Saturday 12 March 2016

Adios Piri-Piri, Hola Tapas! Seville and El Rócio

Portugal and Spain, 29th February – 4th March 2016

After two months we’ve finally put Portugal behind us, which means that we’ve got to swap our ‘obrigad(o/a)’ for ‘gracias’, and also that sadly there’s no more cheap piri-piri chicken on the horizon.  The good news is that I’ve already found a way of filling the food-shaped hole in my heart; after all, we’re in tapas territory now.

Before crossing the border into Spain we visited one final place on the route out of Portugal, and that was the Alentejan market town of Serpa.  After a while circling round looking for a large car park we could leave the van in rather than just parking it up on a random street, we gave up and made our way to the Intermarché, where we noticed a few vans parked outside the adjacent town swimming pool - nothing like safety in numbers when you’re parking up and walking away from the vehicle.  Despite having seen dozens of self-service laundry machines outside Intermarchés before and used a handful, Matt seemed particularly fascinated with the one here, something to do with different handles and controls on the machines.  I’m really not sure what it says about us as people that we can find entertainment in something so simple as a slightly altered supermarket washing machine.

Meanwhile, I was getting antsy about getting to see inside the castle walls before they closed for lunch at 12:30, so physically pulled Matt away from his beloved laundrette so we could walk around town like headless chickens until we figured out the right direction.  By the time we reached the old town it was already half 12 and the castle would have closed, so we slowed our pace and went for a wander around instead.  We found the castle entrance in the end, and needn’t have bothered rushing; not only did the winter opening hours mean lunch would have already started at 12, but it was closed all day anyway for Monday.

The aire approach road
Onwards we drove into Spain, into the land of tapas, tortillas, and really weird time-keeping (since when is a 2-5pm lunch closing time a good idea?).  Our eventual goal was to go south-west towards Seville, but we decided to break the drive time up and go to the inland village of Cumbres Mayores.  A group of older local men stared as we approached as though the van was some great novelty, and perhaps it was; the town isn’t directly on one of the main routes through Spain into Portugal (it requires a bit of a detour), nor is it a frequent tourist destination, so maybe not many vans come out here.  We passed through town to get to the motorhome parking (GPS: 38.05961 -6.63744, Free inc. serv. point), which is strangely located about 200 meters down a dirt track, with nothing in the immediate vicinity other than animal pens over a ridge and a helipad.  There were no other vans present and I experienced a strange episode where I suddenly felt like a member of the upper-middle class, living in a neighbourless little countryside pad with views over the hills and my own private helipad; I’m starting to think that all this drinking of proper bottled wine is going to my head (which my massive decrease in ability to solve Sudoku puzzles later that evening would agree with), and perhaps it’s time to go back to the supermarket brik variety.

Behold: Our mighty charging rig in all its glory, ready for the long drive into Spain
Rural living in Cumbres Mayores

After a wander around the mostly quiet town in the morning via the castle and church, we returned to the aire to find that another motorhome had turned up, breaking the illusion of my posh no-neighbour countryside retreat.  We decided that rather than heading straight for Seville, we would first go south to a town we’d heard mentioned a few times before, El Rócio.  We hit the road, where the scenery generally alternated between the two extremes of tree-covered hills and grass-covered hills, and everything inbetween, which I suppose is the occasional grassy hill with a tree on it.  Finally we hit civilisation at the town of Valverde del Camino which conveniently has a motorhome aire (GPS: 37.58112 -6.75156, Free inc. serv. point) and is about half of the drive distance to El Rócio.  We’d only planned to use the town as a convenient place to spend the night, but while we were around decided we might as well go and see what the town was like, and came away pleasantly surprised.  There wasn’t anything in the way of interesting landmarks, but the town had a very pleasant atmosphere with lots of people milling about and sitting at café tables in the main square.

The main square

Something we haven't really come across before: inner-town living complete with front garden areas

El Rócio the following day came as something of a sharp contrast.  During most of the week the place is a ghost town, with closed-up buildings made up with a lot of wooden frameworks and front verandas/porches facing out onto streets of fine sand.  The occasional horse passed by and the couple of tat shops on the main stretch seemed to be selling riding related gear.  If a ball of tumbleweed was to roll past, it wouldn’t have felt out of place.  You might be forgiven for thinking we’d accidentally stumbled onto the set of a Spaghetti Western, if not for the modern bins or the occasional car cutting through town, leaving dusty trails in their wake.

None of the people we’ve asked seem to know why the village buildings were all built in such an unusual style or why the sandy streets were never paved; I’m sure the internet would be able to provide the answers but alas, I write this from a spot with limited signal.  It seems that the main time when the town comes to life however is around Pentecost day, when hundreds of thousands of pilgrims flock here from all over Spain in huge horse-led processions on the Saturday so that they can visit the cathedral on Sunday morning, and all of the buildings are then used as accommodation.  It also gets busy on weekends but as it was, on our midweek visit there were more signs of life coming from the adjacent wetlands, where three flamingos seemed to be having a feathers-ruffled argument.  I didn’t realise flamingos had anything to fight about, but there you go.

Parking wise, our original plans were just to stop in El Rócio for the afternoon before carrying on.  We arrived in the main €1 parking area, where the parking attendant told us no campers whatsoever, even just for day parking.  With a shrug we instead went back to the main road, where a few hundred meters away there was a (free) dirt/grass area being used by a half-dozen other vans next to the police station.  After our look around Matt went to talk to a nearby British van to see whether they’d stayed the night here.  One thing led to another, and soon we were having afternoon and evening beers with them and another British couple.  Both couples were heading in the opposite direction towards Portugal so it was good to swap pointers on nice places to visit, as well as to suss out the current attitude towards freeparking.  It seems that this year everyone has been saying the police in Portugal have been stricter than Spain, a role reversal from what we were told last year.  Bad news for anyone heading to Portugal, but hopefully good news for us!

As often happens when we have drinks with other travellers, we lost track of time and it was nearing half eight when we made it back to the van to start preparing dinner (my latest vegetarian meal experiment, a lentil curry - may have slightly overdosed on the lentils).  If nothing else it means our eating at least fit in a little better with Spanish timekeeping, with it being considered perfectly normal to have the evening meal around 9 in the evening here.

The next day, after saying our goodbyes, it was on to Seville.  There are two aires here; the nicer one is on the outskirts and requires a bus journey to get into the city, so rather than spending money on public transport we used the other one close to the city centre (GPS: 37.36263 -5.99451, €12 inc. service point, free WiFi point and showers, €3 hookup).  It’s in a vehicle storage facility on the dockside with an area sectioned off for motorhomes so it’s not particularly attractive, but it’s worth the €12 as it’s a fenced compound behind locked electric gates with 24hr CCTV and security, all while being in walking distance of the city centre.

Seville… well, what can I say about Seville?  If you’d asked me a year ago what I knew about the place my only association would have been that some of the oranges in my local supermarket came from Seville, but there’s so much more to it than that.  It really is a beautiful city, with such an interesting mix of different buildings; my knowledge of architecture is limited but I’d really recommend it for anyone who is into that kind of thing.  From the aire it’s about a 40-50 minute pleasant riverside walk to the city centre where the main two sights are, the cathedral and the Alcázar (palace).  We gave the palace a miss this time around but visited the cathedral, rarely for us paying an entry fee at €9 each.  It’s a 15th century Gothic building that took a century to complete, built on top of a mosque which was, in centuries past, built on top of another cathedral.  By square metres it is the largest in the world, and there are so many different rooms and side chapels full of various sculptures and artwork.  It’s easy to lose track of time when you’re inside and we spent 1.5-2 hours exploring the rooms and adjoining tower (La Giralda – previously used by the Moors for calling Muslims to prayer), which is certainly a lot longer than our usual fleeting church wanders.  We took so many pictures of the cathedral that it's probably best if we post the majority at the end.

North of the cathedral is the old Jewish quarter, where the buildings tower over the narrow alleys making it possible to touch sides of the street in places, and a couple of balconies looking like you could climb from one side to the other.  In recent times it’s become tapas central and so we tried a few places, and weren’t left disappointed with any of the dishes we were served.  We had a tortilla (Spanish omelette) that put anything I’ve ever cooked in the van to shame; I’m going to have to step my game up.  At the last place we went to I decided to give oxtail a try, which was practically a meal in itself, and ended up already full on food by the time the locals were just starting to come out for the evening.

Plaza de España
There’s a lot of museums around Seville that are free to EU nationals; we tried the Archive of the Indies as it was next to the cathedral, which seemed to be a naval war museum based around the Napoleonic wars.  Unfortunately all of the captions were in Spanish only, which led to us making up a lot of our own explanations for what things were!  Another free attraction worth a visit is the Plaza de España, south of the city centre (and conveniently, not far off-route for walking to/from the aire).  Next to one of the main city parks, it’s a semi-circular building and courtyard area with fountains and a small canal, with rowing boats and horse and carts for hire.  It’s pleasant enough that you can forget you’re in the middle of a big city for just a moment, before heading off to see more of the sights.

It really is a great city, and I can easily see us coming back some time to see more of the place and perhaps experience a bit more of the nightlife.

- Jo

Seville Cathedral:

The tomb of Christopher Columbus
The bells in Giralde tower

Not Seville Cathedral, but included in the entry price, San Salvador church:


  1. I see from the photos you went up the bell tower, all those ramps! but what a great veiw. We did Saville 10 weeks ago, and will be back next week, staying on for 'Holy week' just now in El Rocio. To find the Plaza de Espna and the gardens....what a treat, superb. We found the Camperstop you were on a bit noisey & so moved to Gelves after 2 nights. Enjoy the blog...take care.

    1. The ramps in the bell tower just seemed to keep on going! We broke it up a bit by looking at some of the displays on the way up. The aire was fairly quiet when we were there, maybe we were lucky, seems like Gelves would be a nicer spot though.
      I imagine it must be a different experience at El Rocio compared to how it was when we were there when it was so quiet, enjoy!

  2. Very interesting and extremely well written , you should channel your writing skills into becoming a travel writer ............Brian a follower

    1. Thank you for your comments Brian, maybe that could be something to look into in the future :)