Driving Home for Christmas

Trip Start Jan 09, 2012
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Trip End Jan 02, 2013


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Flag of France  , Pays de la Loire,
Tuesday, December 18, 2012

This is one of my favourite Christmas songs, not for its musical perfection or its catchy tune, but for the emotions I feel as I do as the song title suggests. Unfortunately Lesley, even though she is a Chris Rea fan, cannot stand the song, so I rarely get to hear it through!  Nevertheless, it won't stop me giving this blog the title it deserves.

Our last day at Camping Ribamar in Alcossebre coincided with the feast of the Immaculate Conception, which marks the opening of the Christmas season for many.  We went inland to the old Moorish town of Alcala de Xivert and arrived in time for the end of Mass, so we were able to enter the church to see it in full swing without interrupting the service.  There was a full crowd there, having a typical post-service chat before lining up for the parade through the town. There were various official looking suits jostling with the huge bier on which had been arranged the statue of the Virgin and a mass of unseasonal spring flowers.

While they were sorting themselves out we took the opportunity to look at "Lo Gaspatxer".  This is not what it sounds like, a bowl of cold soup, but the world’s largest bass drum.  This was made in Murcia over the winter of 2010-11 and presented to Alcala in February 2011.  It is 2.54 metres in diameter, 1.4 metres deep and weighs 98 kilos.  It is covered with the hide of a single cow.  It is trundled out once a year to be sounded during one of the Easter processions signifying the death of Christ. There was lots of information about it, but nothing to answer the question we both wanted to ask.  Why does an unassuming unspectacular small town which no-one has ever heard of need the world’s biggest drum?

The sudden loud cacophony of pealing bells and sounds of the brass band warming up outside signified that it was time to leave the church and watch the procession.  Slowly the banners emerged, followed by the equivalent of the Womens’Institute carrying unlit candles (it was far too windy to light them!).  Then, rather unsteadily, came the bier, escorted by the local chiefs of the Police and the Guardia, then a pretty lass in a mini skirt and extremely high heels, wearing a sash, who we took to be Miss Alcala 2012, and finally Father Dibnabs himself in a resplendent pale blue cloak.  The band played a very funereal marching tune as they set off round the town.  Every twenty yards or so the procession stopped and attendants appeared with support poles to rest the bier on while there was a certain amount of praying and crossing themselves amongst some of the crowd, until it moved slowly on.  Once the parade disappeared round the corner, followed by the faithful, the mass of us without faith set off in the other direction to get to the market square which was decked out with decorations and filled with stalls of Christmas produce.  Some of these were professional stalls, but most were local groups such as the dancing club, the karate club, the drumming group, the youth club etc. who were selling home made cakes, pizzas and pies along with hot toddies and local wine.  No sales were allowed until the procession had reached the fair and blessed it, and then there was a stampede for the grub.  The bier, the band and their escorts had to go on to bless the rest of the town on their own.

As soon as the sound of the brass band and their funeral march had faded into the distance the Alcossebre Singers burst into song with a selection of English Christmas carols.  The group is made up of ex-pats, mainly church ladies.  They had given an afternoon carol concert in Alcossebre a few days ago.  We did not go, but a camp site neighbour who did said it was so strange to be standing outside in the sunshine in shorts and t-shirt singing carols!  In Alcala market place they met a very mixed reception, but most seem to enjoy it.  Finally the band and dignitaries returned, having left the bier back at the church, and all joined in a fine rendition of a Spanish carol, which went down very well.

Next day we bade a sad farewell to Ribamar.  We had stayed there 41 nights, a bit of a record for us, and had a very relaxing time, but we needed to start the journey home and we did not want to be rushing.  Our first day took us down towards Valencia then up and across the Aragon plain towards Zaragoza.  The road climbs quite high here, with a couple of 1,000 metre passes, and there was snow to be seen on the distant mountains.  This is very arid land, a bit like what I would imagine Arazona and Texas to be like, cowboy country.  Dotted around the plain were huge sheds which we finally worked out were the pig farms where the Iberican Ham comes from.  This was a rather astute deduction after we had seen a number of huge signs and a couple of sculptures all depicting those cured pig legs we had seen hanging in every shop and supermarket in Spain.  Millions of them. Spain has a population of over 40 million.  Every family seems to buy at least one smoked pig leg a year, every bar and restaurant always has one on the go and a couple in reserve, and all supermarkets, delis, butchers and market have rows of them hanging up on display.  The resultant millions of pigs without their hind legs means that the rest of the pig is very cheap.  Pork chops and loin steaks are dirt cheap and plentiful.  If at the butcher’s counter you ask for two chulettas (pork chops) you get a nasty look, as the cost will be less than two euros.  They are usually sold in packs of ten, but what can you do with ten pork chops when you only have a small fridge?

As we descended into Zaragoza the countryside greened a little and we began to see a few vineyards.  It was still very grey and rocky though.  We reached the Zaragoza Municipal Campsite without problems, in spite of many comments that it was hard to find.  We had read varying reports of this site, good, bad and indifferent.  Indeed we found the site to be good bad and indifferent, so all were right.  It was perfectly adequate for a night or two.  Had it been a destination in itself it would have been disappointing.  The toilet blocks were new in 2008, but not much had been done since.  They were clean, but only just.  There was hot water if you were prepared to wait for the taps to run a while.  The pitches were packed earth, very worn.  There were a number of overnighters, being a convenient mid point between Bilbao and the Mediterranean.  There were also a number of permanent residents, Spaniards who had hit hard times and lost their homes.  Some had even been evicted from the site, apparently, as there were several abandoned and derelict caravans around us.  Look in one direction and it seemed quite smart, with a good restaurant and facilities.  Look the other way and it could have been a municipal travellers’ site.

We went into Zaragoza for a look round the next day.  The city was supposed to have been revitalised by Expo 2008, with the building of a number of futuristic new exhibition halls, conference centres and hotels.  Sadly the recession has hit these, and whilst the city centre is still vibrant, the Expo site was empty and unkempt whilst many of the suburbs were very down at heel.  Zaragoza is famous for having two cathedrals.   The main one, La Seo, is an amazing mixture of styles from Mudejar to Churrigueresque, although mainly Gothic.  It has five aisles and a central chancel, all heavily adorned with Gothic carving.  It stands at one end of a long and impressive square, the Plaza Del Pilar, which was filled with a Christmas market, an artificial ski slope and a huge nativity scene which was more of a walk through the Holy Land.  They were not in evidence at the time we visited, but there were even camels and donkeys to complete the scene.

Along the side of this square is an imposing town hall, rebuilt in traditional Aragon style, and the old 16th century Exchange building, the Lonja.   But dominating the river side of the square is the second cathedral, the Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar.  This vast 17th century church, the latest of several on this site, was built to surround, cover and protect a pillar on which, it is said, the Virgin appeared to Saint James as he was on one of his many pilgrim route-making expeditions.  The pillar itself is in a central chapel, crowned by a statue of the Virgin, whose clothes are changed daily.  Although almost completely enclosed, at the rear of the enclosure is a small hole where, if you wish, you can queue with the faithful to kiss the pillar through a brass facehole.
 
After a good value €9 three course meal (which included a bottle of wine) we wandered the streets some more before returning to the car and driving out to the Expo site.  Then back to the campsite to see if the caravan still had wheels on.

Next day we continued westwards up the Ebro Valley, then north past the desert lands of Las Bardenas Reales towards Pamplona.  Here the land was definitely more fertile, and as we climbed the pass between the Pyrenees and the Picos the scenery became more familiarly northern European, with pine forests and snow capped peaks.  After a long descent we reached San Sebastian (Donastia) and the Basque country, with it characteristic farm houses, unintelligible road signs and unpronounceable place names. Then it was goodbye to Spain and a halt at the Larrouleta camp site at Urrugne, close to St Jean de Luz, where we had stayed on our way out in January.  We stayed a couple of nights here, to catch up with the washing and to stock up at the huge LeClerc supermarket nearby.  The weather here was quite a contrast to Spain.  It was much colder and being a bit damp left a very thick overnight frost.

On our second evening there I was browsing the web and had a look at the website of a pair of travellers we had met in Bulgaria four years ago, Margaret & Barry (www.magbaztravels.com).  In correspondence earlier this year they had indicated that they might try overwintering in Spain this year as their usual destination, Greece, was a bit troubled.  While their usual form of transport is a huge American motorhome, in which they have lived for 17 years, they were trying caravanning for a change.  There was a picture of their caravan and the van they were using to tow it with, and I immediately recognised it as the unit parked further along the row, whose occupants we had not yet seen.  By this time it was too late to go knocking them up, but next morning, before we moved on, we got together over a coffee and had a nice long natter.

We had planned our next stop to be in Arcachon, where a Camping Cheques site, which had closed for its annual break, was due to re-open the previous day.  According to the Camping Cheques book, that is.  We got there only to find that it was not opening until the following day.  Fortunately Margaret had given us a leaflet for the site they had stayed at, Le Bilos, at a little place called Salles, just off the main Bayonne-Bordeaux road.  It was a funny little place, in the woods, surrounded by agricultural cottages in the middle of nowhere.  But it was clean and good for an overnight, especially as by then it was getting late and it was belting it down with rain.

Then it was on to Poitiers, to Le Futuriste, another site we had used on the way out.  We were a bit upset to find all the water taps turned off here.  The manager had turned them off the previous day because of the risk of frost, and was not going to bother turning them on again.  He pointed out that he had left one on and showed me where it was.  When I pointed out that the hose permanently fitted to that tap was the one people used to rinse out their chemical toilets and so the water, even if good at the tap, would not be drinkable by the time it came out of the end of the hose, he reluctantly and with very bad grace turned on the supply to the Aqua Potable tap and the washing up rooms.  The toilet block was as clean and as smart as our last visit, but he had not bothered with the heating, so showering was a bit chilly.  Then that night we had a horrendous thunder and hailstorm followed by a deluge.  Bah.

We were determined to visit Poitiers, so next morning, in spite of the freezing cold wind and torrential rain showers, we drove into the city.  Poitiers has a number of claims to fame.  It is the earliest centre of Christianity in France and, in the Baptistry, has the oldest example of Christian architecture.  In 732 it was the scene of the Battle of Poitiers (the first of of three with that name), where the Moors reached their farthest point north before being routed and sent back to Spain. It was English territory on three occasions, the most notable being the occupation by Henry II, who was son of the count of Anjou and married Eleanor of Aquitaine.  During the 15th Century it was a centre of culture, with a university of 4,000 students.  Then, as the Michelin guide puts it, it went to sleep for 400 years.  It is perhaps now most famous for the nearby Futuroscope, a futuristic theme park with space age exhibits, although as this is now 25 years old it might actually be more of a nostalgia trip!

We parked in the centre and after sheltering from the rain with a coffee, walked through the town to the Hotel de Ville, where there was the inevitable Christmas market in full swing, with a beautiful traditional French roundabout.   

 Then it was on to the Eglise Notre Dame La Grande, a wonderful piece of architecture that could have been lifted straight from Florence, just as its name was lifted from Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.  The west front is well balanced and beautifully carved, whilst inside the renovations have revealed the original painted patterns on the columns and ceiling decorations. 



 Then we wandered through the old town, past several grand palaces towards the cathedral.  As we approached it the heavens opened again, and in spite of the bright sunshine we got drenched.  The cathedral of St Peter is impressive for all the opposite reasons to Notre Dame La Grande.  It is not symmetrical, but it is huge.  Built in the 12th to 14th centuries it is a really solid example of church architecture.  The inside has three vast naves and the ceiling is almost out of site above.  At the eastern end are some remarkably preserved and colourful 12th century stained glass windows, whilst the choir stalls, with their elaborate and amusing carvings, are the oldest in France.  Certainly the amount of dust on them gave away their age.

By this time we were cold and wet, so decided to call it a day and go back to the caravan for some dry clothes and lunch.  A pity, as we had passed a number of good looking restaurants, but the thought of sitting shivering in wet jeans did not appeal.  Perhaps we will get back here one summer when the weather is better.

So on Sunday we had our final trip with the caravan, to a little site called Le Serpolin near Saumur in the Loire valley.  This is an English-owned site which also does caravan storage, so we intend to leave the van here while we go home for Christmas and sort our house out.  It is a great contrast to most of the sites we have used during the year.  We were welcomed by Theresa with a mug of tea and by Louis the big bouncing boisterous boxer dog.  We are the only ones on the site.  It is miles from anywhere.  At night there is no glow of street lights on the horizon, no background traffic noise or waves lapping on the sea or lake shore.  Just dead silence, broken only by the occasional hoot of an owl. In the day time there is just peace and quiet, with a kestrel hovering over the field opposite.  It is indeed a lovely setting, with a large green field equipped for caravans as well as a couple of hard standings.  We were grateful for the latter, as there has been so much rain here that the fields are waterlogged.  The river Layon in the village a few miles away has broken its banks   I don’t know what effect it will have on the Cote de Layon vines.  Next year will either be very good or very bad!

So tomorrow we leave the caravan and drive to Dieppe for the Newhaven Ferry. Thursday is MOT day in Seaford and hopefully we will get the keys to the house back from the agents.  Then it’s down to Dorset to see Mum, up to Oxford to pick up Helen, then to Leeds to Mike and Nicole’s for our first ever family Christmas – well, the first time all three young folk have had December 25th off at the same time!

We have had an interesting and eventful year, with many highlights and a few low points.  The weather has not been kind to us, which has been a bit depressing at times.  We have driven 18,500 miles, 11,000 of it towing.  We have visited 14 different countries (some of them more than once!), stayed in 51 camp sites.  Would we do it again?  Yes and no.  We are still in love with travel and caravanning, but perhaps a year at a time is a bit much.  Yet in a couple of year’s time we might think differently, who knows!
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