Rhonda and I certainly hope that the potential promises a new year brings do come true for all of our friends and readers and that the sad memories of 2011 are consigned to the old bin and the new life leads on to much brighter things.
Following a lovely New Years Eve aboard Easy Vie thanks to Tom’s hospitality and Kaz and Iain’s cooking, the first of January looked good so on the 2nd January we went for a drive and stopped off at the local supermarket to get a few things and to enjoy a coffee at the attached café bar. On leaving the car park we were hit by a car being driven by a lady who obviously didn’t see us and sadly as she hit us right on the door pillar region both drivers’ side doors bent in so much they could not be opened. The roof was also bent as was the sill so after exchanging details we approached our insurance office and were told that the damage was so severe that the vehicle would likely be written off. Oh what a feeling!!!! Just when we had the car serviced and fitted with new tyres ready for our planned trip to Spain on the 8th January.
Rhonda's Comment: Herman and Tom solving the problems of the world
Rhonda's Comments: Kaz and Iain cooking up a storm
We were also told that as a rule insurance companies in France generally ruled that any collisions in car parks were regarded as being moti moti which means knock for knock or 50/50 which was a major blow for us as if a write-off did occur we would only get a very minor payout as we only carried 3rd party and theft insurance.
This made me as mad as hell so with the assistance of our wonderful boat neighbour off “Effie”, Graham who speaks very good French, we challenged the finding saying we believed that the full responsibility was the other driver and after a couple of days they agreed that I was not in any way at fault and the other insurance company would meet the repairs or pay out in full if the vehicle was to be written off. To say we were delighted is an understatement but of course we were left without a vehicle for our trip so we bit the bullet and hired a car for the month and then had another bit of good news. Because we had booked and paid for all accommodation for the month, our travel insurance company said that they would probably pay for the rental car.
We collected the rental, loaded our stuff and set off towards Spain on the Sunday, leaving behind steady rain at Moissac and looking so forward to the adventure ahead. As we headed south we ran alongside the Pyrenees which had a fair covering of snow on the tops but much less than normal due to the mild autumn and winter we have had. Once we entered into the Carcassonne area we were hit by the Mistral winds which are so well known in that area at this time of the year. With gusts rising to the 60 km mark, the wind warning signs along the side of the motorways were to be well heeded, however, as we crossed the border entering into Spain the clouds cleared, the wind stopped and conditions looked to be more like autumn again.
Rhonda's Comments: Our first stop for morning tea and the jumper has come off.
The further south we headed the better the conditions seemed so we felt really like being on a summer holiday until as we cruised along the motorway at 120 ks per hour we heard a solid bang to the back of the car and suddenly another car pulled alongside with a couple of fellows gestulating out of the windows for us to pull over and stop. Rhonda begged me not top stop following being told that there are “bandits” along this road who try to stop cars and then rob them so after thinking about it we decided to drive on until the other car decided to accelerate away then I stopped to find quite a deep dent about the size of a euro coin. Damn, damn, damn. And in the confusion, neither of us took down the number plate of the other car.
I guess we were lucky to have taken the advice received only a couple of days earlier from other boaters who had heard about these types of robberies happening in this area. Once you stop they get out to supposedly assist you but while you are on one side of the car one of the others will hoist out all your belongings and rob you of personal effects as well and throw your keys away and just drive off. Really makes you wary after that so only the hire company to tell now.
Rhonda's Comments: This is the square in Barcelona where Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballe sang "Barcelona" way back in 1987. Have a look at it on YOU TUBE if you can - it is fantastic.
We stayed for two nights in Barcelona the location of the 1992 Olympic Games and what a magnificent job had been achieved in upgrading the cities infrastructure since I previously visited it in 1977. From an ancient style of city it has been brought up-to-date and offers the latest of technology, architecture and design and while the majority of the population appear to live in very hi-density tower blocks of flats and apartments the streets are very wide, footpaths even wider by comparison and the traffic flows so freely despite the huge population. The apartment blocks are about 10 to 12 stories high and set in square blocks making the road system much simpler to control.
With such a large population living in these high rise buildings it is understandable but also amazing to see the thousands of motor cycles and motor scooters buzzing along to work or to home, so as parking is a limiting factor in every city around the world, every corner is completely jammed with parked bikes of all makes and sizes. Truly we have never seen so many two wheeled motorised craft in our lives. Trams and very nice buses seem to run to all points of the city and there are huge green areas contained within the city to ensure leisure and play areas for children are easily accessible. From the most historic sites like the Barcelona Cathedral and the never ending construction scene of the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia with all its towers reaching towards the heavens, the mixture of old and new is amazing. One could spend weeks and still only scratch the surface of what this fine city offers to see and to visit.
While we were amazed at the thousands of apartments we were just as amazed as we drove right through the rural areas from Barcelona to Marbella to see the countless millions of orange, lemon, olive, almond trees and grape vines of course plus palm trees which provide such huge industries processing the fruits and oils etc. We often comment about the New Zealand citrus growing areas of Tauranga, Te Puke, Hawke’s Bay and Kerri Kerri and applaud those growers for doing such a grand job but in all honesty they would all fit in one small corner of the orchards here in this part of Spain alone.
After this all too brief stopover in Barcelona we were off again on the non-toll roads which were great heading towards Valencia, scene of the 2007 America’s Cup challenge where New Zealand got narrowly beaten for the Auld Mug and sadly may be the last time we will be seeing racing of these mono hull yachts for the Cup as I think the multi hulls have taken over but they will add a new level of excitement to the event but as usual it is dominated by BIG money. The port is still all set up from the A.C. challenges and with many of the bases still flying colours and flags and advertising from those heady days and there are even some yachts still on site at the otherwise empty bases looking either ready to get back into the water or are wrapped in plastic awaiting return to countries of origin or for sale. The facilities are truly magnificent and no wonder it was such a draw card for yachters from around the world with the very best of facilities being set out for spectators, sponsors and competitors alike.
Making use of some of the magnificent redeveloped area is also the race track for Formula One and this is a wonderful dual use of facilities. Again we sure would have liked to spend more time in this great city rather than just the 2 days we had.
From there we moved on towards Alicante about 4 hours drive further along the coast but stopped for lunch at the famous town of Benidorm which was a beautiful stopping place. I know all about the comments made about the crass crowd who habit the place during summer but to be honest we found it really beautiful. The beaches were stunning and the town seemed to be really interesting.
Rhonda's Comments: We actually liked Benidorm. So different to what we expected.
We found Alicante built around a fine port and this harbour is filled with commercial shipping and the town or city spreads itself up the hills right into what we would call the mountains where houses are built at those heights we suppose to avoid the summer heat and to get great views out over the beautiful blue Mediterranean. On top the hills there remains a huge castle structure built by the Moors who controlled Spain in the 8th century. Goodness only knows how they managed to build such huge walls and towns at those heights but they were sure good tradesmen hence the structures still remain in pretty good condition.
While staying in Alicante one of our old pals whom we had met while in Moissac the previous year and who has his camping car based nearby each winter came to visit for a cuppa and a chat. It was nice to catch up with Millen before he was to return to Scotland until April. It sure won’t be as warm up there as it is in this part of the world. We learned a bit more about the area as Millen and his wife Lyn have been coming to Spain for about 8 years. They just love it.
From Alicante we followed the coast road which was fantastic as it hugged the coast for lots of the way then would cut back into the mountain country via great roads which allowed the traffic to flow ever so simply. The views from up high were breathtaking and with the country turning more to what appeared to be barren surfaces with dry river beds and gulches one could well imagine this setting being in the USA mid west and cowboys riding around the tracks pursuing Red Indians etc. Well, half way between Alicante and Almeria at Tabarnas (Fort Bravo), one can see just that as this is where so many of the “spaghetti westerns” was filmed due to the great scenery, cheap labour and lack of health and safety rules etc. Movies like “The Magnificent Seven” “A Fistful of Dollars” “Indiana Jones” “The Good the Bad and the Ugly” and even “Lawrence of Arabia” just to name a few were filmed here in full or in part. While we didn’t get to visit the old sets, it is open every day so we may call in on the way back.
The final leg for us was towards Malaga and again the coast road which was still non-toll was great to follow to get the views of the mountains and the ocean but probably the biggest eye catcher was what appeared to be inland seas on either side of the road but which turned out to be sheets of plastic roofing over what one may call cloches but these were each about the size of a rugby pitch and joined or stood alongside its neighbours covering virtually hundreds of thousands of hectares. I can only estimate that they would cover an area the size of greater Auckland at least. They just go on forever it seems and while every thing grows in these cloches from tomato to lettuce to avocado and every other temperature affected vegetable or fruit and feed Europe from here and half the world as well, it would seem the sight of such a vast area covered with plastic is in my mind a tragedy. Goodness only knows how sterile the earth must be inside these structures and how little chance there is for people to walk on green fields or play areas. They are set on each and every spare piece of ground right up the hills perched on ledges and so on. While I won’t bore you with further details about this eyesight it is something I guess which could be seen from outer space and something which can’t be good for our earth and then one asks what happens to all that terrible plastic as it breaks down. I would love for you to look at it and exchange your comments on how you view it.
We arrived in Marbella about mid afternoon with temperatures of around 24 degrees and found the complex where we had booked our apartment. Following some confusion on behalf of the caretakers who were playing golf and didn’t want to let us in until 5.30 pm we adjusted their thinking and moved in at around 2.30 pm. The apartment is just one of a about 150 units in this complex and is one of 12 owned by some Russian from Moscow who bought a heap to make money over the past few years but as all the world knows there is a glut of apartments here and resale of any property is like winning a lottery.
The whole complex is in a state of needing lots of maintenance and we had to eventually move to an upstairs penthouse as the heating would not work in the first one and temps had become really cool with cloud rolling in and showers and snow falling on the mountains at the rear. The penthouse seemed to be much better until we went to have a shower only to find we had no hot water so more trades people were called and repairs were initiated. What a to do, however good news was that the weather came right suddenly and beautiful clear skies were again allowing us to see around this area and to enjoy true English style meals as the place is full of Brits running businesses here to cater for all the Brits who come to visit in season.
I have to comment at this time that we are surprised by the cost of food and goods here being so much cheaper compared to France and even eating out is so much more affordable which is a relief. The other day I bought a pair of leather upper walking shoes for 13 Euros which in France I am sure I would have had to pay around 39 Euros for at least.
Goodness only knows where and how they can keep on with the amazing road, bridge and tunnel building which gives such easy traffic flows across this country and while we have only really tasted the coastal roads and areas we look forward to the next few days and to seeing some more of this huge county.
Our hotel/apartment block is near the coast at Estapona which is just west of Marbella, however, as mentioned above the tourist trade and investors have withdrawn from the areas. While being a top resort in its day such things as the pools etc have fallen into poor state which drops the value of the place even more. The views were great however and we were able to look out of our windows to see Gibraltar sitting loud and proud on the horizon and which I had waited so much to visit as it has always been an icon I had wanted to see since being a lad and it was amazing to be able to look over to North Africa.
With Louise and Alex jetting in from Leeds the next day we drove back to Malaga Airport to collect them which took about 1½ hours so we stopped off along the way where we enjoyed lunch at a seaside café which was beautiful in the clear sunny conditions and arrived in time for them to arrive at this large airport which must be a sight to see in the tourist season when half the world must flock to this part of the world.
On the way back from the airport we drove to Marbella to show them this financial wonderland where once the “sharp lads” from the UK and Europe came to escape any extradition laws and to spend their ill-gotten gains by building properties and investing in real estate developments away from the VAT man which allowed this area to grow so rapidly. Palatial homes, marinas and resorts are the norm with 84 golf clubs set out along the coast.
Following a close inspection of the maps of the area it was decided to drive to the mountain city of Ronda about an 1 hour north of the coast. The drive up through the mountains is quite stunning and frequent stops were called for to look out over this mountainous countryside and we all were in amazement when suddenly we drove into this white city perched up on the mountain top. Ronda is a beautiful clean city well laid out with the original “old city” typical with its small lanes and streets so driving around one keeps on raising the question of how and why does this city exist so far from the coast and what keeps it going, what do the people do for work etc. With a population of over 100,000 it beggars belief almost. Certainly well worth the drive up to see it all and then enjoy the drive down again looking out over the coast to the Mediterranean.
Rhonda's Comments: More shopping - I couldn't help myself.
As the idea of visiting Gibraltar one day had always been a dream of mine since I was a young lad we set off the next day for the 1 hours drive along the motorway so almost as a surprise the sight of this big rock came upon us and was breathtaking as the weather was clear and sunny and this huge monolith stands proud and loud dominating the strait as it always has done. The entry through the border was a bit of a worry for us as we had Harry aboard plus following the difficulties we met at the French, GB border a couple of years ago, we were a bit nervous but all we had to do was wave our passports at the border officer and we were waved through along with hundreds of other motorists and motor cyclists who had been queuing for the clearance to allow travel across the main airport runway once the departing passenger jet had taken off.
The city lies around the base of the rock and the north-western side is almost totally taken up with shipping facilities as it is a major port for North Africa and Spain and in fact we counted 43 ships either in port or lying out in the stream, some coming, some going. One cannot help but be surprised by the large number of residents who call Gibraltar home so live in typical style apartment blocks with some beautiful homes dating back to the good old colonial days I suppose.
It is possible to mount the rock along foot trails or by car or bus or by cable car which is what Rhonda and I did. It is straight up and it sure brings that funny empty feeling when looking directly below but oh what a magnificent vista is all around. At the top there is the obligatory souvenir and café bar which is welcome to be honest as it gives one the chance to regain breath and to sit and take it in. Under the watchful eye of the famous or infamous Gibraltar Apes who are on street alert ready to into any bags or items left away from the closest watch but they do add to the history and flavour of this magnificent natural structure.
The rock is honey-combed with munitions tunnels and is in fact well guarded by the GB military who have maintained a strong presence and control there for hundreds of years for which the Spanish government and people hate as this little territory hanging off the edge of Spain is a real thorn in the side of this huge country which looks with disdain on this Great British land mark and coastal dot.
Rhonda's Comments: Now I don't want anyone asking which one is the ape.
Alex and Louise who travelled with us chose to walk up the foot trail to the summit and did so in fine style. It must be nice to be truly fit. We all thoroughly enjoyed the day and it will remain in our memory banks for years to come.
Rhonda's Comments: Louise doing her "mountain goat" trick on Gibraltar.
Having spent such a big impact day we decided the next day to take it a little easier so drove up into the nearby mountains to visit some isolated towns etc. The trip was wonderful and we stopped in villages for coffee and Tapas or similar and spent time viewing a more country fashioned lifestyle such as homes appearing to be almost hewn out of the cliff sides which must have power and water and TV etc but they all look so devoid of any such facilities. One wonders what do they do for employment or income as work does not seem to have any central bases apart from some forms of agriculture but I guess something must go on. I sadly hear today though that roughly 50 percent of all teenagers are unemployed and in fact that general unemployment in Spain is close to reaching 25 percent which places a huge burden on the capital resources of any country. Rhonda's Comments: The only place to have morning tea was in the middle of the kiddies play ground.
With Louise and Alex flying back to the UK the next day meant an early rise so once we had dropped them at Malaga Airport we drove through new mountain passes towards our next planned stopover, Granada. What magic sights we witnessed as the higher we climbed along wonderful motorways we were gobsmacked to see large cities seemingly just stuck in the middle of nowhere for no purpose apart from what must be a huge Olive Oil and Cork orchard linked industry base supporting such large population groups.
The views of seemingly endless olive, almond and cork tree groves stretching as far as the eye could see on either side of the motorway, so these must be the reason for such cities and supportive industries existence. We then drove into Granada which is a beautiful clean, busy city built from the ancient era of the Moors occupancy in the 8th century to the very modern well laid out part of the city where we were booked into. The food and products offered there are so cheap compared with France and with every shop offering discounts of at least 50% it is eye-catching to be able to walk along the market stall areas and main brand shops and witness such wonderful bargains.
As the city relies almost entirely on tourism as its income one has to commend the city fathers for the great way the city is kept. Cleanliness is obvious with the streets and footpaths being swept and washed each night and all signs, hoardings and so on are clean and clear.
Rhonda had made appoint of ensuring we visited here so she could visit the ancient city of The Alhumbra which dates right back to the arrival of the Moors in the 8th century followed by the ransacking by the crusades and the redevelopment in the 19th century.The mixture of architecture is mind boggling and is so amazing that the whole ancient city has been granted a Unesco World Heritage site rating, hence the tourists who flock from all over the world to view and to absorb some of this special history. Harry and I took the opportunity to have a lazy day and to catch up on emails and this blog plus plod the footpaths admiring the window displays and products for sale. Truly a great stopover.
The next step was to travel to Alicante which via a new route for us to travel on as the great road system took us up to the Sierra Nevada mountain range which ensured we got a close look at snow which had fallen and was still on both sides of the road in parts. One could not help feeling that we were travelling across the roof of the world with huge mountains staring down on us yet all of a sudden we would come across a city set on the plains or tucked onto the mountain side. It has a feeling of being unreal and something I have never witnessed the like of ever before.
With almond trees in blossom and cork trees awaiting harvest the mixture of these groves mixed with pine and fur trees and the obligatory olive tree, it was a sight to behold. From heights of 3500 meters down to sea level is also amazing and the state of the roads is of the highest quality and these weren’t the toll roads either but rather 4 lane highways, smooth with gentle curves and slopes. The engineering of these plus the viaducts and bridges is a credit to the engineering skills of this nation.
A well earned sleep was had at Alicante before heading off for the 4 hour drive to Valencia which was my favourite stop over spot on the way down but Rhonda had chosen a new route for us to follow from that we had been on going West last week so again we saw more of this hard rough country with its steep mountains, dry desert like plains and lack of green grass so very few head of any stock are seen apart from the odd small groups of scruffy looking sheep and goats looking not much better, browsing the side of the roads in places.
Again Valencia proved to be a great stopover and again we rode about the city looking at the wonderful waterfront redevelopment and the amazing forms architecture used in their new buildings for which Valencia has become world.
After over-nighting in Valencia we headed off to Barcelona on a new motorway system from that we travelled when heading west. We were amazed at the engineering standards and achievements with huge fly over’s viaducts and swooping, sweeping wide corners which allowed the 120 km speed limit easy to travel at comfort and safety right into Barcelona where we stayed for a two night stop over again.
On day two we purchased tickets on one of the “hop on, hop off” tourist buses which turned out to be wonderful value with the commentary in English being so easy to follow as details of the main important city buildings, parks, statues and points of interest were drawn to our attention including a great description of the Olympic Games venues and the waterfront where some of the worlds largest cruise liners visit or begin their Mediterranean voyages from. This is a really huge metropolitan city and where almost every person we came into contact with spoke fair to good English as they are proud of their ability to look after tourists and visitors. Both Rhonda and I kept on noting how helpful the locals were with advice or service. Sadly this is a feature which the French generally miss out on and we were no sooner back in Moissac and called on a supermarket where the sole cashier could not have cared less if we were served, satisfied or even bothered to take any notice of what we were to her business - such a pity.
Rhonda's Comments: Just love the markets - even cheaper in Spain.
With our last days travel being about 4 hours, we chose the toll road which is marvellous and while a bit expensive, cost €45 from Barcelona to Moissac we travelled home at ease and at speed to arrive mid afternoon to sunny warm conditions which was great to unpack but as the afternoon went on the temperature dropped like a stone to almost Zero overnight so we knew winter had arrived.
The next day was cold and bleak and then snow began to fall and continued to do so for the next two days and then packed down and became slippery ice which is sure dangerous. With shivering whenever we went out, the log burner was kept stoked all day (thank goodness we collected so much canal side wood over summer etc) and the oil burners going flat out. It has been a really cold week but as I had said in earlier blogs etc we were sure to get walloped to make up for the extraordinary great weather all spring, summer and autumn.
At this time of writing we have to admit that the weather has played a very important part of our day-to-day conversations and thoughts as we have been experiencing the coldest daytime temperatures in this part of the world for over 40 years. After the snow we experienced big drops in temperature to 12 below with wind chill on top of all that so the snow froze, the canal froze over to 8 to 10 cms thick and the roads and footpaths became dangerous skating rinks and as this sort of weather was so rare, no road salt or grit had been bought in by local authorities so day after day the conditions just seemed to become colder and colder.
Rhonda's Comments: Isn't the saying "Mad Dogs and Englishmen"!!!!!!
We used all our firewood but the oil heaters were a boon until of course, you guessed it they broke down and the central unit had to be taken out and sent off to Marseilles for repair. This was so annoying as we had the unit serviced while we were away in Spain to ensure all was good with them. It is here that we were again so lucky to have such great friends in this town as Gill and Allan who have a small home along the canal supplied us with a good few barrow loads of cut wood which has kept us going nicely and ensured we have been warm every day. A huge thanks goes to those two who have been so generous to us. With us having to return the rental we have been looking for a cheap and cheerful car to keep us going and looks like we have one in sight but as this needs brake repairs, we are still walking to the shops which is probably good for us but again neighbours have been very kind in telling us when they are going to the supermarket etc and taking us with them. Bless them all.
Apart from the fact that the sky was mostly clear, the ice has taken days to begin to melt but thankfully this has started and while the ice is still blocking the canal, the footpaths and roads have cleared and even shrubs are showing buds so spring can’t be too far away.
Our minds may not be entirely fixed on weather as we have had an offer to buy our barge which has turned out to be confirmed following a survey and further visit from the “Buyer”. We are awaiting the deposit to cement the deal and there is some delays which make us unhappy but we are optimistic that it will happen. It may mean that we have to move off in April /May so the mind is swinging between what we are now doing to what we need to do. If and when it is finalised we will need to work our way through the logistics of moving back to New Zealand with our “stuff” and Harry of course so sleepless nights are happening as well. We have begun looking at houses for sale “back home” with mixed feelings of excitement in some ways but regrets at the thought of finishing this most wonderful adventure and losing close regular contact with so many folk who have been such wonderful friends over the past 4 years.
We will be in touch with as many friends and associates as possible before we go but there may be many months yet before we move but if we miss any one please accept our sincere apologies, plus our thanks for the great hand of friendship you have extended to Rhonda and me. We have had a truly wonderful time and adventure which will remain etched in our minds forever. Do keep in touch as we will retain this email address and if you ever make it to God’s Own we will surely welcome you at our place for a cuppa or a meal or a bed. God bless and Keep on Barging.
Ken, Rhonda (and of course) Harry