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Monday, 25 June 2012

Spain, part 1 Andorra

Day 1 – 13/6/12

The Spanish immigration (the immigration officer was impressed to get some Australians!) and customs were completed very quickly.
We drove directly to the port (which was fortuitous as there is a 1 hr time difference between Spain & Morocco) and pulled in at one of the ferry booking booths that a tout had directed us to. The office made bookings for all the different  companies  and we got the next ferry (45 min later). Euro 138 for the vehicle and 2 x passengers.

After ~ 10 months, 25 countries and > 45,000 km, we left Africa.

The ferry was well organised and clean  – so a positive start. It also had some duty free. Alcohol is not all that easy to get away from the big cities in Morocco, so Ray suffering from a mild case of the DTs, bought some Spanish brandy. Avril bought some chocolate.

As we went to drive off the ferry the tyre monitoring system gave that all too familiar beep. Yep, another continent, another flat tyre. We drove off the ferry and changed the tyre inside the port. That now meant we only had one, very poor, not to be used except in an emergency, spare tyre.
Fortunately, we had ordered 4 new BFGoodrich (yes, we said never again, but there is not a lot of choice around, in fact none) from Sahara 4x4 off the internet. We got to Marbella to have the tyres fitted just as siesta commenced. This was something we had not factored into our thinking. 2 – 3 hours shut down in the middle of the day. (We reckon we may have stumbled, quite by chance, on a way to improve productivity in Spain: don’t shut down in the middle of the day and provide some service to customers).
Marbella looked OK, but it is harder to get a park there than in Melbourne city centre on a Saturday night. So, our dreams of sitting and relaxing over a nice Spanish meal faded. We did use a lot of diesel driving around.

Eventually when the garage opened, it turned out the tyres were not there! We had confirmed with the provider that they would be available when we arrived, but seems that in Spain, commitments do not have the same meaning as in Australia. The bloke at the garage was nice and we chatted for a bit and had a cup of coffee with the staff and other customers. Then the garage manager  hopped on his motor bike and showed us the way to the local campground: La Bourganvilla. After so long in Africa, we now needed to get used to European prices – starting with the camp ground. Euro 18/night, everything except the ground and abolitions was an extra; big prices for washing, power etc. The campground is OK, but lacks good shade. A quaint custom here (and in Morocco) is that you need to take your own toilet paper to the dunny.
Hopefully the tyres will be there tomorrow.

Avril driving; 182 km; N 360 30’ 14.1’’ W 0040 48’ 13.4’’

Day 2 – 14/6/12
We spent a lazy day waiting for the tyres. We had a stroll on the beach and did some shopping. We also tried to sort out SIM cards. We purchased a SIM card (after explaining we wanted to call Australia) but it turned out this SIM card could only be used domestically. So, being ever so patient retirees, we bought an international SIM.

Eventually we got the call to say the tyres had arrived, after siesta. The balancing and fitting took us to 20:00 hrs. But, at least we had 4 new tyres that will hopefully get us through the next part of our trip.

Day 3 – 15/6/12
We drove along the Costa del Sol and then to Granada. The coast seemed to be a massive housing and apartment precinct. Not very attractive.

In Granada we camped at the Sierra Nevada (Euro 26/night. Everything is extra e.g. power Euro 5/day to connect and then pay for usage! We used our generator. Also 1 euro to use the swimming pool). After setting up camp we took the bus into town and went for a stroll – no shopping as siesta was still in full force.

Avril driving; 207 km; 3 hrs; N 370 11’ 53.5’’ W 0030 36’ 42.3’’

Day 4 – 16/6/12
We made an early start to the day so we could ensue we got tickets to the Alumbra palace complex. We were lucky enough to get the 1st slot to visit the palace and spent ~ 4 hours looking around. The gardens were wonderful and the whole complex seemed to be well organised and managed.

We walked back into town and attempted to register the domestic SIM card – from Orange. We had been to a number of shops and it had maybe turned into a bit of a challenge to actually get to use the domestic SIM. The whole event was a complete fiasco, with our voice mail saying we needed to register with a passport but the shop saying you could not register with a passport. The challenge remains open. We are not yet beaten.
We then stopped to have a drink at one of the touristic cafes in a plaza – and of course got ripped off. Such is life for a western retiree in Spain.
We then jumped on the bus to get back to the camp ground. When we got off the bus we noticed that Rays backpack was open and on investigation, Avril’s purse had been stolen. We had been warned by overlanders in Africa that Spain was a hot bed of theft, but maybe we were a bit too comfortable. So the next couple of hours were spent calling all the card companies/banks in the UK and Australia. Of course you get put on hold, waiting for the next available operator - at 3am??!! This meant we ran out of funds on the (international SIM) phone and needed to get money to put credit on the phone and on it went. Eventually we cancelled all the cards and went back to the campground. The manager told us that theft and pickpockets are very regular occurrences. We went to the police station to make a report and it seemed that this was not an unusual event for them. Also taken were personal effects, Avril’s brand new driver’s licence and other cards and ~ Euro 400.

After going through all of west/central Africa, who would have thought that Europe (well Spain) was less safe.
Fortunately an Aussie lad and a good Yorkshire lass were camped next door and so, after a few cold ones we were feeling not so down. But still, a very sorry day.

Day 5 – 17/6/12
We drove to Valencia. The mountains and hills were quite scenic in places. We were surprised by the lack of vegetation (apart from irrigated agriculture) and the hills/mountains were very barren. On any other day we probably would have been very happy with the drive, but, we were still quite low after the theft.
We camped at the Coll Vert campground south of the city. Apparently this is low season for campers and the ground was full of retirees from northern Europe. The campground was the standard Spanish - clean but aged facilities, all taps on a spring timer (which makes for an interesting shower experience), developed trees/shade.
As Valencia is the home of paella, we decided to treat ourselves to a night out. We walked to the town ~ 1 km from the campground. Unfortunately the meal was disappointing, extremely poor service and the paella turned out to be a very, very salty risotto (no saffron in this dish).

Avril driving; 526 km; 6 hrs; N 390 23’ 50.7’’ W 0000 20’ 00.0’’

Day 6 – 18/6/12
We girded our loins and like gladiators of old, made ready to enter another Spanish city. We took the bus (any match between the timetable and the actual bus time is absolutely purely coincidental. – even the locals were annoyed - the bus the hour before the one we caught did not turn up at all) to the main tourist attraction – an expansive aquarium. On the bus we guarded our space jealously and made sure no one could get near Avril’s handbag – we opted for a handbag rather than the more practical backpack. Having safely negotiated the bus we spent ~ 4.5 hrs at the aquarium; whilst not the best we have ever seen, it is not  bottom of the ladder either.

We then walked into the city center through a very nice park area. Again, we were conscious of the folks around us: is that person on a bike pretending to be such an idiot or is it a ploy to get near Avril’s bag?? The difference between the park land here and at home is interesting - we saw young girls practising formal dance moves, lads trying a tai chi/martial arts routine etc. Lots of stuff that would be done in a hall at home.
The city center was quiet when we got there. We elected to try some pre- dinner pork and cheese snacks with drinks at a local eatery. The pork was great and the beer/diet coke (guess who had which?) were cold. A really nice place. We went back there after dinner to watch Spain beat Croatia 1-0 in a Euro Cup match (guess who wanted to do that?). The cost was very reasonable.

On this day we tried again to get a good paella. Lunch was again salty and insipid. Dinner was the best so far, but well below what we had eaten in Morocco and way, way below Australia. And for what it is, poor value.

Day 7 – 19/6/12
We drove to just outside Barcelona. We usually try to avoid the tolls, not only for the money but also to get a potentially more interesting route. On this occasion we could not seem to identify a suitable route and so landed up on the tollway for ~ 180 km = Euro 18!. Eventually, we managed to get off the toll road and onto a more relaxing route. The GPS, fed up with our decision-making took us through some hills before getting us to our campground.  Whilst it was slow going we did get a good view over the Barcelona metropolis.

We camped at 3 Estrallas, the “only” campground convenient to Barcelona and 20km from the city, but close to the airport. Again we were shocked by the prices, but did manage to get a 20% discount  as one of us is > 60!
The 1st thing the manager did was to warn us about the theft and pickpockets in Barcelona. Have nothing in your pockets, only carry essentials etc. This should make for a relaxing trip into Barcelona! In the evening we watched England score a dubious 1 – 0 victory over the Ukraine. Whilst chatting to the other folks watching the game we heard more stories of theft; in the campground a cabin cleaned out (from an English police officer!), a car robbed in a car park and on a more intense note, one chap was burned with a cigarette to distract him whilst another picked his pocket.

Ray driving; 408 km; 6 hrs; N 41 160 25’ 20.1’’ E  0020 02’ 34.8’’

Day 8 – 20/6/12
We caught a local bus into the Barcelona city center and embarked on the Lonely Planet walking trip, aka the Ray Betros walking trip (with a few variations –was assured that they were extras, but not sure whether the guide took the wrong turn!). We made the 1st stop, the fresh produce market. That took longer than the full trip was supposed to take! It is sort of like the Central Markets in Adelaide, a bit bigger due to the large number of fish mongers and butchers. The fruit was delightfully presented with the colours making a great display. Not as many green grocers as the Central Market. It was a lot less hectic than Adelaide and did not have the same energy It was a bit easier to get a feed than Adelaide and we had a breakfast/morning tea of a gourmet hot dog and some tortilla (good, but obviously not as good as Olgas!). Overall, the 1.5 hr tour took us 5 hours! We went back to the market for afternoon tea - very nice tapas of paella (the best so far), croquettes (not nearly as good as Olgas!) and spinach, washed down with a beer & diet coke.

On the way back to the market we saw an Orange phone store; and guess what, we got a nice chap who sorted out the issue with the Orange SIM card – winner. Better than tattslotto!
In the evening, we went to a flamenco show. Tapas and drinks. The show was great and the drinks kept coming. We sat next to some folks from home - well nearly home, NSW central coast. (Their 8 year old son had been tripped over in an attempt to pick the dad’s pocket; nice). 

Day 9 – 21/6/12
We went into Barcelona again and “did” the hop on hop off bus. We spent time in the cathedral of the Holy Family (Gaudi's cathedral) which is awesome. Well worth the time & effort. On the advice of home office we also hopped of at the Parc Guell, which was OK. There was a bit of disagreement about the time value of this method (hop on – hop off) of seeing the city. Avril loved it: sit and cruise by the sites and get some touristic information. Ray (who renamed Barcelona the city of traffic lights) was not happy with only travelling 20 – 100 m between each light/stop. He reckoned there are better ways to die of boredom.

Again, on the advice of home office we went to a special tapas bar (unfortunately this meant we had to leave the hop on hop off bus early and take the metro – bit of a bugger really!) only to find it closed for “family reasons”. We had a wine and tapas nearby (not too good according to Avril) and caught the bus back to the camp ground.
Avril watched Portugal beat Czech Republic 1 – 0, Ray read and slept.

Day 10 – 22/6/12
After a bit of shopping we drove to Andorra. We debated whether or not this constituted a new country and decided as there was a border with guards, it did. So, country no. 27!

The drive was great; initially past Montserrat, then some wonderful, very long vistas over grain fields to the Pyrenees mountains and after all that, a spectacular drive in the mountains to Andorra. The mountain scenery in places can match that anywhere in Europe. The Spaniards know how to design and build spectacular mountain roads.

The really good news is that booze and perfume and chocolate are duty free in Andorra – so we will be stocking up for the long drive to London.

Avril driving; 223 km; 3 hrs; N 400 30’ 07.8’’ E 0010 30’ 59.0’’. Camping Valira. Which was clean and very nice.

Day 11 – 23/6/12
After breaking camp we made full use of the duty free status of Andorra. The we drove, mainly via the N – 260 to a Boltana and the imaginatively named Camping Boltana. The drive was absolutely stunning, amazing mountain scenery – and it just keeps coming. The weather remains perfect – high 20s and so we had a magic day. Lots of stops to take photos or just stand in awe of the view.

Ray driving; 259 km; 5.5 hrs; N 420 25’ 48.8’’ E 0000 04’ 43.8’’

Day 11 – 24/6/12
Apparently June 24 is San Juan in Spain. When we checked into the campground they mentioned that there would be a small celebration, but it would end at midnight. Naively, we believed this. The formalities ended at 01:00 and the non formal celebrations ended when Avril put her head out of the camper and yelled for quiet at 03:00. So, we needed a sleep in.

After the raucous night, we decided to head to France.

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