Happy New Year! We hope you had a wonderful holiday season and thank you for following us on our journey.
We experienced our first vanlife Christmas and New Year, and whilst it was a “different” or “new” experience, frankly the last two Christmas holidays were “different” too so perhaps that’s the new normal 🙂. 2020 was last-minute-lockdown Christmas, 2021 was sick-with-COVID Christmas, and 2022 was sunny-campervan-park-by-the-beach-surrounded-by-Germans Christmas. We wonder what 2023 will bring?
The last 2 weeks have been quite a mix of experiences – aside from chilling by the beach over Christmas in Oliva surrounded by enormous motorhomes and German retirees, we’ve been to a couple of bouldering sites, James has gotten a good taste of cycling in Spain, we’ve continued our exploration of natural parks, and we’re settling into the rhythm of vanlife – the daily routines such as cooking and finding a loo, as well as the uncertainty of what each day will bring.
Climbing in Alcañiz
We spent 3 days in Alcañiz and James managed to climb about as many boulders. On the first day/attempt, Google took us down some pretty dodgy looking off-road tracks that led to muddy dead ends. We spent the rest of the afternoon figuring out how to access some crag sites. On the second day/attempt, we woke up to thick fog. We headed down the dirt tracks in said fog. For a brief moment the sun appeared and James managed to climb some boulders before the fog rolled back in. Hooray. On the third day, we woke up to thick fog. We didn’t bother trying, and went on a sightseeing trip to Morella instead. In summary, the weather was not on our side.
Note: James subscribes to the 27 Crags app for topos and is pleased to say it works well (it’s €50 a year, but we don’t have space to bring lots of print guides with us).
Morella is a walled hilltop medieval town with a very impressive castle perched on a big rock in the middle. Castell de Morella has a long history of being used as a defensive fort, first by the Muslims, and then a long succession of Christian kings. The castle itself is pretty well preserved and well worth a visit. Dogs are also allowed on the grounds which we’re finding a rarity in Spain. There were also some pretty cool and well-preserved medieval aqueducts just outside the walled town.
Christmas Climb in Xàtiva
We met up with some of James’ climbing friends Jon and Ellie for a Christmas climb. The closest site James could find to Oliva (where we were all staying) was Xàtiva, a 45-min drive away. The crag sat on the edge of the town, had some “local artwork” on them and didn’t look very promising on 27 Crags. Despite the somewhat grungy setting, it turned out to be nice crag for an afternoon of climbing.
Tired and hungry afterwards, we stopped by a restaurant at a petrol station on the way back to Oliva, and had a fantastic 3 course lunch of arroz con pollo y setas, grilled sardines, and crème Catalan. The non-driving party enjoyed 2 glasses of wine. We both had espressos. Lunch came to €20 for two!!??!!
Cycling in Valencia
James enjoyed a couple of good rides on the mountain bike, without crashes. First in Serra de Espadà then in Oliva. Serra de Espadà was all on hiking trails that could be ridden, Oliva was a mix of hiking and purpose built mountain bike trails. There is an element of chance if hiking trails are going to be good to ride so he was very pleased to have found some challenging and fun trails.
One thing that makes cycling in Spain particularly enjoyable is people’s enthusiasm for the sport and the respect car drivers show. That’s helped offset the suffering he inflicted on himself with the road bike and long steep hills.
Note: For finding mountain bike trails James has a subscription to the Trailforks app which he finds significantly more helpful than Strava for identifying trails and their likely character.
More of Spain’s Natural Parks – Valencia and Andalucia
We continued our exploration of Spain’s Natural Parks. In Valencia, we did a hike up to Los Órganos de Benitandús (which we think translates to “the organs of Benitandus”?!?), an impressive rock pinnacle/formation in Parc Natural de la Sierra de Espadá. We also did a hike up to a Muslim fort, Castell de Serra in Parc Natural de la Serra Calderona. The latter required a very steep climb up, and Aileen could see how this would be a good deterrent for prospective marauders, and people who don’t like steep climbs. At one point James worried we would not make it to the fort. We did. And we made it back down too well before sunset.
Note: Both these walks and most others we have found and navigated with the AllTrails app, we’ve been impressed but haven’t paid for the premium version yet.
From Valencia we headed southwest to Parc Natural Sierras de Cazorla, Segura y Las Villas in the Jaén province of Andalucia. It is a vast park with multiple mountain ranges, and is the largest protected area in Spain. We saw sooooo many eagles, drove on lots of teeny squiggly mountain roads, and also had our first incident requiring road side assistance. While in the middle of this vast park, we got a Low Coolant – stop immediately warning. Our van’s manual instructed us to stop and call for assistance. Given where we were, we had no inclination to do otherwise. Our rescue arrived 2 hours later, and we drove with him 18 minutes down the road to a town we passed earlier and got a coolant top up. We also found out the literal translation from Spanish for follow me to the garage is “do you want to come from behind”.
We decided to “wild camp’ in a small parking lot in a very small town, rather than drive an hour and a half in the dark on windy roads with a known coolant issue to the nearest town with campervan parking. We enjoyed a very nice dinner in the town’s restaurant, went to bed early, got up at the crack of dawn and continued on our merry way. This was our first wild camping experience and it wasn’t so bad, although it was -1.5 C when we woke up and James can confirm that unlocking bikes and wiping down misty windows is not fun in freezing weather.
We did 2 hikes in the park – one to Peñamujo, a huge rock formation jutting out of the Sierra Segura, that we climbed to enjoy breathtaking views over the park and Embalse del Tranco de Beas (a very long lake) tucked between the ridges, with eagles gliding past, perhaps to check if Zeus was tasty looking. The second hike we did was along the base of Picón de Rayal on Sierra Cazorla. Jaén, we later learned, produces 10% of the world’s olive oil, and the views of a carpet of olive groves as far as the eye could see were pretty spectacular.
Vanlife Christmas and New Year
One of the interesting differences we’ve noticed in Spain vs the UK is the cuts of meat. In the UK it’s quite common/easy to find a pork roast with skin still attached for crackling, or a lamb leg with the shank removed, or a rolled prime cut of beef. There aren’t (at least to us) any/many obvious cuts for roasting in Spain that doesn’t require a big oven. The closest campervan-appropriate thing we found in a supermarket was Margo Cabeza Malla, which translates to “Lean meshed head”. To this day we’re still not quite sure what part of the pig it was, but it was a mighty tasty Christmas roast.
We spent Christmas in a campsite in Oliva and enjoyed the benefits of a wash basin with running hot water. So our Cobb BBQ was put to good use – we had whole roasted turbot one evening, a “Lean meshed head” roast for Christmas Eve, and grilled a lovely piece of aged on-the-bone sirloin we picked up at a butcher for Christmas Day. We also enjoyed the wines we’d collected over our recent winery visits. The bottle of Antis Tiana Xarelo we picked up in Penedes went nicely with the turbot. The DO Monsant Clos Maria Blanc we picked up in Priorat was delicious with the pork roast. And our Christmas gift to ourselves was a bottle of Perinet Priorat 2016 with the steak. It was a lovely Christmas for eating, drinking and enjoying the sunshine and balmy weather.
We also did a deep van clean at the campsite which involved taking stuff out of storage spaces and cleaning out accumulated dust and dirt. We did a massive load of laundry. We gave the van a wash. It definitely helps, we think, to share van life with someone who is equally fastidious about the cleanliness of the van!
We were in the mountains on New Year’s Eve, so we enjoyed a quiet evening in the van with prawns and cava and saw the New Year in with hastily eaten grapes.
We’ve headed south towards Granada where we’ll no doubt do a hike or two in the Sierra Nevada, hopefully get to explore more of Spain’s Muslim history, James hopes to dust the bicycles off, and after 6 days on the road, we’re looking to stop at a campsite on the south coast for a thaw and clean.
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