Despite being only 120km from the bustling Port City of Santander you can still find the Cantabrian brown bear and the Iberian Wolf hidden deep in these forests.
We meandered our way along the Rio Sil, a magnificent drive skirting turquoise blue reservoirs and forested hillsides, again rarely passing other vehicles.
Venturing North from Algeciras on the Costa de la Luz we entered the Parque Natural Los Alcornocales. Visited mainly for its atypical Andalusian whitewashed hillside villages, this rolling countryside of flower meadows, oak woodland with roaming deer and waterfalls is a hidden gem.
Winding back down towards the Costa del Sol, we weaved our way round hairpin bends through the Sierra de las Nieves park. We crossed several old stone bridges over clear, rocky rivers; the isolated road flanked by pine-covered slopes.
We veered northwards from the coastline again towards Granada and the Sierra Nevada National Park and into Cazorla National Park, the largest protected area in Spain and second largest in Europe. The scenery was breath-taking; river valleys surrounded by white rocky Mountains and pine forest.
An early morning stroll along the riverbank was rewarded with the flash of Golden Oriole flying amongst the trees, Griffon Vultures circling overhead and fish shoaling in the shallow margins.
So give the Costa’s a wide berth and instead chuck some camping gear in your car boot and enjoy a leisurely drive and some beautiful sights and siestas through natural Spain, you might even spot some deer!
Olive, almond, shrimp, potato, octopus, salami, chorizo, sardine, frittata, anchovy, peanut, manchego, salmon, pate, bruschetta, steak, croquette, sausage, calamari, chip. TAPAS
Cerveza, red wine, white wine, rose wine, sparkling water, g&t, sangria, rum & coke, on the rocks, champagne, lime soda, cocktail, lemonade, fruit juice, ale, cider. TAPAS.
Backstreet bar, corner café, five star brasserie, michelin restaurant, greasy truck-stop, fancy bistro, family eatery, fast-paced diner, hole-in-the-wall snack joint, trendy coffee shop, high-brow cocktail lounge, posh tea-shop, loud music bodega, cosy pub, city wine bar, sleepy village taverna, noisy nightclub. TAPAS.
Coffee with partners, brunch with chums, lunch with colleagues, tea with family, dinner with friends, supper with lovers, drinks with acquaintances, party with mates, dancing with strangers. TAPAS.
Restricted by wild camping ‘rules’ in built-up Europe we frequently succumbed to regimented official campgrounds. We discovered our single-night ‘touring’ system left us in the minority. Dominating these expanses of enclosed sandy lanes and numbered plots were row upon row of permanent pitches inhabited by holidaying locals. Fiesta and Siesta Shanty style.
Every inch of an 80m² plot is utilised and fortified; gazebo poles, AstroTurf, wooden trellis and coloured gravel marking strict boundaries. Caravans, sheds, tents, Portakabins and even buses form the central homestead with extensions of shade netting, garden furniture and zipped canvas kitchen cubicles maximising the allotted space.
Makeshift lanes of tarpaulin, vinyl, canvas, plywood and fibreglass form a haphazard, yet systematic miniature city. Yet there are touches of pride and homely detail adorning many of these temporary, den-like dwellings. Cerise geraniums in hand-painted pots arranged dotingly on wire fences. White ornate gates with ‘house’ name plaques. Lovingly tended hanging baskets, garden gnomes, candle lamps and even water features bring a touch of care and individuality. These personal ornamentations are, however, only a slight distraction to the rows of neglected pitches. Unloved plots of rusting caravans, torn green shade netting, ripped gazebos, corroding barbeques and broken plastic toys.
What brings these hordes of Spanish tourists to what essentially is a shanty town camp ground aesthetically resembling a seaside refugee camp? Over-crowded, recurrently unkempt and at times visibly depressing in their cramped, repetitive narrow lanes.
Perhaps an economical holiday home away from the crammed urban tower blocks of Spanish cities, this is comparably spacious and a much-needed outdoor escape. Nestled between gleaming 5 star hotels of Marbella and Malaga, this is a budget break. A seasonal pitch in ‘Camping Toremolinos’ costing roughly the equivalent of a fortnight family holiday in a nearby 3 star Beach Club Hotel. Same beach. Maybe less isolated. A united kinship and more chance of a friendly chat at the communal sinks than a silent brush past a stranger on a fancy carpeted corridor.
Possibly a temporary immersion into a buzzing resort away from a sleepy remote village, swapping cobbles and echoing church bells for beach bars and night clubs. A safe, leafy enclosure where kids can cycle and play, whilst fellow fugitive neighbours congregate seasonally.
Refugees from an everyday repetitive reality. Or a back-to-basics, fuss-free vacation where true values of family, friendship and communal living override the modern trend of fast-paced, fancy holidaying. Whatever the case, we head off to the nearest remote forest to escape both.
Patricio Martinez is the larger-than-life character who owns El Valle Hermosa ‘the beautiful valley’; an eating and drinking establishment at the centre of a criss-cross sprawl of apartment blocks in the Eastern Madrid suburb of Barrio de la Concepcion. We met him by chance and were instantly taken by his personality and kindness, so much so that we recently wrote an article about him for Gallery magazine (click here to read it). Below is an extract of an interview we did with him…
What is the most important aspect about running your business and what do you enjoy the most?
I like people to enjoy being here and to take notice to my attention to detail. I like to be generous and spend time with the customers and hopefully they appreciate that.
Do you think that this is important to the success of your business, especially in this economic climate where other bars seem to be closing?
I believe in three things: Good quality food at the right price, sacrifice and quantity. This has been the key to success for the restaurant, now and when my uncle opened it in 1968. I’m not really good looking so people must come here for other reasons!!
What changes have you seen in the area, the community and the bar since you’ve been here?
When my uncle started the bar it was a typical Spanish bar, workers from the community with low incomes would come to eat greasy meat dishes: testicles, heart, tongue. 7 years ago the restaurant was decorated and I changed the menu, since then the restaurant attracts more families.
Are the majority of the customers from the area and do you know all your customers?
I have regular customers from the area who come everyday for a drink and I have local families who come for food at the weekends. I am always looking for new customers, when I see new customers I try and make them feel welcome and hopefully they’ll come back. I use my charm and sex appeal.
Do you feel the bar is important to the community and how do you see your role in the community?
I feel the bar is important to the community, it’s a useful meeting place; it’s social. I feel I always try and give the best and hopefully the people appreciate this. I know everyone but I try and remain out of everyone’s business, I’ll try not to interfere in other people’s lives and will be careful and respectful of the community.
You can follow Patricio at El Valle Hermoso on Facebook here.