Hola amigos!

spn02Wary that I may just drift into the comforts of life again in Plymouth and conscious of impending Halloween-related mania, I took a couple of weeks out of this (only slightly) working holiday. The first part involved meeting up and hanging out with friends once more, following which a trip overseas provided some peace and quiet and strangely rare solo time.

A whistle-stop visit to London offered another chance to reacquaint myself with old hang outs and deep connections. Now with young ones to entertain this principally involves visits to the parks of North London, typically on a rota system. It was pleasing to add a different park to the list, within the tranquil leafiness of Highgate Wood. The extra bonus here was that once slides and nets and steps and bars had been exhausted, a little lodge served up fine food to eat al fresco in the sunshine. Similarly, while by no means a new addition, Golders Hill Park delivered gelato to cool down on an astonishingly warm and sheltered park bench the next day.

spn01London is quite a different place when you visit and are not subjected to a long daily commute for tedious work and returning home for a late dinner mired in tiredness. Indeed, I was quite happy to take an hour long bus journey, absorbing the sites on the top deck of the number 13 bus from Golders Green: Finchley Road, Swiss Cottage, Lords Cricket Ground, Regents Park, Baker Street, Oxford Street and, my stop, Piccadilly Circus. I was equally content to mill around to Covent Garden and Embankment and cross over to the South Bank for a little, killing time until a get-together in Clapham. I know for sure now that I am officially at a different stage in life to when I was living in London:  waiting for a friend in a pub reading a paper and struggling to block my ears to the awful music that was far too loud. Confirmation of this comes through reminiscing on the tube home with two friends from university who I met half of my lifetime ago.  But this is nothing to despair at.

spn03More old friendships, albeit only for about one third of my lifetime, were enjoyed during a few days in Lytham up in the good old northwest of England near Blackpool. The weather for the first couple of days was better than when I visited in August, allowing opportunity to amble the prom and still try and figure out why so many people come here for their holidays. By midweek it was more typically grey with some rain and a few fleeting rays of sun. This coincided with my birthday, which was further official confirmation that I am of an older generation. Still, in Lytham such is the populace of wrinklies that I generally still feel quite young, and can do impetuous youthful things like play GTA V and watch the end of Breaking Bad like everyone else in the world during this period in history.

spn07It was a grey, drizzly day leaving Lytham and I am very conscious that I will be in England when the calendar turns to November (or Jungfrau). With this in mind, and another way in which I can make myself feel young, I boarded a plane to Spain. Costa Blanca, Quesada, Dona Pepa Pig and a home from home from home sadly less visited. This was an opportunity to wear shorts again, to think a bit more like I was in Australia, albeit with worse coffee and inferior beaches and not as much untainted open space. It was also rather nice to have some time to myself – the first in quite a long time really.

I probably would have gone a bit stir-crazy if it wasn’t for the company of a mouse in the house and a hire car to get around. And so, a few excursions (without the mouse) took in mountain towns and humid clouds, coastal resorts and big rocks, and lovely fragrant forests and views.

spn04The first trip out took me to a few Spanish mountain towns, all with higgledy piggledy streets and churches and squares. At Biar, a medieval castle looks out from the highest point perched upon a lump of rock. A fee of one Euro allows you entrance to the tower where you can get the slowest ever English commentary and walk three flights of stairs to the top. Overlooking the charming little town and fields and hills of rustic terraces, it’s one of the nicer spots in this area.

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Down the road from here, Bocairent did not feature prominently in any of the guide books I had to hand. Mind you, a lot of this material seems out-of-date as roads have changed names or gone missing altogether. Still, I vaguely recall reading something on an airplane in Australia about this place, so it was worth a stop out of curiosity if nothing else. I gather there are lots of little caves around and, while it took a little finding, the old town was very much in the classic Spanish hillside variety.

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From here I missed my intended turn off the main road but this was one of those fortunate mistakes. The next five kilometres or so, towards Ontinyent, thread through a wonderful limestone gorge, a great road to drive on and a worthwhile stop at some pools of blue called El Pou Clar. They would have sparkled like sapphires in the sun only the sun was getting less and less frequent. In fact, the remainder of the day was blighted by low cloud and a touch of rain on the drive back to Quesada, via Alcoy and Agost.

spn08It was a much sunnier start on the second day out, which infuriatingly darkened some 100 kilometres further north around Calpe. Calpe appears to be a typical Costa resort, with a few high rise hotels, a promenade, clusters of apartments and alright kind of beaches. What sets it apart is a huge lump of rock which juts out into the sea at its northern end. It’s called the Penon De Ifach and it turns out you can climb the thing.

The climb is actually a lot easier than you might think looking at the precipitous lump from the bottom. There’s a bit of a tunnel to go through and some fairly consistent scrambling near the top, but apart from that I have to say it made a nice change to find somewhere in this part of Spain where you could actually go for a decent walk in natural surroundings. The very top though is undoubtedly Spanish, with rocks being daubed in graffiti and feral cats pestering and lending a not-so-lovely aroma to the scene. The views of course though are what make it so worthwhile, especially when the sun makes an appearance.

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spn10Despite darkness clinging to the tops of the mountainous interior I left Calpe and headed inland along the Guadalest Valley for the afternoon. Guadalest itself, sheltered by the highest peaks of the Sierra Aitana, remained dry and warm and at times sunny. Certainly warm enough for an ice cream, the Crema Catalana being of particularly fine quality.

Beyond Guadalest the winding roads empty and there is a great deal of scenery lurking under the clouds. What I find infuriating about this though is that there is rarely a place to stop, a viewpoint, a path, a forest, a trail. A lot of the land looks untouched and empty, barren and wild. Who owns it and looks after it I do not know. It just seems to be there, an intangible expanse of rocky scrub and forest.

It was not until I was back closer to the coast near Villajoyosa that some of the scenery could be accessed, albeit a man-made manifestation at the Embalse de Amadorio. The water colour of these reservoirs is always something to behold. It seems they are of significant allure to locals too, who come here to get amorous and leave cans of energy drink, tissues and empty durex boxes scattered around the car park. Maybe I blame locals too quickly, given we’re not actually too far from Benidorm.

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spn12Pleasingly my final significant trip out managed to bring me to some rare Spanish coastal wilderness and a decent trail leading to a fine viewpoint. It’s the kind of set up you begin to take for granted in Australia or, with its amazing coast path, the southwest of England. Over the hills from the strip of concrete that is La Manga and between here and the port of Cartagena, a small pocket of rugged coastline and fragrant forest testifies to what this area once was like. This is known as Monte de las Cenizas and one of the best things about it is that the park authorities have closed the gravel road up to this lookout. This means it is little visited, little defaced and there is a good three kilometre trail with only a gentle gradient to overcome. And at the end, a reward of distant coastal views and deep blue sea.

This was the little taster of a kind of Australia that I had hoped for in Spain. This, and the ability to be wearing shorts in October. For, thanks to British TV and the Internet I know that things are a-changing. Heatwaves and bushfires are already inflicting Australia (yet this may or may not be climate change, let’s just pretend it isn’t and then it will go away). And, more immediately, winds from the north east are seeping into Britain. Having resisted thus far, I may need to buy (or beg, borrow or steal) a coat. Or perhaps just dress up as a pumpkin.

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Dawn

The dark cloak of night was yet to loosen itself from the town of Santander as I crept up from a creaky bed onto the creaky floorboards of a creaky guesthouse. Desperately trying not to disturb sleeping parents next door – clearly not helped by the creakiness of this particular guesthouse – I gathered the only set of keys and my camera and set out to surreptitiously escape the building and head towards the sea. If you cannot sleep, why not watch the world wake up.

Emerging into the refreshingly cool and breezy air – a pleasant change from the pungent heat of a Spanish summer – the sea was barely visible, merely a rhythmic thrash of water hitting the shore somewhere distant. To the east, the sky was only just beginning to soften to indigo, the change marked by the silhouettes of gulls rising in the distance, their shrills increasing in tempo and building in volume. Elsewhere, further occasional signs of life…eager fishermen setting out, unseen shutters rolling up, street sweepers marking a clean slate. The final blinking of a distant lighthouse extinguished as the horizon turns deep blue and a thin strip of orange light flashes across that steadfast line between sea and sky.

Now, a red sidelight flickers across the whitecaps of surf, as rocky outcrops transform from black and white to heavily contrasted greys and greens. With light, sand becomes copper, every little rock and patch of seaweed casting a long shadow across the grainy canvas. Footprints are embossed alongside the water’s edge, as the first joggers, amblers, dog walkers and sleepless tourists break the surface. More gulls gather on the beach, more shutters are heard rising; more vehicles make their way along the coast road in a subdued early morning hush. The sun glides quickly higher into the sky and the moment is gone – for another day.

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The world may now be awake but the parents still seem to be snoring. It was a long drive the previous day, from south to north across Spain. Through the dusty nothingness of the interior and over the greener, damper northern ranges, we reached Santander after dark and pretty much flopped out in our hastily picked guesthouse. I was surprised to awaken and watch the light introduce a different Spain, with surf cleansing the broad golden sands and scouring craggy rock platforms in between. A verdant headland of cypress pine and she-oak marked the entrance to a snaking, shallow estuary [1], peppered with sandy coves and treacherous currents. Beyond, the backdrop of forested mountains, lined at their base by popular coastal towns and expensive waterfront properties. For one moment I thought I had woken up on the south coast of New South Wales again.

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I shared some of this world in full daylight with Mum, heading off for a little walk once everyone had arisen and dressed and drunk several cups of tea before checking out. They hadn’t even realised I had been out in the morning, such was my obvious stealth and their obvious talent at sleeping in. Outside, we found that the headland was indeed a pleasant spot, the array of trees now offering useful shade for the sun spanning overhead. In fact it would have been a good spot for a little doze, especially if you happened to have been up and out when it was still dark that morning [2]. However, we had a ferry to queue for to take us through to the following dawn.

In between one whole revolution of the earth there was still some time to fill. This involved a lot of sitting around. First for coffee and some local food that I cannot remember other than it being deep fried and delicious. Then, once over the international barrier and beyond the spell of the salty streets of Santander, the most mind-numbing wait to board the ferry, sat in a car in the heat of the day while the Spanish operators have a siesta or go on strike or something. And further, once finally on the ferry, the futile task of finding something to do, other than sit down and have a drink.

To be fair there were at least, oh, 3o minutes worth of exciting ferry activities: walking the upper deck via a maze of secret stairwells; perusing every item in detail in the gift shop and working out whether it is cheaper to buy in Euros or Pounds; wondering do they actually sell those giant M&M characters and comedy oversize Toblerone bars anywhere else; and, importantly, noting the location of every toilet accessible once rolling about in the Bay of Biscay. So it turns out that the sitting down with a drink option is by far the best, a chance to farewell the Spanish sun that I greeted many, many hours ago.

I should note that, amusement-wise, there was also the excitement of the little cabin we had booked for the overnight trip. Here, an air of childlike wonder in discovering clever folding beds and storage spaces, incredulity at how they managed to fit a toilet and sink and shower in a tiny cupboard, bemusement with ever so miniscule space-saving gadgets and fittings. And, despite effectively being a pimped up prison cell, an astonishing sense of light and space. It’s like the Tardis, only marginally less scientific and with fewer smartass actors and delightfully ridiculous storylines.

To be honest, I could have done with an interruption from Daleks, perhaps emerging literally out of the woodwork, stealthily disguised as the bin and composite parts of the sink unit. At least I think their grating warnings of impending extermination may have woken up Mum and Dad and given me a break from their snoring symphony. So in sync that when one stops the other starts, building to a wave of crescendos where all components of the orchestra are at full blast, ending with a huge crash of drums and cymbals. Then just a brief intermission before the next number. Their melody in tune with the rocking and rolling of the sea, a sea which mercifully calms midway through the night, unlike the music.

With no natural light and a regular swaying movement the cabin proved quite disorientating on the senses but somehow with all this going on I believe I did sleep (and probably bolstered the orchestra in the process). And with that came morning, or at least the clock said it was approaching morning for all that you could tell inside. A trip out on deck confirmed this, while the temperature confirmed that we had definitely left Spain and were approaching England. Another day, another dawn, this one inevitably shrouded in grey on the eastern horizon, but a clear softening in the light marking the transition from one state to the other. The period of transition which makes dawn so special, so magical, so hopeful [3].

With reassuring inevitability the sun eventually emerged above the solid brush of low cloud and timed itself with a majestic arrival into Plymouth Sound. The pleasing site of land, and not just any old land but my land, inching nearer and becoming a reality at Rame Head, its patchwork of bracken and gorse a khaki camouflage rising out of the blue sea. To the east, rays of sun glowing godlike through clouds over Mountbatten, angling towards the west and lighting up the cosy cove of Cawsand. And directly ahead, a glimmer of red and white standing erect on the foreshore, a beacon to Janners worldwide: Smeaton’s Tower.

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A perfect combination of movement and light heralded me into the arms of Plymouth, the ferry gliding serenely through the water, the low projection of light colouring and highlighting the ultimate goal. Rather like some kind of tractor beam from an alien spaceship, dragging me towards it, resistance futile and probing likely. It was the first time I had been back in a little while and arriving by sea in the first sunlight of the day made it seem like some exciting new place, exotic and far away [4]. The anticipation building as the port came closer and closer. The freshness in the air added to a sense of rejuvenation. It truly was a new dawn, a new day, and I was feeling good.

Can there be any better time of the day than dawn? Sunset is an obvious rival, with both dawn and dusk offering subtle changes that equate to a dramatic whole. The inevitability of both being a reminder that humans remain immaterial, the world carries on spinning, regardless of what we do. Wherever you are, whatever you are up to, there will be a dawn and a dusk, in which the skies will transform, clouds will burn like flame, and light will glow and fade on the landscape. Dawn is extra special in that it requires a little extra effort, rising at unnatural hours, skipping breakfast, embracing the cold. Anyone can see a sunset. Only the committed or narcoleptic may see a dawn. And for this effort you will often be rewarded with peace, solitude, tranquility, a calmness which exacerbates the spirit of rejuvenation and hope that emerges with a new dawn.


[1] I may be factually incorrect with the tree types, but don’t quote me on it

[2] I believe, looking back at Google Maps, this headland is the Peninsula y Palacio de La Magdalena

[3] I hope my friend Dawn happens to read this, for surely there are significant brownie points available.

[4] In fact, when ashore I noted the rather peculiar, distinct language of the local population. Then joined in.

Links

Santander Tourist Information: http://www.spain.info/en/ven/otros-destinos/santander.html

Palacio de La Magdalena: http://www.centenariopalaciomagdalena.com/es/

Brittany Ferries: http://www.brittanyferries.com/

Smeaton’s Tower: http://www.plymouth.gov.uk/homepage/creativityandculture/museums/museumsmeatonstower.htm

Driving me in Spain: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2010/10/youre-driving-me-in-spain.html

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