Having flown in to Malaga to start the next leg of our Spanish coastal journey, Our first stop was Nerja, a coastal resort town that we had visited before. Nerja has two great aspects – the caves and the balcony perched on the cliff top. The caves were to be our first port of call. On our arrival, the visitor centre was shut so we enjoyed a coffee in the sunshine, sat on the terrace overlooking the town and coast. The sea seemed to shimmer especially for us and in the haze, we could make out the Balcon de Europa hotel where we would be staying later.
Once the caves had reopened to visitors, we descended the stairs into the caverns below. The chamber appeared quite big or at least large enough to impress me. A further flight of stairs lead down and I was not prepared for the sight before me. The cavern was astonishingly huge - cathedral proportions. It was hard to imagine that the caves had gone undiscovered until 1959, when they were discovered by school boys hunting bats. The cave had been carefully lit for effect and we followed a foot path trail around the cave, descending further as we got deeper into the void. An enormous central rock pillar, 60 metres tall greeted us at the lower end of the cavern. The path encircled it and lead back toward the entrance. I had anticipated the cave being impressive, but not this amazing.
Later, we descended the few kilometers into the town. We checked into the hotel and strolled the balcony. Following the stairs down to the small beach, we found the feral cat population in good health, sprawled across the fishing boats and sand. The old houses set into the rock face had not changed at all (and probably never will). The Sierra Nevada mountains behind were completely snow capped and we wondered whether the Alpujarran foot hills would be, for our visit the next day.
Passing the old white church on the placa, we stopped for a beer or three and visited the upper and lower town areas looking in the shops and stopping for a drink. Later we walked down into the lower town area to eat. Most of the restaurants were closed so our choice was limited.
Departing quite early, we headed out of town, following the coast eastwards, before heading north and up into the Alpujarras. The foot hills still had quite a bit of snow present and it noticeably increased as we gained altitude. An unusual cave formation came into a view and we stopped to investigate. The cave was not especially deep, but the mouth was at least thirty feet wide. On one side, set in to the stone with rough building blocks was a shed, or in fact as we discovered, some sort of stable. Very odd, albeit that the livestock would have had a great view.. Further up, we stopped at 998 metres where there was an old church, which had the most amazing panoramic view of the surrounding villages and valleys. We continued to climb towards our destination Bubion, formerly the highest town in Spain, now superceded by a growing village nearby. On our arrival, we were bitterly disappointed to find that our hotel booking could not be honoured, mainly as the hotel was shut for the winter. We spoke to an attendant, who appeared after quite some time and the hotel was most definitely closed as it was out of season. We wandered the town before settling in a bar with beer and tapas to consider our limited options. The Serrano ham was particularly good and helped to focus our thoughts. Certain of finding a hotel on the coast, we decided to follow the Alpujarran mountain road further east until it dropped below the snow line and south to the beach towns. Picking a sizable town as our aim point, we headed for Roquets de Mar. On our arrival two hours or so later, we selected from a choice of beach hotels and found that our allocated room, at half board, was directly overlooking the raked sands of the beach with a rather nice balcony. In the distance we could see the coast of a national park - Cabo de Gata - and decided at that point that we would explore it the following day. We went for a stroll along the paseo before finding a bar for refreshments. The local shop also afforded some tourist products such as an English newspaper.
We returned to the hotel for dinner. The menu was great in variety but not quality.
We had a very amusing evening in the hotel bar, surrounded by geriatrics. The amusement was the bingo, in which we participated, in an increasingly inebriated state. It was almost impossible to win. The young bingo caller, announced the numbers in three different languages - Spanish, German and then English. Not only did the order favour the Spanish, but his habit of calling a different (but close) number for each different language, livened up the proceedings considerably. We were not even close to claiming a line or a house, but the drink and farcical bingo calls made it all seem really quite funny.
After a good night of sleep, we drove to Cabo de Gata national park, as intended. The roads made it favourable to drive past it and then start at the eastern side. The first point of note was St Jose, a small marina town, largely desolate due to the season. The marina though was typically Mediterranean, with boats moored stern to the quay. We sat and enjoyed morning coffee at a cafe overlooking the marina. Most of the buildings at this end of the town were set back against the rocky cliffs either side of the harbour entrance. We climbed up on to the top, to be greeted with a good view of the sea breaking on the rocks.
We continued westwards again, entering the national park area, easily defined by the end of tarmac roads and the commencement of dusty tracks. We followed this road, unsure of how far it would carry us. The surroundings were truly wild, like driving through an arid desert. The beaches, as we found them, were very remote and would be ideal for a night in a motor home. Some travellers had already found this out and I envied their freedom to stay as long as they pleased. Further along the track, we encountered a huge herd of two hundred goats or so, all white and all in our our way. Reluctantly, they slowly moved out of the way and allowed us to pass, but a quarter of mile further on as we approached the headland, the road was blocked and we had to turn around and head back in the direction we had just come from. Later, we arrived in Almeria where we would spend the night. The town was not geared up for tourism and it made a pleasant change to stay amongst locals rather than visitors. The hotel was centrally located and had a great tapas bar. We strolled through the town, climbing the hill to the impressive alcazabar that dominates the sky line and spans the valley which the town and port is at the foot of. Built on two hill tops, with a connecting defensive wall stretching between, the western hill fort was being restored but the eastern hill fort was still in ruins. We visited both before walking down in to the town to the cathedral. We searched for a nice restaurant, but ended up back at the hotel tapas bar, where every beer was accompanied by a free tapas. We purchased some more to make a meal of it and had a very pleasant evening - which was my birthday.
Leaving Almeria behind, we drove north in to the Desert of Tabernas, the only true desert in Europe. The land was very arid, with sparse vegetation and many rock formations, eroded by thousands of years of wind and sand. The land looked more like the Wild West than the Wild West, hence why it had been the setting for so many Spaghetti Westerns and other adventure films, such as Indiana Jones films. We were going to visit a film set, but discovered that there were in fact four different areas each being managed as a tourist attraction. We chose Fort Bravo, which had two main areas, one supposed to be a Mexican border town and the other, a western town. "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" and the "Magnificent Seven" amongst others were filmed here. Some of the buildings were genuine and had four walls and a roof. Some of them were just a frontage, supported from behind with timber frames. Walking the 'streets', you could not tell the difference. For effect, cowboy film themes were played through loud speakers and men on horseback roamed up and down. The saloon bar was also genuine and we stopped for a coffee.
The drive through the desert saw the terrain gradually became greener as we closed on the coast again and we arrived at Mojacar by mid afternoon. Stopping in the pueblo on top of the hill, we sat in the sun and sipped beer. The bar had a roof terrace which offered views across the surrounding countryside and coast line. Jayne had been here before, when there was one hotel and an unspoilt coast without a beach bar in sight. Now there were many and we were staying in a beach hotel. We wandered around the old town, along cobbled streets and down to the bottom of the hill where we had parked. All of the houses were white washed and from the coast, it still looked picturesque despite the development. Our hotel, opposite the sea front, was basically a collection of small apartments, each with its own front door. It had an enormous terrace, but unfortunately it was east facing. We sat outside our front door on the balcony, enjoying the evening sun and a newspaper, drinking Tio Pepe like it was lemonade. We ate at a local restaurant, owned by an English couple and the food and atmosphere were very good.
Continuing our trip eastwards along the coast, we stopped briefly at Mazarron, a beach town with a small island just off-shore, rocky and green and home to thousands of sea gulls. Further on, we visited Cartagena where we walked around the port area and marina. Cartagena was an impressive town, overlooked by two alcazabars, one of obvious Moorish origins and the other perhaps much newer.
We drove the short distance to Murcia where we would spend our last night. Finding the hotel was especially hard, mainly because of the series of one-way streets that we had to negotiate. The old town centre area was dominated by the cathedral and bell tower and the square before it contained a few bars. Adjacent was an old palace, painted a light burgundy colour. We saw the interior of the cathedral, typically plush with numerous chapels and gold everywhere. We walked the narrow streets and shops. Our evening meal was in a posh restaurant to the rear of the cathedral and after, we took another stroll through the cathedral square, to the faint sounds of a violin being played by a street performer. We walked past fountain displays back to the river, crossing a suspension bridge, held up by a single spindle with wires fanning out like the spokes of a wheel. It shook uncomfortably as we walked across it, back to our hotel.
Our last day and it was a pity as we were just getting into it. We stopped for coffee on the paseo at Torrevieja and looked in the market stalls for last minute gifts for the family. Later, we drove the length of La Manga, to see what all the fuss was about. It is regularly refered to as a beach holiday hot spot, but the beaches were poor and the spit of land was benighted with unfinished and abandoned shells of buildings. We were not impressed. Our trip ended at Alicante, where we flew home with Flybe. Crossing the Pyrenees, the view of the snow capped mountains was crystal clear and inspiring. A plan to drive the length of the mountain range, from the west coast of France to the Mediterranean was formed.