Our route takes us past the turn-off to the Alpujaras, where we spent considerable time three years ago and we feel the pull, but despite the urge to turn off we carry on down towards the coast. We park on the outskirts of Motril and cycle in to see Dr. Nur at his clinic. He welcomes us warmly and gives Frank another full health check (and I’m very happy to report that Frank is even healthier than last year). We’d been hoping we could invite him for a meal chez restaurant Rozelaar, but unfortunately he has no time to see us socially, he’s such a hard-working man…
It is already dark when we leave Motril in search of the sea, and it feels like the end of one chapter and the beginning of another as we rumble along a dirt track in search of a parking space, having traversed Spain coast to coast. When we think we’ve got completely lost, I walk on a bit further on a recce and discover half a dozen campervans snuggled up close behind some large clumps of bamboo. A friendly person waves us into a place. We switch off the motor and fall into bed. Discovery has to wait until tomorrow…
We wake up to the sound of the waves lapping onto a long, clean beach. Very tempting for an early morning skinnydip
It’s a motley crew here on this piece of abandoned land at the end of a bumpy track, Germans, British, French, Spanish and José from I don’t know where. Not sure if he knows either. He speaks many languages fluently and has spent a number of years living in Morocco. He’s a fountain of knowledge; not just about places we should go and visit or those we should avoid, but he also gives us many useful hints about Moroccan culture.
Our stay on this beach turns into a couple of days’ lessons on Morocco. His love for the country shines through and it is very encouraging to hear him speak about how safe it is to travel there and how friendly the Moroccans are.
One lunchtime, we share a meal together, fish freshly cooked on our BBQ and I play with his dog who not only brings you a ball but first nudges you to play, then barges you and finally bites you if you don’t react! Eventually ‘papa’ José puts his foot down and wedges the ball between two branches high up into a tree and we can eat in peace.
I spend best part of two days ringing around different health and car insurances to try and make us safe and secure ( as much as one ever can be), to no avail. It seems that between the fact that Frank is over 70 and that we have already left the UK, no-one wants to insure us for Morocco. How very frustrating. This is a lesson we have learnt: sort out insurance before you go, even if you only really need it half way through your trip…
(One week later, we find both car and health insurance, but at a hefty price. Needs must…)
The days fill themselves with preparation for Morocco. We need to find various items and also fill up with LPG (apparently we can’t get this refilled in Morocco). We ask José what are good gifts to take with us and he recommends beer and chocolate.
After a few days, we travel on to pay a surprise visit to Dani in Alhaurin el Grande, the mechanic who helped us so much in our first year. He’s pleased to see us, even touched when he hears that we haven’t come because of a mechanical problem but just to see him.
At Dani’s garage, we meet Alain a frenchman who works for NGO’s all over the world and has strong connections to Morocco. Again, we hear only positive things about the country and the people. for example, he tells us of a fishermen’s initiative near Agadir, who established a ban on fishing with nets on a long stretch of coastline. This ban promoted a greater variety of marine life, resulting in one of the healthiest stocks of fish in the area. He tells us about the negotiations he is involved in, bringing the government and the locals together to aim for a sustainable industry. Alain adds pens, pencils and sharpeners, paper etc. to the list of things we might want to take as gifts. He is a marine biologist, so most of his recommendations for special locations concentrate on coastal areas. Our map is filling up with handwritten directions, and we are starting to get excited about visiting all these places we hear about.
We travel on, staying overnight in a remote place in the mountains before once more descending to the sea. Our next port of call is San Pedro, near Marbella, to meet up with Tina (mother of one of Yolanda’s friends). It is lovely to see her and to have a good chat – when you are travelling, it’s rare to meet someone you’ve known for a long time, so we delight in catching up with each other and to share our experiences as mothers and women who are in this precious stage of transition through menopause.
The area of Marbella and San Pedro is really British – and also Russian – expat land. There is a place in between the two where the feeling is really quite hard, with armed security on the entrances of huge shopping centres and many signs in russian. But in contrast to the many highrise buildings, ostentatios hotels and shops after shops, the sea is one beautiful long stretch of sand or at times pebbles, the water is very clear and there is a beautiful long promenade one can cycle along. In fact, in our fruitless search for good maps of Morocco, we cycle for miles and miles in both directions, enjoying the sea air and one evening even watching a dolphin jump and hunt for fish.
We spend a couple of quiet nights near San Pedro in an abandoned car park by a closed hotel. Off season, it’s very quiet here – the only car that comes by once an hour is the security guard who on the first night reaches for his baton when we approach him, but he soon realises we are harmless. We have late night or early morning dips in the sea, roll out our yoga mats on the abandoned wooden walkways in the mornings, and during the day we do a lot of research online for our pending Moroccan adventure, using the hotel’s internet connection (Thank you!).
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We wake up to a lovely sunny morning and after a shower and internet session at Chela’s house, we take a walk to Irene’s Finca la Furriola to see how her project has come on. In this part of Dilar, the constant sound of burbling water accompanies you everywhere – the moorish system of water distribution is still functioning here, bringing water to the many terraces of olive trees and vegetables. We walk along the road, occasionally taking a short-cut down one terrace along one of these burbling brooks. It’s a beautiful day; the air is crisp, it’s warm, the sky is bluer than blue and the landscape is in full technicolour. We’ve brought our yoga mats, so the first thing we do when we get there is to have a Yoga session together on the roof terrace of the newly restored school building.
Irene and her boyfriend Mateo have worked hard in the last year to bring life back into the land and restore the old building to make it useable for their project. Irene runs various courses there, including Ayurvedic medicine/nutrition. We didn’t meet Mateo as he is currently working in France, but we could sense that between the two of them this project will be successful. Finca Furiola has a special feeling to it, a sheltered, healing space, one where life slows down to a more natural pace, where even chairs have their individual characters. Irene is very knowledgeable in what she teaches.
After a delicious lunch of only home-grown ingredients, we walk back to our Emma, picking some super-ripe, sun-warmed Kaki fruit off her tree for our dessert as we walk past. It is time to move on; we have an appointment with Dr. Nur in Motril in a couple of hours.
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Almost three years ago, we spent a week parked up outside Estrellarte, a circus space just South of Granada. We made nice connections with some of the people at the time, so we are curious as to whether the space still exists and would love to reconnect with some of its members, especially Irene, who at the time was also in the beginning stages of an education project on her own land.
I don’t find any indication online that Circus Estrellarte is still going, so we are happily surprised to see that it is still open and thriving with young people, albeit an almost completely different set of people to a few years ago. The big murals have been painted over white and indoors everything looks cleaner, more orderly, open and welcoming.
We ask if we can stay for a night or two and after a couple of FB enquiries, are given the go-ahead.
That evening, Irene drops by. We share some tea in our van and catch up with what she’s been up to in the last few years. She looks very different, rounder, more grounded, happier. She has found a good man to help her with her project and they have worked hard to restore the old barn on the land, to clear and maintain the trees, to grow vegetables and to start teaching various groups.
We don’t have that much time to chat as Irene is on her way to a birthday party, but we agree to come and see her place the following day. We go to the party together, but it turns out to be a women-only event, so Frank walks back to the van…
Chela has invited a group of women to celebrate not only her birthday but also the fact that she has just become a grandmother for the second time. She is a lovely smiley and energetic woman whose favourite word seems to be to say yes. It’s a lovely group of women of all ages and I enjoy sharing an evening in such diverse company. I chat for a long time with a first-time pregnant woman as we both reflect on the ritual nature of our state of being, her entering motherhood and me entering menopause. We share how we both sense the opening of a door, the widening of horizons and how we feel excited about beginning a new stage in life.
I enjoy watching Chela celebrate her life and celebrate her friends, moving from one woman to another, smiling and embracing them. She asks for a dance in her honour and everyone joins in. She brings out a huge ham and everyone practices their way of cutting fine slices off it. She digs up 58 balloons from behind the sofa, one for each year of her life, and invites everyone to help popping them. There is a childlike grace about her when she unwraps some presents and it looks like every present is just right for her, a handknitted wollen hat, a scarf, Argan oil, some earrings…
I wonder what it would be like to dance Tango with her, with that vibrant energy. She doesn’t know Tango yet, so I offer to teach her some the next day. She happily accepts and invites Frank and I to come round for lunch. Irene will come too.
When we arrive around 11am the next morning, she has only just got up – the party had continued until 5am! So we start with a leisurely breakfast on the terrace of her beautiful house before heading into a luscious Tango session. When Irene arrives, we make some lunch from the leftovers of the party and then decide to all go to a hot spring near Santa Fe.
We’d heard about that hot spring three years ago, but we’d been advised against going because of a big rave happening there at the time. Now we all pile into Irene’s car and head off towards Santa Fe.
Unless you are with someone who knows how to get there, you’d have a hard time finding it. Somewhere, Irene turns off the main road onto a smallish road which soon turns into a dirt track which we follow for a number of kilometres, turning right here and left there. Eventually, we turn off the track into an olive grove and Irene wends here way up the hill amongst the olive trees. I can’t believe what I am seeing: it looks like hundreds of cars have gone up this hill in between the trees – everywhere I look the earth is compacted! There are some mobile homes parked at the top and all around you can spot them amongst the trees. But not of the plastic fantastic type, more like converted lorries and military vehicles. Ours would look very run of the mill amongst them, although there is no way we would venture up here with Emma anyway!
Everything looks pretty grungy and a cloud of dope-scented smoke hangs over the pond that is the hottest spring, according to Irene. Don’t look or think too hard about what is around you or in the water, just jump in and enjoy the warmth and hope you don’t fall ill afterwards!
I did enjoy the heat of the sulphurous pool, the tumbling power of the water coming out of a pipe, the company of two fantastic women and of course my precious husband, but the hot spring itself is not something I would want to return to or could recommend. It is too run down…The spring and nature around it felt abused. What a shame! However, it did do us good because when we got home, I fell into bed and slept a deep and untroubled 12 hours!
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We can never resist an open air hot spring within 50km of our route. The name of this town says it all, it’s Arabic for ‘water’.
We stop at a petrol station along the way, also refilling our tank with water. A man is curious to see our camper, so we invite him to have a look inside. Soon, our conversation gets transferred to the local tapas bar and we hear his story too – he’s a heart surgeon in Granada and he too loves to travel with a Campervan, although much shorter stints due to his working schedule. Last year he went to Tuscany with his family. He calls us Paco and Lora, so let’s call him Pepe. It is fascinating listening to his passionate account of operating, sometimes on beating hearts! During the stories we get plied with various delicious home-made tapas and are encouraged to sample the local honey.
Pepe tries to dissuade us from going to the open air hot spring in Alhama and suggests an indoor, natural cave. But for me, the whole attraction of the hot spring is that it is under an open sky…
We move on, up the hill through beautiful Olive and Almond groves. The light is stunning and we seem to be the only ones on this lovely, winding road. After about 1 hour we’ve covered the 22km and we enter Alhama de Granada from the north. After some enquiries from the locals and a kind English man doing an advanced recce returning with an ‘ok’, we venture with Emma into the gorge to where the hot spring is. A parking attendant in a high viz jacket and a peaked cap takes 3 Euros and tells us it’s ok to stay the night. We consider ourselves lucky until the real official comes and tells us under no circumstance can we stay here and there is no parking fee. Ah, well, we’ve been had…
The spring is not really recommendable, it feels like getting the leftovers from a party that happens elsewhere. The water comes out of a man-made chute below the spa hotel and it’s not really hot, just tepid. Nevertheless, we have a good time, chatting to people. I get my first good go at talking to some Moroccans. They have fun trying to understand my garbled Arabic. They laugh a lot and give me corrections and encouragement.
The next day, we are not tempted to go back down to the spa but instead, we go for a walk into the gorge upstream.
It is impressive how the river has dug itself deep into the rock. This walk is well worth doing, despite the strong smell of sewage at its outset.
The second evening, we go to find the natural cave that Pepe recommended, but it is closed. There is a nice lake not far away where we find a spot to stay for the night. This is our vista the next morning:
For more photos of this chapter click here
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Seeing as Adriene has accompanied us for best part of this year, I think it’s time we introduce her to our readership. I came across Adriene in May when I stayed on my own in Napoli during Frank’s week-long trip to Southern France.
I was looking online for a suitable Yoga programme that I could follow for a week or so. By the time Frank came back, I was hooked to the light-hearted but serious, gentle but profound style of Yoga offered by this smiling lady from Texas. Frank joined me and together we embarked on her 30 day yoga challenge – the challenge not so much being the Yoga in itself but the fact that you had to do it every day without fail. It did prove to be challenging but we managed. The venues included sunny mornings on Italian beaches as well as rainy days under porticos, windy days on car parks, sunrises on mountain tops and snowy days inside leisure centres.
We even convinced a few people along the way to join us.
This one month programme is a great intro to Yoga and to they way Adriene sees it. It comes with little love letters she writes to you, encouraging you along, coaxing you, letting you feel that you are part of a large community. And with 2 million followers on her youtube channel, I think she has a point.
There is a great progression over the month, from being taken by the hand and shown every move to gently being led to explore what feels good for yourself, to find your very own Yoga.
I’ve learned 3 things from Adriene and her Yoga:
1) Through her insistence to ‘Feel What Feels Good’ I’ve listened into my body telling me how to move, and this showed me that Yoga, just like Tango, is an improvisatory form. Sure there are shapes one can make to get the feel of it, lessons one can take to be inspired, techniques on can learn to challenge oneself. But ultimately it is a conversation between you and your body.
2) Yoga has shown me ways to relax into a tension. The day that starts with Yoga will have me more relaxed for the rest of the day, as my body remembers how good it felt on the mat and repeats this when I walk, chop wood, dance, write the blog or simply lie down for a rest.
3) I’ve learned to meet a pain or tension with a more neutral curiosity rather than trying to move away from it, and this too has spread beyond the mat and made me more equanimous on the whole.
Adriene’s lesson can be found for free on youtube, or you can subscribe and become a member of her community.
Thank you, Adriene, you are AH-WESOME !
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At nightfall, I direct Frank eastwards out of town, towards a hidden destination I have chosen online as a surprise for him. I hope that the spot I chose will hold its promise… a night in complete silence, away from car noises and other city sounds, and somewhere beautiful to discover when we wake up in the morning.
For a while we drive along the motorway, but then we turn off and wind our way along little roads through sleepy villages and eventually for miles just through olive groves. The tarmac gives way to 7km of gravel road and it gets bumpier as we go along, until we turn into what seems like an olive grove but is a car park. Once we have switched off our engine, there is indeed a blessed silence and a huge star-studded sky over us. The olive trees are whispering in the breeze….
The next morning, we wake up surrounded by mist, but when it lifts, we start to explore. Not far from us is a viewpoint over a huge laguna. The sun melts away the mist and we have a glorious morning in this quiet spot, doing Yoga, cooking, collecting wood and olives from the trees in the car park, which had not been harvested.
After lunch and a nap in the hot sun, we are suitably restored to move on.
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The next couple of days, we travel along the Ruta de la Plata, through Extremadura all the way down to Sevilla. True to its name, a lot of the landscape seems extremely hard. It’s almost desert-like in some places, but a tired looking desert, as if mankind has sucked all energy out of it. What use is this land anymore to any farmer in this state? Who lives here and tries to eke out a living? I have visions of intrepid individuals taking over valleys and bringing life back to the land by using permaculture, but in fact, to change anything here it would probably need a government decision to reforest a large area, thus changing the climate.
It’s quite meditative driving along this route – not much traffic and the landscape doesn’t change much from the eternal undulating brown, interspersed with a few olive trees.
One evening, I consult my map to stop somewhere by a river for the night. We make a 10km detour to find the river, but it turns out to be a stagnant water, a stench of decay rising from it and large areas are covered in a pinkish algae. We turn around and drive on… We pass a little village where most of the ‘houses’ are doors in a hillside and a chimney sticking out the top.
In stark contrast to the rural poverty, every city we come to along this route is a surprise. Zamora is beautiful. We park up by the municipal sports stadium which boasts an oplympic size swimming pool and after a swim and a sauna, we take off into town on our bike. As in Leòn, we are pleasantly surprised by the vibrancy, the cobbled streets, the nooks and crannies and the variety of shops. People are well dressed and seem to be contented with their lives.
We stop to sleep in Plasencia but don’t spend any time to explore it – we want to conserve our ‘city energy’ for Sevilla. Lunch time next day has us cycling through Mèrida, another interesting looking town, with some roman temple and amphitheatre remains, as well as a beautiful roman bridge stretching a long way over a shallow river basin. Another few hours later we arrive at dusk in Sevilla, securing a parking space in a paid, supervised car park within easy cycling distance of the city centre.
Sevilla is a beautiful city. Spacious, verdant, vibrant. So may beautiful buildings, a large old quarter where you easily can get lost in tiny alleyways, many tapas bars and restaurants ( although we weren’t too impressed by the price or quality of the food – restaurant Rozelaar won out over Sevillan cuisine!!!) Our favourite place is Plaza de la España, beautifully cobbled with different coloured stones, where a fountain, a moat and an incredible crescent-shaped building with vaulted colonnades form the backdrop to fantastic outdoor flamenco singers and dancers. On the second day we speak to them and find out that they are part of a large group of Flamenco students who take it in turns to sing, play and dance with each other every day from 5-8pm five days a week. This is high quality music and dancing and their love for it sparkles from every movement and sound. They have an appreciative seated listening crowd, who donates generously to the hat that passes round at 15 minute intervals, which is more than can be said of the dedicated flamenco bar we visit on one of the evenings, where people talk across the music.
Sevillas Flamenco is different to what we have seen in other parts of Spain – just as the city itself, it is light, smiling, ebullient, celebratory.
We thoroughly enjoy ourselves in Sevilla for three days, but the moment has come to move on when a huge cruise ship anchors opposite us on the river one night, keeping us awake with the low chug-chug of its diesel engines, spewing fumes that make it difficult to breathe after a day. It’s time for a day in a quiet spot, to digest all the impressions we have gathered.
For more photos on travelling soutwards , click here
for photos of Sevilla, click here
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There are two choices going South from Belmonte. The direct route would take us along the windy roads all the way through Parco Somiedo and through a high pass towards Leòn. I was looking forward to that route – three years ago, we went swimming high up there in the lakes and saw some wolves, but one look at the fresh snow on the mountain peaks deters us from this idea, so we take the low road, onto the motorway via Oviedo.
Emma valiantly chugs her way up the mountains until we arrive in the high plateau. We pass a huge reservoir that is almost completely empty. Pepe and Ben Hur had been speaking about climate change and that Spain has not had enough water for the last three years, resulting in water restrictions being imposed by the council even in this green part of Spain. We’d seen a note in a shop window announcing that water may be turned off in the evenings until further notice and that people should economise with water. The empty reservoir is a shocking visual reminder of this (although later someone tells us – while hinting at some story of political corruption – that there is a leak in the reservoir and the water has been let out to repair the leak).
As the land levels out, so the vegetation changes and we enter a very dry, arid landscape. It is hard to comprehend that there are farmers here who would stay put and fight the climate when only 30km further north everything is green and luscious. After a while of musing on the hardships of caring for the land in hostile conditions, we reach the charming city of Leòn.
Our experience of navigating new areas, especially entering cities and finding a place to park, has completely been transformed since having access to the internet on our phones. I use a combination of Google Maps and Park 4 Night to steer us safely to a quiet car park within spitting distance of the cathedral and we wander off to explore the city centre in the fading daylight.
Leòn is beautiful, old houses, interesting architecture, vibrant streets, and judging by the type of shops, it is a rich town. This is a surprising contrast to the deserted and very poor looking landscape we’d passed on our way.
The next morning, we take the bikes to further explore the nooks and crannies of this lovely city. In a shoe shop, I buy myself a solid pair of hiking boots and we taste a Léonnese Empañada. Then it is time to go to Casa Botines, a house built by Antoni Gaudí, for a guided tour in English, just for the two of us!
Though outwardly not a striking as some of his other buildings, the inside of Casa Botines bears all the hallmarks of a Gaudí design. It was built for two textile merchants, who, looking at the location of the station in relation to the old city centre, took an intelligent guess to place themselves in the middle of what was to become the new centre of the city. Gaudí brought along his team of workers from Barcelona (much to the dismay of the local building trade), and within ten months he built this enormous house, containing a textile factory in the basement, a shop on the ground floor, two large flats for the owners on the first floor, then two floors for rental apartments and a flat for the concierge in the roof.
Having gone through a number of incarnations, including being a bank, the house now is maintained by a foundation. Most of the windows (and there are 365, one for each day) are still the original Gaudi design, and so are many of the doors, staircases and banisters etc: There must have been considerable friction with the locals when Gaudi insisted upon putting the statue of George and the Dragon, the Patron Saint of Barcelona, over the main entrance….
A few decades ago, the statue had deteriorated too much and needed replacing and the old argument rose once more, and yet again, posthumously, Gaudi won, and a cast was made of the original. When they took the old one off, they found inside it a led pipe, containing the original plans of the building drawn and signed by Gaudi. These are the only 2-D plans of any of Gaudi’s buildings – he preferred to work with 3-D representations during the process of designing a building. I think he would have really enjoyed using modern computers
Here’s me hobnobbing with the artist
For more photos of this chapter, including some shots of Gaudi’s beautiful, ergonomically designed furniture, click here
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Hello dear friends near and far,
Frank and I are once again on our way South, our 4th winter on the road… our Honeymoon continues.
On November 5th, we board the ferry from Plymouth to Santander in northern Spain, and, just like every year, we seem to reach the ferry in a state of near exhaustion – the UK interlude has been a long 6 months, packed with activities and work, plus several Tango-related jaunts to Germany on my part. It’s been very good, we’ve worked hard to fit everything in and we’re ready to tumble into our quite different winter rhythm.
I don’t have any sea legs to speak of, so after watching a film in the boat cinema, I’m off to bed, trying to fall asleep before the sea gets too wild. I don’t mind it being wavey, as long as I don’t have to be upright!
The sun is out and the sea is calm when I wake up, so I venture up to the sundeck where I bump into Sky from Totnes, who is on his way to the west of Portugal, via Benfeita and Pardieros, visiting Clio et al (see our chapter in 2014). We arrange for him to meet us when we come off the boat, to hand over a little gift for Clio and for Lisa of the Llamas.
It’s strange just how small the world is, and how there is a net of travellers spanning across. it is when we have these kind of ‘chance’ encounters that I feel like we are tapping into an ancient network of trade and information, a sense that Europe is not that big after all and information can travel even outside the realm of modern technology.
Sky tells us that the area around Benfeita suffered greatly from a huge forest fire a few weeks ago, the flames of which just touched the edge of Clio’s land. We think of all the people we met there three years ago and hope that all have survived the fire in good health, and that the Llamas survived the fire too. It must be a very scary thing to experience! Our friends in Portugal, if you are reading this blog chapter, we send you our love!!! Please get in touch and let us know how you are!
Despite it being a detour of over 200km, we can’t resist revisiting Asturias and the lovely people we met there three years ago, so coming off the ferry, we turn right onto the motorway towards Gijon.
Our first stop is Ribadesella, a little fishing town at the foot of the Picos de Europa. I’ve been ill for the last couple of weeks and am still fighting a hacking cough, so we go on a cycle tour along the promenade where large waves crash and distribute fine clouds of sea spray. I breathe deeply – this is just like the inhalations that we were sent to in Spiekeroog, an island just off the coast of northern Germany, when we were children. the inhalations were quite boring – we had to sit in a room and breathe in sea mist. This here is much more fun though, dodging the waves on the bicycle.
Before we set off again, we call Mada on the phone. It takes a bit of detective work to get in touch with her, as her old number doesn’t work anymore, but eventually we get hold of her and arrange to visit her that evening. It is lovely to hear her surprised delight when she realises who is calling her. We spend an evening together at her house in a little valley near Aviles, sharing food and stories, catching up with what has happened since we first met three years ago.
The next morning, the three of us travel on to San Martin de Ondes to visit Pepe (If you haven’t read our blog before, do read the chapter about Pepe, it was a very special part of our first journey).
It is impossible to arrive in San Martin without someone knowing straight away. Pepe’s sister sees us first, and later she tells us that upon seeing us, she thought: these people remind me of those travellers from England. She said she recognised our way of moving, but it didn’t occur to her that it could actually be us.
Pepe is still very much Pepe as we met him the first time, although he looks much healthier and happier than last time. All in all, there is something timeless about San Martin. Every day is the same and yet every day is new and fresh. Pepe and his brother Ben Hur go out and tend to the animals or clear pathways in the forests to retrieve precious pieces of wood, a cow is being born and there are more bear tracks to be seen just outside the village (and bear shit! – check the photos in the album, the link is at the bottom of the chapter). Pepe’s house has new wood carvings and the two brothers go and eat lunch at the sister’s house at exactly 1pm. We are generously invited to join the meals this time, so we have the pleasure of sampling the excellent favadas of Pepe’s sister.
Pepe has a herd of over 40 Asturian ponies up in the mountains. One day we go up there to try and find them, but we are greeted with a wall of fog, so after an hour or so of climbing up the Camino Real, we turn back.
The weather is steadily worsening, and one morning, there is a dusting of snow on the nearby mountain tops, so we decide to leave.
After a quick pit stop in Belmonte de Miranda to grease Emma’s nipples and to visit Monica and Xema, the organic farmers, we head out of the valley to join the Ruta de la Plata, the Silver route, that will take us South all the way down to Sevilla.
For more photos of this chapter click here
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As we travel on north-westwards through France towards Calais, the land flattens out and opens up to large fields and forests. Every now and then we pass through a small town and in between we are on small but fairly straight roads. Along the side of the road, we notice more and more signs for war memorials and cemeteries – not just French but also German, American, Chinese, Canadian, British, South African, Australian…. it is a truly international scene that is represented here. We stop off somewhere in the middle of nowhere to watch a tank being off-loaded at a memorial location.
We wander around, reading the many panels telling the story of this place, how it was an important area, heavily fought over in both the first and second world wars. I look around. Fields as far as the eye can see, not even a house in sight. My mind cannot bend itself around the question of how so many men could be persuaded to fight against a people they didn’t know, on a piece of land they’d never set foot on before and in a country they had no connection with. When we were in Montesole, I could see why the partisans fought to the death: this was their home, it was mountainous, wild, beautiful and their families had lived there for centuries. But here, in Northern France? Flat countryside as far as the eye can see – I can understand a Frenchman fighting here, but why would a Canadian come and fight a German? I’m not talking politics, because of course that’s how it worked, but I’m talking about a heart-feeling. And it’s the same today, when British soldiers go off to fight in Afghanistan or elsewhere far away from home. Who or what gets people motivated to risk their lives in this way? Something in me cannot follow this line of thinking/feeling.
While we are driving through Northern France, I am also on an inner journey.
I am reading a series of books that my sister-in-law recommended to me, by Sabine Bode, who collected many interviews in Germany, researching the effects of war trauma and how this gets passed on down through the generations. For me, reading her books is like entering a cellar, the door of which has been kept firmly shut for many years. I recognise elements from my own childhood. The books mention a ‘fog’ that my generation and the after-war generation felt, a fog that prevented us from really enquiring when we were younger and that now obscures the memory of our childhoods. I remember how I tried to duck out from under a big heavy cloud ever since I was 7 or 8 years old, culminating in my decision to leave Germany and move to the UK in 1989. Bode makes a valid attempt at catching the inexplicable, retracing feelings back through the generations. I recognise various educational ‘methods’ she mentions, and I remember the strange volatile behaviour of my grandfather towards us children. I didn’t realise just how many of my personal childhood experiences were actually typical of my generation.
I remember seeing my mother under the direct influence of the strict and sometimes repressive atmosphere that came from my grandparents (born 1911 and 1914). If they came round for lunch (and as they lived nearby, this happened often), lunch had to be on the table by exactly 1pm – if not, my grandfather would throw a tantrum and storm off. This used to stress my mother considerably. Tantrums seemed to be the order of the day around meal times – as a 4-8 year old, my younger brother used to throw them regularly, usually culminating in him being dragged off to his room by my father, and the rest of the meal being conducted in silence, while my brother screamed and crashed around in his room. In my experience, my father was a peace-loving man, he rarely raised his voice and I only once saw him hit my younger brother, but he did have the idea that my brother’s choleric temperament was best cured by shutting him in a room on his own.
Dealing with my brother’s volatile nature took up a lot of space in our house and it was because of this, combined with the general sense of something heavy lying over the family, that I went my own way from very early on. I see this as a blessing. It gave me independence and a zest for life’s adventures. Even as a 7 year old, I saw the limitations of my home family and instead of fighting for it, I chose other households that gave me what I couldn’t have at home. I just chose another set of parents and siblings to spend my time with instead on those occasions.
Back to my grandfather, I remember that whenever we did ask him about the war, the stories he told were like fossilised vignettes, presumably those he thought we could handle, presented always with the exact same wording.
So much of our memory is coloured by how we respond to our environment though… Conversations with my older brother last year revealed that he’d experienced our grandparents’ home as a haven, as protective from the lack of emotional care he’d perceived from his parents. My experience of my parents and grandparents was diametrically opposite to his.
As the days pass, the books lead me deeper and deeper into the fog that I had chosen to turn away from so early in my life. One night I dream of a conversation with myself. I am split in two and one of me tells the other that I made a choice at the time and I still have a choice. I can look at this or leave it. The other me responds that there is a possibility that, by not addressing the past, I carry it with me and pass it on to my children. But, responds the first me, it is toxic material, will delving into it really bring me to a greater understanding or freedom? Is there not enough in the here and now to be attentive to?
Waking up from the dream, I think about the Here and Now. I think about those who are traumatised by wars today, and our inability as a group of nations that have war trauma still in living memory, to respond compassionately. We have so much space in Europe, we are so rich, why can we not share? Why can we not open the borders and help those in need? How can we stand by (especially the UK) and watch refugee children being further traumatised by drifting through Europe, unable to reach their families, due to border controls? And how can we leave orphaned children to their own fate?
After WW2, every second German was displaced. People describe this time in Germany as an ant heap, with everyone moving, in all directions. It was not only the time of war that left great scars but also the five years after, where hunger, displacement and loss of family left many people floundering and many children vulnerable to unchecked violence. Germany’s relative openheartedness, compared to other European nations, towards the current refugee situation may well have to do with the living memory of the time after the war.
Bode talks of the inability to heal trauma without an adequate grieving process. I suppose this is why we pass so many cemeteries of every nation on our way through northern France, each of them maintained by their respective countries. But what about these other memory spots, where tanks are displayed and the information boards make fighting sound like some exciting computer game. There is an element of glorification in this that makes me feel intensely uncomfortable. It is also partly the answer to my question above, of how so many men can be convinced into fighting.
There is much more to be said, but I feel a bit at sea with it all right now…
This chapter is unfinished and will remain so. Meanwhile, I will come back up for air. We are travelling towards Calais, we are heading for London to meet up with Lilli and the rest of the family, to be at her concert with the London Vocal Project.
For more photos of this chapter, click here
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