A former A-level teacher of the social sciences, I have embarked on a future dedicated to more regenerative living based on permaculture principles. Currently a volunteer at workdays on community projects based in West Yorkshire and creator of hand knits in natural yarns. As you can see, I love being behind the camera, but not so happy in front of it.
I’ve normally got a good sense of direction, but right now, I feel completely lost. When windy roads twist and turn so often you feel like you are going in circles, when you climb, then suddenly descend, only to scale the summits again, it’s hard to keep track of where you’re going and where you’ve come from. Today is like that, and I feel lost.
Finally, we arrive in Llanéz, our destination. It’s been quite the climb through forests and agricultural land to a village you’d miss if you didn’t know it was there. After a hit and miss scenario of choosing the wrong track, we finally pull into “Abrazo House” and meet Robert, our host.
We introduce ourselves well. His track is on a bit of a slope, and when Verd parks beside me, his foot misses the ground. His bike topples into mine, which also topples and I’m sent flying into a log pile.
Hey ho – nobody died.
A couple of days later, we laugh about it with our host, Robert, who asked about the normality of this kind of stopping behaviour.
We share the tale of an older rider, who now slight and lacking in strength, looks for a soft spot every time he wishes to park his bike. We’d witnessed his slow-motion fall into a camping field. The bike, bigger than rider, was soon picked up by the slightly younger of the older riders and we learned more of how riders overcome many of the stop-start difficulties they’ve gone through.
Picking up the bikes requires loss of luggage, which is going to take some time, and we’d only just arrived in time for the cob batch we’re supposed to be making.
The best news of the day then arrives.
“We’re not going to start work until tomorrow!” announces our host.
We try to look a little disappointed, but I think relief is probably a more accurate reflection of our expressions.
Robert leads the way to “The Snail Cabin”, our accommodation for the stay, and we agree to meet up at 9:30 am the next day.
Snail Cabin is a small cob house, roughly 4 meters at its widest, which is built in the shape of a spiral, hence ‘snail’. It has a mezzanine floor which serves as a bedroom and a wood stove built into the main ground floor area. The outer width of the spiral is a small kitchen. It was originally built to house a family of four while the much larger “Abrazo House” was being built. Later additions to the cabin require a trip outdoors, albeit under the overhang of the roof. One is a larger kitchen which is shared with other volunteers and a bathroom comprising dry compost loo, basin and shower cubicle, also communally shared. However, for this week, it is just us and after long trips across fields in the nighttime to facilities, this is absolute luxury.
Within the cabin itself, we direct our gaze up to the spiral roof. It is remarkable and worth a post all of its own. However, at the moment, it’s covered in cobwebs. It seems the cabin hasn’t been inhabited for a while.
We set to work.
Snail Cabin gets a spring autumn clean!
By the evening, we look out over the view from LLanéz to the coastal town of Laredo. Crows are chasing off buzzards in the sky. Lizards rattle across a pagoda roof where we sit for our evening meal. And we’re welcomed to the cabin by a green and black striped dragonfly. It leaves the cabin with some gentle persuasion. We take it as a good omen.
Later, we’re snug in bed, loving the Snail, and looking forward to learning about eco-builds and mucking in with the work tomorrow.
P.S. I’m going to be talking about this project in detail, as we’ve now been based here for more than 3 weeks. However, there’s nothing like hearing it from the horse’s mouth. Abrazo House has its own dedicated website.
There’s quite a distance from the Picos de Europa to the little hamlet, Llanéz. As it’s probable that shortly after arriving, we could be put to work, we decide to leave the mountains and head back to Santander. It’s a trouble-free ride, we don’t “go exploring”, drop the bikes, nor break any laws that we know of.
We agree to pitch the tent and have the “menu del día” at the nearby restaurant we have a great liking for. However, as we pull up, the campsite gates are closing. Verd communicates with the gatekeeper – business is quiet – so now they are closed for the season.
Again! We laugh and joke about needing to get our winter base quickly, or we’ll have to wild camp with possible run-ins with the local police.
We have lunch anyway. For those who’ve never been to Spain, the “menu del día” is a set two course meal, with a set price that is served during the afternoon at most restaurants in Spain. Both first and second courses usually offer a range of options to choose from. All the menus I’ve seen also include bread, a “postre” (dessert) and a choice between the house wine or water. Prices vary from around 11 to 25 euros. Here it is 15. Unfortunately we have to pass on the wine – we’ve a camping ground to find!
Satiated, we return to our bikes and follow a route to a village called Virgen del Mar. It’s one of the more barren parts of the north that we’ve seen. However, the campsite is open and the warden is extremely helpful. There’s shelter from sea exposure; planar trees separate the pitches, as well as hedgerows. There are fewer motorhomes and caravans now, which makes it friendlier than busy sites. Travellers are more interested in their neighbours and make an effort to get to know each other. At this time of year, many have a story to tell about their longer-term travel plans.
We meet a couple who are just back from a tour of Portugal. They’d been thinking about purchasing land as it’s very cheap and there’s quite a few well-established eco-projects of one form or another. However, while they were there, they were caught in one the many fires experienced in Portugal and Galicia last month. They describe the land as arid and dominated by eucalyptus plantations. We’d been half planning to take a look at Portugal before committing to anything here, but their feedback was somewhat off-putting. Their perception was very different to any of the motorcyclists we’d spoken to about the country. Perhaps a place to enjoy good riding, but not a place to live?
The wind picks up later in the day, and from the tent, I can see waves crashing against rocks in the distance.
I pick up the camera and go for a walk. I’d not been taking many photographs since arriving in Spain, instead soaking up the atmosphere without feeling the need to document each moment of joy experienced. Today though, I take about 400 photos – I’m inspired by the dramatic force of the tide and the astonishing rock formations standing proud of the beach.
I see Verd move in closer to the water’s edge, and I shake my head. To me it looks like the tide is coming in fast. Not least I can tell salt spray is getting at the camera even at the distance I had. I take picture of him taking a picture of the waves, but as the camera leaves my eye, the wave seems to continue in his direction and then I can’t see him anymore.
I try to drag the words for help, emergency and coastguard out of my brain, getting worried he’s been carried off by the wave. I might have only been 5 minutes later, though it seemed longer, when his hatted head appeared above the rocks. We’re both pleased to see each other, as he wasn’t sure where I was either. Hugs are out though – he’s soaking wet!
It’s not always so wild here, the quiet beach offers a beauty of its own.
But there’s something so alluring about waves – there were many cameras out this evening to capture them.
It’s only my second ride on the bike since arriving in Spain and I’m surprised at how quickly I settle into the journey. Riding on the right, instead of the left, isn’t such a big deal after all. Now more familiar with the signs, I’m beginning to read the road and able to plan my moves. It’s good for confidence.
Most of the journey is on a fast road, with little traffic, making the ride a pleasurable experience. Even main roads meander between the mountainous scenery to our left, and the coastfal views to the right. We’ve travelled a good 50 miles, but our SatNavs suddenly send us in different directions. We follow Verd’s SatNav, which directs us through narrow country roads, passing through small Asturian villages. There is something very distinctive about Asturian architecture with stone houses, red tiled roofs and storehouses on ‘stilts’ known as ‘horreos’.
Horreos are traditional grain stores, mounted on either wood or stone pillars (to deter rodents). Some are now being restored as living spaces. We’d seen them in photos, but nothing compares to witnessing their unique structures. We’ve not stopped long enough to photograph any during our travels, but hopefully I’ll dedicate a post to Asturian culture in the future, as already we’ve experience sufficient to incite our enthusiasm for this lesser known region of Spain.
The roads get narrow and less maintained, and to our dismay, Verd’s SatNav sends us to a farm. We’ve no idea where we are and are hungry. We pass through a small agricultural village with a restaurant seeming to be the only other building other than farm houses. We stop for a light lunch of layered avocados, cheese and tomatoes followed by un postre. I choose the most delicious gluten free chestnut-based tart. I’m not quite sure how to describe it, except think of a light cheesecake with a foresty flavour.
There was not a word of English spoken, except by us, but it did not cause any problems, enjoying instead the very authentic Austurian experience. I did take note of what the locals were eating. A couple beside us opted for lobster and Asturian cider. I’d read and been told about Asturian cider, but this was my first time witnessing it being drunk.
Asturian cider is a still brew, so when served, it is poured from a height and only a small portion is poured at a time. The drinker then swallows the brew in one slug, gaining both aeration and the impact of the taste. For the English, it’s very like Somerset Scrumpy, but the taste can be more earthy depending on the brewer. Everywhere there are orchards which supply the local “siderias”.
Satiated, we find a new setting for Camping Villaviciosa, but it’s not long before we’re separated and I go in one direction and Verd another. This happens mostly at roundabouts. Our SatNavs like saying take the third exit when it means the second and vice versa. One of us follows SatNav instructions and the other might see the road sign to where we should be going, but for safety reasons, it’s often better to stick to the exit you’ve committed too. We don’t view it as getting lost – we’re just exploring!
Several miles later, we meet up almost at the same time from opposite directions outside the gates of the campsite. A relief.
It’s closed for the season.
We make use of our very reliable SatNavs and select the nearest campsite on the list. We manage to get there (together), but again, the gates are closed. There’s a woman on the other side of the gate, but on approach she declares “¡Cerrado!”
Meanwhile, a campervan with a Scottish flag on its registration plate pulls up and a head pops out of the window and an Iain with a very Scottish accent, asks us if the place is open or not.
Before we had decided to go to Villaviciosa (beside the sea), we had planned to go to the mountains and a campsite called “Camping Picos de Europa”. Being a bit concerned about the encroaching autumn weather, we’d felt that being nearer the coast, might be better for camping. However, now faced with another closed site, and knowing that the mountain site is open all year round, I suggest that’s where we go. It’s about 25 kms and although we’ve done a lot of mileage today, I feel very drawn to those mountains and even when I’d started researching the north of Spain, I knew then I had to go. The easy-going Scottish couple agree to go too (I’m saying that, but Sarah, isn’t actually Scottish – but anyone who keeps a croft on one the of Hebridean Islands and lives with Iain, has to be considered naturalised by now).
They lead, and we follow, until we reach the motorway, and we wave to them like expert bikers do when we overtake the slower campervan. I can’t believe I’m doing this – but heck, The Destrier has a good kick when I push her into gear.
It’s not long before we exit the freeway and begin the long (slower) ascent to the Picos de Europa mountain range. One of the first things I notice is the change in aroma. Having started my biking career in the stinky diesel-filled streets of Bradford, I feel overjoyed by the sudden invasion of forest smells in my helmet. I inhale deeply. It’s not pine. It’s not deciduous woodland. I can’t quite place this novel small. Later I learn it is eucalyptus, a cash crop here in both Spain and Portugal. However, it isn’t dominant in the landscape – we pass the occasional plantation, interspersed with conifers and deciduous woodland. In short, there are trees everywhere.
The canopy offers dappled sunlight. Whilst ideal for photographs (sorry didn’t take any), it creates a visibility problem for us. The glare of the sun on the visors makes it difficult to look ahead to see how tight the increasingly windy bends really are. I’ve learned to take bends by looking for clues, such as tree-lined roads, fences and telegraph poles, but in this light I can’t see them. My riding slows considerably to stay safe, and the slow campervan catches us up!
They follow us for the remaining miles and we park outside the site. To the relief of everyone concerned it’s “¡Abierto!”
While orientating ourselves and deciding on a suitable pitch, an English gentleman, Martin, approaches with advice on the best way to obtain the best of the day’s sunshine. Being in the mountain’s shadow, the wrong pitch could create a cold environment. After our tent is safely pitched, he offers us a cup of tea, and his companions (his wife, Lynn and long-term travelling companions, Violet and Dave) also come over for a chat.
I think I’ve ruminated before on just how friendly, welcoming, supportive and generous people have been towards us throughout our journey. We’ve already promised Iain and Sarah to join them for a drink later, so politely decline further hospitality from Martin and co., at least for this evening.
Somewhere in the midst of a drunken conversation with our Scottish hosts, I offer to make a meal for everyone the next day.
I wake up with a major hangover, so have a lazy day. With the sun being out, it becomes imperative task for me to wash our sleeping bag. After 3 months on the road, I feel it (and we) deserve it. The task is achieved and I’m enjoying a sunny afternoon lazing in the chair when I remember my dinner pledge. By making a meal for ‘everyone’, I think I meant just the four of us, but as the evening approaches we’re joined by the two English couples. I’ve two little pans and two little stoves, but undeterred, I set about making a curry for all. As I’ve not got all the ingredients I need, Sarah helpfully chips in with spinach, onions and an arrange of spicy pastes. The meal begins to happen as a series of small sampling plates, during the course of which, Violet disappears to her caravan and returns with an interim course of pasta with a tasty carbonara sauce.
Despite the limitations of a most drunken and ill-thought out promise, a wonderful communal feast was had by all accompanied by a variety of drinks, including the renowned Asturian sidra.
The next day we leave our new friends, as we’ve made an appointment with relocation agent, Mary. We set off on our bikes to a cafe to Infiesto. We were delayed somewhat, as was Mary, but synchronicity is a wonderful thing. Just as were taking off our jackets to settle in the cafe, Mary arrived as apologetically as we’d felt when we arrived late.
We like Mary and agree to work with her to help us get established in Spain in the future. During the conversation, we reveal that we’d like to talk to the family who are selling eco-houses (we can’t afford) about their project generally.
Looking a little deeper at their own website, we discover they are looking for caretakers for a minimum of a year in exchange for free accommodation. We become excited and our agent looks visibly excited for us.
Mary leaves for another appointment with a lengthy homework list and promises to get back to us when she’s complete the tasks we’ve set for her.
Asturias has been our target destination and as we ride back to base camp, I realise how much in love with the place I am. The insight surprises me, as I’d always been a francophile and had expected to be disappointed by northern Spain.
I’m so busy loving the place, I have taken few photos during this part of the adventure – sorry! Here’s a glimpse though of the countryside, the local inhabitants and an environmental awareness visitor centre, which has undertaken a rewilding project of the bearded vulture to the region – also known as lammergeiers or quebrantahuesos.
A week later, Mary still hadn’t managed to complete the healthy homework pile we’d given her. While really enjoying the Picos de Europa, good company and learning about the rewilding project, we’re conscious of needing to be based somewhere before winter kicks in. We contact the owners of the eco-housing project and soon have our next destination: Llanez in Vito, Cantabria. We’ve signed ourselves up for a week of cob-house building!
If we were still in Yorkshire, the plan would most likely have been rained off. But here in Santander, the sky is blue and the temperatures are mid-20s (centigrade). We follow the coastal path, passing joggers, dog walkers and those who, like us, are enjoying a stroll in the sun. From the cliff edge we have a view over to another promontory with a castle like structure visible.
The main beach is strangely quiet, with no-one is swimming in the sea. However, the sparkling waves are inviting, and like others, we kick off our boots and stroll at the wave edges. The beach is separated by rock formations and we walk as far as the first wall of rocks before leaving the sand for the main promenade.
From there, the ‘castle’ looks like it is within walking distance, but Verd doesn’t agree. I have a way of getting my own way, as I firmly believe I’ve done lots more hill-walking and distance judging by foot than he has, and internally determine that the morrow is for getting to the castle.
The morrow is a Sunday and I’ve managed to persuade Verd to take the walk all the way to what turns out to be a royal palace – El Palacio de Magdalena. The beach is decidedly busier. The waves being higher have attracted several kite surfers as well as swimmers.
The walk to the palace was worth it. The grounds boast an outdoor marine museum, good views and park walks.
Although well-visited, it doesn’t feel touristy, as most of the patrons are Spanish. It’s something I’ve liked about Santander. For a major ferry port, I expected it to be more of a tourist trap. However, the menus haven’t been adjusted to the tastes of British teens, nor have the prices, and I feel I’m gaining an authentic experience. However, we do take the city tour bus (which is majorly over-priced), and learn something of the cultural history of the town. Santander has been a favoured holiday destination of Spain’s royal family in the past and the more elegant and substantial of homes reflect this. It is for this reason, that el Palacio de la Magdalena came to be built.
However, our purpose in Spain is not tourism. After 5 nights in Santander, we head to Asturias, destination Camping Villaviciosa. We have an appointment with a relocation agent to attend.
The sound of the early morning chorus is not only something I’ve become very acquainted with in a tent, but a mix of songs that I’ve come to love. From time to time, I’ve learned to isolate a particular song from the others and identify the species of the singer. Here at the Cabo Mayor, a headland to the east of Santander, the morning chorus is intensified. There are some familiar sounds and sights of regular garden birds, but there are others I can’t identify with certainty. But I love watching them flit from one of the tamarind trees to the next, quickly camouflaged in the foliage.
The morning chorus is shortly followed by the sounds of awakening campers. Here, the main nationality is French. I love the lilt and sound of French and find my mind quickly attuning to the language. I have a couple of conversations, albeit brief, with as many of the temporary residents as I can.
It’s not a very helpful activity. I need to be immersing in Spanish. In the evening we go to a restaurant by the campsite. It’s our first experience of local cuisine and the restaurant is typically Spanish its menu. On the evening we arrive, they offer an all you can eat meal. We’re not quite up to that, but have the option of choices from their ‘para picar’ selection – dishes for sharing with your buddies.
The waitresses have a few words of English between them and we have a few words of Spanish between us. However, I get ambitious and try out a couple of sentences rather than words. When a waitress replies with the very French, “d’accord”, I’m somewhat confused. I look at Verd and we burst out laughing – most of what I’d said was in French rather than Spanish! We’ve a ways to go before we master the lingo.
Undeterred, our plans for the next day are to take a walk into the city centre. About half an hour into our walk we’ve no idea which direction to go in. While Verd sits on a bench with his phone and google maps, I approach a passing stranger and have a go at asking directions. He’s very accommodating: he speaks slowly and repeats his instructions. We make it to the centre and the first commercial enterprise that captures my attention is a market. Many of the stalls are selling similar things – cheeses, olives, various meats, fruit, vegetables, pulses and wines. It’s clear that we’ve got a choice of a wide range of locally-produced foods. I have a little trouble deciding who to approach, but on catching the eye of one stall holder, I begin to make my requests, trying to remember my ‘buying produce lesson’ as much as possible. It goes ok, and I’m getting the products I want in quantities I am asking for, but there’s a change of staff mid-way during the interaction. He’s a twinkly-eyed older man who seems amused by my attempts to speak Spanish, and occasionally corrects my pronunciation. It’s a fun exchange.
We want some cheese, but the displays are a little overwhelming. There isn’t anything for sale we recognise. You know – like, Wensleydale or Cheddar. We linger near a counter and a canny mother asks, ‘ingles?” and she directs us to her English-speaking daughter. We have another fun interchange. I’m still trying to speak Spanish and she’s trying to improve her English. She introduces us to three local cheeses and allows us to taste them. We add two cheeses to our increasingly heavy load. It’s as well we’d walked, otherwise we’d never have stopped spending. Carrying a heavy load back up the hill would not be fun.
Our next task is a little more challenging. Before leaving England, we changed mobile phone plans, but they’d not been set up in time for the journey. We don’t have the gadget needed for changing sims, so decide to find a shop that might be able to help.
Around the corner from the market is a small mobile phone shop. We go in and I try again. With a mix of two-word-sentence Spanish and expressive gestures I managed to get across our issue. I didn’t know what to call the sim gadget, I don’t even know the name in English, so for want of a better term, I asked for a sim key.
The assistant is extremely helpful. He opens our phones, gives us an internet password and we’re able to make sure we’re set up with the new plan adequately before leaving the shop. I buy the “sim key” in case we’d need it in future and he warns us not to lose our old sims. I’m pleased I understand the warning, loss of sim = loss of contacts.
Only our second day here, and we’re already improving the communication skills. Verd is picking up vocabulary at a highly impressive rate.
We take a leisurely stroll as the sun sets. The campsite is next to a lighthouse – the Faro Cabo Mayor. We look over the cliffs to the beach coves below and decide to do what all tourists do when they go to Spain – go to the beach the next day!
I’m on the “wrong” side of the road, trying to use my left mirror like I used to use my right, but it’s in the wrong position for seeing traffic in all the lanes on the autovia, making passing slow lorries and motorhomes a difficult, if not dangerous task. I’m riding on an autovia with it’s shiny, clean surface. I’m tootling along about 10 miles per hour under the speed limit, but can understand why faster bikers like these roads. But, I’m feeling bombarded by stimuli, there are more signs to read than I’m used to. I say 10 miles an hour, but I have to keep watching my SatNav convert the speed limits from km to miles. I’d prefer to keep my eye on the road than having to keep checking my speed. I do pass the slow lane traffic, exaggerating my life-saver checks.
After about 20 km, we’ve figured out that some of the speed limit signs are only advisory, e.g. if it’s raining, windy or there’s a bend or tunnel coming up. We’re still stumped by the flashing amber lights, but we’ve figured out how the exit lanes work. After 50 km, we’ve learned that flashing amber lights are warning you to slow down because of some kind of change in the road conditions. I’ve also learned that Spanish drivers will drive in closer proximity, even if they aren’t in a hurry. And when they overtake, be prepared to roll off the throttle, they cut it fine. Later, I’m guilty of the same thing, cutting it a bit fine when I pull in after overtaking a lorry.
I’m feeling uncomfortable, if you’ve ever tried to write with your non-dominant hand, that’s what it feels like.
We’re on a single lane road, and there’s roadworks. A man with a stop sign turns it to ‘Go’ and then waves us onto the left side of the road to pass the roadworks. We follow the instructions, but both Verd and myself forget to pull in again to the right. I suddenly remember and we quickly switch. We’re soon laughing though; the car following us had copied us. Perhaps, they’d just got off the ferry too?
Luckily, we were back on the “right” right side of the road in time for oncoming traffic to not have to deal with any angry Spanish drivers.
We go off the beaten track to our intended campsite for the night, but when we get there, we discover it isn’t tent friendly. We carry on to Santander for one that promised to be open – Camping Cabo Mayor.
I’m not happy about the potential for meeting city traffic so early in the journey, but it isn’t so bad, with one exception: roundabouts.
The first shouldn’t be too difficult – we have to take the 1st exit. I approach, in the right lane and see there is nothing stopping me go in that direction. I confidently pull out, only to realise that all the oncoming traffic is from the left, not the right. Somehow I manage to slip in, probably with my eyes closed and leave the roundabout with my heart in my mouth. Lesson learned: LOOK LEFT!
I approach the next roundabout. I’m prepared, I’m not getting caught out this time, I look left, but lo and behold, I’m in the 1st exit lane rather than the 3rd exit. Habits are hard to break.
Junctions present similar difficulties, remembering that the nearest danger comes from the left, not the right, and as we turn, we’re coaching each other to make sure we stay on the right-hand side of the road.
Miraculously, we get to the campsite and it’s very tent friendly, with even a promise of a discount if we stay three nights. We relax almost immediately, inhaling the sunny evening aromas of jasmine and the tamarind trees. The air is still, warm and peaceful. It’s simply beautiful.