Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Another day, another country

written 30th December

We did indeed achieve what we set out to achieve on sunday - a spot of electronics fettling and some daisy painting and guide book reading respectively - result!

Unfortunately it got too cold for BBQ on the beach, which we think we would have got away with, so delicious sausages and wedges in the van on saturday night and the weather wasn't so good on sunday, to the point where, on sunday night, with the wind once more rocking the van quite violently we decided that the beach wasn't the place for us anymore and set off back into town.

We had intended to try and find the Euromaster which we had seen by the port, but, heading back into town a different way, we came across an industrial road with lots of car dealers which seemed like the right sort of place to be - we didn't really want a dealer or dealer prices but had no other way of finding a suitable garage that may have the right bits as such short notice so were resigned to it.  A few drives up and down the road confirmed tht every other major (and some not major) car manufacturers were represented, but the only sign of VW was the many Touran billboards. 

We did however find somewhere that looked like Partco so we parked in a side road near there and planned to get up early the following morning, even setting an alarm! - yes I know we seem very lazy but it is not all our fault!  We have realised that, whereas in France where we were heading south and waking up at about 8:30 with the light, as we have been going very west recently, more west than all the UK and directly north of Portugal, but are still an hour ahead of both those places, so it doesn't get light here until 9:30!  well that is our excuse and I am sticking to it!

Anyway, we went into Partco bright an early (well 10:00, takes time to get moving in the van!) and found a really helpful man who spoke english and who suggested a garage three doors down who would be able to have a look then and there.  So off we went, and with the benefit of the new spanish we have learnt (from some unsecured wifi in Pontevedra):

"can you tell me where to find a shop to look at my cars brakes?"
"¿puede decirme dónde encontrar una tienda para mirar mis frenos coches?"

"please can you look at the brakes"
"Si no puede buscar en los frenos"

"the rear wheel is making a noise"
"la rueda trasera está haciendo un ruido"

"it sounds like a train going round a corner"
"que suena como un tren que va en una esquina"

"we thought it was a wheel bearing because the noise got louder turning left but after 100km the noise had almost gone until we used the handbrake again"
"pensamos que era un rodamiento de la rueda porque el ruido se hizo más fuerte a la izquierda, pero después de 100 kilometros el ruido se había casi desaparecido, hasta que utilizó el freno de mano de nuevo"

we managed to explain our problem :)

the little be-overalled, grease covered man soon had Jules up on a four post lift and the wheel off and it turns out, that if you have a big hammer (and know how to correctly apply it!) you don't need big spanner or torque wrench after all, as the drum does come off without taking the hub off - excellent. 

of course it it still not making the dreadful noise anymore, and the brake shoes looked ok but whilst he was off inspecting the drum, Will couldn't resist getting his hands dirty and found the bolt around which the handbrake pivots was loose, in a way it just shouldn't be.  The little man came back to have a look and pulled the bolt straight out with no sign of the retaining nut to be seen...  still no sign after some prodding about so we can only assume it was once responsible for the grindy noise and from the scars of the brake shoes, it is now more...

but, simple problem, easily fixed by judicious application of new bolt and two nuts and we were back on our way - and all for only just over an hours reasonably priced labour - brilliant!

Someone has commented that it is a shame that there always seems to be something going wrong with Jules, and I guess that that is how it sounds.  but it doesn't seem that way to us (and some of the problems are of our own making, not Jules' fault at all) and we wouldn't want any of you thinking this is a carefree, jolly holiday... ;)  through trying to fix the problems we have had, we have also seen a lot more different things and places and how "real" people live  - which turns out not to be much different from how we live, we all want or need the same things, just in different ways, from different places and at different times or in different orders! - and anyway, other than where to park for the night, we don't really have much else to worry about, which is nice... :)

Wheel worry over, and with nothing holding us back, except a need to do washing, we struck out for the border and planning to head next to Parque National de Penedas-Geres (PNPG), we set course for Salvaterra de Minho.

We had been wondering how we would tell when we crossed over in to Portugal, but in the event there was a river, a big EU sign, the road surface suddenly got worse and there were suddenly no road signs!  but there were also orange trees covered with oranges in people's back gardens and it all looked very different.  oh, and people stared at us, some even stopping in their tracks to gawp.  In spain no one seemed to notice us, here, we must be the most unlikely thing they have seen for a while... :)

We didn't find the orange road we were looking for, so ended up on a little white back road and it was wonderfully wiggly, clinging to the side of the very terraced hills, through orange and vine country - lovely.  After only a few wrong turns and missed signs (in these roads, they don't sign their towns, or their roads or if they do, not necessarily visibly from the direction in which you are driving...

but we eventually got to Ponte da Barca (named for the barcas which were used to cross the river before the bridge was built), where the LP said the tourist office for the PNPG was and found the tourist office for the requisite maps leaflets and laundry directions.  Having left our washing to be collected the next day - no self service machines here and we nearly didn't get it done as they couldn't speak English (although what else you might want when walking into a laundry with a bag full of clothes I don't know) but did speak perfect french - as obviously I now do! - so much to everyone's surprise washing was quickly negotiated! - we set off for somewhere to park. 

The tourist office lady had seemed not at all taken aback by a request for somewhere to park in our campervan overnight and had suggested no fewer than three carparks where we would be fine, including one with a bridge/river view, and a nice bar where we found the beer was cheap - petrol is expensive so portugal might turn out to be more drinking than driving!  :) and the town provides wifi in its carparks!  all in all, we like portugal a lot already!

During the night the rain hammered down - and seemingly some boy racers decided that 2am in a downpour was a good time to practice powerslides in the carpark - but it was sunny yesterday as we headed back into town to collect washing (where the lady who didn't speak french recognised me and spent a lot of time telling other customers about me being english and speaking french!) then off the the national park.

Parque National de Peneda-Geres was established in 1971 and covers 70,000 ha of mountainous granite land on the border with spain.  It peaks rise to about 1300m and it is full of ancient granite villages and a big hydroelectric park from the dammed river/reservoir.  We had a round trip proposed in the leaflet (by which it meant start in ponte da barca, drive as far as you can, then return the same way back to ponte da barca), a more detailed map than our atlas (not difficult!) and clean washing in the back - what more could one want??

We found the lindoso castle, but unfortunately it was shut.  We also found what we now know to be corn cribs, stone huts, standing on mushroom shaped legs with slats in the sides, about as big as a single bed and a 4 feet tall. 

We have been seeing wooden ones of these since Asturias and been guessing what they were for (chickens, sheep, sleeping in whilst your cows sleep underneath, drying ham, burying your dead granny etc etc) but the tourist office lady had been able to tell us (after some confusion where she couldn't possibly comprehend that they might have these things in spain too) that they were for keeping corn in to dry - so now we know.

Pressing on, and after only one wrong turn - really, no obvious road signs - we found the dam, which was pretty impressive as these things are,

and headed on to Soajo, where the point of interest is an old Pelhourino (pillory) where punishments were meted out to bad people.  This on is special as it has a face carved on it and the top represents a dart with some bread on the tip as, apparently, according to some ancient statute granting independance to the town, a nobleman can only stop there as long as it takes for a piece of hot bread to cool on the tip of a dart - so there you go. 

Being neither noblemen nor provisioned with bread, we stopped for a wander and found the closed bread shop - disappointment.  On seeing us peering in though, the man opened the door and after failing in portuguese (phrase book in van) we agin were rescued by french and he sold us some bread - win!  it seems there are a lot of french immigrants in the region although we are not quite sure why...

There have also been lots of long horn cows, which is rather apt as I am today wearing my Texas Longhorns football t-shirt - a fetching burnt orange affair with sparkly longhorns on it which is the emblem of the University of Texas football team an much beloved of my boss in the US who took us to a game - the whole place was a sea of burnt orange and it was an amazing experience - I'll tell you about it another time.

heading onwards we stopped for ham and cheese rolls over looking the valley before pressing on up the mountain side and unfortunately into cloud :(  Due to the unclear maps and lack of road signs, we also ended up going the wrong way so instead of the drive through the valley to the Peneda sancturary, we ended up on the high road through the granite peaks with national park on one side and windfarm of the other - actually probably the more impressive road! - until we got eventually to our ultimate goal of Castro Laboreiro. 

Not finding any castle signs - I mean, why tell tourists to go somewhere and then actually tell them where to find it??? - we parked near a restaurant handily called "castle view" and set off.  It didn't look promising but if the restaurant says it can see the castle, it can't be far can it??  It seemed from the trail posts that we were taking the southern approach but as the distance to the castle seemed to be getting further but the height difference between us and the castle seemed to be getting bigger, we weren't so sure.  The mountain slopes were fire blackened and with the whisps of smoke like cloudy mist and the far off rumble of thunder, it was easy to believe, in the drizzle, that the enemy marauders were attacking with cannons - very atmospheric.  I also had a horrible apprehension that, similar to my snowdon experience of many years ago, we were going to struggle to the top only to round a corner and find a horde of tea drinking little old ladies, a handrail and a shiny tourist train...  we didn't :)  we did find the castle though, built so well into the mountain top and now so dilapidated that it was barely visible from below - it felt a bit like I imagine Mordor to have been, after the evil eye was extinguished and the orcs had fled... 

We did find the north path down, which did have handrails and more convincing steps cut into the granite but it wasn't much better and how quite, anyone ever got men or horses or food up here, we don't know.  May have been easy to defend but only because no one knew it was there to attack in the first place... :)

By now, it was dark and heavily raining as we set off back to our lovely well appointed carpark in Ponte da Barca - probably the worst rain we have had so far, and certainly the worst rain, plus wiggly roads, plus possibility of hitting a cow (cars you can see, they have lights, cows don't) combination.  We went passed the Sanctuary of Peneda, which we had missed, and which looked impressive - one for another time maybe - and did eventually navigate our way home in time for tea and I am now writing this in the middle of the night (well it is dark, I don't know what time it actually is) as the rain is once more crashing down on us like someone is pouring the atlantic through a sieve and onto our heads :(

Porto later to meet the parents!

toodle pip!

a day of two halves

written 26th december

This is only the second time we have been $away for christmas, the first time was at the end of our Austin experience in 2006 when we decided to spend our last two weeks in the US driving from San Diego to Napa Valley with Christmas in San Francisco.  It was good but the pacific coast highway was not so spectacula in the fog :(

On that occasion, with christmas being rammed down our throats in a very commercialised way, and when on ringing home when we woke up at 9 to find everyone in that "eaten too much, drunk too much, can't move, its all over stupor" between the end of the washing up and the start of James Bond or Dr Who, when we hadn't even started our day yet, it was all a bit odd to be so far away.  We found that San Francisco is quite good for it though.  The sourdough bread factory was open for breakfast and then we found Go-Cars which are small yellow three wheeled gokart things, just big enough for two people, which have gps city guides in them which tell you where to go and all about the city as you drive round with various dfferent routes and optional detours.  They also talk to you to say things like "go down the hill, don't go too fast - you know where my brakes are!" and "don't take the exit for the Golden Gate Bridge - I'm not allowed on the freeway".  they were brilliant, we went all over the place - although, being about midget sized, ie same height as your average american 4x4 truck wheel, it was probably good that the roads were so quiet! 

we then watched a James Bond film at the cinema - christmas is not complete without James Bond! - and had dinner in chinatown, so it was all ok in the end!

Christmas day in Spain was a day of two halves.  The sun was shining brightly and the sky was blue when we woke up and set off back up the hill for another look at the cathedral.  The streets were packed with people milling about and chatting and I swear there were more bars open at 11:30am christmas morning than there were the night before (ie at least 1) what's all that about??

Unfortunately, there was a service about to start so we couldn't go back in to the church as we had planned but honestly, I think I could have sat and looked all day and still walked away feeling I hadn't taken it all in.  So instead, we set off to to the coast road which we had missed out on the day before. 

Laura and Cedric had circled a couple of places on the map of the "Coast of DEATH" (I'll take death please, no wait, coast, I mean coast - you said death...) and said that Finisterre was the most western point in spain.  We headed first to Camarinas where we found a beautiful orange sandstone lighthouse and a coast line of scrubby cliffs which reminded me a bit of a deserted beach we hiked to in Mykonos many years ago (following the instructions of the "crazy German" whom no doubt I will tell you about when we get to greece). 

We stopped up for christmas picnic lunch on a headland in perfect, perfect quiet, windturbines behind us (I don't know what all the NIMBY outcry is about wind turbines, I think they are elegant graceful structures and these were perfectly silent) and nothing between me and the sea and sky except a cheese sandwich  (yes, the picture is W'll chorizo sandwich!).


Bliss  I have never been so happy (except for all the other occasions on this trip so far where I have never been so happy, which are many and various... :)

We went next to Muxia which I am sure would have been nice for a wander but it was then that we noticed nasty grinding noises coming from one of the wheels so spent our time there up on the jack spinning the wheels - passengerside rear ringing noise was the problem - but with nothing we could obviously see or do and as it was getting late, we did what all good drivers do, carried on and turned the radio up so we couldn't hear it...

We got to Cape Finisterre just as the sun was setting and did our phone calls homes and it was glorious.  Although, with the benefit subsequent internet we have found that it isn't the most western point, that was another cape (Cape Tourinan), slightly further north which we had driven past en route, but as it wasn't signed and we are definately not going back, I am happy with our end of the world.

It was obviously getting dark by this point and without the wheel worry - if it is a wheel bearing, that will be expensive and time consuming, and we have a deadline to be in Porto for New Year - we would have stopped for our christmas dinner of sausages and potato wedges - yes, not very traditional I know but I like sausages!  we did spend a long time in Euroski tryng to work out how we could do chicken - can you steam a chicken??? probably not - and even considered buying and heating up a shrink wrapped pre-cooked one before just deciding to go with what we like :) - but instead, we decided to press on to the nearest big town in the hope of finding somewhere open on the saturday day after christmas and so did the rest of the coast road in the dark (which was a shame, it was a good coast road) and finally ended up in Pontevedra, where after a fruitless search for vw arages or carrefours with Kwick-fit-esque places, we finally parked, late, in a random carparking spot near a random bar.

Although it does seem that the spanish go out on Christmas day evening, even if they stay at home on christmas eve.  Every town or village we went through had an open bar with lots of people in it.  We went into the bar for a drink and ended up with christmas hamburger and chips (like the locals) and watched the end of Happy Feet - even with no language, I think we know what happened but this doesn't mean that I am not going to force Will to watch the whole thing one day anyway... I like penguins!

We asked about garages to look at brakes and got a promise that he would show us somewhere in the morning if we came back but then he massively over-charged us and didn't show up the following morning (we like to think he dissed the van and then found his own car wouldn't start in protest... ;) - and thus dented our faith in the general good nature of people.

However, in the morning, we found by chance a big Carrefour with a Feu-Vert (green light) where we managed to make them understand we needed our brakes looking at.  Unfortunately, they took the wheel off (which is as far as Will had got the previous day) before telling us that they couldn't actually fix brakes until Monday - and of course it wasn't making the same noise by this point either.  so they put it back together, (overtightening the wheel nuts and leaving the hub cap loose - monkeys) but at least they didn't charge us.  Will had another look at it in their carpark but taking the drum off apparently involves a big spanner and more torques than we have the wrench for so couldn't get very much further. 

So, with tomorrow being sunday, a day when we never manage to achieve anything, and with the noise less bad, we have set off to the next biggest town in the portugal direction (Viga) and have found ourselves a nice sunny beach where we intend to stay until Monday and attempt to do nothing in the meantime - working on the theory that if you start with low expectations you can't be disappointed!

Pilgrim's Progress (cont)

written 26th december 2009

This is the second pilgrimage we have inadvertantly been on.  The first was earlier this year, before we came up with the current crazy plan, when we went camping in the west of Ireland for two weeks in May with the midget and a tent.  We travelled up the coast from Kerry to Connemara and it was great.  On one of our last days, we decided to climb Croagh Patrick, the mountain where, alledgedly, St Patrick rid Ireland of snakes by throwing them off a cliff.  In August, thousands of people pilgrimage up it, barefoot, in the middle of the night, stopping at various places to walk round it several times.  Having had a lazy start, we didn't get there until about 3pm but it said it should only take a couple of hours and we figured, well, if your average catholic granny can get up there, we should be able to no problem...  turns out we under estimated the average catholic granny... :)  it was hard, and near vertical scree slope in places.  it was also cloudy at the top when we started out, and we met knackered people coming down saying that they couldn't see anything from the top.  So we said to ourselves that we would just go as far as the cloud line...  (un)fortunately, the cloud kept lifting as we got higher unil we finally reached the windswept top in glorious sunshine with the most fabulous views - just going to prove that God rewards the lazy who lie in bed all morning... :)  we spent the whole way down working out what to use our plenary indulgences on and went out that evening and got locked in a bar until 2am... :)

The Church of the Apostle in Santiago de Compostela is alledgedly the final resting place of the remains of St James, brother of Jesus, and as such is the third most pilgrimaged to christian destination after the Holy Land and Rome.  Why quite St James' bones made it all the way here, very nearly as far west away from Israel and Rome as it is possible to go before you fall off the edge and into the Atlantic, I don't know, but apparently he was buried here in 1AD and "rediscovered" in 813 AD and the cathedral was built in between 11th and 13th century, the original basilica having been destroyed in the 9th cetuary by maurading infidels from Cordoba in the 9th century - make of that what you will.

Apparently thousands of people come here from all over the world, many of them starting from Roncevalles in the Pyrennese, where we first picked up the trail, and walking the 500 miles.  Those that don't want to walk the whole way, walk the last 90 miles from the Galicia/Asturias border - we didn't :)

Christmas eve didn't turn out quite as we had planned.  In A Coruna, full of birthday plum cake, we didn't feel like going out for dinner, the restaurants in Santiago sounded much more interesting and both LP and Cedric had indicated that Santiago was a great place to go out so we thought we would treat ourselves to christmas eve meal out before midnight mass. Arriving mid afternoon, we were lucky enough to find a free car park, just at the bottom of the hill from the Cathedral. 

From the outside, it is a big building with a "bobbly", moss and lichen covered facade which is much fancier than  anything we have seen elsewhere.  Inside however, and especially after Burgos, it is, for the most part, surprisingly small and plain, however, being the traditional cross shape, to me, it actually felt more like a church than Burgos.  There are a couple of small side chapels dedicated to holy communion and Mary and Jesus but the whole eastern arm is taken up with what can only be described as a massive grotto of an altar, dedicated to St James which is covered with gold carving and pale statues (lots of arms and seemingly disembodied heads - a bit like a horrific train crash between a plastic doll factory and that hindu god with all the arms in a gold leaf mine... ;) ).  Because the altar is so big, the pulpit area is in the centre of the cross shape and the congregation can therefore sit in all three arms.  One of the oddest things is the access you have to the altar.  You can't get close from the front but St James's bones are kept in a silver box in a crypt under the altar that you can go down to and then on the other side, you can go up into the altar to kiss the back of the statue of St James (if you are a pilgrim - we just looked at it)  it is just the most bizarre place, even compared to Burgos, which was awesomely impressive, but quite traditional - just a lot of it.

We weren't sure if we could take pictures or not so didn't  - and I was going to find some google images but can't find any which adequately capture what I saw so again, you will need to go yourselves... :)

We got kicked out for mass at 6pm and spent a happy couple of hours in a bar drinking coffee before setting out to find one of the many restaurants in the two different LP's we have - and en route, found a doorway off a square where we could squat and steal some internet from a nearby hotel, to upload the blog, although with limited battery and homeless people wandering the streets it wasn't a comfortable stop, and it why this post was only half finished...

It turns out that, in Santiago at least, people don't go out on Christmas eve.  All the restaurants were shut - we tried all 6 listed! - and after passing one bar which had the pumping music and crowds I would expect of an english bar on christmas eve, we found a family run place that served us wine and some tapas of crisps and bread and ham and watched the King's speech.  Unlike our Queen's speech, there were no pictures, so we don't know what he was talking about, just lots of switch-camera-slow-zoom shinanigans but he looked to be a benign, avuncular chap, like your favourite grandpa when you were young and I am sure it was all very sincere..

They were clearly shutting up by 9:30 so we though we would have to go back to noisy bar, only to find that they had shut even earlier as it was shuttered up and completely quiet.  We spent the next half hour wandering the streets in vain looking for somewhere that was open - several places clearly had people in them but doors locked and blinds down - even the kebab shop (no, we hadn't drunk that much and yes, we were that desperate!) were very sorry but they were closed for a private family party.  We weren't the only ones as we kept bumping into the same groups of people (all spanish and of various ages and groupings) also wandering the streets.  As a very last resort, we tried the posh hotel in the square which was originally built by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella as a pilgrims rest stop, only to find there was no room at the inn as before we even got there. we saw two men, and then a family regretfully turned away by the liveried doorman.

Someone could make money for just one night in Santiago!

Eventually we gave in and went back to our lonely donkey for home made pintxos of cheese and chorizo on cracker and cheap table wine (at €0.65 the cheapest yet!) - we considered taking the van up to the square for open house but didn't quite have enough to go round... ;)

We did walk back to midnight mass and were surprised to find it quite full, an obviously not with the usual crowd who've just been kicked out of the pub!  This was the first proper catholic service I have been to - all "bells and smells" as my mother would say! - although I am reliably informed that they use a lot more incense in Northfleet where Will was taken as a child.  Either a little incense goes a long way when you are small or they just use less here - might even be part of a clean air, no smoke in the workplace initiative as aparently, so will tells me, in a survey done, catholic priests had worse lungs than bar workers - I don't know where he gets this stuff from!

Anyway, we were clearly not the only tourists there and we did see some of the same groups who had been walking the streets - although they left halfway through!  why bother making the effort at all then?? - so we stood up and down when everyone else did, hummed along to the sung responses and generally took it all in.  And although, personally, I find the catholic (and high church anglican) rituals to be more of man than of God, it was rather lovely to watch in that amazing church.  The bishop even made the effort to welcome visitors in french, german, english and italian which I thought was a nice touch.  At the end, when the proper churchgoers lined up to kiss the stone baby Jesus, we decided we had seen enough and pottered off hrough the quite streets back home - where's a nice kebab when you want one... ;)

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Pilgrims' Progress

written 24th December 2009

So today is the day we finish our impromptu pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, fittingly in time for christmas eve midnight mass - if there is such a thing.

We had planned an early lighthouse and more coast road - according to LP, the lush countryside and gorgeous coast between A Coruna and Santiago is one of the highlights of the whole of spain, this is the Europe on a Shoestring cheap book after all ;) - but the rain was lashing down on poor Jules when we woke up and it was not at all a nice day for a nice coast drive, or really for that matter, to go up a lighthouse.  We decided that having got this far, we might as well investigate the lighthouse anyway, and having battled our way up the sloping, windswept approach from the carpark we were pleasantly surprised to find it open and a whole exhibition about the history, including viewing all the archeology and excavations around the base, under a nice warm roof.  There was even a good english leaflet and it was a lot cheaper than we thought - brilliant!

It turns out that there has been a lighthouse/defensive tower on that spot since 1AD and it was a complex, well constructed building with an inner tower, around which an access ramp spiraled up the outside and the whole structure was surrounded by a further outer wall.  Over the millenia, the tower has fallen into disuse, been a watchtower and prison, been plundered for stones, been added to, adapted and finally restored in 1788-90 when after several centuries of not being a lighthouse, it was reclad (around the original inner tower), had an inner staircase installed and was made taller with a neo-classical spire in place of the original roman cupola.

At the top it was cold, grey, wet and windy so we didn't stay long :)

Deciding against the coast road in this weather, we set off directly to Santiago instead where we are now trying to find an open restaurant before midnight mass

Feliz Navidad y Felicias Festivas!

Happy Birthday to Me!

written 23rd December

I have had the best birthday ever!  Will says that's because he's here but as that would make the last eight birthdays also the best ever (although I am sure they were good) so I can only assume he is merely a contributing factor... :)

After a wind buffeted night, we woke up yesterday morning to rain for our continuing journey down the coast - although the tide was in again and there were still three surfers in the rolling waves - mad mad mad!

Following the old N road, we wiggled and weaved our way round the feet of the massive new road which cuts straight through the hills and skies some 100 metres up and found ourselves in Cudillero, a small fishing village.  The helpful tourist office girl gave us a brochure and suggested the lookout points tour so off we went in the rain.

The brochure describes Cudillero as a quaint fishing village built into up the steeply sloping cliffs surrounding the harbour and promises that visitors will get wonderfully lost in the old world charm and stepped and cobbled streets and passage ways. 

It then ensures all visitors do this by giving a map indicating look out points but no road/passageway names either on the map, or the little streets :) but it isn't very big, and it it quite pretty, even in the rain, and the hillside nature of it does mean that the streets are mostly about three feet wide and properly twisty and rabbit warren like with cobles and steps.  We found three of the five look out points and decided that the lighthouse was just too far away.  I also discovered that my lovely fluffy boots leak in the rain so squelched my way back to the car and onwards.

We stopped for lunch at Cabo Vidio, again on suggestion by Laura and Cedric, but it was raining, so we didn't get out because  in order to get the best view (which we then misted up by boiling the kettle) we had to park in a puddle :(

We had planned a bit of mountain route, as suggested by Laura and Cedric but as it was approaching dusk we stopped in Navia and found a nice quite beach where, having not slept terribly well due to the rockingwind on the front in Playa de Salinas, we settled in for an early night, emergency pasta - once again, because it has gone out of date before we have had the requisite emergency! - and watched Closer (Natalie Portman, Jude Law and Julia Roberts) which is a bit odd, and we think, about only wanting what you can't or shouldn't have, and once you have it, you don't want it anymore - or something.

My birthday dawned bright and sunny in our quiet beach spot and I got birthday tea - made for me!  and with a whole teabag!!  in this simple life it is the little things :)  (and we did save the tea bags to reuse later ;) ) - and plumcake for breakfast before we set off up the AS12 into the mountains.

This was properly what mountain driving should be; sunny, warm (well at least +5!), snow dusted heights, green forests sloping down to distant blue rivers and reservoirs and sweeping windy roads - perfect. 

We stopped at a random swimming pool at a recreation ground in the middle of no where (sadly closed) and a fabulous rocky look out point just past St Esteban de Buitres where we saw mountain goats leaping around. 

Absolutely on top of the world and just perfect!  (another one for you Bill!)

Two odd things about the road; 1) the sheer number of overtaking/no overtaking signs - honestly, they must have a whole bottomless budget for the things as they appear alternately about every 5m and some in places where really, you really shouldn't be thinking about overtaking on the seemingly blind corners they say you can, contravening all selfinstincts and common sense - fortunately, there wasn't too much other traffic on the road!, and 2) the number of little old men and women, in the middle of nowhere, hobbling along with a stick by the side of the road, going from who knows where to goodness only knows - I admire their fortitude but have no idea what or where they were going to.

Reaching Pezos, we pointed our noses down again through St Martin de Oscos and Villaneva de Oscos and wound our way back down the AS13 to the perfect flat blue of the coast and set off again along the coast road in search of the northernmost point in Spain.  There were two point to chose from and it was unclear from our atlas, which it would be so we took them in order, going first to Cabos Estaca de Bares which, as luck would have it, was marked as the most northern point.  There is a hotel there, closed of the season, in the old lighthouse keepers house and the least effective lighthouse we have ever seen. 

It is 100m up and 10m tall, but this is negated by the fact that they have built it in a nice sheltered hollow on the inland side of the cliff - well I suppose that having gone to the effort of building the thing, you don't want it being battered by the nasty sea winds and rain...   it is presumably visible from the sides (for 25 miles apparently) but when we walked over the cliff and down to the most northern marked rock in Spain, we were first at the level of the lantern, and then couldn't see it at all - so there will be a whole quadrant directly in front of the trecherous rocks where it is completely invisible -  why would you do this??

Anyway, we found the most northern point of spain and looked out over the blue blue cantabrian sea back to england before more tea and 'licious plum cake.

Snowy mountains, blue sea, green cliffs, sunshine, tea, cake and a cardinal point - how much better does life get??

Next stop A Coruna (I keep having to stop myself saying Ay Carumba! Bart Simpson-stylie :) ), around the coast where, arriving once more in the dark, we had our usual new-place-rush-hour-no-map-bad-traffic-bad-road-signs misery.  And we seem to have temperarily mislaid the satnat adaptor for Will's Thingumy (IPAQ).

The LP says that the main feature of A Coruna is the two beaches which join together in a golden expanse of sand.  Other than that, it says the Lighthouse, El Torro de Hercules, is claimed to be the oldest working lighthouse in the world and the old town is "worth an amble".  We decided to try and park near the lighthouse so as to visit it in the morning first thing (well as first thing as we can manage!) and be on our way for some more coast road.  You would think, that a lighthouse, especially one called Hercules, would be easy to find, it being a tall, high up thing, near the sea, with a big flashing light on it - seemingly not so.  The road signs were intermittent and conflicting and seemed to be leading us round in circles in the traffic chocked roads near the port and after drivin the same bit of road three times, we gave up and parked Jules in a nice free space near a castle which looked good for the night.  After a long day of driving, and not wanting to give up on our lighthouse search just yet, we set of for a walk along the main prom, past the massively tall, twin towered harbour traffic control building and on round.  Not seeing any maps or further signs, we turned up inland to the old town and eventually happened upon a bus stop which indicated that the light house was a mere six stops away, past the cemetary.  So we set off in what we believed to be the direction of the bus route, with a short detour into the old town, which was, as promised, alright for an amble but nothing special.

Another bus stop indicated that we were still 6 stops away but in the other direction, and by following another bus, we found a stop outside the cemetary where every bus went passt the lighthouse - must be nearly there!  Our quest had taken on near mythical proportions - think Darty - when We eventually rounded a corner and finally saw the fabled lighthouse, which wasn't all that tall, or that bright, in fact, the light was totally eclipsed by the nearby floodlit tennis courts and football pitches which presumably hadn't been there in roman times...

Quest over, and with a nice carpark, we went back to the castle and fetched Jules and settled into birthday leftover casserole - yummy.

Happy birthday to me indeed!

Lessons in Cider and Shellfish

written 21st December

We had a great night out with Laura and Cedric. Thank you!

We have learnt that cider is a social drinking past time where you stand around at the bar and your group shares bottles and glasses.  The barman is in charge of filling glasses and the cider is poured down into the glass he is holding down by his thigh from above his head so by the time it is hits the glass, it is full of bubbles.  You have to down it in one, whilst it is still bubbly - otherwise apparently it tastes completely different - and you leave a little bit in the bottom of your glass which you throw on the floor towards the bar over the rim of the bit you drank from so that the glass is clean for the next person.  The barman (who is probably called Sergei and from Ukraine) decides when you need topping up and how much you drink in each go and as you neck it back, it is very very hard to keep track of what you have drunk :)  but it is lovely stuff.  We had originally been planning to drive back to the beach for the night but it quckly became apparently that that was no longer the plan... :)

It turns out that Laura is from Villaviciosa so they are back visiting family (and they now live in Barcelona) before christmas and Cedric is originally american, with a spanish mother.  Laura has spent a lot of time in England over the last few years so her English is brilliant and quite randomly we also discovered that she did a university year in Birmingham at exactly the same time we were there in our final year - although she went to the "other" university, the one not in the centre of Birmingham where we were ;)  They have both travelled a quite lot so there were lots of stories to swap about different places.

With the benefit of locals, we also got to try some delicious food we would never have managed or thought to order on our own, starting with fried calamari followed by octopus on boiled potatoes, drenched in olive oil - all purple suckers and everything! - in the first bar

and dried beef ham and sardines (Fish Jose and Fish Manuel and their friends - fortunately after several rounds of cider, naming my fish didn't seem to be at all wierd to our new friends...).  Hearing us speaking english, a short, portly spanish man with a red nose rolled up to us in the second bar and was convinced we must be irish, because he had visited Ireland and could speak enough english to tell us this and that he had a lovely wife whom he kept pointing to and saying "my wife is very pretty, very very pretty..."  [behind the back of his hand] "...40 years ago".  He also announced he would buy us all a bottle of cider as we were irish and kept rolling back over every quarter of an hour or so to say we could have another one and tell us how pretty his wife was or that he wasn't going to kiss Will - which was probaby lucky :)  Eventually his wife dragged him away, but he did buy all our cider first!

The next bar was an 80's rock bar where we had beer and the spanish version of baileys - not sure exactly what is was but it was yummy - and eventually after being chucked out of that one and on into the next, at 4:20, Will and I decided that really we had probably had enough.  Confidently assuring Laura that of course we knew where we were going, and so we wobbled off into the night.  We did of course get home but possibly more because Villaviciosa isn't that big, than through any great homing instinct of our own... :)

Bright and early the next afternoon, the sun was shining as we set off in search in shellfsh feeling only a little odd.  Laura had recommended a restaurant run by a friend of hers and suggested soup and andaricas (small crabs) as being the thing to have and said that they would know her and her sister and would give us good food.

Tazones is a small fishing village whch seems to exist solely for the catching, cooking and selling of seafood, with small buildings housing little restaurants lining the only street down to the harbour.  We didn't manage to convey the fact that we knew someone who knew someone (them not speaking englsh and us not knowing Laura's surname or sister's name didn't help - next time, we will ask people to write these things down... :) ) but not being ones to turn a good recommendation down, we sat down anyway and ordered soup and andaricas and asked for a recommendation for which we got Almejas (and which of course got us the most expensive thing on the starters menu) but hey ho.

Not knowing quite what was going to turn up, we were pleased to see soup first which was delicious, a thick, orangy stew with shells and whole baby crabs in (which we couldn't work out if we were supposed supposed to eat or not, tried and failed to get into them).

Next, two whole, slightly steaming crabs the size of my hand appeared, with two sets of nut crackers.  I have no idea what you are supposed to do with a crab and surprisingly nor has Will, so we sort of set about them.  I am sure that in practised hands, the eating of a crab is a precise and delicate operation and a joy to behold.  With me it was more like a smash and grab raid :)  we ripped legs off (Will kept tryng to tell me to break them at a certain point and then the meat would just slide out but my crab must have had defective legs as it just wouldn't work for me)  cracked into claws and finally tore the whole thing apart in some macabre anatomy lesson - the shell was oddly furry on the outside which was unexpected.  Not sure what bits of crab inner you are supposed to eat and what you leave so we ate everything which tasted nice and left the bits which didn't - I find with this sort of thing it is better not to look or think to hard and just concentrate on the taste, which was very very nice.

Crab in pieces, we waited for a our final dish wth no idea what to expect, and got a dish full of some sort of shellfish [Editors note: since discovered it was clams), swimming in an olive oil and fiercely garlicky sauce - very very nice, but not sure it was worth the amount we paid...

Happily full of shellfishy goodness, we set off into the sun once more in search of Cabo de Penas, the northernmost tip of Asturias where we found a lighthouse and a short clifftop walk in the setting sun which was all very nice, if a bit bracing (we have a new travelling slogan "if it's not Burgos, its not cold", which is keeping us amused - nothing is going to be cold ever again!) and deciding that we had had our most successful sunday to date - we have actually achieved what we set out to achieve! - we headed off to find somewhere to park and after driving through the seriously heavy industrial part of Aviles - aluminium processing - we found the Playa de Salinas where we snagged ourselves a prime parking spot overlooking the beach in a quiet carpark.

Today, contrary to all the doom and gloom weather reports we saw on saturday and sunday, the weather has been lovely.

Leaving Will to play with his new electronic bits, I have had a lovely walk on the beach in the the sunshine - gradually shedding the first fleece, the second fleece and the jumper as I went, and thus walking along in just my t-shirt - this is how it was all supposed to be!! - I am even reconsidering the fluffy boots as I am not sure they are really beachwear... :).

Near a look out platform/art installation thing at the far end, I even came across a lone bagpipe player - although from the sound of it, this may be the only plce he is allowed to practise.. ;) -

and I have spent the rest of the afternoon watching the many surfers, bobbing about like seals in the swell.  lovely

onwards tomorrow, the pilgrimage continues!

What a difference a day makes

written 19th December

The cathedral was, of course, every bit as awesome (in the old fashioned sense the word, not a cheesy american teenager sense) as Bill had promised

and, leaving Jules in another snowy layby, after a quick stop for coffee, the sun even came out!

According to the history section in the lower cloister, the current cathedral is built on the site of a small, unassuming looking church which was built around 1080 and modestly extended in 1180. 

In 1219, or thereabouts, the King decided that it just wasn't big enough (something to do with him getting married, not sure if he wanted to get married in Burgos and couldn't or had it rebuilt in anticipation of his marriage - was trying to read the spanish as the english brochure stopped upstairs which was a shame, deinately something about king and marriage) so ordered a new cathedral built.  They started in 1221, had the first mass in 1230, and finished most of it by 1270 - quite impressive in 50 years when you consider the neverending slow progress of the Sagrada Familias in Barcelona which is the only other cathedral we have been to which comes close to Burgos (but they have funding constraints and a dead architect (Gaudi) to contend with, amongst other things) - and it is simply immense.

There is nothing left of the original church and on the model it took up about a quarter of the floor plan of the current edifice and a third of the ceiling height so it was a massive change for the town.

Inside, the soaring central nave and choir (with El Cid's grave between them) are surrounded by chapel after chapel full of high ceilings and ornately carved and gilded reredos

(relief wall decorations depicting things like the begats of Jesse through to Jesus, and Jesus' life)

and everywhere there are stone bishops sleeping on pedestals and in alcoves - there have been a lot of bishes.

Somewhat incongruously, instead of the hallowed organ music we were expecting, the cathedral staff were in full on christmas mood so we bopped our way around to "lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you", "Walking in a winter wonderland" and "santa claus is coming to town".  which was fun :)

The upper cloister and some of the chapels were closed for restoration - an ongoing thing from what we could understand of the history section - but even so we had a good couple of hours of amazement and it was definately worth the trip.

Deciding that Burgos was just too cold for any tourist office, guided walk fun - we have done a lot of that recently anyway - we decided to set off once more.  Burgos has been the destination for a while now, with no real plans after that.  Our options were following the pilgrims route to Leon - another place featured on the cold weather news - or taking up Bill's suggestion of a good driving road, N623, between Burgos and Santander so we decided to head north and down, in the hope of fine driving and warmer temperatures.  The map promised some light wiggles and a pass or two at around 1000m which sounded good to us, and conveniently passed Carrefour so we were able to stock up - and i have bought my first ever spanish cheese (Tierno)! 

We contemplated snow chains but they were expensive so we didn't but i was allowed some lovely cheap fluffy boots - yay new shoes!

The road started off well, nicely clear and gritted, through more wide open expanses of what I presume to be fields but covered in snow, 

then wound its way into the mountains and through massive natural rock cliffs which reminded us very much of the landscape we drove through in Texas beween Austin and Big Bend National park -  although on a less epic scale than Texas where after 10h driving you are still only half way across the state, but then, everything's bigger in Texas! - and particularly Santa Elena canyon, where, on the other side of the surprisingly small Rio Grande, Mexico rises as a sheer 1500m cliff face, there are pictures on Fickr a little way back.

All was still well, as we reached the first pass and we saw lots of snow plough and gritting lorries out and about so they are obviously used to this. 

As we reached the final ascent to the highest pass though (Puerto del Escudo 1020m), the cloud descended and whiteout.  Fortunately both Will and Jules are very capable so although there were no views, we wound our way safely down below the cloud and snow line once more - who would have though we would be glad to see rain!!

Again, with no real plans, we headed first for Santillana del Mar - a mediaeval village near some prehistoric cave paintings, 3 miles inland, which was apparently described as "the prettiest little village in Spain" by Jean-Paul Satre, but in the dark, with nothing open and no where obviously to park up, we decided that they would have to forego our tourist euro (only the one, we have blown the budget for this week on electronics and gas buying midweek mini breaks in France!)

and headed on up the coast where we stopped in a cliffside parking space in Comillas with a view down over the sea - our first actual seaview sleeping point, although no roof up, top window view on this occasion - so 24 hours later, 1000m lower and positively warm!  I mean it, it was at least +3 degrees :)

We started the next day again with sunshine and no plans.   I fancied the wiggly red roads through the Picos de Europa National Park but with passes at 1600m Will sensibly veto'd that plan so we headed off in the sunshine along the coast where I was in geography heaven with snowcapped mountains on one side and rolling green hills, cliff edges and blue sea on the other. 

And we are now on the Camino Norte de Santiago (Northern Pilgrimage route) so still heading in the right direction.

Feeling peckish, we stopped in Llanes to see about finding some bread and found what has to be the most helpful tourist information guy, in his very own castle.  A request for a map of the town got us a brochure with a map, the history and what you can see, and some other places in the Llanes county.  A question about other things in the local area got a map of eastern Asturias and places ringed.  Asking about whether, in general there is a problem with parking a small camping car overnight in carparks got a brochure containing all the campsites in the area (and an indication that the problem with parking overnight seemed more to do with big vehicles overhanging the legal spaces than the sleeping), a conversation about the mountains and the weather elicited a weather forecast and the information that is has been unusually cold for this early in the year but that the mountains would be good if we had snow chains as well as some information about which roads had been blocked but which would by now be cleared, and on learning that we were headed west, he produced a further map of the whole Asturias region. brilliant!

after a wander round, a coffee to avoid a snow shower, a cliff top walk and some lovely caliente barra (hot baguette) we set off in search of the Llanes natural treasures in the brochure, a pretty inland beach and the cliff top blow holes. 

Even our new detailed, tourist maps weren't great at enabling tourists to find things marked on them so after much driving to and fro in the right general area and a chilly cliff top walk, we admitted defeat on the beach and set off in search of blow holes.  Again, they were only signed once you found the right village but there was at least a carpark and no walking required.

The Bufones de Pia is a small cliff top area covered with jaggedy rocks and scrubby bushes which rises sheer upwards from the sea, 50 feet or so below.  The blow holes are natural holes in the rocks which go down through the cliffs to the sea, and with the right wind, wave and tide conditions, jets of water spurt up to 20ft. 

Unfortunately we didn't see jets but there was water vapour coming up out of the holes with a loud roaring wind/waves noise (looked a bit like the thermal springs at Rotarua in New Zealand but without the bubbling mud pools).  As you walked over the cliffs, it was a bit like they were breathing, particularly as they all did it at different times and the "exhaled" air was slightly warm and damp - with half an eye on the undulating sea below, you could almost believe you felt the cliffs rise and fall with every breath... wierd

We also met Laura and Cedric who asked us what we were doing with our little van and helpfully circled all sorts of good places on our map both locally and further afield in northern and southern spain and portugal - we had been wondering whether we would find enough things to see to fill the 10 days before our Porto rendezvous, no worres anymore!  although sadly the really good bits of Asturias are the mountains and we have had enough mountain fun for a while, maybe another trip in the summer in the midgey - a nearby beach where we would be fine to stop for the night and a great seafood restaurant for the following lunchtime and on hearing that we hadn't tried the local cider, promptly invited us to join them in Villaviciosa that night - excellent!

With the right time to start drinking cider apparently being between 9-10pm, we had a couple of hours to kill so set off for the suggested beach and set about cleaning ourselves up properly - well if people had been good enough to invite us out, the least we could do was not smell too bad :)  At 0 degrees, it was even so warm compared with our previous couple of nights that I washed my hair, thus negating the need to find a campsite for another few days - more budget for cider! :)

So, nearing the end of another day, and having started it with no plans, we have finished up with some new ideas for a route, new things to see, new food to try and some new friends - not bad going :)