families of Navarra and the castle is thought to have housed giraffes and lions as well as Kings. The turrets, church spires and narrow streets were an atmospheric introduction to Spanish old towns.

 

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Olite Town Hall

Fixing dried thistles to doors is believed to keep bad spirits away. As some only operate at night, these flowers would lead the devils to assume that the sun is shining on this dwelling. As if the doors weren’t characterful enough.

We parked in the Area Municipal behind the beautiful  Church of San Pedro, with the bell tower topped by ‘Torre de Aguja’ (needle spire) and another early morning call!

Heavy cloud caught up with us again and we headed hopefully towards a region of semi-desert; surely it won’t rain there? The Parque National de las Bárdenas Reales covers the south-east of Navarre and was initially created by deforestation and shaped by wind and water erosion.We wondered what all the fuss was about as we drove into the park area, with vegetation getting a little more scarce but no sand visible.

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It was only as we set off on foot that we felt that we were walking onto the set of a spaghetti western and realised that the landscape was becoming more and more bizarre.

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Where did the field go?

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The lack of rain made Mr Kips a bit giddy!

 

There was another wonderful Area Autocaravanas nearby in Arguedas. We were next to some troglodyte homes, some of which appeared to have been inhabited until relatively recently. An excellent footpath led up to explore them and gave a good view of the town below.

Our third day of driving in Spain was the most eventful. For one thing, we were travelling through what looked like the Wild West with steep sided, flat topped rocky plateaus marking the horizons on either side of us. Then we had to get our sunglasses out….for the first time in months! We sat back and smiled from the inside out. This is the best of snailing, when the journey is as much fun as arriving.

Just before lunchtime, we were pulled over by the Civil Guard as we cruised along a dual carriageway and after anxious minutes waiting, while mentally checking that we were complying with all the Spanish road regulations, we were waved through the road block. Being a pair of grey headed wrinklies has some benefits. We had decided to push a long way south and towards the end of our long drive, we were  confronted by a man in the middle of the road with a red lollipop board. Having looked at our number plates, he approached the van and did what any sensible person (read we) would do when confronted with someone who isn’t fluent in your language. He spoke his own, very fast and very loud! Having just reached episode 2 of our free conversational Spanish course (given away in the Independent in 2007!),  we only knew how to count to 10 and ask which boarding gate our aircraft leaves from!! Luckily this meant that I heard the Spanish word for eight in the midst of the diatribe. So I pointed to my watch, ocho? ‘Si si, ocho’. He then enthusiastically repeated everything again, faster and louder so this time the only word we could make out was dynamita! Tempted as we were to see what he was going to do with explosives, eight o’clock was another four hours away, so we turned around and found an alternative route to Morella.

The sky was still clear when we arrived at the motorhome stop just out of town, which meant we got to enjoy the magnificent view of the Castell de Morella.

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However it also meant that we experienced a really cold night…Kipper had to be tucked back into his sleeping bag twice!  The sun on the town next morning made this all worthwhile and we had wonderful time exploring the steep streets and the castle ruins.

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Natural fortifications
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Cloister ruins in the 13th century Franciscan convent

The Church of Santa Maria la Major has not one but two beautiful doorways, the door of the Disciples and the door of the Virgins, and a blue tiled dome.

As we climbed higher we could see snow capped hills in the distance and the town, with it’s mile long wall, sixteen towers and bullring below us.

Morella celebrates several fiestas, the most famous being Sexenni, held every six years to thank the Virgin of Vallivani for saving those who survived a plague in the 17th century. The giants are paraded at all the festivals and represent the two cultures of Christianity and Islam and their coexistence which characterised the town for much of it’s history.

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The boys also made friends with the smaller representation of a civic leader, who did much to promote the town’s textile production and wore his stripey blanket with pride (he was still cold to the touch though!)

Local products include sausage and ham and oodles of truffles but we were most tempted to try the flaon, a pastry stuffed with almonds and cottage cheese. And how could we resist the meringues? They reminded us of the  castle we had just climbed so surely we had earned one….each! And with them being advertised on wood and what with them blending so naturally into their surroundings surely they’re actually good for us?!

We were only a couple of hours inland from the unfortunately named Peniscola, a coastal town with another magnificent castle.

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However there are also tower blocks and no entry to the beach signs for Kipper, (torture!) so after a few days of housekeeping on a quiet but busy site, we are ready to explore more of what Spain has to offer.

M & G xx

Treat of the week: In true snail trail style, it has been less of a dash for the sun than a shuffle for the shadows, but then you don’t get those without the sun!

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Inspired

619 nights : 23,482 miles travelled : countries visited: 24

“The soul exceeds it’s circumstances”   Czeslaw Milosz

DRAFT SAVED FOUR MONTHS AGO

Four months ago? Where has the time gone? It is certainly a much more precious commodity when we are back in the UK. We returned for our first outing as parents of a beautiful bride, and then stayed for a hectic happy family Christmas. Now as we prepare to cross the Channel for another trail around mainland Europe, we must tell you about our journey home from Scandinavia.

Viking Line ships thoughtfully provide a sandpit doggy toilet which Kipper appreciated having crossed his legs for most of the 17 hours from Greece to Italy last year! So it was a comfortable three hour ferry crossing which took us from Helsinki to Estonia’s beautiful capital, Tallinn, a spired city by a blue sea.

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Tallinn has plenty to enjoy and we loved mooching around the old streets and squares.

On the west coast of Estonia is Haapsalu, a delightful little town  with the quiet still air of a spa resort. Previous visitors include Tchaikovsky whose presence was marked by a bizarre musical bench which played some of his melodies as you approached.

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Tsar Nicholas and many other distinguished visitors from Russia  travelled here to benefit from the healing mud which explains Europe’s longest single platform at the terminal station and what are the biggest engines we have ever seen.

Driving through the Estonian countryside, we noted the lack of boundary fences which enhanced the bucolic loveliness. However the lack of a road surface as we approached the Sooma National Park rattled us out of our idyll and we wondered if the offer of a free night at the visitor centre was worth it!

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It was. We followed the trails looking at evidence of moose and beavers, and even though we were a major food source as we walked through the ‘mosquito nursery’, we really enjoyed the campfire, electricity and water provided by the national park authority.

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I scratch just looking at this boardwalk!
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Magnificent bracket fungus

Estonia has a great tradition of choral and folk music and Viljandi has a wonderful traditional music centre and hosts it’s own summer folk festival…a good reason to return. Add in a wonderful castle ruin and scenic lake and we really fell in love with this town close to the Latvian border. Quirky sights include a huge outdoor choral auditorium and a disused  water tower which offered great views of the rooftops below.

But I was really taken with the wooden buildings and the range of decorated doors!

The joys of motorhoming include waking up to views not available to others. Bliss!

 

Another joy of motorhoming is that if the weather is good and the place feels right, then there is usually little to prevent you from staying put. And so it was with Raiskums, our first halt in Latvia. A late burst of summer warmth, the most peaceful campsite imaginable and even a brewery in the village, meant that we lost a week on the road. Who cared?!

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Happiness is….good food and a decent beer
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Happiness is….a swimming pool to yourself
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Happiness is …..fresh dry laundry
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Happiness is…. a roaring campfire….where is Ray Mears when you need him?!!

As we travelled the road towards Riga we realised we were following the route of the Baltic Way. In 1989, two million people joined hands from Vilnius to Riga and on to Tallinn to demonstrate their desire for independence. This was accompanied by what is known as the Singing Revolution where people gathered in public spaces and sang national and protest songs, many of which had been banned by the Soviet authorities. The more we learned, the more we found this peaceful fight for freedom humbling and inspiring, especially in our current uncertain times.

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Riga has it’s own crown of beautiful spires but we were keen to learn more about Latvia’s recent history.

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The Freedom Monument was paid for by public donations in the 1930’s and stands where a statue of Peter the Great once stood. On the top, Liberty holds three gold stars representing the original cultural regions of Latvia. While the Soviets did not demolish the monument, it was off limits to the people and any paying homage here were punished. A Latvian Guard protects this national symbol now.

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The Museum of Occupation is temporarily in a Soviet era building

We learned more about Soviet persecution as well as Nazi occupation at the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia which was a dignified but sobering reminder of how ordinary people can do extraordinary things,  for both good and bad.

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A replica of 14th century Blackheads House, damaged in 1941 and destroyed by the Soviets

 

Lithuania felt lively as soon as  we crossed into the last of the Baltic states. Large areas of woodland were mixed in with busy agriculture which felt familiar to that at home. We found a motorhome stop behind a tidy motel and parked next to a flashy new motorhome with Lithuanian plates. We were quickly asked to move and found that we had unwittingly invaded the film set for a popular soap opera. We were most surprised that Brian wasn’t required to co-star but slunk out of shot and  enjoyed a coffee while we watched the actors and guessed what the plot might be.

Nearby was one of the most eerie sights we have seen so far. Thousands of wooden crosses rising out of a hill at Šiauliai have been planted by pilgrims since the 19th century. They were removed and destroyed repeatedly during the Soviet era but people risked their lives by replacing the crosses during the night, as an expression of religious faith evolved into a demonstration of national identity.

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Awe-inspiring

Lithuania’s capital leapt straight into our top five favourites. Vilnius has the grand statement architecture and busy shopping streets but it has so much more.

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Vilnius Cathedral
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The Buklaste stone in Cathedral Square is the starting point for the Baltic Way and will grant wishes to those who stand on it and turn three times. Still waiting!
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Church of St Anne

There are so many unrestored baroque buildings led to by pot holed roads that you feel as though you have been transported back in time.

Uzupis means the ‘other side of the river’ and this neighbourhood was declared  a separate state within Vilnius (on April 1st 1997)  and you can’t help but smile as you walk around.

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The constitution of Uzupis is engraved on a wall for all to see.
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Creativity underpins the republic
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The Angel of Uzupis
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Quirkiness has overflowed into the main city

Once again, we found a free walking tour the best way to orientate ourselves and this gives you the opportunity to hear a young person’s perspective on the city in which they live. We learned about the renewed concern that the Baltic States have about the threat of Russian colonisation and more surprisingly about how highly revered Ronald Reagan is for his support of Lithuania before the end of the cold war. As with Estonia and Latvia, it is evident how proud this nation is of it’s independence and how highly valued freedom is.

We had sensed this pride and resilience in Poland last year and we wanted to return and see the north as we made our way home. The countryside around the Great Masurian Lakes is beautiful and very peaceful. The slow pace of life is enforced by the atrocious quality of roads which feel as though you drive around every field and tree. The Nazis put this inaccessibility and the dense forest to good use by hiding Hitler’s Eastern Front headquarters nicknamed Wolfschanze. The Wolf’s Lair is a complex of enormous bunkers which housed around two thousand people. Hitler spent much of the war here and it was the scene of the failed but significant attempt of assassination via a briefcase bomb, which he amazingly survived. The bunkers were largely destroyed as the Russians approached and the ruins now resemble ancient temples.

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One of the few undamaged buildings is now a hotel!
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The scene of the assassination attempt and a memorial to Colonel Claus von  Stauffenberg

It is amazing to realise that the elegant Old Town of Gdansk was reconstructed after World War Two as the streets and harbourside feel as if they are timeless.

 

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The Neptune Fountain is the symbol of the city

It was so atmospheric we were concerned that Mr Kips wanted to run away to sea! Gdansk is the centre of the world’s amber trade and it was fun looking at all the different types of jewelry available, but we were most interested in seeing the fantastic European Solidarity Centre. This is in a huge steel building next to the modern port that was the scene of the momentous strikes at the dockyards  in the late 1970’s.

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This was the setting of the beginning of the end of the USSR and the birthplace of modern Europe. I remember following the events in Gdansk and admiring the struggle for justice and freedom. I even joined Ronald Reagan’s campaign to light a candle in Solidarity with Poland after martial law was declared by the Soviet authorities! The excellent museum tells the story of the journey towards independence spearheaded by the union Solidarity and it’s leader Lech Walesa, an electrician who went on to become President.

It was an inspiring and timely reminder that we should not take the freedom that we are so enjoying for granted.

M & G x

Treat of the week: The Baltic States were a pleasant surprise and this was symbolised by an amazing lunch we enjoyed in the market square in Tallinn. Graham felt like a judge on Masterchef! However even this was outdone by a popular snack, the Zeppelin. Like a cross between a Cornish pasty and a doughnut. We didn’t want to eat for days afterwards!

Reflections

480 nights : 18,739 miles travelled : countries visited: 23

“What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another”.  Mahatma Gandhi

Many times along the trail we have crossed borders that were moved or created in recent history. This summer we have passed over borders that do not exist, through lands that are not properly recognised.  Sápmi stretches across Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia and is the homeland of Europe’s northernmost indigenous people, the Sámi. In Karasjok we visited the Sámediggi, the parliament for the Sámi people of Norway which addresses issues that impacts their lives, language and culture.

The architecture of the Sámediggi references the traditional temporary shelters of reindeer herders and the town is also home to NRK Sami Radio and Sámi museums. But we got the most interesting perspective chatting to John Daniel who approached to say hi to Kipper. It was his 18th birthday and he told us about life where the temperature can range 70 degrees between seasons, an unending fascination with the northern lights and the joys of riding snowmobiles in winter….fast. His enthusiasm for speed and his efforts to restrain his colourful language reminded us of teenagers at home!

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It was a short drive to the national border with Finland and we drove through miles of Mountain Birch to Inari, which has the parliament building for the Sámi in Finland and the excellent  Siida museum where we learned more about the life of reindeer herders.

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The museum showed many different kinds of traditional buildings and crafts
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Ear cutting was used to identify reindeer belonging to different families

We learned of battles with national governments over the damming of rivers which ruin fishing livelihoods and modern forestry techniques which disrupt reindeer herding. The situation is improving but the Sámi in all four countries still face discrimination and threats to their identity. We thought about the benefits of ‘progress’, like more and improved roads, that we have enjoyed without considering any threats to the environment or traditional livelihoods. Throughout the rest of our trail through Finland, we noticed the large forest clearings and thought about the double edged effects of the hydro-electric dams that we crossed.

There was further cause for reflection at the Arktikum museum in Rovaniemi which highlights developments in the Arctic region. Climate change has occurred before but never at the pace it has now and the effects of worldwide pollution carried north in the wind and sea have yet to be fully realised. It was very sobering.

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Arkitkum’s design lets the outside in, whatever the weather.

A welcome contrast was a visit to the Santa Claus village just up the road. Initially it all felt a bit bonkers, the sun was shining  with the whole place milling with bemused grown ups. Tinny Christmas music is piped into the air all day and night…we know, we slept on the car park! This is not how we imagined Lapland. Initially we managed to preserve our normal cynicism. No we weren’t going to see Santa unless he agreed to sit on our knees. No we weren’t going to waste money on tacky souvenirs at overblown prices.  But there must be inaudible brainwashing qualities in the tune of Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, because it wasn’t long before we imagined the magic and embraced the silliness, which included meeting Rudolf…minus his red nose which was on it’s summer break!

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All children’s letters to Santa in Lapland come to Rovaniemi

We came back down to earth with a bump as we drove south through heavy rain. The windscreen wiper motor suddenly stopped working. We were lucky to be able to pull into a clearing in the trees and call for help almost immediately . Fortunately we had not long crossed a dam which helped our breakdown insurance provider find us. The blessings that come with travelling in Brian include the ability to make a cuppa and fill a hot water bottle in the hours before help arrived. We were taken back to Rovaniemi to wait until the weekend was over to visit a garage for repairs. More time with Santa!

We feel very fortunate that this is the only time we have needed to be rescued in this way which is great going for a 13 year old snail!

The forests of Finland are home to wolves, lynx and to brown bears and all can be seen at Kuusamon Suurpetokeskus. We were there to see the orphan bears who have been adopted by Sulo Karjalainen. He is famous in Finland for the close bond he has with these huge animals; it was fascinating to hear about their different personalities and to see how the offer of fruit can have the same effect on bears that cake has on me. I must remember that tongue out is not a good look!

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We followed the Russian border south, travelling further east than we have been so far and felt closer to what might be called wilderness than anywhere else in Europe. We had to tear ourselves away from a lovely campsite in a peaceful Hossa and then pursued the animal theme with a night at a husky farm. The lodge offers holidays and the opportunity to try dog sledding.

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It was a quiet day between guests and I was asked if I would like to join the puppy walk. WOULD I?!

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Fuzzy puppies!

On the surface Finland is about trees and lakes. Trees and lakes. Crystal clear waters reflect the forests to make a big country seem endless. Driving along straight flat roads, trees took on a meditative quality as they flicked past our peripheral vision. And the weather swung like a pendulum; one day sunny, two days rain. Two days sun, one day rainy.

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There’s no moose in this hoose….despite repeated warnings we never saw this shy creature
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But we never got bored of seeing reindeer wandering on the roads

A map of Karelia is laced with yet more lakes.The promise of a high viewpoint drew us to Koli National Park for a rare chance to look down on Finnish scenery.

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Going up….an unusual funicular helps with the last climb
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The views over Lake Pielinen have long inspired Finnish artists
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A team snap to celebrate the view!

The sauna is central to Finnish culture and was offered at almost everywhere we stayed. Graham tried it only once where he knew we would be the only bathers. Even then he was horrified when I joined him topless. I wouldn’t be surprised if I get a burkini for Christmas!

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Olavinlinna was the oldest building we had seen for a long time. The 15th century castle is surrounded by water in the pretty town of Savonlinna at the heart of the Lakeland area. Water water everywhere!

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Nearby is the world’s largest wooden church at Kerimaki

Helsinki was as far south as we could go and once again we found a free waterfront pitch.

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The car park at the zoo is a short bus ride from the city centre

We loved Helsinki. It has all the buzz of a capital city without leaving you feeling frazzled.

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The harbourfront gives the Baltic a starring role

We bought the ingredients for a picnic at Vanha Kauppahalli. There was a wide range of speciality food stands offering an impossible choice of goodies. Somehow we ended up with smoked reindeer baguettes and licorice vodka!

We took our lunch on a ferry to Suomenlinna, the ‘fortress of Finland’. This is set on a group of islands linked by bridges which still has a community of 800 living on them.

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Fencing around the church  points towards Suomenlinna’s defensive role
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Photobombing a submarine…Kipper style

Back on the mainland, we enjoyed the art-nouveau buildings and Mr Kips enjoyed the quirky Esplanade Park….and his first beer….alcohol free of course.

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Helsinki Train Station
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The park trees took part in an arts festival
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Alcohol free, but are his eyes glazed over?!

It seemed strange to be ending our time in Finland in a city, when so much of it had been driving alone through forests. After the drama of the landscape in Norway, Finland feels like the quieter cousin, which offered the time and space to reflect on how wonderful the top of Europe is. The biggest skies, the widest waters, the fattest rainbows. We are so lucky to have seen it all.

M & G xx

Treat of the week: Without fail and whatever the weather, the Finnish evening sky was lit with the most beautiful palette of colours.

Northern light

456 nights : 17,252 miles travelled : countries visited: 20

I lost my mind, eternal light                                                                                                                                         I lost my heart in the countryside….                                                                                                                           I lost myself to nightless night              Nightless Night by Husky Rescue

 

We are exhausted!

Our energy levels drop through the floor at about 4 pm and we promise ourselves an early night. Then by 10 pm we are as bright as the skies with no intention of pulling the blinds and blacking out the light. We were too late in the year to see the midnight sun ( a Norwegian camper assured us it is the same sun as at all other times) but still, it never gets dark. It is so novel to take Kipper off for his last walk at 10.30 pm to watch the sun set. What a thrill for a few nights; but after five weeks, weariness is etched in our faces and leads to faintly comical searches for keys…and glasses….and names!

We wondered if the Norwegians would to think to put a sign on the road to mark when we had crossed the Arctic Circle. I kept thinking we’d passed the point, my map reading skills aren’t the best, but the satnav assured us that we were still below 66°. We needn’t have worried. There was a visitor centre selling an impressive array of souvenirs and spookily, the bright sunshine gave way to a grey chill as we approached the invisible line.

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We took a ferry crossing to the Lofoten Islands. They are unlike anywhere else we have been; Norway with a twist. Looking back at photographs is a multi-sensory  experience with salty smells and calling sea birds accompanying them all. Scandinavian weather has often carried two seasons in one day, but in the Lofotens they can be seen just by turning around on the spot. We cannot wait to return.

The economy is a perfect blend of fishing and tourism. Å is a tiny village that leans heavily on the tourism but even here, fishermen were hard at work. Red painted rorbuer were originally their homes but are mainly holiday accommodation now.

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Lofoten’s traditional catch is cod which is then air dried on wooden racks from February to May and exported to Italy as stockfish. We saw mostly empty racks, with only dried heads waiting to go to Nigeria as ‘okporoko’ where it is used as flavouring in soups and stews.

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The ochre buildings of Sakrisøy stood out in a chain of beautiful villages on the southern islands and we stopped to buy some of the local delicacies.

 

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There but for the grace of cod……..

Stockfish has been traded since Viking times and in the 18th century, was exchanged with Russia for timber to build Flakstad Kirke (the onion dome on a wooden cabin is an unusual combination). The interior is most serene and the wood smells divine.

 

In Fredvang, we found a simple campsite at the end of a long gravel track. White beaches combined with cold clear water and dramatic backdrops to insulate us from time and other worldly interference….. oh just take me back!!!!

 

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Thank goodness we found the Vikings, we were beginning to think they were a myth! An insider told us that they were all nursing sore heads after a wild night around the camp fire but we were not shocked. That is exactly what you expect is it not?!

The Lofotr Viking Museum has reconstructed an 83 metre longhouse which showcases skills from those times but we were fortunate to catch the end of the annual festival where fanatics gather to live a Viking life…we pretended not to see the visa mastercard machines.

The four main Lofoten Islands are linked by bridges or tunnels which have you traversing the spiny peaks of the archipeligo.

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The winding journeys were made slower by the need to stop and stare at the clouds which wrapped themselves like ribbons around and between these peaks. Breathtaking.

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Henningsvaer doesn’t quite live up to it’s moniker ‘the Venice of Lofoten’. For one thing the temperature was the coldest we had experienced so far, but it does have some stylish little shops.

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Everybody needed their woolies!
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What do you think the old kaviar factory is now used for?

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It was in Henningsvaer that we bumped into Julie and Jason. Our Tour is one of the valuable and inspiring blogs that we read in the months before we packed our lives into the snail. Their travels with their dog Charlie convinced us that Kipper would tolerate life on the road and we were all delighted to meet them. Charlie may have found Kipper’s delight a bit over the top….literally!

The risk of ticking too many items off your bucket list is that eventually you may start to feel obliged to kick that bucket. We continued north to the top of Vesterålen in the hope of ticking off one of the top five. Andenes is close to the edge of the continental shelf, so it is relatively easy to reach areas where whales may be seen. However when we arrived we were informed by boat operators that the wind was too strong for trips. We were advised to keep checking with them, if we could afford to wait. We found a campsite on the lovely long beach at Bleik and decided that we could wait for two days.

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Oh yes we can wait here!
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Waiting patiently.
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Still waiting.

We got the go ahead on the third day. Or I got the go ahead. Graham feels sick before a ferry even leaves the harbour so he and Kipper volunteered to snail watch. I enjoyed the informative introductory presentation, boarded with many other hopefuls and quickly realised that I was not going to be able to see more than the backs of heads at the front of the boat. I joined the ashen faces of the landlubbers at the back and was amazed when the ‘blow’ of a sperm whale was spotted. We watched him bask on  the surface for a while before he dived. I am happy that I made a strategic decision to focus on watching not photographing because all too quickly he was gone.The boat moved further out to sea ( my breakfast moved out to sea too) before finding another male. It was the biggest thrill to see him blow, rest and dive twice which solves my problem with the bucket list. I’m not ticking it off until I’ve seen it all again!

 

We finally rejoined the mainland and as we found the E6 northbound, the fjords stretched wider and mountains grew higher.

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Our vocabulary shrank at the same rate the landscape expanded, with sighs and wows the only appropriate comment. Each day we drove through another page of grandmother’s calendar….you know, the kind with technicolour scenery.

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The first time we passed the Northern Lights Cathedral in Alta we thought it was the incinerator for the hospital next door! The hospital turned out to be a hotel and the front of the Cathedral was more attractively innovative. The interior was primarily artificially lit which is a surprise until you remember the length of the dark winters.

Where the cathedral aims to lift your gaze upwards, the ancients looked down for spiritual answers. Alta museum sits next to stone carvings between 2,000 and 6,000 years old, with scenes of hunting and fishing on earth often mirrored by similar scenes inverted, thought to be depictions of the underworld. While the modern red paint makes it easier to see the incisions, it is now recognised as harmful and is gradually being removed. With or without pigment, all the images left goosebumps and the setting on the waters edge was uplifting.

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We were close to the top of mainland Europe and there was an increasing sense of anticipation. Many people had left their mark at one of the rest stops, recording their names and journeys. We joined the community of pebbles and reflected on far we had come.

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We settled down for an overnight stop and were thrilled when we had what turned out to be our first visit by a reindeer. Cue childish squeals from the humans and Barry White growls from the dog.

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The final miles were memorable for being different. Bare but not barren. Stretched out before us but not unending.

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We arrived …..not quite at the very top of Europe ….but close enough for us. The voices of the travellers around us echoed our own sense of excitement. We were all grinning like Cheshire cats and the notorious charge to visit Nordkapp seemed not to matter.

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On top of the world…nearly!
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Nordkapp 71. 10′ 53″

Norway isn’t perfect. Kipper is regularly dive bombed by Arctic Terns and Graham is intimidated by the half-naked locals maximising their exposure to vitamin D. Prices are prohibitive, food often lacks imagination and towns are sometimes a little dull. Yet the natural landscape  is breathtaking and the power and scale of the scenery leaves you drunk and wanting more. We now know why there are so many Norwegian motorhomes on the road. Why would you go anywhere else?

We gazed at the horizon and imagined the Arctic ice that lay beyond. We watched a beautiful sunset slowly unfurl and at midnight my birthday was heralded by a bright orange streak in the sky. And we weren’t tired at all!

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M & G xx

Treat of the week: Lofoten stockfish is regarded as the best there is but we are taking some time to get used to it’s chewy texture (even dunking in beer doesn’t help!)

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Kipper is having no such difficulties and his treat of doggy stockfish is a daily highlight.

Fifty shades of green

444 nights : 16,461 miles travelled : countries visited : 20

“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery – air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, this is what it is to be happy”  Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

There’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that Norway is the most stunning country we have trailed around.        The bad news is that no words or pictures taken on our battered point and shoot camera can portray the natural beauty.

It’s as Graham says, you never ‘arrive’ anywhere in Norway. You gasp and then push on to see another wonder around the next corner. Here, the journey is the joy. We have spent hours on end travelling through scenery that makes you smile from the inside out. I daren’t glance down as we drive along for fear of missing another scene of unframed art.

One of our first stops was  Lillehammer, a surprisingly modest town, which was the setting of the 1994 winter olympics. We remembered the flame being launched down the ski jump, a feat even more impressive when seen up close.

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Not even Brian was tempted to give it a go!

We passed through hours of forests of many shades of green giving a textured 3D effect. Norwegians are very skilled at using timber in construction (even posts for armco barriers are wooden!) and most of the wooden ‘stave’ churches that have survived in Europe are in Norway. The staves are the corner posts and finials and doors are decorated with intricate carvings. Lom Church dates to around 1160 and is one of the largest stave churches still standing.

 

Norway has created 18 national tourist routes, many of which Graham rejected after studying the maps….he gets very jittery when he smells the brakes burning! So I was pleasantly surprised when he agreed to Sognefjellet, the highest pass at 1434 metres. It was an exhilarating day, from sun filled valleys to snow covered tops.

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A beautiful lunch stop
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Wooden stakes indicate where the road lies under deep snow in winter
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A fantastic opportunity for snowball games
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The last we saw of Mr Kips for some time

We drove back to fjord level again and relaxed in Luster in glorious weather, ready for another day of wibble wobbling our way around breathtaking scenery.

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Graham has requested that his headstone is the biggest one in the graveyard like this one!

Just as you feel you are adjusting to the unrelenting loveliness, drama is added to the mix. We turned a bend, preparing to go into a tunnel when we saw a huge tongue of ice draped between peaks. We were driving around the edge of the Jostedal Glacier, the largest in continental Europe and decided that we wanted to see a bit more.

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But not before we gazed at  Fjaerland Fjord. Another day, another lovely lunch stop.

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Briksdalsbreen is one of the most accessible arms of the Jostedal Glacier and we were fascinated by the skeins of tour buses bringing cruise ship passengers to the bottom of the 3 km path to it’s base. They were then transferred into ‘troll cars’ for the final leg. We trudged on foot, sticking to two at a time; apparently trolls can move as fast as wolves on all fours!

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Our favourite site ever, Melkevoll Bretun gave great views of waterfalls and the glacier
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Graham was more fascinated by the waterfall!

Our walk took us past even more powerful waterfalls….however fanatical swimmer Kipper hated getting splashed with spray!

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Nevertheless, once at the top, he hassled us to let him into the icy water below the glacier.

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Blue ice really is blue!
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Mr Kips usually gets his own way eventually!

The road approaching Geiranger became increasingly clogged with coaches as we drew closer to the village and the reason became clear as we arrived. Brian felt dwarfed by the cruise ships, but we were delighted to see one leave from above and the ship was dwarfed by the fjord in turn .

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We took the ferry through Geirangerfjord to see misty waterfalls stripe steep sided mountains. Under grey skies it still felt magical but even my old romantic(!) hubby was surprised when the young man next to us got down on one knee and proposed to his girlfriend. I only left the deck to get coffees and missed the all excitement.

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She said yes. Graham said bloody hell!

Ålesund was largely destroyed by fire in 1904; a hazard when there are so many timber buildings. Much reconstruction was in the Art Nouveau style and we loved it’s setting across islands. This watery town was a key part of the escape route to England for resistance fighters from occupied Norway during World War II; Ålesund was nicknamed Kleines London by the Gestapo. Our trail continues to cross paths with the history of this conflict.

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Alesund from Mt Aksla
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Some older timber houses still remain

The days are wonderfully long and light but we are aware that the summer is short so we point the snail north and find the main E6 again. There are occasional urban ring roads but we mostly enjoy scenic driving and delightful overnight stops next to mirror still water and heavenly skies.

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It isn’t mirror still water when we swim!
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Bangers and beer taste better outdoors

“Shop and pack as if we are going to the moon!” Graham did his research before we left and was concerned about the cost of living in Norway and indeed, reading the prices of goods in the shops brings tears to the eyes. We have provisions stashed in every nook and crannie and we’re becoming ever more inventive with pasta sauces. Yet travelling around this fabulous country is priceless and puts concerns about the costs into the shade.

M & G xx

Treat of the week: Yes it is summer but we have been amazed by the wild flowers in Norway. Lupins fill ditches and everything else seems to be framed by a purple fringe of willowherb.

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