Motorhome travel: Exploring mainland Spain
Words and photos by Paul Knight
Marmalade, Lord Nelson, sherry, birdwatching and Michael Portillo. “Michael Portillo?” I hear you ask. Yes, these are some of the British connections we discovered on our tour in Spain. The rich variety of connections reveals a shared culture and history between our two countries that we found well worth pursuing.
Our ferry to Bilbao was pleasant and, on docking, we passed near our first connection: Bilbao has a transporter bridge just like Middlesbrough’s, except that Bilbao’s has World Heritage status!
Seville’s British connection
To Seville and its very British connection. There are many roadside orange trees, but don’t eat the fruits raw – they are horrible. These are the bitter oranges with which my mother used to make wonderful Seville marmalade. We found parts of Seville fairly bitter, too. This is a city partly overrun by crocodiles of coach parties being led up to the cathedral by umbrella-waving commentators talking into their headsets.
Stepping away from these parties we came across quiet gardens with tinkling water offering delightfully cool havens of shade, tranquility and fountains. We found an especially pleasant garden near the Plaza de España, a dramatic crescent of buildings that looks like something out of Las Vegas. It was built for a World’s Fair in the Great Depression and is lively and fun.
We stayed at Camping Villsom, which gave us easy access to the city with frequent and regular buses.
Then it was on to Niebla, which is like a modest Carcassonne but without the crowds and noise. A walled town with four classic keyhole-shaped gateways, there are narrow streets and whitewashed houses sheltering within and a small square with Moorish church. Proudly displayed outside the high red sandstone walls are artillery pieces, relics of the civil war.
And so we came to El Rocío for the peaceful British pastime of birdwatching. It’s an extraordinary town on the edge of the Coto Doñana National Park.
Camping La Aldea made a good place from which to explore as it is only a 10-minute walk into town.
El Rocío – town with a wild west feel to it
El Rocío is like the wild west. The streets are sandy and lined with low, whitewashed, square buildings and bordered by wooden hitching rails for tying horses to. I expected saloon bar doors to open and the sheriff to emerge into the glare, adjusting his badge, and tumbleweed to be bowling down the deserted street. Yet El Rocío is no film set, as the dozen or so dusty parked cars testify.
Alongside El Rocío’s main square is a large area of wetland where we watched hundreds of flamingos elegantly browsing. Close by is a park entrance from which a boarded walk goes around the fringe of the Coto Doñana and from which we could hear nightingales and cuckoos. There’s also an easy and interesting cycling route to a 1960s palace through the heathland to another circular trail.
One million people arrive in El Rocío in late May, for the Pentecost Festival, often turning up in horse-drawn carriages or on horseback - hence the hitching rails. Many stay in the large ‘brotherhood’ buildings, which normally stand empty. During this week of carnival and religious experience they parade a figure of the Virgin of El Rocío around the streets and everyone dresses in exceptional finery for the fiesta.
Cádiz is another city linked to Britain. Francis Drake in 1587 famously ‘singed the King of Spain’s beard’ when he sailed into the bay and sank 37 ships. Nelson also bombarded the city in 1797. We, too, had come across the water but had no plans for bombarding or singeing! We were staying across the bay in El Puerto de Santa María. From Camping Playa las Dunas it’s a pleasant 20-minute riverside walk to the regular ferries to Cádiz, which we thought cheap at €2.75 (£2.48) return.
The tourism office on the waterfront offered us several themed walks around Cádiz and we followed the Traders’ Trail, finding old tobacco warehouses, a statue of cigar-rolling blind women and some very nice and reasonably priced lunchtime tapas and wine.
Back in El Puerto de Santa María, we discovered a delightful, atmospheric town of traders’ palacios and cavernous bodega sherry warehouses. It’s one of the three points of ‘The Sherry Triangle’ along with Cádiz and Jerez. Please don’t think of the clichéd sweet sherry of British grandmas, though; the finos and manzanillas offered here are superb.
Streets of elegantly terraced workers’ houses are rather like those at Bournville or Saltaire – except that those of El Puerto surround palm-fringed waterfront squares. There’s also a large and elaborate bullring into which we wandered. As I stood right in the centre, looking up at the surrounding stands, I felt like I was in a scene from the film, Gladiator.
Bodega Obregón may look a little unprepossessing, but when we wandered into the bar and tasting area our senses were assailed by old oak, sherry and old tobacco. The wooden counter is ancient and posters for bullfights go back years. The señor poured us ‘tasting’ glasses of a significant size. He decants very good manzanilla by the litre from large oak barrels into plain bottles, which he then labels. It’s fantastic and cheap.
After wandering around the busy food market we had lunch in the neighbouring Bar Vicente, which is over 100 years old and, judging by black and white photos on the wall, seems to have changed little.
Into the heart of Andalucía
Heading east toward Granada we swept through the very heart of Andalucía with little traffic and passing groves of olive trees, cattle roaming across open plains and small roadside restaurants. Standing proudly on high ridges were giant silhouettes of bulls, the trademark of one of the sherry houses.
Overlooking the old white town of Olvera is the hilltop site of Camping la Pueblo Blanco with panoramic views across valleys to more hills and to the twelfth century castle perched precariously high on rocks.
We headed for the start point of one of Spain’s via verde (green routes) going deep in to the Andalusian countryside. With a map from the tourist office showing what we’d see en route – viaducts, well-lit tunnels, historical sites, vulture colonies – we set off with the sun shining. But, just half-a-mile on we encountered a barrier and a sign, which thanks to Google Translate, told us that the way was blocked by landslides. We turned back disheartened.
Our next destination was Granada, reached from Camping Las Lomas in the foothills of the still snow-capped Sierra Nevada. From the site’s restaurant terrace, with wisteria blossom scenting the air, we watched the sun go down. The almost hourly Line 310 bus picked us up right from by the site entrance and cost only €1.80 (£1.62) each way to Granada.
Even at 9am there was a scrum around the entrance to the Alhambra but, once we’d entered, we understood something of what makes this a World Heritage Site. We’d pre-booked our visit online some months before as entry numbers are restricted.
I had to walk back alone because my wife, Lizzie, had left me. Fortunately this, too, was pre-planned. Lizzie had to go back to England for work, so it meant that the latter part of the tour would be as a single rider.
It was time to turn to Toledo. On the Talavera road I made another connection. The Duke of Wellington came this way in 1809 with a combined British and Spanish army to drive the French out of Spain. They met at Talavera and, after two days of fighting, the French withdrew.
Somehow, without Lizzie, I found Camping El Greco about a mile from the city centre (though it is well signposted). I cycled into Toledo and climbed to the top of the towers of Iglesia de los Jesuitas with views over the city’s rooftops to the plains beyond. It, too, is a World Heritage Site and, consequently, the main areas get crowded, though there are many narrow, high-walled side streets leading on to quiet small squares with fountains and, often, a small bar/coffee bar tucked away.
Toledo suffered not only at Napoleon’s hands before his defeat but also during the Spanish civil war. In the interesting modern museum within the Alcázar I learnt how, in 1936, some 1,500 men, women and children took to the Alcázar fortress and were besieged for 68 days. Many died and their tomb in the Alcázar’s crypt is moving.
I then walked the riverside path. The river gorge is crossed by several ancient bridges that lead through arched gates to within the city walls.
My time in central Spain was coming to a close and I continued heading north. I got completely lost and asked directions of a lady driver. I spoke little Spanish and she little English. By waves, nods and smiles I understood that she wanted me to follow her. She led me out of town to the campsite before going in the opposite direction. It was such unpremeditated kindness for a lost soul. Our connections as people helping each other are stronger even than those of history, culture, marmalade and sherry.
This travel feature was originally published in the April 2019 issue of MMM magazine. You can read the fulll version by buying a digital back issue copy here. Browse our full range of travel features online here.