I am so lucky. Two weeks ago I was in Edinburgh, finally meeting my new grandson Arthur and reuniting, after 8 long months,with family. I was quarantined for 14 days with baby Arthur and his Mummy and Daddy and then had a week to spend with the other little people and the biggies too! It was done in shifts and mainly outside as Scotland began to experience a rise in case numbers and new restrictions were imposed. It was however, wonderful and I am so grateful for those moments. I know so many of my friends around the world have still not been able to see their families. It is really tough. The little ones grow so quickly, suddenly they’re not so little.
The three weeks flew by. One of the strangest things I have found throughout this whole pandemic affair is how quickly time has gone by. You would think it would drag but here we are…October already. I arrived in Edinburgh on the 3rd of September. The view from my guest bedroom come online classroom was still a summer one. Three weeks later, the trees were changing colours and the pavements were satisfyingly covered in enough leaves to kick through! I am still a big kid at heart. I said goodbye to autumn Edinburgh, not sure what season I will see it in again!
Back home, we had had rain! The temperatures had dropped to a comfortable 24 degrees average! Not quite as autumnal as Edinburgh but this morning it was. Misty and cool, the smell of wood smoke as farmers begin burning dead wood. Most of the trees in our woodland are coniferous and so the view from our kitchen window is always green but the few deciduous trees there are, are beginning to take on reds and golds. Citrus and olive trees are green/grey all year round! I never realised this until we moved here permanently. Evergreen as opposed to coniferous. The blossoms on citrus trees appear twice a year as the fruit is still being picked! We have lemons all year. Oranges are best in the winter months. The grape vines likewise are now almost bare and we have cleared the huerto and winter planted, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, onions, beans,chard, parsley, lettuce and coriander. Patience is needed now. I can’t believe the summer crops have come and apart from some chard, the sturdy aubergines and chillies that keep fruiting , all gone! The last green tomatoes are now chutney! The little orchard beside the huerto has given us some tasty apples, figs and now pomegranates. We are very few huertanos now and hoping the project will continue. It has been an unsettled year and people have had lots to contend with, especially the younger ones with families. It’s only a handful of us oldies keeping things going , which is a pity. We rely on a watering system that we pay monthly for and if the project becomes unviable and the system is shut off , we are thinking of ways to water physically and keep our plot going. Hopefully it won’t come to that.
The sun is burning the mist off now. It will still be warm enough to lunch outside. The swallows have departed but the blackbirds, sparrows, pigeons and occasional hawk have found their voices again after the August heat retreated. The gentle Murciano Autumn and Winter stretch out before us…walking, cycling, gardening . The big kid in me that loves kicking through leaves also loves and lives to be outside! So grateful.
It’s pretty fair to say that the last few months have seen my emotions roller coaster. Me and most of my fellow humans. To stop the overthinking I have baked, cooked, grown stuff, sewn stuff and knitted copiously! I have meditated and chatted on zoom , taught on zoom , learned on zoom…again like most of my fellow humans but it has all become more difficult since a very special little human arrived and I have had to get to know him …..on zoom! Oh how I want to cuddle him and get to know him properly not virtually. It was nerve wracking and exciting at the same time therefore when Scotland lifted its 14 day quarantine for travellers from Spain. We decided that before there were spikes in the UK, this seems to be inevitable once restrictions are relaxed , I would make a flying visit, and then the quarantine was reinstated less than a week later! Gutted, cross, sad and all the work I had been doing on myself to be a better, more grateful,more accepting human collapsed in a weekend. As I calmed down, breathed deeply and walked Rocky with Walt, two things became obvious once again. One- I have no control over this current and awful crisis other than to keep following the guidelines on how to stay safe and keep others safe. To worry, be angry or judgemental is not good for me on any level. Two- we had planned a tour of The Picos de Europa long before the dreaded c word, hostels and hotels all booked. Walt’s itinerary carefully worked out based on his falling on love with the region last year on his solo tour. The temperatures in Murcia had cranked up to 33 average and even all the usual activities that keep my overactive brain from buzzing had to he crammed in between 7am and lunch time. Too darned hot! As we walked, slowly and at sunset we realised that there was nothing to stop us bringing the trip forward a few weeks. The original dates had been to allow family to visit in the school holidays!!! Walt walked swiftly (ish) home,got on line and voila…3 days later we were on the road.
The first leg of our adventure was from home to a town just north of Madrid, Colmenar Viejo. We set of just after sunrise and had a super cool start to the journey. Apart from fuel ( a motorbike needs more regular topping up than a car) we only had one stop at a roadside cafe for bizcocho (cake) and coffee. Vonnie style boo boo as I went to order my coffee and Walt’s hot water…my brain was not in gear and I wondered why the lady behind the counter was shouting ..’ señora..para, para. El gel de hidroalcoholico está junto a la puerta’. As I looked at the table where I had been cleaning my hands, I realised that the sign on the stand said ‘do not use…strong chemicals!’ It was the table disinfectant! Too late. I went back to use the gel aswell. Very clean hands! Once I had placed my order and tried to juggle the two cups , a plate of cake and my purse, the same lady quickly came to my aid and at a distance helped me to the far end of the outside terrace with our elevenses . It was the first of many reasons to be grateful for hospitality workers juggling the need to work and keep businesses afloat along side the risks that they have to take all day, every day. As we continued , the day warmed up and Walt had to cope with the Madrid traffic. The autovia goes through the city, there are alternative routes but much , much slower and at 35C in full bike gear , getting to that cold shower was more important! Colmenar Viejo is a working Spanish town with the usual pretty church and concrete 1970s plaza/ square with cafes and shops. ( Think Dalkeith or Abronhill !) However we had not eaten anything apart from our cake and so the meal made for us sitting outside a little Italian restaurant ( on the concrete plaza) was very welcome.
Another early start to beat the heat. Day two. Burgos is a city brim full of Spanish history, recent and ancient. As it was on the way we decided to stop and stroll around a little. It was a flying visit but first impressions were of a leafy, park filled city and a wonderful medieval cathedral. A beer in the shade and we were off again. Perhaps we had made a mistake stopping? The temperature by early afternoon was pretty unbearable and the autovia horrible. We came off at a Repsol in a tiny farming village for water and a sandwich and programmed ‘avoid motorway ‘ in to the sat nav. It was still hot and much slower but far more interesting and the fields full of sunflowers all standing to attention were glorious. As we travelled further north, the countryside became steadily greener and as we began to go through forests…cooler!
Riaño is a village at the foothills of the Picos de Europa. It was a cool oasis as we arrived, dusty and sweaty from the journey. There had been a ‘plume’ of unusually hot air across the whole Iberian peninsula ( we knew that! ) and even in Cantabria and Asturias 30C had been reached that day but the temperature was quickly freshened up by a spectacular storm and by the time we had had our cold showers , a walk around the village and settled on the terrace with a very welcome drink , the evening air was a blissful 22C! I needed a sweater at dinner ! Walt had stayed in the Hotel Presa last year and remembered the young Romanian waiter …not sure if he remembered Walt! However he was very attentive and we had two very tasty dinners on the terrace. Although quieter than normal August time, the hotel had a steady trade, locals and visitors. Suze had plenty of company in the garage. Mainly Spanish bikes as a staycation is the in thing this year ! However there were three bikes with UK plates and on chatting to their riders, they seemed confident , safe and delighted with their adventure.
I had seen Walt’s photos, watched his and other bikers’ videos and read my friend Lis’ blog ( This Simple Life) of and about the Picos and Aturias but nothing had prepared me for the real thing. I am smitten! Our first morning, on the road by 8, no traffic, blue skies and cool, clean mountain air. Fantastic. One of the best things about travelling on a motorbike is that you can smell as well as see everything. Being pillion also means being free to gaze constantly…Walt does all the hard work !
Collado de Llesbo…the bear. My first real immersion in the Picos. There were three campervans and a farmer at the top. The campers were still sleeping! As we rode up to the statue several cows and their calves wandered on to the road. A farmer in his 4×4 appeared, disturbed over breakfast? He tried to round those very determined mamas and their babies up. It was hilarious. One very cross farmer. Stress, country style. He did get them back where he wanted them then threw his staff across the road in frustration. Oh dear! Once at the top, walked up to the statue of the bear. The only sound was birdsong and cow bells. It is a beautiful statue and a reminder of how few wild bears remain in Europe. Murcia zoo has a breeding programme and their bears live in a big enclosure with a pool but on visits with grandchildren and friends I have always thought they looked pretty scunnered ( fed up). Perhaps Murcian summer temperatures don’t help. I recently read that numbers in the wild have increased slightly but that then also brings the problem of coexisting to the fore as farm plundering becomes an issue. There has to be a way?
The sense of peace that morning was wonderful. I think my over thinking was overtaken by the sheer beauty and perfection around us.
As we hadn’t had breakfast,after drinking in gallons of clean , clear air and the smell of quite a lot of cattle we decided we needed real food!
A quick birl ( Scottish for a round trip or a country dance move!) to book tickets for the cable car at Fuente Dè and then back to Potes . This pretty little town is a tourist attraction and was surprisingly busy but still not scarily so ! The Policia Local were keeping an eye on everyone and making sure we followed all the rules. (We only took masks off for photos !) It didn’t spoil a gentle stroll around and then breakfast/ lunch by the river. Lots of lovely local cheeses!
I am not good with heights but Walt wasn’t going to let me away with not going up in the cable car…disinfected after every stage and with half the usual number of passengers, it was why we had had to book 4 hours in advance. It was amazing or rather the views as we went up and at the top were ! Definitely worth it.
I am happiest outdoors and we finished our eight hour day in the fresh air at another mirador..deer pass or Mirador del Corzo and more breathtaking views.
Tired but happy we wound our way ( literally with some interesting hair pin bends to negotiate) back to Riaño and more fresh air with our al fresco dinner. We would have happily made this hotel our base for four days but because of the last minute changes to our plans we could only book two nights. No problem sleeping after all the fresh air and alarms set for our next adventure!
Early on Saturday morning we packed our bags and left Riaño. The luggage on a motorbike challenges you to travel light and to remember all about those pilates classes and using your core! When the side luggage is attached to the bike, Walt is next on then I have to use his peg ( foot rest) as mine is too close to the luggage to push up, holding his shoulder, my tummy muscles contracted and deep breath to then swing other leg over both bags , my seat and avoid hitting top box or pulling Walt and Suze over! Phew! After a long journey, as things stiffen up , the reverse process is usually harder and even less elegant! Walt wanted to take me to Cangas de Onis , a slightly larger town but with a very interesting bridge and to the Mirador del Fitu. This mirador had been swathed in mist last year and Walt was determined to take advantage of the promised vistas…as our new digs were on the way to both of these , we stopped at our hostel in a beautiful little village called Oseja de Sajambre and asked if we could drop of the luggage. No problem, it could sit in their office until our room was made up then the manager come receptionist come breakfast chef would pop them in our room. While Walt was in the hostel organising this, I was having a Joanne Harris moment…the old bakery across from the hostel is for sale, a project! Behave Yvonne.
After our early start and no breakfast the next stop was Cangas de Onis which was indeed an interesting town if slightly busier than our previous stops. We had walk over the bridge, a breakfast and then hit the road again. The day had started sunny , blue skies and very warm. That was all about to change. As we climbed higher towards el Mirador del Fitu, the clouds gathered and the mist descended on us! By the time we reached the Mirador, we couldn’t see a thing! Walt doesn’t believe that it’s ever any different up there now!
Aswell as swirling mist, it was also raining by this time. Fine, soft rain and not cold but enough to make our visors almost impossible to see out of! Slowly, we descended the mountain and as we did, we came out of the clouds! The sun came out again and when we saw signs for the seaside town of Ribadsella only 25 minutes away, we decided to get some sea air to top up the mountain air! The sun stayed out just long enough for us to get there and then it began to drizzle again but the smell of the sea did not disappoint. It had obviously been a sunny morning as swimsuit clad families were all heading off the beach. A beautiful promenade and beachside homes that reminded me of Hendaye …so different from the Mediterranean costas. We were loving the weather …knowing that we would be back in 35C Murcia in a few days…this was bliss!
Time to head back to the hostel and find our luggage…the Cuna de Sella is a small and immaculate hostel. A traditional building completely renovated inside. We had our temperatures checked on arrival and our ground floor room was spotless. The modern extension that houses the breakfast room was small and cosy but this meant a strict timetable for breakfast so that there was ample distance between guests. It all felt very safe and as our room overlooked a terrace and Suze…she was safe too!
Although tiny, the village had three restaurant/bars and all with terraces. There are loads of wonderful walking opportunities nearby and so a steady stream of customers plus locals of all ages, popping in and out for a blether. Like Riaño, for a small village, there was a definite sense of community and no lack of life about it.
Long walks are something we miss in July and August. To grab an hour with Rocky we have to be out before 8am. The upside is ofcourse that we can walk all winter, the snow poles at the side of all roads in the Picos suggest that might not be possible all winter in this region. I have to admit to being envious however when Lis describes her hikes in Asturias,even in July! We were determined therefore to get one good long walk in. Lis recommended the national park of Ponga but as we had already planned a walk and as we were limited to one afternoon we decided to stick to this and come back to Ponga. We rode through it and it is beautiful even from the road,we will be back!
Our last full day dawned grey and damp but we were not daunted.. bike rain gear, walking gear and a picnic all packed, we set off for Caín de Valdeón. The route took us on to a single track road with a surface not dissimilar to a basic track and it was wet…very wet. Tricky riding at the best of times, add in the twisty road and visors with no windscreen wipers and it was a bit scary! We stopped at yet another view point where there was no view, just to take a break. To demonstrate how wonderfully changeable the weather is in green Spain, here are the before and after photos…we stopped in the same spot on the way home 6 hours later!
As we left the ‘before ‘ spot we were seriously doubting the sense in ploughing on. I had shorts and a t shirt packed for our hike, no fleece or Scottish style walking gear. Once again the weather surprised us, gradually improving until by the time we had walked for a while and decided to have our picnic, I needed sun screen ! Our walk was along a gorge on a path built for practical purposes as the incredible canal built alongside proved but now very popular with walkers. It was busier than we had expected but not so much that it spoiled it or that we didn’t have plenty of space to enjoy the spectacular scenery at every turn. It was perfect. We walked for three hours, not a huge hike but much more than we can do at home just now and added to the excitement of riding in the rain and mist early in the day, we were happily tired.Two stops for coffee and una caña ( small beer) on the way home and we couldn’t have been more content!
We were beginning to feel a little sad by dinner time, our journey home began the next morning. Three full days in the most wonderful region. I am country mouse not a town one and Cantabria and Asturias equalled my idea of bliss!
We set of early again the next day with Toledo as our destination and break in the journey south. We had stopped there for an hour or so last October and I loved bring immersed in the history. I was reading Giles Tremlett’s Isabella of Castile at the time. There was also a lively atmosphere and we were looking forward to some people watching. After a long , progressively hotter and sticky ride, Walt negotiated the narrow, cobbled streets to our hotel and we cooled off for a while before going out to explore. Toledo is stunning but what was very strange was that it was quieter than the Picos! Cafes and shops closed, very few visitors and not the atmosphere that we remembered. It’s a city that relies on international tourism and that no longer exists. Sad to see so many businesses closed down. We did find a great wee cafe by the city walls where we were well fed and watered and Toledo is still beautifully kept. Hopefully more Spaniards will visit as the autumn brings cooler weather for a glimpse of their own heritage and to restore some of the businesses in its historic centre.
It is nearly two weeks since our final leg home to Murcia. It’s taken me that long to write this and I didn’t intend for it to be so lengthy. In a way it’s more of an indulgence for myself…a diary to keep the memories of a very special holiday fresh in my mind. I have been struggling with the realisation that getting to Scotland and seeing my family could still be a long way off. Those few days in the Picos were incredible and as I stood at the statue of the bear on our first morning, I relaxed properly for the first time in months. Thank you Walt for taking me there. Thank you Picos de Europa for being simply magical.
My commute to school used to be a twenty five minute drive through the beautiful East Lothian country side , apart from the odd time when the weather was so bad that the journey became stressful, it was generally a great way to start the day. However the last stretch took me over the A1 via a fly over and I can remember many a Monday morning thinking how good it would be to take the slip road instead of the fly over and head north! My late parents lived in Stirling and as they grew older, I wanted to spend more time with them. A simple cup of tea and a chat often seemed more appealing than thirty lively teenagers for the following six hours! This feeling was often strongest as the new term sped from summer in to autumn, the changing colours and stunning countryside was so tempting. There were often more clear blue skies and sunny mornings on those Scottish autumn mornings than we had had all summer!
Last Monday morning I woke up in Salamanca. Two years of Monday mornings with no commute and I am still grateful but last Monday morning was extra special. We had driven up to Salamanca for our wedding anniversary and stayed in a lovely hotel right next to the Roman Bridge with views of this incredible city. It is a UN site of special interest , with breathtaking buildings and an otherworldly atmosphere. This was especially true on Monday morning as a mist surrounded the old city with only the Cathedral and towers of the taller buildings visible above it. It was as if the city was floating. Salamanca has the third oldest university in Europe and is famous for its teaching and learning. While we were there, the Plaza Mayor was filled with stalls and an exhibition of antique books as well as a good helping of modern literature and texts . While it is a huge tourist attraction, the city is not overwhelmed nor did it feel as if tourism was its only reason for being. It has not become simply a museum. On the Sunday morning as we walked up through the old town looking for breakfast, we had to squeeze ourselves single file against the ancient stone walled houses as an enormous sponsored walk, literally thousands of families from Grandparents to babies in buggies, snaked its way around the city, fund and awareness raising for cancer research. A city still very much alive and home to ordinary folk not simply tourists such as ourselves.
Salamanca is a six hour drive north for us therefore the climate is very different. For the first time in months , jeans, jumpers and my rain coat were retrieved from the back of the wardrobe…. and they were needed! After tidying ourselves up on the Saturday we arrived , we wandered the city getting our bearings and deciding what to go and see on the Sunday. By 5pm the rain was too heavy even for us Scots and we just happened to find a quirky little cocktail bar near the university. It was full of locals which is always a good sign, the staff were lovely, the music excellent and the people watching even better. I had crammed in six hours of tutoring and teaching the day before, in three different locations across Murcia which made the chilling out all the more delicious. We were sitting by the open door, watching the rain and people scuttle by the ancient buildings, bliss!
I love the contrasts in this amazing country. Several hours north and I was able to walk along the river in Salamanca enjoying the colours and smells of an autumn very different from that of Murcia. As we drove towards Salamanca there were even cows in the fields. Changing seasons make the year interesting for me and even in our sunny southern home there are subtle signs of Autumn but I really loved the smells and colours of a Salamanca autumn!
The rain stopped on Sunday and we spent the day being tourists, visiting the cathedral and climbing its tower for amazing views of the city and beyond. Not once did I experience that ‘ Sunday feeling’ and although it was only in my last couple of years teaching in Scotland that this feeling had really kicked in, I was still incredibly grateful not to have my drive to school the next day. It may not have been the A1 to Stirling but we had gone on a road trip. Spanish roads and motorways simply do not have the volume of traffic that the roads in Scotland or England do, apart from going through Madrid we had wide open roads, every changing scenery , no cones and no road works. Therefore after a picnic breakfast on Monday morning we decided to stop in Toledo. All those years of wanting just to keep going….. Yes! A road trip is made all the better if you allow for diversions. Driving through Madrid on Saturday had been a little too hectic so we decided to take a longer route home via Toledo. Once again Walt had done a reccy earlier in the year on the motor bike and loved it. Toledo is incredible especially for a history geek. I had recently read Giles Tremlett’s works on Isabella of Castile and her daughter, Henry the VIII’s wife, Catherine of Aragon. While a little busier and more touristy than Salamanca, Toledo was beautiful and very special. What a Monday!
As we drove home , much later than planned, the windmills both modern and ancient ( for tourists?) dotted the landscape . The motorway was deserted apart from the odd truck and the journey simple. How lucky , after all those Monday mornings to be able to enjoy just taking off the way I had imagined I would love to when crossing the A1 all those years ago.