Thursday, 22 May 2014

Back in the UK

Richard sharpens his knife (I don't think it's anything to worry about!)

We’re back in the good old UK and, just to prove it, we can report that within 10 miles of leaving the ferry in Portsmouth, we were stuck in a huge traffic jam on the M3 and had to take a detour, oh how we’ve missed the UK traffic! To be fair, the weather was bright, sunny and warm, so at least British weather in late May was being kind - that is until after dark, when the rain came down heavily. It’s good to be back and if we weren’t complaining about the weather or the traffic, we’d be complaining about Britain’s membership of the European Community – that reminds me, it’s the European elections today, so it’s the topic of conversation at the moment. We don’t get a vote this time, our country and continent hopping has meant we’ve slipped off the electoral roll, but who would we vote for anyway? It’s nice being away, but somehow, coming back is like slipping on an old pair of comfortable slippers, sinking into an old sofa with saggy springs, while sipping a cup of tea from a bone china cup with saucer and watching an episode of Doctor Who or Coronation Street – it’s familiar, comfortable and homely, but at the same time it drives you mad!

Jackie, Elizabeth and Richard on our last night
We left Richard and Elizabeth’s house in Altea on Monday morning, Jackie’s birthday, after a final splendid evening with them on their terrace, eating fine food, drinking fine wine and watching the sun set over the mountains on a still, cool night. We are definitely going to miss all about Altea, the rock climbing, mountaineering, fine mountain views, warm sunny days, the laid back atmosphere and of course Richard and Elizabeth, their great hospitality and E’s great cooking. We’ll be back!

Sunset in Altea
Exit Altea at 09:00 hours, next stop, Getxo. Where? It’s right up on the NW Atlantic coast of Spain, not far from the French border, next to the port of Bilbao, where we were to catch the ferry to Portsmouth, UK, a distance of about 1000 miles, which would take 23 hours and take me on my longest sea journey ever, and where I’d see nothing but blue sea 360⁰ around – scary for us land-lubbers (not for Jackie who can boast a cruise on the SS Uganda when she was a teenager)!

Before that, we had a car journey of 500 miles to make, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, avoiding as many toll motorways as we could (total toll charges €23, that’s a bit better than our journey down). It took us 8 hours and a tankful of fuel, never stopping the engine, only pausing twice to swap drivers, eating and drinking on the go and expertly navigating using the map given to us by Michael and Dagmar (many thanks to them, it helped a lot). There have been a lot of roads built that our SatNav, Doris didn’t know about: ‘recalculating, recalculating’ she kept saying as, according to her, we were apparently driving across open land ‘in 50 yards turn right onto an unpaved road’. Glad we’re not relying on her, as that ‘unpaved road’ was a boulder strewn rough track snaking up into the mountains, we’ll stay on this nice flat two lane motorway thank you! Great scenery on the way, dramatic mountains with very little ground cover, just spiky scrub on the east, gradually getting greener and more lush as we reached the centre near Madrid and finally looking pretty much like the UK (except the houses were different), as we approached Bilbao, green bushy trees and meadows with tall grass and multi coloured tree and flower blossom.

We passed through or near places I’d read about recently in Richard’s copy of Julian Paget’s book ‘Wellington’s Peninsular War – Battles and Battlegrounds’, where famous battles took place in 1812-14 between the British, Spanish and Portugese armies commanded by Wellington, against Napolean’s French army, who had invaded Spain and Portugal (along with most of the rest of Europe, eventually Russia – sound familiar Mr. Hitler?) The latter two had asked for England’s help and they had answered, sending the Royal Navy and Arthur Wellesley to the rescue (except for the Dunkirk style retreat to Corruna, but successful reinvasion leading to victory the following year and eventual surrender and abdication of Napolean). Pamplona, Vitoria, Burgos, San Sebastian, all famous battle sites and I would have loved to have spent time exploring and standing where Wellington had once stood, surveying the French troops and planning his battle, but no, there is no time for that, we have a ferry to catch!

Of course, as with every land with greenery, it’s there because it rains, and our visit was no exception. ‘The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain’ and, yes it does, as it did on our way through, but it also rains on the west coast, forcing us to dodge through the rain in Getxo looking for a restaurant to celebrate Jackie’s birthday.

Getxo seafront
The house we were staying in was one we’d booked through the website ‘airbnb’ and allows people who have a spare bedroom in their house to advertise it as a place for visitors to rent for a night, or as long as they want. It’s much cheaper than hotels and you get to meet locals and have use of their house, lounge, kitchen, bathroom, sharing with them, a real ‘home from home’. This one, our first, was a large bedroom in an apartment, just back from the coast and was in a grand, spacious building with plenty of character. Parking was a bit of a problem, but we found a space on the narrow road outside and met Ana with her big alsation dog just outside. A very friendly woman, but sadly communication was a problem as she only had limited English and Jackie struggled to understand her Catalonian, Spanish speech, but she provided everything in her spacious, but tired apartment. ‘That’s why we are here’ she said, to help her get enough money for refurbishment, but is was clean and tidy and she had provided everything for our stay, including free wifi, so what it lacked in decoration, it made up for in character, we really enjoyed it and for €17 (£15), who can complain?

Eating out was a bit more of a challenge, the restaurant she recommended, at €10 for a three course dinner including wine, was sadly closed on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights (it was Monday!) so we went hunting round town, even going up from the promenade on the funicular railway for only €0.2 each, to discover there were no other restaurants (or none that we could find), only bars serving tapas type snacks. We stopped at a couple, had wine and then beer and a few of these dishes, but hunger was upon me, so we went and bought a huge take-away pizza for €8 and took it back to the apartment (I know how to treat a girl on her birthday!).

Ana was out when we got back and we didn’t see her in the morning, so it felt very strange and sad not to be able to say ‘good-bye’, even more so as she had left a present for Jackie of a sea shell she had collected from a beach that she had wrapped up beautifully, with a nice note saying how birthdays are special and she hoped she has enjoyed hers. How sweet is that! We’ve got good memories of Ana and Getxo, even if it did rain and we couldn’t find a restaurant!

The 'Newtons Cradle' ferry in Getxo
Tuesday morning and we were up and out to catch the ferry. Although Doris the SatNav didn’t know the ferry terminal, they had built a new bit and Doris thought it was in the sea, she seemed to know the way there so off we set through morning rush hour. ‘Turn right, then left, get on ferry’ she said, not our ferry but a small transport mechanism that looked a bit like a Newtons Cradle straddling the river that transported us and five other cars and passengers across the estuary to the right side of the river on a cabin just above the water, suspended by several cables strung from the cradle. For €2.15 we got an extra bit of excitement and saved a much longer inland journey. It was normal stuff for the locals and they probably thought I was a bit strange leaping out of the car with my camera to take photos, but I don’t care!

The ferry terminal at Bilbao
Unconvinced, as we were, that Doris was going to be able to navigate us to this bit of sea that we had programmed into her, we drove through the back streets of Bilbao, wishing we had allowed extra time to get there, but no, she took us right there, finishing with ‘navigate off road to your destination’. Suddenly we were inside a huge port and, after checking in and being directed to a waiting lane we were confronted by hundreds of British registered cars. I suppose we should expect nothing less on a ferry bound for the UK, but having seen almost none right up to arriving there, it seemed quite amusing, where had they all been?

Somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean
We both agreed that the ferry journey was a very pleasant experience and a great way of getting back to the UK. At £380 it was only slightly more than the cost of fuel, tolls and a couple of stopover hotel nights if driving back – and we were going to arrive rested, not having driven for two days. It had 6 decks of vehicle parking and four more of cabins, bars, restaurants and cafes, with plenty of room to sit about or go out on top for dolphin and whale watching (which Jackie did – and saw some!). There was an outdoor swimming pool (empty unfortunately) and a cinema, which we didn’t use, but there was plenty there to keep everyone amused, including bingo, quizzes and a late night disco (we didn’t use those either!). Our cabin was reasonably spacious, had two single beds (with two more above that swung down if required) with a table between, a writing desk with chair, two small wardrobes and an ensuite with shower, toilet and wash basin.

Sunset over the Atlantic Ocean
Fortunately the sea was pretty much flat calm, with just a slight motion on board, giving the feeling when walking along a corridor of ‘now I’m walking up hill, now I’m walking downhill, now I’m walking to the side’ etc. Will this lead to sea sickness? Mmm, not sure yet, I’m not entirely 100%, I’ll just sit down and read my very interesting book (another I stole from Richard!), which is mainly all I did during the journey. Jackie bobbed about, going upstairs to join the female graduate from Bangor University (where she went), who was doing dolphin and whale guidance, although it seemed Jackie was quicker at spotting things than she was (no surprise there!). A very nice meal of Boeuf Bourguignon with a bottle of red we had bought with us, checked our emails using the very slow on board wifi, watched sunset and then retired to our beds to watch an episode of ‘Homeland’ on a DVD Sarah had recorded for us on our laptop and then to sleep.

HMS Illustrious in Portsmouth
Had a great nights sleep and woke to see good old England, the Isle of Wight and then Portsmouth and, what seemed like, the whole of the Royal Navy, docked alongside. I’ve never seem an actual aircraft carrier, but there was HMS Illustrious, along with a number of other warships that I didn’t recognise. It’s a feature of free Great Britain that you can freely photograph Royal Navy warships without fear of being thrown in gaol (at least I hope so!) and some of the sailors were happy to stop and wave as we went by.

A Royal Navy warship 'nest'
After the journey home that I’ve already described, we were back in Alvechurch and, after hugs and hellos from Pauline, Jackie’s mum, we were treated to her hospitality of lunch, followed by the long un-pack and transferring all our ski gear back up into her loft and the finding and getting out of my suit, a shirt (where did I put my ties?) and a dress and shoes for Jackie for Steph (my niece) and Sam’s wedding on Saturday, it’s all go! Dinner for the three of us was a trip into Alvechurch town to the Dilshad Indian restaurant for a well deserved – and greatly missed – Indian curry, a treat by Pauline for Jackie’s birthday. A proper Indian curry – now it is good to be back!!

1 comment:

  1. Allo campers! Welcome back to Blighty and Happy Birthday to Jackie.

    The Uganda? My stepson Steven was on it in his schooldays and it had to heave to during a severe gail that was quite serious. Well I don't think it was wonderfully seaworthy. Or stormworthy.

    When I read about the transporter bridge, I chuckled. I had just read in "I never knew that about Wales" by Christopher Winn about the Newport one - there is one other in Middlesbrough - and it said there are only four working ones left in the world, so I wondered where the other two might be. So unless I Google it, there is just one more somewhere.

    Still reading your blog, keeps me a bit sane that there are other people out there doing some of the things I used to do (but not climbing)!

    TTFN from NZ