Happy Christmas -back in the Campo

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Dear all
For those of you wanting to know what we have been up to since arriving at our house sit in Portugal here goes…
Amazing, wierd, hot, challenging, fun, real, peace and madness are a few words that spring to mind.
Where we live – a wooden ‘illegal’ house in a valley surrounded by eucalyptus and sticky bush. Totally off grid – water has to be pumped every few days from a well by a generator. Drinking water is collected from a local village well. Solar panels give us enough power to run lights, charge phones but not a fridge or washing machine. A wood burner keeps us cosy at night when it gets chilly. Sounds great??? Yes if it all works! Plus we have five cats to feed and try to keep out of the house. And absolutely no wifi or mobile signal.
It’s all been a bit of a struggle and a long way from what I think most people imagined when we told them we had been offered the house sit for the winter! The main issue has been the lack of wifi and mobile connection and not to just check on fb! Stu has been exasperated multiple times whilst trying to run his business and has resorted to 1) buying a phone with Portugese sim card 2) climbing to the top of hills to try and listen to answer phone messages let alone make a phone call and 3) become a regular visitor at the local cultural centre for free Internet
He has spent literally hours at the well trying to fathom out why the pump keeps blocking whilst I have had to clean the house from top to bottom just to make it feel like home. It all came to a head when whilst cleaning a huge bathroom window the whole frame fell out and glass shattered – it hadn’t been screwed in!! I could go on but suffice to say we have just had to laugh through tears and screams of sheer frustration!
On the plus side we spend a lot of time with the lovely Susie and her 3 gorgeous girls who we stayed with earlier this year and live just up the hill from us. Susie has a new boyfriend who is lovely and we have babysat a few times.
We have seen many friends we made last visit and met new ones. Stu has performed at various open mic nights and I have been selling my beanies at local markets.
We have hired a ‘rent a wreck’ car for the duration which has enabled us to see a lot more of the local area – epic surf spots, beaches, villages etc. A perfect choice for the campo tracks with its unique combination of oil leak, boot that has to be propped up with a pole to keep it open and seat belts that need a tweak everytime to fasten them!
The highlight of our stay has been first Max and Emma joining us ( we try not to talk about the compost loo) and then Esme and Warren. They had rented an apartment in Lagos so we decamped to an aire in Mabel to be closer to them. Such a great 10 days with them all – sightseeing, eating out, playing games and just so much fun and laughter. It felt like a proper holiday and the weather was fantastic.
And so the question is when are we coming back? Not too sure, maybe January no later than March. Plans as always are being made – some exciting, some sensible and some just plain mad but then that’s what life is all about isn’t it!
We think of you all often and are looking forward to seeing you soon. Have a wonderful xmas and happy healthy new year.

Week 34 – home but for how long?

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Arriving in Poole we were greeted by 2 very excited Mums and it was a lovely welcome to Blighty. The next few days were spent with family and friends with lots of questions about our trip so apologies to those we missed but here are some answers!
Favourite place – Life at the Shabby Chateau, Portugal
Least favourite – Naples
What did we miss (food) – Stu, a full English breakfast, Sharon – a roast dinner and of course on occasion our family and friends.
What were we most looking forward to apart from obviously seeing Max and Esme – Stu, a proper pint at the Prestongate. Sharon, a bath
How did we get on living in such a small area together – Only one fall out over navigation, driving through the same toll gate twice in a row!
Most surreal moment – Stu -night spent jamming with 2 intoxicated musicians in a shack! Sharon – helping to kill a duck!
Highlights – so many! Day in the Picos Mountains with Barny & Vicky, discovering Seville and Granada with Hilary, staying with Lucie and her 15 cats, living at Susie’s with her gorgeous girls, making new friends along the way – Johnny, Ingrid and Sabri in France, Jac, Suzie and many more in Portugal, Lucie & Gareth, Phillipe & Estelle in Italy, Graham, Manuel, Zigor, Richard & Therese, Anne & Vic, Bernie & Kay, Marylin & James, Meg, Jane and Jess in Spain. Plus countless others who we spent time with or helped us in one way or another.
Lowlights – Stu – tourists and being one! Reversing down one way streets in old towns. Low bridges appearing out of nowhere. Angry territorial surfers. Sharon – cleaning toilets at Italy Farmstay, wandering the streets of Naples
Low point – being broken into
How many days away – 229
How many miles travelled – 7,110
How many weeks volunteering – 12
How many nights on campsites or Aires – 86
How many free camping – 139
Nights in hotels – 4
Favourite city – Sharon, Seville. Stu, Venice
Did we stick to the budget – yes with £500 to spare
Is Stu going to continue Guitar Retreats – yes, bigger, better, longer and in more locations!
Is Sharon going to get a proper job again – no! Boho Beanies are the future!
Are we going to move – Nope not just yet!
Are you glad to be home – yes and no!
Are we going to keep Mabel – yes for a while
Will we go on another road trip – yes but not immediately!
What did we learn – it is possible to live in a tiny space for long periods of time without killing each other! You don’t need many possesions to be content. 99% of people are kind, helpful and unthreatening. Europe is not on the brink of financial collapse and the weather is definitely better!

It is impossible to sum up our incredible journey in a few words. We feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to travel for 8 months and have returned with a memory bank full of wonderful times and places. However, it is the people we met along the way who offered genuine friendship and kindness that we will never forget which made our journey so special.

So what next? – you’ll have to wait and see……

Week 33 – the end of the road

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We continued making our way steadily northwards towards Cherbourg and with every kilometer the reality of the finish line ahead deepened. Another 2 stops en toute  included a campsite just noth of Nazaire in a small town Cordomais. What we hadn’t realised was that it was home to the largest thermal power station in France and as we cycled past huge mountains of coal being delivered by the truck load to the furnaces the enormity of unsustainable energy production hit home. (A school trip here might make kids think twice about leaving lights on and the adults too, but sadly I doubt it). A more positive sight was an incredible work of art – a replica of one of the power station smoke stacks with a perfect little house perched on top complete with a tiny garden and even a tree.  You can stay the night there and if it wasn’t for the view and noise of the power station it would be idyllic!
We had been splitting our journey into 2-3 hour driving shifts and so we arrived near Lorient to stay with new friends Phillipe and Estelle who we had volunteered with in Italy on the farm. At least something good came out of our first helpx experience! They live on the estuarry and we enjoyed great river and sea walks, collecting cuttle fish from a local fisherman to cook, stopping In  cafes along the way, eating crepes and on our last night they took us to a bar where there was a jam night. There was a lot of pressure from the 3 of us for Stu to play (not half!) and of course he did  – another performance to add to the places/countries he has played. Jamming with other guitar players and a flute player and proving once again that music is the universal language. (I like playing to French audiences as they are always appreciative and actually listen to you!) More new friends we will definitely stay in contact with and who we hope will visit us in Bude so we can repay their kindness and generosity.

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Jannete was our next stop, a friend we met a few years ago who moved to Brittany from Cornwall over 10 years ago with her husband and two boys. Their journey so far has not been easy. After buying a large rural property and hoping to live the good life complete with horses and veggie plots they found it difficult to make ends meet and had to eventually sell up at a loss. It also led to them splitting up and living seperately. However, lovely Janette is living proof that to survive in France without funds you have to work hard. Not just with learning the language but trying to earn a living as a newcomer in a foriegn country is not for the faint hearted.  In the last two years, with the help of her husband Stuart and two grown up sons, she has transformed an almost derelict house into a home with treatment room and yoga studio where she teaches 10 classes a week.  She also works during the week and every weekend in a local restaurant. This can be the reality of ‘leaving the rat race’ and unless you have a steady income the dream can quickly turn into a nighmare. Always positive with a big smile it was lovely seeing Janette and what she had done with the house and we left feeling in awe of what she has achieved.
We drove to Mont St Michel in heavy rain and gusts of wind which just reminded us of Cornwall!  (Good to acclimatise us to what we’ve got  coming!) Brittany ferries had sent me a text stating our ferry the following day had been brought forward because of approaching storms – this really wasn’t what we wanted or needed to be reminded of. I even had a thought of getting Mabel’s MOT done and getting the first ferry back again. Onward…….a very breezy bike ride to Mont St Michel when the rain stopped for an hour and the clouds parted to reveal this gothic hamlet perched on a rock out to sea. Stu – The Japs were back in force here God bless them! being blown all over the place from one monument to another no doubt.  My admiration for the Japanese tourist has grown throughout the whole trip. Always first at the gates in the mornings, always polite, smiling and laughing whether being photographed or not. All ages from teens to granparents, sometimes travelling together leaving no stone unturned they have been our constant companions in every tourist site in Europe! Congratulations to this dogged race of travellers for their good humour, dedication and tenacity!

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And so the final 2 hour drive to Cherbourg  and the ferry to Poole became a reality – not so much the end of the road but a chapter of new beginnings.

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Week 32 – And the journey home begins

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We had a lot of miles to cover from the south of Spain to Cherbourg and had allowed ourselves 10 days with plenty of stops and visits to friends en route. The first and very important one was at Mercadona supermarket to stock up on wine, olive oil and chorizo – well you have to get your priorities right! We made it to Aranjuez 42km south of Madrid to a campsite then it was back on the road to Burgos. An early start meant we had time to park up and cycle in to the pretty city with a very impressive cathedral. Modern sculptures and beautiful plane trees intertwined, lined the streets and as we sat in a cafe eating delicious churros dipped in hot chocolate it felt like we were still on the road trip experiencing new places rather than the end of our adventures.

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The following day we made it across the border (what border?!) to France. There was a noticeable nip in the air but the sun was stll shining as we headed to Capbreton and an aire for the night recommended by Vicky and Barny. Unfortunately it was closed so onward we drove to Hossegor and another aire. France wins hands down for being campervan friendly and having the best roads. For 6 euros you can get secure parking, water, electric, spotlessly clean toilets and a shower. Some are obviously better than others but after a days driving we were happy to stay put for the night and even enjoyed a bike ride into town for a couple of beers – these will have to be limited! Being used to spending a couple of euros in Portugal or Spain, with free tapas, 7 euros for two small beers was a bit of a shock!
Riberac, near Bergerac was next and we managed to get there without driving on any toll roads – result! We had stayed at Jonny’s and La Perdrix at the start of our trip and Stu has decided to run a songwriting retreat here in September so it was great to re visit and tie up some future business there. The main house is a 13th century monastery now converted into a centre for artistic pursuits and holidays. It’s a rambling, rustic ruin of a place and stuffed to the gills with art, sculpture, paintings, pottery and objet d’art as the French say. Kind of magical mayhem and the perfect place to unwind. Jonny was as hospitable as ever and even gave us our own cottage for the 2 nights, a welcome break from Mabel, much as we love her! We were wined and dined with delicious food and great company as another friend Jean from guitar retreats and his French girlfriend Anne-Paul joned us for dinner one night. We enjoyed a very lively evening of conversation, in French and English, with the question of ‘at what point does an artist call himself an artist?! proving to be a highly debatable question! (Stu – a rather pointless debate in my opinion!). With rather sore heads we all managed to make it to the following day’s Brocante ( French car boot/antiques sale), good fun and found a few things to buy of course. We left Jonny’s absolutely certain that La Perdrix will be the most perfect venue for the songwriting retreat and are looking forward to returning once more in September.
Back on the road, though only half an hour away, we arrived at a gite Vic and Anne had rented for a month. We first met them in the Picos Mountains in northern Spain, then Porto and later Lagos in Portugal and were looking forward to swapping travelling tales and hear their next plans. They were taking a break from motorhome life and looking for a property to buy in the Dordogne. Needless to say we were very interested in their findings, house prices seem to have dropoed a lot in the last few years and you can buy a lovely 3 bedroom detached place with land, fully converted for 100-150,000 euros in this part of rural France. Makes you think eh?…….! Lovely walk, lunch and dinner and many laughs over the trials and tribulations of living in a motorhome together with the usual question of what next? It confirmed to us that we had made another couple of good friends we will certainly stay in touch with. Vic had even bought himself a new guitar since we last met. Stu had given him a lesson back in Portugal and he had continued to practice and improve. He had learn’t a few songs and he and Stu serenaded Anne and I with them – sworn to secrecy over which ones though! (Stu – all my street cred would be gone!)
Another night with great people and more goodbyes on the road north……next stop Brittany to meet up with Phillipe and Estelle who we met on our first helpx volunteering at the dreaded Italy Farm Stay – remember the duck?

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Week 31 – meeting up with an old friend, making new ones and the Med at last!

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Work continued in the garden weeding and planting and for Stu the chance to resurrect his painting skills on the flat roof with 360 degrees views of the mountains!

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Another open day brought some ladies from nearby Cortijo Romera, a retreat centre started over 20 years ago by our lovely friend Nigel Shamash, for tea and cake. Nigel since sold and bought La Roane in France where Stu has been teaching for the last 6 years but luckily for us he was running a course at Cotijo Romera and invited us to dinner. ‘No such thing as a free lunch’? well the guitar came out and we had a good singing session with his students and it was a chance for us to look at the possibilities of running our own retreat there maybe in the future.

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Thursday was market day in Orgiva which also coincided with an annual religious procession which included taking down a statue of Jesus on the cross from the church and then carrying him around the town for a couple of days. However, the Spanish do not do anything quietly……while we were sitting with Nigel drinking coffee, the fireworks started (at midday!). The most incredible continuous sound of bangers going off was deafening and didn’t stop for hours; windows had been protected in nearby shops, bars and the church, police were around but casually chatting amongst themselves and heath and safety – forget it! The noisy little town was full of locals, onlookers, market traders and hippies – a great atmosphere and memorable day. We had been recommended to visit the hippy trippy bar, Baraka, and it truly was an absolute gem and clearly the central meeting place for anyone alternative living here. Run by Buddhists and serving incredible vegan, vegetarian and organic food (no alcohol), mint tea, juices, we could have stayed all day – cheap too!!
A new volunteer arrived, lovely Jess from the US, who immediately fitted in and became a good friend. We went for a walk together one day to ‘Chris Stuart’s valley’ and for me, to actually see where Driving over Lemons was written, the first of hundreds of books I have read about starting a new life abroad, was fantastic.

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We were looking forward to our weekend off and decided to head to the coast approx 40 minutes away to a small town Salobrena. Finding a carpark for the night, a short walk from the beach, we spent the day ‘on holiday’ as we paddled in the Mediterranean, sunbathed, read, ate sardines for lunch then returned to the same restaurant for a paella dinner later – yes we had made it to the Med at last!

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Our last few days of work were combined with a lot of socialising. Jane and Os from Scotland live high up in the mountains, friends of Kay and Bernie invited us all to dinner at their home they built themselves. We visited James and Marilyn for tapas, a lovely fun couple trying out living abroad in a 6 month rental property in the hills overlooking Orgiva. On our final night Stu cooked his favourite risotto dish for Kay, Bernie, Meg, Jess and Jane and of course the guitar came out again!
With our own plaque added to the totem pole we left with fond memories of Orgiva and the people we had befriended and with offers to return one day.
And so the long journey home began……..

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Week 30 – Volunteering in Orgiva

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We arrived at our 4th and final volunteering post with some trepidation as we knew it couldn’t possibly compare to the amazing time we had at Susie’s in Portugal, however, we had always wanted to visit Orgiva made famous by Chris Stuart’s book, ‘Driving over Lemons’. Turns out that Chris is now something of a local celeb here and is at least partly responsible for the influx of mainly British emigrees to the area. We were to find out that our hosts are good friends of his and his wife Anna. Orgiva is also a renouned hippy destination and has been for over 30 years with a thriving alternative scene. An hours drive south Granada the weather promised to be better?
Kay and Bernie, an English couple have lived here for 10 years and originally came with the idea to set up a tennis club which unfortunately got refused by the local authorities. Not to be defeated they changed track and have worked hard to not only rebuild the house but also to establish a garden they open to the public every week complete with 2 dogs, 4 cats, a turkey, geese, chickens, peacocks, ducks and tortoise. Apparently they plan to have a couple of llamas joining them in the next few weeks too. They also keep pigs but they had recently been butchered so we could only enjoy their meat!  Our work involved getting the garden ready for the first opening of the year – 5 hours a day 5 days a week. Weeding, pruning, planting and tidying kept us busy every morning, we were well fed and Mabel was happy parked up with views of the snow capped mountains all around. Kay and Bernie have invested a lot time creating a 3 level garden from what was scrub land.As you wander the stone pathways everywhere are growing beautiful plants, flowers and shrubs amongst orange trees as well as an impressive veg garden. They even have a totem pole with slate plaques of all the volunteers who have stayed with them over the years. A friendly, hospitable couple who immediately made us feel at home.
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The open garden was a great success with over70 people attending, mainly middle aged English ex pats who have happily settled here. This was quite a different scene to the one we were expecting so we decided to cycle into town for the Sunday flea market – there they all were! A large gathiering of pretty hard core young travellers and aging hippies selling anything from crocheted bikinis to hand made jewellery, playing musical instruments and just chilling in the sun. Some seemed like they had been around here for years with their long grey dreadlocked hair and also looked like they had experimented with quite a few drugs! but it was a happy scene as we drank a beer and ate some excellent home cooked chips at the local bar with some friends James and Marylin whom we had met the day before. It was great place to people watch and more like the scene we were expecting to find in Orgiva.
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We also visited Pampaneira,  one of the white mountain villages,  famous for hand woven rugs – needless to say we bought one and at 29 euros should probably have bought a few more! A pretty place perched on the side of the mountain with great views of Orgiva and other small villages, you could even see the Mediterranean in the distance. Orgiva is situated in the Alpujara valley only 40 minuites drive from the Mediterranean coast, tantilizingly close, but you would never know it as the moountains surround and envelop you in a pocket of rural Spain that has changed little in hundreds of years. The ubiquitos olive and orange and lemon trees mingle with giant palm trees, agave and cactus plants alternating between farmed plantations and a desert like terrain. The weather has been unusually dry for the last few years in fact they had only two days of rain last year which apart from being a disaster for farmers and livestock owners created a number of big wild fires which swept accross the mountains and down into the valley. Our friends fellow Brit escapees James and Marylin described how they had only a few minuites warning to evacuate their property as the fire swept down the hill towards them at running speed devouring eveything in its path including the olive trees which apparently explode due to all the oil in the olives. They returned several hours later fearing the worst only to discover that the wind had changed direction at the last minuite and the fire had mercifully left their house untouched. That’s the kind of excitement you can do without! I was heartened to know though that one of the very few items James managed to grab before they left the house was his guitar!
We were enjoying working outside again after our recent week of city life and it was a lot warmer than Granada, hopefully we will come back with a tan after all!
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Week 29 – Just when we thought we had escaped winter

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We were so excited about the imminent arrival of our lovely friend Hilary – unfortunately she brought the English weather with her! With Mabel in secure parking we met in a pre booked hotel in the old part of Seville. Yes – 2 nights in a hotel (thank you Hilary!) And so our week together began excitedly wandering the streets, discovering bars, eateries and an impromptu jam session of local musicians outside a restaurant which turned into a concert for us tourists. Perfect first night together and introduction to Spanish culture. The following morning we woke to a bitterly cold wind and worse still! rain – not great for the sightseeing open top bus we had booked! Thankfully the jump on jump off option allowed us more time to sample tapas and vino along the route inbetween the heavy downpours and Hilary was incredibly positive throughout!
We discovered an amazing bar, highly decorated with religious artefacts complete with incense and its speciality drink translated as blood of Christ! Every surface – wall, ceiling, floor, bar, tables and chairs were adorned with gold leaf, red brocade and velvet, in fact it was just like stepping into a gothic church. Sitting there we were almost speachless, gazing at the crazy decor and incredulos that somehow in this catholic country it had even been allowed!

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Bar Garlochi

Moving on we visited another bar known for its traditional (not touristy) live flamenco – more of an open mic session than a show it was packed with people and great to see and hear some local music.
Our final morning in Seville included a visit to Las Setas, an incredible wooden structure and an architectural marvel which you can walk inside and up to take advantage of and enjoy the city from high. Great views and best of all clear blue skies for Hilary to see Seville at its best at last!

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Las Setas, Seviĺle

Our road trip plus 1 continued the following morning to Granada a 3 hour drive away and this was when the weather really took a turn for the worst. Freezing cold wind and rain en route as we climbed higher and onward towards the Sierra Nevada. After the relatively low key city of Seville we were a bit shocked with the size and hustle and bustle of Granada. We had chosen to catch the city bus into the centre from our respective accommodation (campsite for us, hotel for Hilary) but we could not fathom where the centre actually was. Where were the narrow cobbled streets we had imagined as we walked past Burger King, H&M etc? We eventually, after a lot of walking, found some bars, all very crowded and noisy but it was Saturday night. On the hunt for the free tapas that apparently arrives with each drink ordered we chose a bar and after some waiting got a cheese and ham roll, hmmmm not quite what we were expecting! Onward to the next one, this time through narrow streets exactly like the souks of Marrakesh, even selling the same goods. All a bit surreal and tourists everywhere, we weren’t quite sure what to make of it all but found another bar, another free tapas as disappointing as the last and then it started snowing! Unbelievable – we really thought we had escaped the winter and this was supposed to be Hilary’s holiday in the sun. Granada was letting us down big time.
After some research about where to go, and what to see, undeterred, we set off for a return visit the following day. The weather though cold had improved and we walked, walked, climbed up and down and walked some more. We discovered the caves where people still live, piazzas alive with buskers, amazing free tapas bars serving fish bites, croquettes, olives (and thankfully no more bread), old Moorish buildings, spectacular views of the Alhambra Palace and snow capped mountains and really friendly locals always ready to point you in the right direction when we got lost – we were warming to Granada.

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Having prebooked the Alhambra Palace (necessity) at the only available time slot left of 8.30am we had decided to take a taxi there and standing outside the gates at 8am were beginning to wonder if it woukd be worth the early start, but the skies were clear and the sun was warming up. We needn’t have worried – what an incredible place and not too many tourists at that time! It really was beautiful – intricate plasterwork, heavily carved wooden ceilings, marble floors and for once not a religious painting or crucifix in sight. The formal gardens and water features were equally impressive – if you get a chance go, you will not be disappointed.

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After our early start we continued our quest for more free tapas and succeeded in getting more than a bread roll this time; lovely shellfish, paella, tortilla and all that plus a beer or 2 in the sunshine convinced us that Granada was quite a nice city after all!
Our time with Hilary had passed all too quickly with a lot of fun times despite the weather; we had walked our socks off, seen and heard some amazing sights and sounds, eaten and drunk in some unique places and we will never forget the special moments shared.

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