We crossed into Spain at a little known border crossing of Bemposta, a single track road on the dam crossing the river. The road right up to the border had been so quiet, we saw a car every 20 or so miles and that was it, staying off the main roads brought us through lots of tiny villages and mile after mile of green farmland. A very different Portugal than we have seen before, and for sure one we would visit again.
After crossing our last ‘barragem’ then our first Spanish must see on the list would be a ‘presa’. This one being the Almendra Dam, to me a big expanse of water, to Iain something of a huge engineering feet. We had been able to see the dam from our overnight spot in Bemposta, at least 45 minutes drive away. It is to be fair an impressive sight. Driving over the 2.5 km over the dam wall there are a couple of good size viewing places from where we could see back over to Portugal.
For me, best part of the morning was the realisation that the flock of birds above us were a volt of Griffin Vultures – yup indeedy, a group of massive birds flying over a hydro electric dam are called a ‘volt’ (Wikipedia says so, therefore it’s true). We stood with a couple from a Portuguese moho for at least 20 minutes trying to get a decent vulture photo – this was my best effort, zoomed many times.
We took the minor roads up top Zamora, skirted around it and went North. No particular reason other than to travel across Spain below the coast but above the mountains. As our intended stopping place was closed we drove a little further and ended up at the teeny village of Aguilar De Campos in Castile and Leon. One of very many villages that time seems to have forgot in the province. They mainly consist of a castle, flowing down from which are numerous cave-houses and the chimneys of same; a massive church with bricked up windows and 75% of the village houses in dire need of repair and in most cases completely roofless. Despite that there are always groups of elderly men wandering around the streets passing away the day, the female counter-parts usually found on benches in the shade watching the world, and the odd motorhome, pass by.
Aguila De Campos cave-houses
Castile and Leon is part of Spanish central plateau – known as the Meseta. Although its very flat it lies between 2200 and 3280 ft, mile after mile of gently rolling fields with the odd hillock. We seem to drive forever without seeing anyone. The odd car or van does pass every so often but it is incredibly peaceful driving on these roads. Some of the roads were so straight we could count three or four villages ahead, just the massive church and a few buildings repeated into the distance.
At Palencia we were greeted by Cristo Del Otero, appearing to direct the traffic off the motorway and into town. He has been in situ since 1931, and does look a bit past his best, I guess most of us would standing next to a motorway for 80 odd years. He is 21 metres (69 ft) high and stands on top of a chapel, which in turn stands on a knoll. On a hot, sunny day there was not a soul nearby. No-one walking up to it, parked at the bottom taking photos – seemed he is a bit forgotten even by the Palencians.
Needing a lunch stop we pulled into one of the multitude of castle villages on the route, Astudillo. Yes again there was a castle, wine caves, caves-houses, we walked over the grass mounds with chimneys sticking out – bit like the hobbits. The streets were cobbled and the front doors of the houses were the thickness of the walls. Places of incredible history and beauty and not another soul in sight. Just us and the odd rabid dog that attaches itself to you in the hope of food, we found it amazing that tourists aren’t flocking to these places and that the locals aren’t savvy enough to make a Euro by charging you to get in or selling ice-creams and fridge magnets.
By sheer force of luck we stumbled onto the Camino De Santiago. Having seen the symbol a few times on road signs we finally clicked to what it was and that we were on it. Our campsite for the next couple of nights was also on it, literally. Castrojeriz is a bit of a diamond, we understand similar to most villages and towns along the route just larger. There are several churches, two monastery and one convent ruin, a live convent, a castle high on the hill and a stack of cave houses dug into the hills above the town.
Camino De Santiago sign posting
Pilgrims having been passing through the town for over 1000 years on the 500 mile pilgrimage. You would struggle to get lost anywhere on route as signs abound at every path and junction. We did our bit, albeit by bike, as some do. We cycled 20’ish miles along the pilgrims path and were surprised at seeing 23 walkers in just under an hour, all bar two were individuals and ranged from teenagers to peoples of our generation. The path weaves in and out of villages with most pilgrims / walkers stopping in small hostels on route where they use their pilgrims passports to record their stop and eat and sleep for very low prices. As we drove on over the next few days we saw hundreds of pilgrims along the route, and we were told this is the quietest time as July and August are the peak months.
The Pilgrims Path – Camino De Santiago
Hontanas on the Camino De Santiago
Just off route is the convent Santa Clara, aka ‘cake convent’. You go into a reception type area and there is a wooden shelf that rotates. You ring a bell and a nun shouts a “Hola”, you ask for cake and the revolving shelf turns and your box of cakes appears – you put your money in its place and it disappears off on the next turn. At no time do you see the nuns, its a brilliant little idea – and in all honesty the cakes were top class sponges filled with fresh cream – worth every Euro and one of our favourite experiences in Spain :).
Our route out of Spain crossed Rioja. It has been said that I don’t have great taste in wine, my absolute favourite is a good cheap Rioja so that said it was essential for us to drive through the Rioja region. So many vineyards, so little time! Every turn has a winery selling by the bottle or cask, offering tasting sessions or just tours of their museums.
In the heart of the region is the small town of Elciego. A superbly restored historic centre is surrounded by more winery that you could visit on a full weekend.
Whilst that is a good enough attraction to warrant the visit the first thing that hits you as arrive in town is the Hotel Marques De Riscal, which looks as if giant sized reels of steel ribbon have escaped from the front and back of the building.
Designed by Frank Gehry, who also designed the Guggenheim in Bilbao it is no shrinking violet, causing us and many others to head up to the entrance to see it up close and take photos. A very charming, very large, Spaniard blocked the way , telling us no entry unless you are staying. I begged a photo, no way Jose said your man on the gate. I and many other disgruntled tourists trundled off. They do allow you into a very grand and expensive “tourist area” posh term for shop selling tatt, very expensive to be fair but tatt none the less. If we can’t take a photo of your hotel we aren’t buying your junk is our motto so we left.
Never to be defeated, we took the van up the vineyard roads, possibly not that suitable for a motorhome but needs must. A few km later, we turned into a small track and hey presto a great view of the hotel and as many photos as we wanted. From there we ventured back to the town and walked around the old buildings. Being Saturday afternoon and 22 degrees the Spaniards were out in force, enjoying a glass of wine and wearing enough clothes to warrant a winters day in Wales.
We continued through Rioja, stopping off for a weekend’s rest (all this travelling gets tiring!) in Estella, where we did nothing much other than sit and watch the grass grow. Rather than take the quick route up to the border at Irun we went over the mountains, a rather long and tortuous journey without too many rewards – well until we reached the summit at Lizzaraga. It wasn’t so much what we could see as what we couldn’t well above the cloud line we had an incredible view over the clouds with just the mountain tops peeking out – stunning.
Adios Espana and the Osborne bulls