Wary 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.
London 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.
More 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.
It 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.
The 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.
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.
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.
It 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.
Despite 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.
Pleasingly 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.