Category Archives: Spain

Mini Hollywood

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Once upon a time an Italian film director rocked up in the Sierra Nevada in to make a movie. That movie starred Clint Eastwood as the famous ‘man with no name’ (this was cool then, I promise), so he went on to make a few more. All westerns. With fabulous titles such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which is so uber. And when he’d finished, all the locals who’d been extras in the films, clubbed together and bought the set that he’d built.

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It’s been run as a tourist attraction for the last fifty years, although it’s owned by a hotel chain now. But honestly, who can resist a complete Western town of backless buildings? Not me. Steve wasn’t that keen to go: he thought it would be okay-ish and that I’d enjoy it much more than him. Boy, was he wrong; it was ACE!!!! And in all the wrong ways.

The best way to get there is to follow Deirdre the sat-nav slut as she takes you the long way around through the mountains. Although we programmed in the quickest way, please, she has selective hearing and prefers to meander. But the mountain route is spectacular and really gets you in the mood. Cacti. Ravines. Sparseness. And in the distance – ooh look, teepees.

So we fetch up at the entrance, which has weird disney characters and odd cowboys on the signage, and is looking a bit the worse for wear. And this is when I start to get very happy, because I love things that are a little bit crap so much more than things that are shiny and impressive.

Because of Dierdre’s navigation we’ve arrived half-way though the can-can show, so we give that a miss and explore the ‘town’. It has everything you would expect; a saloon, a gaol, a bank, etc., but also a mine shaft, a blacksmith, stables, shops, a schoolroom, moonshine stills and – of all things – a local Rabbi.

A photographer is taking pictures of people in costume, so Indian squaws and saloon girls keep crossing in front of us. Children run around in cowboy hats kicking up clouds of yellow dust. And honky-tonk piano music bangs out of the saloon, as the girls dance to the sound of gun-shots and well-choreographed whoops.

We have some time before the next performance of the Wild West Spectacular (and I just know it’s not going to be – I can hardly wait), so we head for the parrot display.

The parrot display? you ask.

Oh yes – because there is a zoo here as well!

And the parrot display is extra brilliant because it is all in Spanish and we can’t understand a thing. It consists of birds with beautiful plumage doing odd tricks, such as finding which cup the ball is under, or doing maths and ringing a bell to show the answer.

There is always a long lead up, with lots of ‘oooh’s from the audience, so we are quite keyed up about what to expect. Then a lady at the back of the auditorium releases a lovely cockatoo with champagne pink feathers and buttercup armpits (wingpits?). And its special skill is ….. flying! I swear. It swoops over our heads to land on the talking chappie’s arm, then flies back again, all to enthusiastic applause. Same thing with a little green parakeet with scarlet armpits. Very pretty, but not exactly a superpower, I think.

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Then we head for the big animals. Steve is interested in the Rhinos which, on close inspection, are a serious bit of kit. But I fall involve with the giraffe, who comes to the fence and lets us all stroke her head. I know it’s cupboard love and she’s looking for grass, but I’m enchanted anyway.

Her enclosure – as with all the animals – has the most amazing view. The zoo sprawls out over the surrounding hillsides, rugged, rocky, and sun-drenched. The mountains fill the horizon. It is more like being on safari than my normal experience of a zoo. I have to keep pinching myself.

Then it is time for us to head back into town for the Wild West show. We get a coffee in the saloon and find a nice spot on a balcony. Steve suggests that they might ask for volunteers, and that I should definitely go for it. I’m so tempted, but then I realise that it wouldn’t work because all of their instructions would be in Spanish.’What instructions do you need to be roped and dragged along the ground by a horse?‘ asks Steve. Good point. You can tell we’ve been married a long time, can’t you.

We are told that the show is going to be an enactment of the last stand of Jessie James. Well alrighty. And this is how it goes:-

The sheriff and his deputy drive a horse and cart into town. The sheriff is pointing his rifle at a guy in the back who is tied up. Oh no – it’s the infamous Jessie James – who then proceeds to quietly jump out of the cart and wait patiently for the sheriff to get down. Not so tough, then. Reckon he had a good spin doctor.

The sheriff puts his rifle in the cart, which then gets parked around the corner. Bit short-sighted, methinks, because although Jessie starts walking calmly to the gaol, it suddenly occurs to him that he doesn’t have to. Bit of string around his wrists, but no actual gun pointed at him. But instead of legging it, he does the old throw my hat on the ground manoeuvre and picks a fight.

He gets biffed up quite a bit before the sheriff remembers he has a pistol (which Jessie has specularly failed to grab from his holster, despite copious opportunity). Jessie now wanders amiably into the gaol, sometimes at gun-point, but mostly not, and locks himself inside. If I were him I would have been very embarrassed, but Mr Thicky James now bellows out of the window at the injustice of having to gaol himself.

Then we get something is about to happen music. For ages.

A guy in a long coat rides right through the centre of the town square. He may have borrowed it from Harry Potter because, although he is clearly visible to everybody, the sheriff patrolling the balcony totally fails to spot him. He sneaks noisily up the stairs and promptly chucks the sheriff off onto a handy pile of straw. The sheriff decides to have a bit of a snooze.

Another chap in an invisibility coat rides into the town with a rope. Together they tie it to the bars of the cell window and the horse pulls the whole shebang out. Jessie jumps through the gap. Hoorah.

Then the new chap decides not to tie up the sheriff. Instead, he positions himself behind a too small barrel and waits for the sheriff to wake up and start shooting at him. It all kicks off and now a deputy runs out from the gaol and joins in the fray. He’s been there all this time and done nothing! What a plank.

Jessie rides out and stops to offer barrel-guy a jump-up, but rides off before he can do it. You know – just before: he’s that guy. And then the other invisible-coat chap does the same. So barrel-guy gets shot. A lot.

Jessie waits until barrel-guy is really dead then, rather than make a clean break out of town on his horse, he jumps off and hides behind a too small water trough. Perhaps this is an homage thing, I don’t know, but I’m sensing a pattern.

And now the sheriff and two deputies are spaced out and training their guns on him, so he stands up and runs into the middle of the triangle. And gets shot. What a surprise, who knew?

But miracles happen (although not to Jessie) and barrel-guy is resurrected despite being shot, like, fifteen times. However, he is still an idiot. The sheriff and his deputies are wandering back to the gaol and – rather than fake it until they go inside and then make his escape – he waits until the sheriff (armed) is next to him (unarmed) and then he gets up and picks another fight.

And it doesn’t go so well and he’s marched off – showing no resistance at all – to the convenient gallows. Honestly, there’s no helping some people. But maybe the whole gang comes from the same shallow gene pool, because then the invisible-coat guy who had escaped rides back into town for the sheriff and his deputies to shoot at him again.

The sheriff chases after him and it is left to the two deputies to get the hanging done. This takes a lot longer than you’d think. Even though he’s strung up and his feet are off the ground, they are all still having a right barney and there is a considerable amount of bad-tempered spitting and kicking. Eventually, the music signals it’s time to stop, so he does a sort of mid-air M C Hammer dance, then waves at all the children, and slumps. Really dead this time. I think.

And now the sheriff comes back and, boy, did he earn his star! Not only did he outrun a galloping horse on foot, but he pulled an armed man off it, caught the horse (without being shot by the armed man), and has now roped and dragged said armed invisible-coat man back into town. Oh yes.

One of the deputies checks that the coaty is alright, before helping him to his feet in order to throw him down again. The dead guy on the gallows pipes up, ‘Shoot him!‘ and promptly gets shot again. Really, really dead, this time.

Now deputy number one waits calmly for coaty to get to his feet again, and starts beating him up. Despite all the yelling, deputy number two continues his sedate walk towards the gaol house. Perhaps there’s been some Health and Safety initiatives, because he doesn’t seem to want to get very involved. And although he has a gun, deputy number one prefers a good old fist fight, it seems. Maybe they are being too noisy, because deputy number two does turn around and points his gun at coaty until he stops fighting. But I don’t think he likes the other deputy much because he then wanders off and lets them carry on.

And suddenly – DRAMA! Coaty has got the deputy’s pistol and has shot the sheriff! Deputy number two has to do something now – he’s beginning to look more than slack – so he does more gun pointing. And coaty – despite being a crack shot (unlike the law, apparently), and only facing a deputy who clearly doesn’t give a shit, and having nothing to lose – throws his pistol back to deputy number one and puts his hands in the air. Mental! Coaty then plays his last card. ‘I’m unarmed,‘ he says. Well, who’s fault is that!

So, get this – they give him a gun!?! And now I see how it was all part of deputy number two’s master plan (cue evil laugh). He waits until coaty has shot the other deputy, then smartly polishes him off. One bullet. He’s given the undertaker plenty of work (bet they’re related) and has risen very sharply up the ranks to become the sheriff of a Jessie James-free town. Neat. Then gallows guy resurrects again, and helps to put the bars back into the gaol house window. Swell.

The kids bloody loved it, and they all got to sit on the horses afterwards and have their pictures taken with the idiot gang. I Googled Jessie James and it turns out he was shot in the back of the head, by one of his own gang, in his own home. So I don’t know what we just saw but I know which version I preferred, and it was here, at Mini Hollywood.

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The land of plastic sheeting

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I AM A SNOB

You know how there are good and bad ways of being a snob? The good way being about discernment and having taste, and the bad being about having neither? And being intentionally ironic by doing or liking crap things, rather than not knowing any better? Well, as soon as we left Sevilla and headed towards Malaga, I found out which one I was.

Oh dear. Oh double dear with knobs on.

Not only am I a raging snob, but I am both scathing and dismissive from a standpoint of NO KNOWLEDGE WHATSOEVER. Yikes!

As soon as I started seeing signs for Malaga, all my preconceptions, biased views and ridiculous notions hurtled to the surface like vomit from a drunk. And it was a shock. How did I get this way when I’ve never even been there?

Well, my parents lived in a world of white-collar workers (respectable) and blue-collar workers (not so much, although God know’s why – I’ve done those type of jobs and they are HARD).

And, as with all things, certain life-styles, aspirations and stereotypes attached to these groups. My mum was a teacher (ergo, respectable), but my dad was deffo blue-collar as an electrical engineer. I can’t begin to tell you how that irked my mum, was the cause of many major rows, and made her stress to her children how they were supposed to aim higher. And in her view, only the lower classes (to which we clearly belonged, however much she denied it) went to Butlins, watched Coronation Street, or dropped their H’s.

That was in the sixties – my formative years (bloody Nora, I’m knocking on). Then came the seventies and the rise of the package holiday. WELL! You can just imagine what my mum thought of those. In her mind it was Butlins done large, crossed with kicking-out time on a Saturday night from the local boozer.

I, personally, couldn’t see anything wrong and was insane with jealousy when my mates on the school bus talked about going to ‘My-orca’.(I remember thinking, was that the same place as Mer-jorka? I honestly didn’t know: I’d never been further than Cardiff).

Then came the eighties, and I’d left school and buggered off to London. My circle of friends seemed to include a lot of people who went to private schools. It was the era of the yuppie, and was all about timeshares, not cheap package holidays, and exotic locations in parts of the world that I’d literally never heard of before. People were ‘travellers’, not ‘holiday-makers’, and I wanted sooooo much to be a traveller.

But by then my hormones, the pill, and pregnancy tests had all failed me, and I was a single mum on Income Support. Not going anywhere, then. (But at least mum stopped nagging me to go and get a proper job and washed her hands of me instead. So, you know, silver linings.)

And all of this shaped my thoughts about Malaga, Marbella, Benidorm…..you get the idea.

And now Malaga is on the horizon and I am surprised at how much I think I know – about somewhere I’ve never been.

And about how I feel – which has tinges of distaste! What’s that all about?

I push it all aside, and decide to open my mind to exactly what it is like, even though we are only passing by. But it is hard, which is another shock. I had no idea that my prejudices were so ingrained. I give myself a bit of a talking to.

MALAGA AND ITS SURROUNDINGS

There are certainly a lot of high-rises near the coast, but no more than in any other city, I suppose. And the sea looks so blue and cloud-dusted that I’d probably want to build something tall, to take in the view, too. As my geography is so poor, I am also charmed by the unexpectedness of the mountains that frame the eastern horizon, topped with snow in the sparkling sunlight.

The hills near the road are dotted with trees in patterns as regular as Craig David’s hair, little nubs of green on the rich, stony earth. There are small sections of field tucked between roads and houses that are planted with ….. things. I can’t tell what they are, because each is shrouded in a white covering, tied at the bottom. They resemble, most accurately, fields of mummified Moomins.

Steve has told me that this part of the world is called the ‘fruit-bowl of the Europe’ and, as we drive further along the coast, we begin to understand why. Great swathes of the earth are terraced and enclosed, not in greenhouses or poly-tunnels, but in structures covered in plastic sheeting. Hundreds of them, for miles and miles. The further east we travel, the more concentrated they become, until they stretch far out from the mountains to the coast, reflecting the sun so that you can’t tell where they end and the ocean begins.

They provide a continuous environment, and protection from insects, enabling the growth of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, courgettes and many types of fruit. But they also create a surreal and distinctive landscape, a little dreary by day, almost moon pod-like at dusk, and creepy by night.

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We drive through until we reach a gap near Velez-Malaga. There, we find a site that stores caravans and motorhomes for those who come here every year. It’s not allowed to list itself as a campsite anymore, but you can stay there overnight, empty your tanks, get fresh water, use the electricity. We stay a few ‘overnights’ and find Francesca’s cafe on the other side of the road. She’s young and tattooed and does cocktails. Bliss.

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And this is only a few miles from Malaga, so shame on me.

As we move further east there will be Granada and the Sierra Nevada to explore. Steve points out Mini Hollywood on the map, which is where the ‘spaghetti westerns’ were filmed (someone with a far worse knowledge of the world than me coined that term!). This is actual land that people like Clint Eastwood and Yul Brynner have squinted at and spat on. I am a happy bunny.

TIPS FOR CAMPING IN THE RAIN

We’ve had a bit of a storm: horizontal rain and gale force winds, that sort of thing. And although Georgie has no leaks, so far, she found this weather rather a lot to handle. We pulled in the slide-out, so that the awning above it wouldn’t get torn, but she still rocked from side to side. We turned on the telly and the heating, and hunkered down.

When we went to bed, we found a huge wet patch in the middle of the duvet. The rain had been blown into the air-conditioning unit on the roof and had seeped down onto the bed. Steve did a natty fix-it by sticking our fold-up bucket (thanks, Adam and Felicity) to the ceiling with drawing pins.

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And I’d also come up with a BRILLIANT idea a few days earlier. Sometimes our electric cable doesn’t quite reach to the electric point, so we have to use an extension. Common enough, and you often see junctions wrapped in plastic bags, sitting off the ground on bricks or hanging from trees.

I came up with this solution – buy a big tupperware from a Chinese shop, cut two small notches in it for the cables to feed in and out, pop the junctions inside and slam on the lid. Instantly waterproof, clearly visible, doesn’t matter if there’s a bit of a puddle, can’t trip or drive over it easily. Eh voila.

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The resulting smugness I feel is helping me get over my snobbery. So, happy dance.

Y viva Sevilla

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There is only one place to stay in Sevilla if you have a motorhome, and it looks like the scummiest district in town. You cross the river after sailing past Ikea and skirt around until you find the least salubrious place in view. Then you plunge off the road over some disused and overgrown railway tracks, and down two heavily pot-holed industrial estate roads, past abandoned buildings and dodgy-looking empty car parks, and up to a fenced off area of the port. There, amidst the lines of cars and lorries that are waiting for God know’s what, is a smaller fenced off area that is the motorhome park. It has electricity and a waste dump spot and water. Yeah, that’s about it. And yet it’s cheap and quiet and safe and calm, and I totally recommend it.

We stay here because we are meeting our old friends Phil and Esme in Sevilla on New Year’s day, and we’ve arrived a day early so that we can get set up and have an early night to finish recovering from the flu – on New Year’s Eve.

Wouldn’t there be fireworks or some kind of celebration, I hear you ask?

Well no, apparently, because Steve has done some research and this is what he has found out: there’s not much going on, but the city folk do gather in one of the main squares and eat grapes at midnight. Then they go home. Oh, okay, bit underwhelming, but we’ll give it a go.

So we drug ourselves up to tide us over the dregs of the flu, and go into town intending to explore a little, have something to eat out later, and try to stay awake until midnight. We find the square and it is pretty blank. Nobody is gathering, no celebrations are being advertised there, and it looks pretty dead. So we pootle off and find this joyously fabulous place instead – the Plaza de Espana. Wow.

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Situated at the end of a gorgeous park, this semi-circular building shielded a tiny boating lake. There are bridges, walkways, open squares and cloisters. It is beautiful. Everywhere you look it is decorated with colourful tiles, and the inner wall itself celebrates each major town or city in Spain with a tiled mural surrounded by a tiled seat. This one is Almeria.

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There are a constant stream of horse-drawn carriages that trot through the park and up to the Plaza, then down the road past all the foreign embassies, which themselves are a sight to behold. The Colombian one looks like a tiny Inca palace all on its own.

We go back into town to find that all the cafes and restaurants have shut and the city is completely dead. We ask a doorman at a posh looking hotel where we can get something to eat, and he directs us to a bodega near the main square. There are queues of people forming all with the same idea, but we get a table, eat a hurried, unpleasant and over-priced meal (because they can – they’re the only place open) and then decide to give up and go back to Georgie.

We watch a film that Steve has downloaded and then go to bed. At 11.15. On New Year’s Eve. And three-quarters of an hour later, we realise that Steve’s research may have been a little sparse due to flu-brain, because the fireworks kick off, big time, at midnight. At first I think that they are probably just a few local ones and it will stop in a minute. It’s not worth getting dressed because, by the time I do, it will all be over. Not so. It carried on for half an hour, with me dithering the whole time, until eventually I just fell asleep. Not quite the party animal I was in my youth.

So, yes, the town was dead in the evening because everyone goes home to eat a big meal with their families. Then they all come back out again, and gather in the square to eat a grape for luck on each stroke of midnight, and all the bars open up again and they party on for hours. Right, missed that then.

For the next few days, we meet up with our friends and do as many of the sights as we can. We have coffee at the Alameda de Hercules, then walk through town to the Plaza de Espana.

 

We go to the Cathedral to gawp, enthralled, at the tomb of Christopher Columbus. Those guys are massive.

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The bell tower of the Cathedral was once the minaret of the mosque that originally occupied this spot. It is over ninety metres high – which is thirty-four or so floors when you’re walking up it. Easier than you think, though, because it doesn’t have stairs, just ramps that were once used for the guards to ride up to the top. The view is marvellous, but the bells are fricking loud. The tower is called La Giralda, (and every time I’ve tried to write this, spell check has turned it into L.A. Gerald. Who he?).

We see peacocks in The Alcazar palace gardens, flamenco dress shops in the old Jewish quarter, and loads of interesting vintage shops in the north end of the city. It is here that we found this bonkers bag lady, who insists on making her dogs pose for us. Sweet.

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Then we have to say goodbye to our lovely friends (and carry on with real life by going to Ikea to replace broken glassware).

I remember that Elena has said that children in Spain get their presents on the morning of January 6th, after the arrival of The Three Magic Kings, so I wonder what the format for that day is. I don’t trust Steve’s sources after New Year’s Eve and decide to check it our for myself.

Which is why I drag a grumbling and complaining husband out into town on the evening of the fifth, even though his flu has relapsed, and he is tired and feels a bit shitty. Heartless cow, I am. Because a fantastic carnival parade is going to march right around the town and I have downloaded the route. The people on the floats will throw sweets for the children, and the special Magic King, Caspar, I think, will be represented, possibly even on a camel. Sounds good? No, it is BRILLIANT.

Firstly, we find a place to view the procession from, which necessitates getting a drink at a bar first. Steve discovers that a gin and tonic is served as a mug full of gin, over ice, with a splash of water in. He starts to cheer up no end after that.

As the first floats hove into view, they are preceded by lots of marching bands and cool Spanish guys, in uniforms, riding horses. Don’t know who they are, but the bands play songs that everyone sings along to, and we were amused to find our ‘spot’ is beneath a balcony full of young women with sequinned cat ears. The guys on horseback are delighted and stop to watch as the girls dance about and serenade them.

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The girls on the balcony are also much appreciated by the chaps on the balcony above.

I don’t know what the song is, but they jiggle about very fetchingly, and everyone in the crowd joins in the song. By the second verse, so do we, because the words are something like ‘Ole, ole, o-le o-le, ole ole’. There is a family with a 12 year old boy just next to us, and when I turn to Steve and  remark, ‘I reckon we’ve got the best spot,’ he agrees with me. The smile on his little face as all those boobies bounce around above his head. Bless.

Then the floats appear and we got absolutely pelted in the frenzy of sweet throwing. The lad next to me is beside himself when he catches a whole 4lb bag full, unopened. The lady in front of me is less so, when one explodes open on her head.

The floats go on and on, nothing very spectacular in themselves, but the interactions between them and the crowd create a really fun atmosphere. The final floats, and bands, and Magic Kings ride by and the street is suddenly filled with balloons. I see umbrellas hung from balconies to catch the sweets. Some people have even held out blankets.

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We look down at our feet where children and adults alike are still picking up the last of the sweets and we realise why everybody else has got plastic bags over their shoes. Ours are crusted with candy. By the time we get back to Georgie, we are ridiculously happy and our shoes are completely ruined.

Fond farewells, Feliz Navidad and f***ing flu.

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ENTERTAINING MR BROADBENT (& co)

It was time to leave lovely Moncarapache and the fabulous Intrepids, so we decided to throw a little farewell party. To make it cosy, Steve and I tried to put up the safari room that fits onto the side of Georgie. We’ve done this once before with the help of Lawrence (Steve’s daughter Rosie’s partner – stay with me here) and it seemed pretty self-explanatory, but this time it  appeared to have morphed into a puzzle of double-mensa proportions. So I got Mr Jim Broadbent to help and went and cut up bread and cheese, and filled bowls with Pala-pala (a brand of micro-chipstick that we are all addicted to).

Despite days of running to and from electrical shops we’d been unable to find the right combination of TV, speaker, connecting cable, and microphone neccessary to get my karaoke working. In the end, Steve signed us up for 2 days of online karaoke. It had over 20,000 songs. Anything you could think of. No mic, but brilliant all the same.

Kick off was at six, and by six thirty we had crammed nineteen people into Georgie and the party was in full swing. At seven thirty Steve got the karaoke going. Now it must be said that when I’d mentioned the idea previously, several of the Intrepids had been somewhat lukewarm about the idea, but as the first song up was the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York, everyone sang their hearts out.

We did all the usual Christmas songs with the men trying to outdo each other on the Noddy Holder bit, then moved on to golden oldies and classics. Steve was wistful about having seen Dusty Springfield in concert when he was young. The warm-up band had been some chaps calling themselves The Beatles. And we all got well-oiled and sang until Georgie vibrated.

By about ten, some of the people had wandered home, and we were left with the party die-hards; Terry and June, John and Brenda, Mr and Mrs Jim Broadbent, and two couples that we’d never met before. That’s how parties go though, isn’t it?

Steve had somehow got drunk again, and was starting to be very bossy with the karaoke as it was playing from his phone. He put on obscure music that no-one but me had ever heard of, but then forgot to sing along. He also got very excitable as he was sitting next to Mr Jim Broadbent, who is always upbeat and who wanted to walk 500 miles, then do the entire Proclaimer’s back catalogue.

At one point Steve tried to get his attention, but due to the effects of alcohol on his not-quite-recovered-from-the-stroke brain he couldn’t remember either of his names and ended up yelling, ‘Darling! Darling!‘ at him, without noticing there was anything untoward about this. Honestly: pissed myself.

For me, this was the signal to wrest the phone from his hands and get the karaoke back under some kind of control. So I put on ‘Let it go‘ from Frozen for him to sing and you never saw a happier man. Apart from Jim, who also looked a little teary. ‘Great song, this,‘ they both agreed, as they mumbled the bit about fractals.

Sadly, the next day Brenda had gone down with some horrible bug, and by the time we left early the following morning, John, Mr Jim Broadbent and Steve were all complaining of feeling shit.

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Some of the fabulous Intrepids, on one of their boot-camp style yomps.

AND SO TO SPAIN

We’d been invited to spend Christmas with Elena’s parents (Julio and Emilia) in Don Benito, Spain. Elena is our son Sam’s girlfriend and they were both going to fly over and spend Christmas there as well. We were all very excited, (Sam especially so as he’d heard that Don Benito translated as ‘Mr Pretty Man’, which we both thought was terribly cool until we found out it didn’t).

We’d planned an easy journey so that we wouldn’t be too tired: across to Seville, then up the motorway towards Merida, stopping for the night at a truck stop on the way, and doing the last leg the following day.

Near Monasterio we stopped for petrol and found the motherload of truck stops: Leo’s 24hour service station, complete with mini-mart, gift shop, self-service cafe, restaurant, bar, showers, hotel, squash courts, enough parking for 100 trucks, and – get this – its own butchers and deli.

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We had most of the car park to ourselves, with a fabulous view of the mountains. Two eagles flew over the van as we drove in. Just spectacular.

It had everything and none of it was the usual down-market tat you get in Britain, though I searched and searched for something crap to photograph. The best I could find among the beautiful, soft, leather handbags and miles of artisan pickles, cheeses and marmalades was a shelf of pocket knives with artfully carved wooden handles – in the shape of slightly flaccid penises.

Now, I am generally a glass half full person and so this caused me to wonder why I judged them to be on the way down, so to speak, rather than on the way up? (Notice that I did not say ‘almost erect’). I once had a friend who was interviewed by a policewoman after seeing a flasher. ‘Was it erect or flaccid’, the PC wanted to know? My mate was twelve and had no idea what she was talking about, so the PC tried again. ‘Was it dingling or dangling’, she asked? Not helpful. No. But it came to mind as I looked at those penknives. Did they have a hint of dangle or a sorry attempt at a dingle?

Steve was now feeling terrible from the bug and I was succumbing to it as well. Bugger. Searched out all the drugs we had bought with us and cursed myself for not having thought of a gallon of Nightnurse and some industrial strength Sudafed when packing. We went to Monasterio and tried to persuade two different chemists to sell us as much vitamin C as possible and any other drug we could get. They’d never heard of time-release vit C, and if they had, they weren’t going to sell it to us. So we coped with what they gave us and went back to Leo’s for a three-course meal, with bread, and wine or coffee for €8.50.

FELIZ NAVIDAD (COUGH, SPLUTTER, SNIVEL, ACHOO)

Emilia and Julio have a town house in Don Benito for the winter, and a country house, just outside, for the summer. It was arranged that Sam and Elena, along with her sister Julia and boyfriend David, would stay with us at the country house. It had a huge driveway that Elena was certain we could get Georgie onto, and if it didn’t make it around the tight corner, then we could drive her straight onto next door’s driveway instead.

Well, we didn’t make it around the corner, so onto the neighbour, Manolo’s, driveway we went. We shoved everything we thought we might need into the house, took more drugs, and followed Julio around as he showed us where everything was. He didn’t speak English and we are total beginners at Spanish, but it amazing how much you can figure out by people pointing at things.

He built up an enormous fire, which had the advantage of being on an inside wall, on the other side of which was our bed-head. We were assured that the heat would transfer well into the room. Great. Because this was the summer house, which means it was designed specifically to stay cold. Great high ceilings, tiled floors, lots of drapes and shutters, no central heating. Dear old Julio came three or four times a day while we stayed there and built up that fire every time. Probably used an entire tree. Sorry, environment, but I was cold and had the flu, so it had to be done.

The family were wonderful, warm, loud, and gushing. We met the two grandmas, 93 year old Emilia, and 91 year old Visi (pronounced busy). Emilia wanted to know why my hair was grey when hers was still dark brown. Honestly, so did I. There were aunts and cousins and friends and Elena’s elder brother, Juan, with his wife and new baby. I had to tell them all that I had a bug and would only shake their hands, and I wouldn’t go near the baby. Steve and I were terrified that after our visit we’d find out we’d killed off both the grandmas and the baby would be in intensive care. So we kept our distance. And then we cried off and went back to the country, and fell into bed.

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Bad photo of lovely grandma Emilia

The next day was Christmas Eve and was the traditional day for celebrating: the big meal would be in the evening and the gift giving would occur after that. In general, only a small gift is given at this time, the main presents arriving with the advent of The Three Magic Kings at Epiphany. Or the Three Wise Men, as we know them. I asked Elena why they are called ‘magic’ and she thought for a long while and then said, ‘because they are magicians‘. So there you have it.

It makes sense when you consider that Santa Claus grew out of a Scandinavian tradition, and so would be of much less importance here. The Kings bring the gifts to baby Jesus, so that’s when the children get their gifts as well – on the 6th January. But because Elena and other members of her family could only get time off at Christmas, they decided to celebrate a little early.

Thanks to the flu and all the medication we took, the next few days are a bit of a blur. Steve and I had to take turns doing the meals while the other one crashed in bed. I ate spider crab legs, he ate a sparrow. Older Emilia became my very best friend despite not understanding a word each other said. We used Google Translate A LOT.

Elena’s mum kindly sent each of us home with jars of homemade soup and bags of food, which we were too ill to make use of. The next door neighbour cut us veg from his patch – some broccoli, a romanescu and the biggest cauliflower I have ever seen. I genuinely didn’t know they made them that big. Since Julio nearly severed his foot falling off the patio roof a year ago, he has been unable to grow his own veg. So he keeps chickens in what was his veg patch and Manolo grows the produce. Then they share it. Here is a picture of the cauliflower, with an orange, for purposes of scale.

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We went out to bars and met all their lovely friends. Julio showed us pictures of his house in Almancil, on the coast, and practically ordered us to stay there as long as we wanted. They showered us with every bit of hospitality it is possible to receive.

And then I disappointed my son.

Let me explain.

When I was a kid I had a phobia about ‘slimy’ foods: you know, things that have no bite to them, like custard. Couldn’t bear them, made me gag. Then one day my parents gave me a plate of tinned spaghetti, the mere sight of which was appalling to me. And my helpful elder brother, Mac, said, ‘that’s worms, that is‘. Fast forward fifteen years and I am finally able to eat both custard and pasta, but only in small quantities. Fast forward another fifteen and I am wolfing them down with gusto. Yay, sorted.

But……when you’ve got the flu……..you just want comfort food, and familiar things, and nothing that tastes a bit ‘funny‘. Don’t you?

So when a plate of angulas were put down in front of me, I admit, I freaked out a bit. Because they are baby eels. Elvers.  And, of course, they are small – about the width of a piece of tinned spaghetti – and grey. Oh yes. With no hint of a tomato sauce to disguise them. It was all my childhood food nightmares come back to haunt me. In my drugged up and bacteria-logged state I imagined I would have to sit there until I ate a whole plateful, just like when I was a kid (mums did that then – thought it was good for you).

So I did eat one. And it was actually nice, and nothing liked it looked. And my son commented that he thought I was more adventurous than that. And I wanted to be the mum he thought I was, and scoff them down with sophisticated assurance, but they were GREY! And then Julia, Elena’s sister said that she didn’t like them either, and I thought, ‘Oh thank God‘.

MOVING ON

On our last day, Manolo and Julio came and cooked lunch for us at the country house. Both Emilias came, and the long table was laid for us and all the neighbours. Julio said that he and Manolo have been best friends since they met on the first day of school, aged five, over sixty years ago. Sweet.

They were going to cook a traditional spanish peasant breakfast dish for us, and to do this, they needed to utilise the cauldron. The one that Julio had been using to take out the fire ashes all week. I love this.

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They worked really well together, as you would expect. Using knives that Crocodile Dundee would quail at, they hacked up bacon into lardons the size of your average chocolate brownie. They browned them off in loads of olive oil, then scooped them out to make way for three whole heads of garlic, split into cloves. Then they chucked in a washing-up bowl of red pepper strips, and softened and charred them. Finally, the oil was used to flavour and fry an entire cauldron full of breadcrumbs. This meant stirring and stirring, so that each crumb had some oil, and had crisped up a little – about 40 minutes of hard graft, I reckon. This was man food.

They’d also broken up different types of chorizo meat and mushed them in pans with wine and other flavourings. The peppers, garlic and lardons were stirred back in at the end, and bowlfuls of the mixture were topped with the fried chorizo. It was bloody lovely.

But then we had to leave. And the driveway that had been so easy to pull onto, was suddenly quite difficult to get out of. The gates opened inwards, so we had been at an advantage coming in. Trying to navigate our way out of a space that was only just big enough, with the gates catching and scraping along Georgie’s sides, was brutal. I’d held the right gate on the way in, but Steve’s angle must have been slightly different then because Manolo was getting crushed as he tried to do it.

But these were the men who carried knives and ate man food. They ate those bloody eels, for God’s sake – this was not going to beat them. In the end, one of Manolo’s sons had to climb onto the hedge, I kid you not, and lasso the gate for Julio and Manolo and Emilia to haul open with a rope. Don’t believe me? Here are the pics.

And then we were away. And where did we go? Back to Leo’s of course.

The rain in Spain and invisible eagles.

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On Friday I send Sam a text, because I do the mum thing from time to time and try to keep up with my kids, despite the distance.

‘Give me a call when you are free and we will talk (lots of kisses, smiley face).’

I’m in a bit of a freak-out, because we’ve just been discussing the fact that he’s started a new job and can’t get the time off at Xmas to come to Spain, as promised. He’s all for jacking in the job, just so that he can see us all. Madness: how would that look to future employers?! I need to talk some sense into the boy (lovely chap, but impulsive).

Anyway, I get this reply:

‘Was thinking I would call you when I was in Spain’

What? Has he chucked it in already? What is he thinking! I send a swift and responsible reply:

‘Cool.’

know;  I’m pathetic, but it’s too late to tell him he’s a total knob-head if it’s already done. I politely enquire:

‘Where you gonna be in Spain? Up at Elena’s?’

‘Seville. Back on Monday.’

Now this is great news, as we are at the other end of a motorway that goes straight to Seville. Could get there in a couple of hours or so. I let him know this and start plotting how we’ll get together. He’s in Spain for a wedding on Saturday, but could see us on Sunday afternoon – half one to two-ish? I swear that’s what he said.

And so we set off on Sunday at about 11 o,clock, cos we are tired and slow that day, and it is pissing down. As we approach the border I remember the passports. Or rather, I remember that I have forgotten the passports. They are safe, in our lock box. Oops.

And then I remember that I have forgotten the time difference too, and we are going to be at least an hour later than we said. So, nearer 2 o,clock then. Still, we’ll have all evening – it’ll be fine. Then Sam says:

‘Did I mention that we’ve got to leave at half five to catch the bus down to Malaga?’

NO, YOU FUCKING DIDN’T!

Honestly, I don’t know where he gets it from! Still, Elena has sent instructions on where to leave the car. So I tell Sam to find somewhere nice to eat, get settled there, have a drink, and we’ll be there once we’ve parked.

Then Elena sends different directions, because she is kind and helpful, and has found somewhere nearer to where they are meeting us —  and because it is the heaviest rain I have ever, ever seen. I can barely make out the car in front and the clouds are no more then ten foot above our heads, no word of a lie.

We are late, the traffic has been dreadful because of the vertical river we are all driving through and, when we finally arrive, the road Elena suggested is now for pedestrians only. But, for once, Deirdre the sat-nav slut comes good and we sort it out for ourselves.

We have a precious three hours with Sam and Elena, drink very good wine, and eat shark in a spicy batter. Then, sodden beyond words, we try to remember where we parked the car….

THE INTREPIDS AT CHRISTMAS

The other French and English people at the campsite all have ten to fifteen years on us, and can out-walk, out-run, out-drink, and pretty much out-everything me. I call them the Intrepids, because the label that I’ve heard – the ‘grey vagrants’ – does not do them justice.

For instance, Terry and June have been everywhere, usually back-packing from hostel to hostel, age or infirmity no object. You name a place and they have a funny story or a useful piece of advice about how to navigate the area. They are not show-offs, they are excited about the possibilities in front of us and give Steve and I loads of encouragement.

They take me for a ‘short’ walk up to the lookout on the nearest hill. They point out where wild boar were and where eagles aren’t. No vultures either. Or lizards. And the beautiful Portuguese buttercups that carpet the fields and olive groves, bright flowers clustered on tall stems, swaying like cowslips, will bloom just after we leave. Their disappointment is palpable and touching.

Terry once had hiccups for three weeks. It got on June’s nerves and spoilt her sleep. I’m with June there: six hours is about my maximum for compassion, ask Steve. Terry had to take special medication to slowly release the diaphragm (which gets stuck, apparently). Years later, he was with a friend in Russia, and the hiccups started up again. The guy gave him vodka, which stopped it immediately. Now, whenever he gets them, he takes a slug of gin straight away and that does the trick. Handy to know, I thought.

They tell me about the vast statue of Genghis Khan out in the Mongolian Steppe. They’ve been there, obviously. There is a lift up inside one of the horses legs, it is that huge. We discuss holding your breath versus snorkelling around the Great Barrier Reef. And another handy tip – if you’re in a desert in Oz and you’ve run out of water, stick a tree ant on your tongue until it stings you. Your mouth will then fill with saliva and your thirst will vanish.

‘You didn’t try that, did you Terry?’

‘Course I did.’

See what I mean? June has a photo of her hugging a koala bear. It was lovely, she says. Did Terry hug one too?

‘Nah, I got a wombat. Always a wombat,’ he says, with a smile of satisfaction that appears to explain it all.

When we get back to base-camp – sorry, the campsite – Brenda is cutting up beer cans. Hans is there, and he sings my name over and over as I approach. I am clueless how to respond to this, so I focus on Brenda. The cans are going to be used to decorate one of the carob trees in the middle of the site. Very inventive, and eco-friendly, I think.

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However, Brenda tells me that the tradition started a few years ago after a particularly good evening when they all became legless. They can’t even remember who put the empties into the tree, but they looked so pretty that they’ve been boozing themselves silly in the lead up to Christmas every year since.

To their credit, the cans are now cut into spirals and made into lanterns, and their bottoms are hung sideways, as ‘baubles’. I can’t pass up the opportunity, so I dash back to the van and make strings of hanging flower shapes out of yoghurt pots. They are crap, but Brenda is delighted. I appear to have nailed the ‘tone’ of the tree.

Later, I head off to the charity bookshop in nearby Estoi. I want to talk to the young woman who runs it about the local orphanage she mentioned the last time we were there. When I return, I have a sizeable pile of books under my arm. Hans is singing my name again. I still don’t know what to say, so Brenda rescues me.

‘Got anything good?’

‘Yeah, not bad: a couple of ‘gripping‘s and a nearly-but-not-quite Booker.’

She sees that my hands are covered in black marks.

‘Anything else happen?’ she says.

‘Well, the girl wasn’t there, and the lady who was didn’t speak English, and I had no small change so I’ve donated a fortune for these books, and then I ran out of petrol and the car key got stuck in the petrol cap and so a policewoman found a farmer with some pliers to get it out, and then I got lost on the way back.’

Brenda praises one eyebrow and says, ‘You can’t really be let out on yer own, can yer?’

Pilgrims and wanderers

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THE CAMINO DE SANTIAGO

I’d heard something of The Camino before we came, but it was very vague: I remember seeing a video of people walking around the side of a crumbling mountain with a wire to hold onto, and not much else. I knew it was some kind of old road that was now seen as a challenge to walkers and climbers, but that’s as far as my knowledge extended. Well, shame on me.

The Camino is one of oldest pilgrimages in the world and in the middle ages was in the top three – the other two routes leading to Rome and Jerusalem. Millions of travellers have set out on this road, over hundreds of years, and it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I encountered it as we drifted down out of the Pyrenees into Spain, a few weeks ago. The route we were on would lead all the way across country, to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela where lie the bones of St James The Greater (St. Iago in Spanish). He was the son of Zebedee ( and you could stop me right there and that would be good enough for me), one of the original twelve apostles, and the very first person martyred for his faith. Or so they say. Other theories include the fact that he and his brother were known as the ‘Sons of Thunder’ on account of their fiery tempers, so who knows what really kicked off? But he’s the patron saint of Spain, so fair enough.

After his beheading, his remains were shipped from the Holy Land to the shores of Spain, where a storm capsized the boat. You could say he wasn’t having much luck up to this point, but then it all goes a bit Disney. One story says that his body washed up on the shore, intact, and covered in scallop shells. Now I’d find that grizzly, but in the world of saints this counts as a miracle, so who am I to judge? The scallop shell became the symbol of The Camino, and endures to this day.

PILGRIMS

I’m not a big fan of religions that operate from a position of fear of what will happen to you after you’re dead. I find the carrot is more effective than the stick, and anyway, I’m not good at taking other peoples’ word for things. Especially when they are men who lived thousands of years ago. If that floats your boat and gives you purpose and comfort, then fine, but it just doesn’t work for me.

So the whole idea of doing penance in this life to atone for sins you may have done or are yet to do, that there is a balance scale somewhere that you can adjust, is one that makes little sense to me.

But the idea of a spiritual journey, a long, arduous, and contemplative journey, alone with your thoughts and fears and yearnings – I find that rather admirable and brave.

ROUTES

The pilgrims on The Camino traditionally started at their own front doors and made their way to the Cathedral (like going to Mecca or, sadly, these days, Graceland.) Sometimes this took years: imagine that. They followed the Milky Way which is associated with The Camino, the legend being that the stars were created from the dust of a thousand travellers as they journeyed to pay homage to their Saint.

These days the minimum requirement is to walk 100km or cycle for 200km. Or you can go by donkey but that’s got to be harder to arrange accommodation for.

The route is marked by the symbol of scallop shell in various forms, and there are hostels for the travellers in every small town or village along the way. Our first pit-stop in Spain was in the car park of one and, as it’s good manners to eat where you stop, we had dinner in the little cafe there.

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The other diners were a mixture of locals and pilgrims: the latter set apart by their walking gear, of course, but also by the atmosphere they generated. The couple next to us were an elderly lady with a much needed stick and a younger woman who clutched her side and hobbled slowly to the counter to pay. I was shocked: we were nearly 500km away from Santiago, and they were both struggling to walk five feet. But the next morning they were already well on their way as we passed them.

What drives people to do this, year after year, over 200,000 at a time? Were they seeking some miracle of healing for their infirmities, or reassurance that with death approaching they had put their afterlife affairs in order? None of the dogged, persistent walkers we saw that morning – and there were a surprising number – were young, or fit, or seeming to be there just for the physical challenge of it.

Rather humbling, if mystifying. When I’d walked the twenty feet of Camino from van to cafe, I’d tried to do it with respect, but somehow I didn’t think it counted.

Or did it?

THE GIFT OF AN ANSWERED PRAYER

Spain was hot and flat and dry. The long roads stretched as endlessly as the fields were boundless. Steve and I had agreed that we’d stop near Salamanca, but other than that we were going straight on to Portugal: we’d return to Spain later in the year.

We’d also agreed to pause at the next truck stop or petrol station so that I could have a wee and a tea. But we passed one, after another, after another, and he didn’t stop and I was getting headachy and desperate.

The nice thing about driving Nibbles behind Georgie is that I get to vent in the happy knowledge that it affects no-one. And I can shout, or sing, or curse as much as I like, and still arrive at my destination, serene. So I had a damn good shout at Steve and it went something like this:-

‘Where the fuck are you going? Really? We’ve just passed another one, you twonk. So what was wrong with that one then? I NEED to STOP! Or I can piss my seat, I don’t care. Please God, just stop soon.’

You get the gist.

I was beginning to think that he’d drive all the way to fucking Brazil without stopping, when I saw it —

— the sign of the scallop shell, high above a sea of green, an oasis, calling me.

And whoever’s up there must have heard, because Steve indicated and pulled off the road…

…into a BP Shell service station, with a loo and a cafe and a shop that sold Jaffa cakes called Pims (that’s a gift that keeps on giving).

So thank you, St. Jim. You’re my kind of guy.

A LONG LINE OF WANDERERS

My family history covers continents: we have always put our faith in the unknown, often with an ocean linking our present to our future.

My father is a case in point: his family were originally from Ireland but his antecedents also included Hapsburgs, and Voortrekkers. He was born and bred in Rhodesia, and used to tell me tales of going gold prospecting in the bush with his elder brothers.

He met my mother while she was a nurse in Zambia. She’d already lived in Mauritius, and was now near her sister, Ruth, who was a missionary working in a leprosy hospital in the bush. After they were married and mum got homesick, my dad did as his forebears had, and crossed a continent for the woman he loved.

My family do this: we up sticks and spread out, searching for other sunsets on different soil. A new place offers new possibilities. Why read the same book over and over? Why not find a new story? I, myself, have moved house 31 times. My sister packed Antigua, Botswana and Kenya into her short life. Only my brother inherited the clearly recessive security gene. So he provides the stability and permanence from which the rest of us boomerang out.

The one thing Steve and I have always had in common is our delight in travelling down an unknown road. However much I love a place, it can never compete with what else might be out there. If that’s sounds dissatisfying; it is not. I do not yearn for bigger, better, shinier. I am happy when I arrive at a new place and happy to settle in. And I am also frequently sad to leave, though that is more because of the people I am leaving than the place itself.

But I am greedy for life, and aware that there is so much out there undiscovered by me. Waiting for me. Irresistible. And this life – this wandering life – suits my vagabond heart, and answers the call of generations of footsteps locked in my DNA. ‘Where now? Where next?’ These were surely the whispers I heard in the crib.

 

Snapshots

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Lemons and …. apples?

SPOTTED WHILST DRIVING

The sight of the Pyrenees, all birthday candled with wind turbines.

A massive trike with a couple of hairy bikers astride. Strapped to the back was a wheelchair. Rock on.

Weird rusted metal sculptures by the roadside as soon as we hit Portugal. Couldn’t work them out at all, but one was a wobbly edged slab with some kind of stick man cut out, including what appeared to be an enormous erection. Fair enough.

There were also several big, painted, concrete bulls but the painting on them was awful – no effort or imagination at all – so that made me smile. One was a hideous mustard yellow with black squiggles on it. Another was simply apple green at the front and orange at the back, like two crap pantomime horses that’d got joined by mistake. I hope they actually were done by five-year olds.

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The lorry driver who liked a bit of company on his journey.

A man standing on his roof with a bucket and broom. Couldn’t see what he was sweeping – no leaves or branches, or even rain – but it was several storeys high and he was one step away from the edge, with his back to it. I worried about him for 8 miles.

On the endless fields in Spain: straw bales piled up into stacks the size of a row of terraced houses and one the size of a small pyramid. Eventually we saw the pile of corn and it would have covered a tennis court.

In Portugal, traffic lights that count down the seconds until the lights change, and they do the same for the pedestrians on the crossings. No road rage at all. Brilliant.

Two off-putting signs near Vieira – one for the Restaurante Diaria (say it out loud), the other for Restaurante O Farto. Tough choice.

THE ALLURE OF GEORGIE

Everyone stops and stares at Georgie as we drive through the villages and towns. I follow behind in Nibbles and I have to be very careful, as they tend to step into the road for a better look as she passes. Cyclists are particularly notorious for this. I’ve nearly hit so many people. My favourite on-looker was a gent, who’d stopped by the road in his wheelchair (or possible just been parked there) and who looked like Dopey with a hitler moustache. His eyes literally crossed, and then stayed that way, even as I passed him.

PLACE NAMES

We’ve seen some corkers (although listening to Deirdre the sat-nav slut attempt the road names is even better: apparently, I have travelled down the Avenue Dumar Eckle-Fock).

To my mind, for place names, you can’t beat the nutters in Devon. Take ……. Dog Village. Which would be nice if it actually was a dog village, like an upmarket Battersea. But it’s not. It’s somewhere that people have to admit they were born. I mean, what would you say? And are the locals known as Doggers? I could go on…..

BEST LIFE HACK FOUND ON FACEBOOK

You take an empty water bottle and half fill it with water. Then you lie it on its side in the deep freeze and forget about it. When you want to go out, fill the rest of it with fresh water and you’ll have icy cold water in moments, and it will stay that way for hours as the ice block melts.

FOOD

Over all, not too bad. In France I never met a cheese I didn’t like.

But then Portugal – and the Francesinha. Which is a sandwich, or so we thought, because the language barrier can be tall sometimes.

The waitress was nice but a bit thick. She struggled to explain the menu through the twin mediums of mime and raised eye-brows. (And I say ‘thick’ because there turned out to be a large wall by the other entrance to the cafe that had photographs of all the dishes on it, which she could just have directed us to.)

But I heard the words ‘cheese, meat and tomato’ and also ‘sandwich’, so I thought I’d be safe.

Well……..! A three inch slimy-yellow doorstep arrived, slobbered over and surrounded by a vivid orange tomato sauce in which chips were wilting.

The Francesinha turned out to be layers of pork, smoked sausage, bacon and steak, wrapped in bread and covered in a thick cheese sauce. Then it is microwaved until the meat is rubber, the bread is polystyrene, and the cheese is lava. Add the luminous coloured sauce, chuck on some chips, and there you have it. Usually has a fried egg on top, just in case you feel it’s a bit protein light, but we were spared that, thankfully.

Anyway, we were very hungry, so we gave it a go.

And all I can say is that afterwards my stomach felt as if it had been beaten up. For quite a long time.

And thank God the wine is less thank £4 for a good bottle.

DOGS

There are a lot of street dogs here: sad little creatures with wary eyes and matted coats, that hang around the backs of restaurants. They won’t let you near. But I have met more than one nice young person who regularly goes out with bags full of canned dog food and feeds them on the street. Very touching. I will make sure to buy some when I next shop for food.

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SCAMMED

There is a credit card scam that Steve fell victim to, that involves automatic payments on petrol pumps. He put £50 of diesel into Georgie and checked his account a couple of days later, to find an additional payment of £845 was due to go through. The scammers get your details off the pump, somehow, and then drive in with  a pick-up truck that has been converted into a huge petrol tank. They fill up on your account, then drive off and sell the gas. Steve got it sorted fairly quickly, took a few days; but more things we didn’t know we didn’t know.

SANITATION

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Very varied, this. The showers are often scalding hot, to the point that I have to lie on the floor to wash my hair, hoping that the water will cool to just below boiling by the time it hits me. If the room is contained then I find I’m quite dizzy when I emerge, from the lack of oxygen amongst all that steam.

In Portugal, as elsewhere, they can’t really be doing with toilet seats, but they also don’t bother with toilet roll much either. Or it hangs outside, with the sinks. ?. And there are things that might be foot washers ….. or very odd bidets. Not sure, and don’t want to ask.

But on the up side, a bath bomb fell out of our bathroom cupboard into our loo, so we all did fizzy wees for a while.

The kindness of strangers

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GEORGIE HAS A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN.

Before we left England we gave Georgie the full pamper package: MOT, full service, brand new tyres, and full habitation check. Money well spent for a bit of peace of mind, we thought. Well, apparently not.

Firstly, we’ve had all sorts of trouble with the levellers (which are the stabilising metal feet that drop down once we’re parked, and help us not to sleep on too much of a slope, and our sinks to actually drain down the plughole). They’ve always been on the temperamental side, but when we camped near Salamanca, in Spain, they dropped down nicely then flatly refused to pull back up again.

Enter Peter, with wire to tie then up until we could get them sorted out.

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A glimpse of some of the stunning architecture at Salamanca

And the fridge was still being an arse, with a tendency to over-freeze, then defrost itself and flood all the food, on a 6 hour cycle.

Enter Dave, the old Canadian, who knew lots about RV’s and sorted that out in a jiff. He showed us how to clean it out, and now we run it on LPG and don’t bother switching it over to electric when we’re on site. Runs perfect now.

But these were all mere niggles compared to the wobbly that Georgie then threw at us.

We’d made it right across Spain and into Portugal, and we’d arrived a lot later than intended because we’d had to spend the morning sorting out the fridge and the levellers. So, instead of getting to Aviero on the coast, we made a pit-stop at a car park in Viseu. One night there, and we’d be on our way in the morning.

We found a brilliant curry house just down the road, run by a couple that had lived in Birmingham for five years. As we left, the owner shook our hands and said that if we needed anything while we were in Viseu and had trouble with the language, we were to just come straight to him.

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This is the view across the car park where we ‘lived’.

We got ready to drive off the next day, started the engine, and then Georgie made a terrible noise. A seriously wrong noise. And Steve turned her off, had the tool box out, and the batteries disconnected in a flash. But too late – her starter motor had burnt out and there was smoke everywhere.

Steve went off to see if the curry house guy was around and could recommend a mechanic. In fact, there was a repair shop nearby and they sent us to a company just a couple of miles north.

Enter Joao. Our angel. He followed Steve back with a van full of tools and a damn good command of English. Between them they figured out the problem had been caused by faulty wiring, that didn’t let the starter motor switch back off once it’d done its job. Consequently, it just kept firing until it had burnt itself out.

His boss, Pedro, was particularly good with starter motors – they were his thing, so that was lucky. And Joao told us that not only were electrics his speciality, but that he was ‘a magician’ at it.

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Steve with Joao. Bless him.

We also asked his advice about the tyres, as Steve had noticed a problem with one of them deflating. They were brand new and had only recently been fitted by supposed experts. Joao confirmed what Steve suspected – not one of them had the right air pressure any more, and the inner tyres had been lined up incorrectly so the valves were hitting the hub caps as the wheel turned, causing air to escape. Bloody cowboys, The whole lot will need to be redone. But not today as we have bigger issues.

Meanwhile, enter Gerrit, a Dutchman who ran a campsite just down the road. He would fill his trailer with bicycles and has truck with happy campers and drop them in our car park every morning. They would then cycle down a scenic route, all the way back to his site. Downhill all the way, he said. He came every morning, always stopping for a chat, and telling me about all the local places of interest and excursions that he gave to his campers. If there was anything he could do, he said, and gave me his card.

There wasn’t, but that was okay because Pedro and Joao had been down the following day, stripped out the motor, and worked out a solution.

The old started motor would be repaired as a new one would take longer, be more expensive, and not be as powerful as the one we had. Before even seeing it Pedro had already spent time the day before sourcing parts he might need. The wiring problem would be circumvented by Joao installing a new starter button further down the steering column. It might take a few days as the parts were in another city, they would call us at the end of the day to let us know.

We had some concerns about staying another night in the car park: what if the police came and insisted we moved on? We were only supposed to stay there for one night. It turns out that all the local cops, ambulance drivers, etc., all came to Pedro to fix their vehicles. And Joao had already spoken to  a policeman friend of his on our behalf, and so could assure us that there was unlikely to be a problem. But if there was, Pedro gave us his number and said that the police could call him and he would explain everything.

Which was just as well, because they did.

But that was later. First, Steve and I decided, what the heck, we’re stuck here for another day –  so let’s take Gerrit’s instructions and go and see some of this lovely country.

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When we got back, there were five missed phone calls from Pedro, because Steve had put his phone on silent. While we were gone, Pedro and Joao had located the parts, fixed the motor, and – unable to contact us – had simply come back to the van, crawled underneath and reinstalled it.

Minutes later, Joao’s car screeched into the car park, and he yelled ‘Don’t connect the batteries’! Which we’d been about to do, as the whole burning-out thing had flattened them and Steve had got the re-charger ready. Not having access to the inside of the van, they’d had to leave trailing wires. Joao would be back to sort that out first thing in the morning.

So we spent our last night in the car park. In order to keep our waste tanks to a low level for travelling, we’d developed the habit of running down into town with clenched buttocks and using the loo at the shopping mall when it opened at nine. We hadn’t washed much and I was looking forward to being on a campsite again. I’d had to learn to use earplugs as we were quite near a busy roundabout. They make your ears hot and can trap in the tinnitus, but still – best travelling purchases yet – blackout blinds from Ikea and memory foam earplugs.

I heard Steve say, ‘There are police outside’, though.

We did our best to explain why we were there to a tough looking one and a hot one. Toughie spoke no English but hottie spoke enough. They were mostly concerned with the fact that, in all the fuss, Steve had accidentally left the discharge for our grey waste open, and our washing up water had been draining out of the van and onto the concrete. We apologised, and then tried to understand what they were asking us, as the mimes were getting increasingly comical and seemed to have nothing to do with engines.

Apparently, toughie has a motorhome too, but not as big as ours, and they were convinced that there was a door at the back that would open for us to drive Nibbles, my smart car, into. They’d seen it on telly, and didn’t want to leave without seeing it in action. Disappointing policemen is not high on my list of things to do, but in this instance it was unavoidable. They left, shaking their heads – all that space just for two people and no car!

Joao and Pedro turned up the next day with profuse apologies for being half an hour late. Joao’s fiance Flora had been rushed to hospital in the night with a big swelling in her armpit and a lot of pain. We said, why are you here? You should be with your fiancé? To which he replied that he’d told Mr Steve that he’d be here, so here he was. He couldn’t break his word to Mr Steve. We were stunned and humbled. How very blessed are we?

They wired everything up and installed the new button. Georgie started, with a car equivalent of that noise you make when you pretend you’ve only been resting your eyes. We followed Pedro’s car up to the garage so he could solder everything in place, and I started searching the van for something to give Joao as a ‘thank-you’ for all he’d done.

It had to be special, but the problem is that we carry little with us that isn’t essential. I found the perfect thing – and I hope she forgives me – because the reason it is special is because my best friend from way back gave it to me. It is a silver key-ring with a locket for a photo attached. I’d always meant to put a pic of Steve in there, but somehow I never got around to it: I didn’t like the idea of getting it scratched and tarnished, and Rosie, Steve’s daughter, had already given me a madness hamster as a keyring, so what to do?

We passed it on to Joao, with our email addresses inside so he could stay in touch. At first he refused, he couldn’t accept such a gift, he was only doing his job. But when he realised we really appreciated all the extra he had put in, he was delighted.

He said,’I get married next year – we together ten years but now we get married. I send you invite, you come?’

‘Of course we’ll come. That would be wonderful. We’ll come in this,’ I said, and pointed to Georgie.

‘You come in this, is good. But don’t bring that,’ and he pointed to Nibbles. ‘You really drive all the way from England … in that?’ He shook his head with embarrassment on my behalf.

‘Ay, ay, ay, is not real car,’ he said, as he waved us goodbye.