South through Spain

This post is dedicated to Ben, with enormous, heart felt gratitude for driving me about as far as it is possible to travel across Spain, from the north east corner to the southwest, for the patient opportunity to practice sharing a confined, moving living space, and for the music, the stories, and the endless encouragement in both moments of doubt and enthusiasm. Superstar.

(And for the temporary loan of his hat)

It’s harder to write about where I’ve been and what we’ve done than events from long ago, or inspiration for my journey. I wonder if it is interesting to anyone other than my mum? Possibly not, but this is supposed to be a blog about what I’m doing now as well as all the other stuff, so I should at least try.

Feel free to skip the details and just look at the pictures – in summary, I got a coach from Bournemouth to London, a train to Paris and then delayed trains and a rail replacement bus to the Spanish border where Ben was waiting in his van, and we spent two weeks winding our way south through Spain from the northeast corner to the southwest, via mountains and rivers, forests and plains, cities and surf, friends and family, and of course cervesa y tapas.

In greater detail:

I set off from home on 29th December, in something of a rush after a last minute march up the hill behind our house with mum, to wave goodbye to the valley, or ‘God’s pocket’ as our friend Geoff calls it.

As we drove away from the house, with Dad waving at the door, our ETA at Bournemouth Coach Station was 11.59am, just 1 minute before my coach was due to leave. Over the course of our journey, this dropped to 11.55am as we sped up the dual carriageway, then crept back up towards midday again in the Bournemouth traffic.

As we pulled in, there were two coaches displaying no. 35 to London. One pulled off as I got out of the car, and I ran over to the other one as the driver shut the luggage doors, Mum and Alec lugging my heavy bags behind me. He let me aboard, thank goodness, and drove off with my heart pitter-pattering.

I realised then that I hadn’t really considered what I was leaving, only where I was going. I don’t know when I will next return, if our house will still be my home, what seasons I will miss or what family events will pass without me. There are too many if’s to consider, and it is easier not to think of them at all.

I arrived into Victoria a few hours later, hauled my bags across the underground to Kings Cross, where mercifully, my friend Leejiah came to meet me and carried the heaviest (I’m blaming Ben’s books, whiskey and Christmas presents that I couriered south) to the brewery where we met more friends from our masters and subsequent time living together in Oxford. We all shared a happy evening catching up, before I hugged them all goodbye and got into a taxi to Fi and Michaela’s house for the night. After two years of living in the southwest and trying to convince more friends to join me, they are about to move from London to Falmouth, just as I leave – typical 😉

In the morning, Fi waved me off in her pyjamas as I got a taxi to St Pancras, leaving myself much more time than I had for my journey to Bournemouth coach station.

Despite the French train strikes, both my Eurostar to Paris and second train south to the border were scheduled to run on time. Unfortunately, the metro between my two Parisian stations was not, and I missed my connection by 10 minutes.

Luckily for me and my ‘mal francaise’, the non-striking train staff were extremely helpful, and an hour or so later I was in possession of a hand written ticket itinerary, putting me on a train south to Bordeaux, then a smaller local train to Dax, followed by a rail replacement bus service to Hendaye, where Ben was waiting for me in his van, Jemima.

My replacement ticket – merci SNCF

Ben is an old friend from my days working at Imperial after my masters, when he was finishing his PhD in the same lab group. We had discovered a shared love of the sea, a questioning faith, and that we’d both spent our formative years exploring the same patch of Dorset countryside. As we’d both moved from academia into environmental education, we had worked together at an outdoor kids summer camp in Devon, teaching them to light fires, wading through muddy swamps and fossil hunting on the Jurassic coast. We had followed the twists and turns of one another’s lives, sometimes from afar and with occasional woodland walks or swims in the sea. He’d joined me on my first coast path walk of 2019, and shown me that joy is not made to be a crumb.

Ben is currently living in his van, a community minibus that he has converted into a home, on the north coast of Spain, on the hunt for surf and land as he seeks to rewild himself and the world around him. (You can follow his journey on YouTube)

When I started making plans for my southerly migration, I asked if I could stop by to see him for a couple of days before heading on, and he offered to drive me all the way south – what a star!

From Hendaye, we drove over the border into Spain and south through the darkness to the edge of a forest where we parked up for the night. The following morning was bright and sunny, and we walked through the oak and beech woods along steep sided valleys, with giant mushrooms growing amongst the leaf litter and cold streams cutting new paths. We saw signs of wild boar everywhere, and wondered where they hid during the day.

For New Year’s Eve celebrations, we headed for Pamplona. As we drove over a mountain pass through a tunnel, the sun and blue sky disappeared and was replaced with dense cloud.

We walked into Pamplona’s old city under the ancient walls and over a draw bridge, around the market in the centre square for churros, then on towards the bars for pintxos and cervesa. We made it through three bars before calling it a night and hearing back to the van for a fire and a whiskey to see in the new year.

Pintxos in Pamplona

We awoke in 2020 in thick cloud once more, which disappeared as quickly as it had come as we crossed another mountain pass and started our descent onto the plain below. Looking back, we could see the cloud peeking out from inside the wall of mountains.

From cloud…
Into sun!

We were headed for Segovia, where Ben’s friends Dani and Olga live. Ben had met them on the north coast, but they’d not told him much about their hometown other than that it was in the mountains. Following directions to a parking spot Dani had recommended, as the sun set we found ourselves beneath a Disney-like fairytale castle perched atop a rock, with an aqueduct in the distance.

Arriving in fairytale Segovia

There was ice on the ground as we walked around the base of the hill along the river with Otto. We climbed up into the old city and through steep, narrow streets out to a square in front of an impressive church, for pintxos before dinner at Olga’s house.

Segovia’s square

Next morning, we drove up into the hills for a walk through the pine forest around Boca del Asno. The trees were apparently some of the tallest in Spain, and orange halfway up, creating a wonderful colour palette from the bright blue sky, through the dark green tree tops, down orange trunks to brown mossy forest floor, covered in loose lichen and mistletoe blown down in recent storms. We watched a dipper washing in the river, and had a quick icy plunge ourselves in a deep pool between the rapids.

Walking up river at Boca del Asno
Icy water for a quick dip!

The road took us high up into the mountains, to a ski resort (no snow), then down onto the plains around Madrid, through rows of vines and then olive trees.

The ubiquitous roadside bull – just in case you are ever in any doubt what country you are in

We spent the night next to a big old windmill on the edge of a village off the motorway. Any ideas what they were used for? Pressing olive oil?!

Windmill at El Romeral

By the next night, we had passed through even more olives, to the edge of Granada and the snow capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada. My body, by this point, had realised that I was slowing down for the first time in at least a year, and hit me with something like flu. I fell asleep almost as soon as we arrived in Granada, and slept through til the following morning.

I’ve had sick beds with worse views – looking out over the Sierra Nevada from above Granada. (Ben’s photo)
Soaking up the sun

We had a short walk around Granada’s old town in the morning for breakfast and supplies, then set off for the coast, and the Mediterranean. We stopped near Nerja in time for an evening swim, and the next morning watched a family of Iberian ibex forage on the cliffs above the beach.

Early morning view over the Med from the bed
Bath time

Next stop was Frigiliana for lunch, where we displayed our foreigner status by embracing the warm sun in shorts and a dress, while everyone else wrapped up in coats and scarves, then on to Francesca and Paul’s house not far away.

Sunny Frigiliana

We had a gorgeous couple of days being very well fed and looked after by lovely Auntie Francesca. Paul and Ben spent many an hour playing guitar together, and we waded up the river foraging firewood, oranges and avocados.

Otto leads the way into the river
Intrepid explorers
Wild boar tracks on the river bed
We braved the chilly pool for a few lengths
Thank you Fran! I’ll definitely be back on my return to Europe

All too soon it was time to wave goodbye, and as we drove westwards, the plains of olive and valleys of avocado were replaced with endless blocks of hotels and holiday apartments on the Costa del Sol, until we passed the rock of Gibraltar and rounded the corner on to the Atlantic coast.

Driving through Marbella innit
Arriving on the Atlantic coast in time for sunset (Ben’s photo)

So began a few days of surfing (for Ben), reading on the beach (me) and long runs through the dunes (Otto), interspersed with history lessons (for all of us) – we were looking out over the sea where the Battle of Trafalgar took place.

The first of many early morning surfs
Reading buddy, Otto
Illustrating Nelson’s novel naval tactics for Otto
Before looking out over the battleground(sea?) at Cape Trafalgar

We had a beautiful walk through the coastal pine woodland on the cliffs before driving inland again, to Vejer de la Frontera, recommended to us by Fran. It is an old hilltop ‘pueblo blanco’ (white village) and we enjoyed an afternoon walk around the town and evening tour of the bars. We were hoping for flamenco, but found some excellent empanadas instead.

Looking back at a couple of surf spots
In the coastal pine woods
Beautiful Vejer de la Frontera
A good spot for tapas

Next, and final, stop was Cadiz, where we met up with my cousin Harry and his girlfriend Tilly, who are also travelling through Spain in a van, and are currently working at a hostel in the old city. They joined us for dinner in the van parked on the harbour wall, opposite my ferry.

Roadside lunch on the outskirts of Cadiz

The next morning was my final one in the van, on mainland Europe, or with anyone I knew, for an unknown length of time – time to get on a ferry to the Canary Islands.

“Yet I cannot tarry longer.

The sea that calls all things unto her calls me, and I must embark.

For to stay, though the hours burn in the night, is to freeze and crystallise and be bound in a mould.

Fain would I take with me all that is here. But how shall I?

A voice cannot carry the tongue and the lips that gave it wings. Alone must it seek the ether.

And alone and without his nest shall the eagle fly across the sun.”

Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

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