Corona exile…

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(>Pictures at the bottom!)

…or; down south, following the sun!

Towards the end of November, the Corona variant Omikron spilled over from southern Africa to Europe and the governments became increasingly nervous in view of the upcoming festive season at the end of December. Restrictions of varying severity were imposed and Austria went into lockdown for a week. There were no negative headlines from south-western Europe and, in addition to high vaccination coverage, the current case numbers were very low.

So it was soon clear to us; we had to go to Spain as soon as possible and before Switzerland was put on the red list. So we chose a more direct route than is usual for us, and just a few hours later we sneaked off northwest of Geneva along a side road to France into the great outdoors. We generously bypassed the big customs posts to avoid possible controls or enquiries about our actions.

Our real destination for this winter was southern Spain or Portugal. Since Morocco was still not an option for individual tourists and there were severe restrictions to be followed in the country itself, shipping to the Canary Islands was at the top of our Christmas wish list. When I looked at the map, I had my doubts about whether I would be happy on these small islands far out in the Atlantic Ocean. Lazing around and lying on the beach are not an option for me, no, not for us.

In the greater Lyon area, we slowed down and stopped being driven by any intimidation regarding the Corona pandemic. Soon we switched back to the quieter country roads and enjoyed the rurality of the French countryside. The Rhone valley was already far behind us, the snowy mountains in the rear-view mirror gone, and through slight hills we climbed up into the eastern foothills of the Massif Central. It was not the most direct route to Spain, but we were in no hurry. It would have been a shame to rush through this wonderful region in its special winter colours and, despite the wintry temperatures – we now had a mobile heater!

Before heading back down to the wide plains in front of the Mediterranean, we curved over the countless hills along the Ardéche and enjoyed the almost deserted landscapes. Many villages were literally deserted at this time of year, shutters and doors closed and not a soul to be seen.

It was only a few kilometres to the Pyrenees and we immediately looked for a way far away from the big traffic routes. The second night we also spent far up on some pass and only discovered the surrounding snow-covered mountain peaks the next day under a bright blue sky. In any case, we were very happy about our heating and the great thing about this new achievement: we can switch it on and off from bed and slip out of our feathers in pleasant warmth. Wow!

Over another pass we reached the hinterland of Catalonia; far and wide there was no law enforcement or border official to be found on this road. Actually, we wanted to travel a little further west via Andorra, but due to the current snow and weather reports, we dropped this travel option immediately. Even in the eastern foothills of the Pyrenees, we were sometimes more than just challenged by the chosen route options.

Yes, we had arrived in Spain again and, as soon as you are not on the road in some nature park, you are allowed to drive almost everywhere where there is a passable road. We enjoyed this fact very much and tried to get to the Ebro Delta in as direct a line as possible. Whether the route was ultimately the most direct route of our virtual line on the map is not something we would like to discuss here, but the routes we drove were all delicacies and experiences in themselves.

After Iceland, we are almost true volcano experts and so it was almost mandatory to plan a detour to Olot, where supposedly countless extinct volcanic cones rise into the sky. If we hadn’t found this out in advance in the guidebook, we would have considered these cones to be beautifully formed erosion hills rather than former volcanic craters.

We had already visited the camper van car park far out near the nature reserve of the Ebro Delta several times. But this time we were surprised by the many motorhomes and had to make do with the adjacent car park. Many Spaniards took advantage of the extended weekend around the Santa Claus and the warm days for a trip to the sea.

Before we reached Valencia, we made another straight line across Spain to Granada. No sooner had we turned off the main road than we were on a bumpy dirt road that soon led us into a dense forest. Often we were unsure that we would drive into a dead end somewhere, or be forced to turn around in front of an iron gate. But far from it, we were able to follow our line really closely in a south-westerly direction. Whether we were on official paths or private connections, we never really knew, but no one said anything and mostly the few people on the roadside or in the fields greeted us with a friendly hand greeting.

But further south, I think we were already in the Andalusian region, it was over with the free riding on the planned paths. The roads were increasingly blocked by thick chains, forcing us to take long detours. It was mostly annoying when we reached such a barrier from the “inside” and had no alternative but the long way back.

This experience culminated shortly before Granada, when we climbed up over wonderful trails and had to drive from one locked gate to the next the following day. We were literally locked in the “Parque Natural”! Thanks to our small and very off-road camper, we managed to manoeuvre our way out of this awkward situation later in the afternoon and continue on our way legally.

For the visit to the Alhambra in Granada, we missed the advance booking of tickets on the internet, and there were no more free tickets available at the ticket offices for the wonderful weekend. What a pity; I would have loved to visit this legacy of the Islamic period on the Iberian peninsula. Instead, we soon left the high plateau in Granada and headed down to the Mediterranean. According to the weather reports, it is supposed to get very cool at night up there, and it should be a bit more bearable by the sea. Especially as we needed a campsite with a washing machine, which is not available inland at winter time. Along the Mediterranean Sea with its tourist infrastructures that are open all year round, a washing day should not be a problem for us.

Now we continued to follow the Mediterranean and the many tourist hotspots of the Spanish Riviera to Málaga. We were very surprised about the overwhelming offers. Every place wants to be better than the other and a lot is done to live up to this. For this, the streets and quarters near the coast shine and also both people say: “See and be seen”.

After so much pomp and splendour, we turned off again in Málaga and headed for the interior, where presumably all the farmers only grow olives. Up to the last corner or the very last hill, we could only see the olive trees.

Further west, the olives were gone and one “Parque Natural” followed the next. To the north, between Marbella and Tarifa, large areas are protected and a true Eldorado for hikers, mountain bikers and climbers. We meandered through this wild mountain landscape and we were not always quite sure when choosing our route whether we were still travelling legally or already illegally.

At the camp near Ubrique in the evening – it was the first time on our trip – a hiker pointed out to us that we were in a park and that camping and open fires were strictly forbidden here. So we moved our campsite a few metres outside the park boundary, hoping that the police would have other things to do on a Friday night than track down a few tourists in the bush.

Soon we left this mountain range and reached the wide open spaces northeast of Cádiz, where, in addition to a lot of solar power, immense areas of intensive vegetable cultivation are practised. The nearby nature reserve along the Río Guadalete is almost a bit of a mockery; in the hinterland, everything is done to get as much yield out of the earth as possible, and further down, the course of the river is protected. Even the plastic waste lying around almost trumps the species-rich bird life.

Weeks ago we tried to book a ferry connection to the Canary Islands and were a bit disappointed that we only got a free place for our jeep on 11 January 2022. But oh miracle; in Cádiz Chantal kept looking and – who would have thought – in two days there was still a connection with enough storage space. We quickly booked this crossing and cancelled the one we had already booked.

After a few minor repairs to the jeep – the self-installed electrics in the camp compartment broke down at times – we drove quickly to the ferry port of Huelva, a few kilometres from the Portuguese border. We didn’t make any big detours and soon lay down to rest near the harbour. The evening thunderstorm and heavy rain soon convinced us that the crossing to Gran Canaria was probably the right decision. We should leave in the morning and be on the island in 36 hours, with warmth and sunshine. Hopefully!

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