Saturday, 8 September 2007


Since our fateful time in Bilbao when we were marooned outside a shopping mall in Leon trying to replace all of our favoured gadgets, I have been thinking about the nature of plugging in and plugging out.

In the Matrix, when they plug in you know it is a physical illusion of sorts, but everything looks so much cooler. Food tastes good, their clothes are super cool, their bodies strong and capable of impossible feats. Out of the matrix, unplugged food is bland mush, their clothes are these grey shrouds and you realise that Neo can’t fight for sh..! Yet, for the majority once they taste their freedom whatever they want to fight for it, whatever its lack of slickness. Well being in the motorhome is a lot like that!

After that brief stint in Leon we were desperate to be back in nature, we really did not do Leon justice, it is a fascinating city but with the memory of that shopping centre lodged in my mind I don’t think I will be going back. From Leon we wild camped all along the spectacular Northern Coast of Spain. The most beautiful series of mountain scapes I have ever seen. We washed in freezing cold rivers, accumulated huge amounts of laundry so that all our clothes looked like grey shrouds, we ate whatever we could manage to eat from the local shops (our chef is very creative and managed to turn nothing into something yummy most nights…never bite the hand that feeds you). While we enjoyed the freedom of being away from towns and cities and people the only problem we faced was the weather!

You see when it’s sunny we are all outside enjoying the space of not having to be on top of each other. After lots of time outside everyone manages to find space in the motorhome. Josh usually hanging out by his bed near the `kitchen’, Ellie in her bed above the driving area, Andy and I in the lounge at the back and Moses sprawled infront of the toilet or lying outside under the motorhome. Alternately we are all outside lying under the canopy on cushions and blankets and just generally being quite hedonistic. But as we were to find out it is entirely a different situation in the rain and on that North Eastern coast it rained. It rained, rained, rained. In fact it rained so much that we wondered if the rain was following the Mosiemobile. Being from fair England rain is not normally a problem for us, you get dressed for it and go out in it and embrace it. But not if you are wild camping in a motorhome. We couldn’t get anything dry, including our wet hairy and very enthusiastic Golden Boy – Moses that is who instead of being sprawled outside was permanently sprawled in front of the toilet, the one place you want to get to in a hurry. Damp walking shoes, damp clothes, damp kids, damp dog, damp carpet. Our first sunny day was at the fishing village and even then the very next day the rain started and so desperate to feel a little more human we decided to plug in once more and made a beeline for Santiago de Campostello leaving out A Coruna and that apparently divine stretch of Spanish coastline, heading for sunshine, washing machines and hot showers we put in our latest favourite CD The Black Eyed Peas and headed south.

Usually when we arrive at a campsite we are chomping at the bit to get going. Not this time. 5 bedraggled Poopers arrived parked up after several attempts at a pitch where we were all alone. Immediately ran in 4 directions, Andy to the internet, kids to the swimming pool, Moses to his favourite spot under the motorhome and me to the showers. What bliss. After a lot of wow this is what it feels like to plug in this is so cool we headed off on the 40min walk down the hill from the campsite to Santiago. Ellie rollerbladed all the way. Watching my little girl roll and rock through the town will be my most treasured memory of Santiago. Even with the 50 min hike back up the steep hill at midnight, pushing her most of the way.

What a cool city to be plugged into. There is rather a lot important-historical-information I could tell you about Santiago but you can read it from a travel book, Lonely Planet is great. I can tell you what it felt like for me, bliss. Santiago is a gorgeous city, refined, open, eclectic, historical, modern, elegant and in many ways spiritual. It restored my belief that cities could be beautiful. We walked in its broad expansive plazas, ooowed and awed at its unbelievably impressive cathedral, breakfasted in lovely courtyards, sighed at the fountains and statues. We were blessed by the sultry guitaring and amused by the aweful bagpiping (very strange). Moses picked up girls wherever he went and Andy promptly took his lead from me. Pluggin in on that occasion was awesome and after a few days rest we were ready to head for Portugal.

Just outside of the border crossing for Portugal, Andy made a sharp right turn, (every unexpected turn feels sharp in our great and kind beast of a Mosiemobile) into the parking lot of what must easily win the grottiest cafĂ© in Spain award. We ordered two horrendous coffees and two awful hot chocolates served from a bottle and microwaved to a toxic heat, then sat looking out onto a rather uninspiring bit of Portuguese land and a more promising Portuguese river. Andy proceeded to give me one of his inspiring talks on my Portuguese heritage. If you are a friend of his you will know roughly what this kind of talk is like. He reminded me that like this river whose beginnings were on Spanish soil but quickly flowed into Portugal, so part of my heritage came from Portugal either through the legacy of the slave trade (as the slaves of Barbados were first brought to Barbados by the Portuguese) or via a distant 4 generation back Portuguese grandfather. These two factors meant that even in some small way this land has more significance for me than any of the other places we had been too so far. I don’t know what I really thought of all that he said but what I do know is that after the talk and after watching my two imps, Josh and Ellie playing under the border crossing sign I felt inspired to explore Portugal and plug into this space which in some way may be a new aspect of home.

We dropped into the Northern region of Minho and felt instantly plugged into another culture. Minho is a pretty heavily populated area, and everywhere we went we saw browned skinned dark haired people, startlingly white towns very sleepy relaxed towns such as Viana do Castelo with its romantic Baroque churches, rococo architecture and blue and white azjuelo tiled houses. We travelled to Ponte de Lima, through which the River Lima runs, its most striking feature being its beautiful restored roman bridge and warring Church bells from largely identical Churches sitting either side of the bridge.

Of all the lovely towns we passed through Ponte de Lima sticks most in my mind. We arrived feeling a little tired, the thrill of crossing a border died down and the tiredness of a days travel mounting. On top of that there is always the having to reorientate yourself to a new place, language, customs, rules,etc, etc. Andy as usual fearlessly turned a corner, I sat next to him fearfully wondering if I was going to have to get out in the middle of the road and guide the traffic and the motorhome out of a tight corner. Something I have had to do many times in a constant effort to take this motorhome where no other motorhome has been before. But, on this occasion my Portuguese ancestor must have been smiling down on me for instead of a tight corner the road opened into a grand pavilion and then lead to a huge parking area in front of the river, Yeah! We had found somewhere to rest in a town but not in a campsite! In our glee we failed to realise that there was a sign saying no caravans or motorhomes and had to move on after two sneaky nights. We managed to stay 2 nights cos we were welcomed by the Portuguese fairground bumper car company gypsy guys that were operating in the said car park and gave the children rides – it looked like we were one of them. Not before we swam in the River, Moses mostly, and walked in the streets and met an estate agent and had a look at some property and drank lovely Portuguese white wine and woke up with thumping headaches from the overlyloud crazy European style house music from the kind bumper cart gypsies.

After Ponte di Lima we realised that in Portugal, wildcamping is not permitted, but having taken away that freedom the Portuguese authorities have offered the Portuguese people and visitors all over Portugal very cheap, safe campsites with good facilities – called Parque di Campisto. So armed with a book on these campsites we Poopers have been enjoying the benefits of plugging in a lot more than we would normally. Portugal is definitely not set up for remote living. In our beloved Lonely Planet guide they mention that the Portuguese hate walking anywhere and will definitely not go anywhere remote. This has been our experience so far, many of the roads seem set up to ferry you into the towns, cities and villages. With our motorhome it has just not been easy to reach the more remote areas and since Bilbao our confidence at leaving it has been shaken so that we have not yet felt comfortable with leaving it and hiking off somewhere for a day. As a consequence we have been plugged in a lot more than we would normally choose and have seen some remarkably beautiful towns, villages and cities.

Moving south we’ve seen the cities of Braga, Oporto, Coimbra and next week, Lisbon. There’s a saying here in Portugal that Braga prays, Oporto works, Coimbra studies and Lisbon plays. Thinking this is as good enough a map to follow as any we thought we might visit these cities. So far we have plugged into Braga a discordant combination of religious strong hold and desire to modernise, largely through tacky touristy commerce, most evidenced as we climbed the steep pathways to the remarkable cathedral of Bom Jesus only to hear awful loud speaker music and be offered overpriced icecream and coffee. But we did have the most fantastic taxi ride home (I’ll let the boys tell you about that).

We’ve experienced incredibly atmospheric Oporto the second capital of Portugal. Oporto is incredibly Dickensian in nature and looks set for a great play involving romance, murder, and tragedy with the accompanying music being the sound of the seagulls and the smell of the daily catch. The dishevelled good looks of Oporto have made it one of my favourite cities so far. After viewing the old town the kids and I spent a wonderful morning wondering around the spectular contempary Museu Serralves, there I felt my friends Jon and Caroline with me and hope to return with them some day.

We took a short trip through the National Park of Serra de Estrela where I immediately felt relief at being in the fresh cold mountain air again. Moses having being confined to leads in the city joyously leapt out of the motor home and peed in front of the monument declaring the highest point in Portugal. That’s my boy! Disappointingly we could not stay as the campsite in the park was spookily deserted. We are now in the city of Coimbra said to be the studious town of Portugal. It is an extremely hot day and despite several attempts at getting moving to view what is supposed to be a beautiful city we just cannot get off our butts.

I am a little disappointed that we will not be seeing Coimbra, but every experience has something to teach us and this one has taught me that cities, no matter how beautiful is just not where I want to be right now. It is good to be safe, a relief to be clean and have clean washing, easy to communicate through the internet and delightful to be able to leave the motorhome and go see the sights. But I am finding it difficult. I find myself longing again for the freedom of being in the mountains away from all the conveniences but surrounded by all the natural beauty. It is definitely not easier to wildcamp, it is harder to look clean as clothes washing is not so easily available, food supplies run low and it’s either hiking to the nearest shop or conjuring up something passable to eat. But the rewards of being surrounded by all the natural beauty and silence that nature has to offer is a gift without comparison. So I guess coming back to the metaphor of the Matrix, I am looking for Zion, a place where beauty, music, dancing, culture and people are but freedom is also a possibility. So far we have experienced that mostly in Italy with our dear friends at La Croce. In two weeks we are meeting some English agents who buy remote properties and sell them, we will go and have a look and see if there is the possibility of enjoying these relaxed hard working, Portugese people and their sleepy towns but living in the remote freedom of the hills a kind of halfway house between pluggin in and pluggin out.

P.S. Andy has just bought me some postcards of Coimbra I will probably send them to some you entitled Coimbra the city we never saw.

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