Monday, 23 October 2017

Scorched Earth

Today nothing quite went to plan. The plan was simple enough, pack-up, buy bread, drive 20 km. to el Rocio, have lunch overlooking the lake, admire the flamingos, drive towards Huelva on the coast road to visit Acantilado del Asperillo , a giant sand hill like the dune de Pilat. It would then be an easy drive to Isla Cristina, a small town on the coast next to the Portuguese border which is our final stopping place in Spain before the Algarve. We remembered the place with fondness, the lovely old fishing town and Camping Giralda, a quiet place under pine trees with a path to a huge beach.

Departure was a little more hazardous than we anticipated. We expected it to be somewhat hazardous as the Donarryan Park campsite, though beautifully situated is full of booby traps, especially in the sanitary block. The site is French owned, part of the Yelloh chain. They don't appear to have updated their Hispanic cololonial outpost since the Napoloenic era. The sanitary block brought back fond memories of Camping Municipal's from the previous century, not only the drainy pong but the shower heads which were scaldingly hot in the middle and icy cold around the edges. This deluge struck you at fire hose pressure. By day three we were well prepared for such daily trials, but as we escaped, the place had one last trick. The barrier refused to rise no matter which way Gill wafted the contactless card. In the end she went to the office and the receptionist raised it. The timing on manual must have been based on the measurement of a Smart car driven by an Italian travelling at 80mph, as before I had driven half way through the big red pole started to descend. It was only a shriek from Gill that alerted the receptionist to the impending impact and disaster was averted. We drove in silence down monotonous avenues of umbrella pines. Eventually Gill observed, "I'll be glad to get a horizon back."

On the outskirts of el Rocio we spotted a garage with a Carrefour Express attached. Gill hopped out and bought some bread. We headed for the car park by the lake. There was no lake, just an expanse of mud with a brown puddle in the middle. Last time we were here it had been early spring; winter rains had filled the lake, now, summer's drought had drained it.

Onwards towards Matalascañas, then west along the minor road which runs along the back of the dunes towards Huelva. A series of semi-circular foot bridges crossed the roads, the only break in the tall fences which mark the edge of the Donana National Park. They have been built to protect the wildlife from being killed by traffic. The park is one of the last places in western Europe to have a population of wild lynx.

 A change of plan. Let's stop for lunch at the big dune. The was a small car park at Acantilado del Asperillo, however it was unsigned and we sailed straight past it. Maybe we would not have bothered anyway, the forest here, and for the next 15 kilometres, consisted of charred, skeletal trees. Gill checked on Google. In June two days of wildfires swept through the western margins of tbe Donana. The stark contrast of sand dunes and charcoal trees produced an eerie post-apocalyptic landscape.

We skirted the Huelva's industrial sprawl, a depressing mix of old factories, distribution warehousing and plasticulture. At least it's productive and providing jobs we agreed. Eventually, on the A49 motorway a few kilometres short of our destination we pulled off into a service area into an empty lorry park. A late lunch in a godforsaken spot is still preferable to no lunch at all.

Half an hour later we picked our way through Isla Cristina's crowded centre and pulled into Camping Girelda, on the edge of town covering a pine covered promontory jutting into the estuary. We recognised the slim, dark haired manager who came out to greet us. Surprisingly he remembered us. "Welcome back" he said, it was remarkable given that our previous visit in March 2015 had been for only three or four days.

Last time we almost had the place to ourselves, but that was early spring, definitely low season. Now there was hardly a pitch to be had. Suddenly, after days and days of relative solitude people here were in droves. Our journey, which feels at times like our own personal odyssey is suddenly re-cast as a demographic trend. We are simply another grey-haired couple with a motorhome seeking sunshine. It's a good thing to have one's illusions challenged, but only in retrospect, at the time it feels bloody annoying!

So I was grumpy for a while, but Isla Cristina jollied me out of it. It's a not a stunningly beautiful town, but it's setting on an isthmus is lovely and the place has some nice streets and interesting neighborhoods.

Most importantly it has energy and purpose. This is not some dead-end tourist town, it's a working fishing port with tourism as a sideline. The palm-lined mainsteet is remarkable, and there are pleasing Art Deco buildings scattered about the place.

The beach behind the littoral of pines stretches as far as the eye can see and because the town is virtually surrounded by water sunsets are astonishing.

On a day when nothing quite worked out it's great to be in a place that puts a smile on your face.

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