I am only leaving Tarifa for nine weeks – we’re back at the beginning of September for one more month of magical adventures before I head off, sans Tiggy and The Beast, to Nepal. But still, the time to depart had come round far too fast.
I hate packing, I always have far too much stuff. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to live life as a minimalist person, a floaty existence, unencumbered from clutter. I often marvel at ‘all white’ interior photo shoots in designer home magazines and try and always fail to imagine myself existing in a home like that.
I suppose our personal possessions are a reflection of our true characters – mine certainly is – busy, busy, busy, always doing something, my own special version of organized chaos, a high-energy life strewn with umpteen different things going on at once. I think it’s why swimming, walking, kite-surfing etc. are so good for me, they either lull me into a dream-free state or force me to concentrate and think of only one thing (where is my kite, my board, the waves, the wind).
I’ve done really well on avoiding retail therapy during my time in Tarifa – I haven’t gone over my designated budget and the only really big ticket purchases I’ve made are for kite surfing. On packing, I reaffirmed my vow to keep de-cluttering and to stop purchasing anything unnecessarily. I say all of this, yet a secret, small part of me still hankers after a rose-gold Rolex yachtmaster…I am nothing if not a creature of conflict and contradiction.
The weather for my final week was amazing – clear blue skies and glorious sunshine. A Poniente breeze blew in from the Atlantic, allowing for blue-bird kite-surfing and serene sea-swimming conditions. And I managed to cram in as much of both as time allowed.
It’s a long and lovely pilgrimage home, taking in some of the finest cities Spain has to offer on a four day voyage; Tarifa to Sevilla, Sevilla to Salamanca, Salamanca to Portsmouth (via ferry) and one last ferry from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight. All in all, 633 miles of driving, 622 miles on a Brittany ferry and a short hop home to Cowes.
After The Beast’s meltdown only the week before, the hero farmer who rescued us had already checked the oil and water and decreed them good. And, bribed with an eight pack of Cruzcampo beer, the local mechanic had agreed to bump The Beast up his one-week waiting list and fixed our frazzled blinkers and headlights in under a day for a refreshingly thrifty thirty euros.
I spent a lot of time sorting through all my things, putting aside one bag of clothes for September and taking four more large bags home with me, along with some books, my half-finished painting canvas, picnic basket and a plethora of other belongings that had hardly been used since my arrival.
Given that I was now the proud owner of three new, beautiful kites (two pink, one blue), a kite-board (pink and blue) and wetsuit (merely blue), I was actually coming home with more than I took out. So, after a not insignificant amount of effort, I was shipshape and prepared to cast off from Tarifa and weave our way home back to the Isle of Wight.
The Beast (thankfully) was sound and ready, I was sound albeit not quite emotionally ready, it was Tiggy, unfortunately, who turned out to be little under par. After my last, best and most enjoyable kite surfing session thus far, I returned home to be welcomed both by Tiggy and a little pile of luminous yellow vomit. These things happen, Tiggy isn’t often sick, and it always passes quickly so I held off feeding her any supper and kept my fingers crossed she’d be ok in the morning.
A lovely Last Supper with the boys came and went, Tiggy survived the night without producing any more radio-active surprises and we rolled into Thursday ready to rock and roll from the Reefa and commence our journey up to Sevilla. At lunchtime Tiggy was fed with her usual post-upset tummy dish of chicken-and-rice which was gobbled down in a flash and the bowl pushed round the floor of the apartment like an ice hockey puck as she licked out every last drop.
The boys came round to help me strategically pack The Beast. And after a slightly stressful incident of puffing up The Beasts tyres (30 PSI for those of you who care about such things) during which the boys were very kind and patient and I was somewhat impatient and unintentionally ungrateful, we all headed out to one of our favourite chiringuito for an ice cream and a bit of a decompress before the journey began.
Tiggy enjoyed a bouncy and fun game of catch while I, for one last time, absorbed the arresting sight of hundreds of kites careering through the skies attached by a tangle of 25 metre lines to the surfers carving through the waves.
Time to go, we said our goodbyes and headed inland from the coast to Sevilla – officially the warmest city in Europe and which, for those of you who believe in mythology, was founded by non other than Hercules.
Fittingly, it was somewhat of a Herculean drive: scorching hot and very dusty. The Beast’s fresh-air conditioning vents were cranked open to the max, my window and the passenger window were both wide open and still it was sizzling. The road was hilly, although not particularly winding and the vistas of the rugged hills of Los Alcornocales National Park, carpeted with one of the largest cork forests in the world, made for a visually impressive and interesting drive.
The Beast is perfectly capable of averaging at 60mph, but it’s far from a comfy cruise, once the speedo needle has tipped beyond 55mph the whole physical experience moves up an exponential notch and he becomes uncomfortably bumpy, bouncy and deafeningly rattly, something one has to endure as opposed to enjoy. As we all know that life is about the journey and not the destination, I therefore chose to cruise at a slightly (although not much) more serene average speed of 55mph.
Comfort factor aside, this meant that absolutely everything overtook us – lorries and buses travel at 60mph so we avoided getting stuck in their wake and as the roads weren’t busy, we could drive along in solitude without having to worry about complex and stressful manoeuvres such as overtaking or driving too close to anyone.
Tiggy always travels up front, next to me in the middle seat. She loves a journey in The Beast, I don’t know if it’s the vibrations or the sounds that she likes the most, but something about it is clearly very comforting to her, as she always curls up in her basket and goes sound asleep for hours at a time. Every now and again she’ll stir, wriggle to a new spot if the sun has moved and then go straight back to sleep. It’s not a bad life she leads.
About forty-five minutes into our journey, she stirred, stretched, squinted at me dozily and then opened her mouth and projectile vomited half digested chicken and rice all over the dashboard. She gave me a look as if to say ‘sorry mummy’, and then proceeded to attempt to eat the bits that hadn’t made it onto the dashboard and had landed on the side of her bed.
Aghast, but trying to remain calm, I saw a sign that said ‘Camino de Servicio’ which was the next exit and so I took it. Just as I was approaching the exit ramp, a wasp flew in via the open air front flap, stung me in the arm and then got sucked out of my driver’s side window before I could personally ensure it’s early demise. I howled loudly both in pain and exasperation. It really, really hurt.
Taking the service road, I looked, but couldn’t see the garage that I expected to be off the roundabout from the exit ramp. I followed the Camino de Servicio signs thinking perhaps it would be a garage in a small village – oftentimes in Spain the garages are about half a kilometer from the motorway, presumably located on what was once the main thoroughfare. But no, none was forthcoming.
After a couple of minutes the TomTom realized the error of my ways and re-routed us, telling us to go straight for five more miles before we could get back on the motorway towards Sevi-R (TomTom’s mis-pronunciation of Spanish towns is worthy of a blog post in its own right).
By the time I realized that the service station was going to be but a mirage in my mind, my arm was really starting to throb and the car was filled with the pungent and nauseating aroma of warm chicken vomit, with chunks dropping off the dashboard onto the floor.
I pulled over and used up half a packet of wet wipes cleaning the dashboard, the floor, Tiggy’s basket and the seat. The one time to be grateful for plastic seating in 35 plus degrees heat is when your dog has just been sick all over it, and you need to clean it up.
There wasn’t much I could do about my arm, which had gone a bit numb and was properly painful. There wasn’t much more I could do about Tiggy being sick either – we still had two and a half hours to go and we needed to get there.
Back on the motorway once more, I saw a Repsol garage on the side of the road, so I pulled in to take stock and gather my senses. Tiggy had some water; I had a small coffee and rubbed my smarting arm.
I bought some Haribo Starmix to cheer myself up and splurged 1.5 euros on a lemon scented car freshener which proclaimed ‘reir es la major vitamina’ – ‘laughter is the best vitamin’, clearly the Spanish version of ‘laughter is the best medicine’. It made me smile, but I was still some way off being able to chuckle about what had happened. Projectile dog vomit and baking hot car interiors do not make for a fun nor happy partnership.
The Novotel where we were staying thankfully had an underground car park, although the corners were really tight, so I had to navigate three fifteen-point turns to get us into the hotel’s parking section – The Beast’s turning circle is diametrically opposed to that of a London Black Cab. If they had offered valet parking, I would have thrown the keys to the bellboy, Hollywood style, and legged it.
Once checked into our room, with the air conditioning on maximum cool and Tiggy tucked up in her basket on top of a beach towel in case of any more chundering, I ran a bath and soaked in peace and solitude for a good half hour.
After getting dressed, Tiggy and I wandered out into the very warm evening – it was still 30 degrees at 8.30pm – somewhat frazzled by the unexpected events and fried by the heat, we circumnavigated the impressive, enormous cathedral and bullring in a slightly lack-luster fashion.
The cathedral is awe-inspiring, dwarfing the likes of St Pauls Cathedral, it took over one hundred years to build when it was started in 1401. Standing defiantly on the former site of the city’s mosque, the spot was chosen two hundred years after the Castilians had successfully booted out the Islamic ‘invaders’ who had only spent the previous 770 years living there. I find the history of this region absorbing, fascinating and horrifying with unnerving and unsettling parallels to the world we find ourselves living in today (what is it they say about history repeating itself…).
The next morning, we were up early as Sevilla to Salamanca was the longest leg of our journey – a bottom numbing five hours plus. Thankfully there had been no unwelcome mid-night deposits from the depths of Tiggy’s tummy (Tiggy remained nil by mouth to reduce any risk of that) and my arm had finally stopped aching.
I carried our bags down to the car and opened the passenger door to be greeted by an overwhelming onslaught: a stomach churning smell of stale chicken vomit mingled with synthetic lemon air freshener. My heart sank, my wet wipe clean up had clearly missed some nook or cranny where slowly decomposing chicken had made its home.
I still needed to check out of the hotel, so tucking Tiggy under my arm, we got the lift up to reception where, with my best game face on and trying to make Tiggy look as cute and innocent as possible, I asked if I could please avail myself of some disinfectant and a cloth because ‘my poor little doggy had been car sick yesterday’.
I explained that we had to drive all the way to Salamanca in my very old and slow car, at which point the kindly manager picked up the phone to housekeeping and garbled something unintelligible to whomever was on the other end.
He told me to go down to the car which I did, where I was promptly met by not one, but two housekeeping ladies, with a trolley full of cleaning products, along with a bucket and a mop. I repeated the ‘pauvrecito perrito’ (poor little doggy) web of half-truths to the ladies, who shook their heads sympathetically and insisted on doing the job themselves.
One of them took such a shine to Tiggy that as well as vigorously mopping out the foot-well, even The Beast’s dashboard received an efficient spritzing of lavender furniture polish and an energetic buffing. They then wanted their photo taking with Tiggy in front of The Beast, which I was more than happy to oblige (although annoyingly I forgot to take one of my own).
And under a cloud of lemon and lavender scent we executed three more fifteen point turns to exit the underground car park and leave the blistering heat of Sevilla behind us.
There’s not that much to embellish about our journey really – it was long, you basically go straight on for 125 miles, hang a right and then stay on the same road for another 125 miles; the countryside was green and vast and a joy to behold; The Beast was mechanically flawless; Tiggy wasn’t sick and no unwelcome insects invaded or stung.
The further away from the stifling heat of Sevilla we got and the closer to Salamanca, the more pleasant the journey became (although my bottom got a bit numb towards the end).
We stopped to refuel, twice – the first time I bought some Jamon flavor Ruffles – unequivocally the best flavoured crisp in Spain, the second time I topped up on the previous day’s Haribo Starmix (large bag). Whilst neither snack could come close to claiming they were of any nutritional benefit whatsoever, I thoroughly enjoyed them both and scoffed them down in an embarrassingly short space of time.
We arrived in Salamanca at about 3pm, once in our room Tiggy was fed for the first time and as soon as the last mouthful was digested, I took her for a long walk, just in case the dodgy tum decided to make a reappearance.
Thankfully the food stayed down and we returned back to the hotel for a siesta and for me to wallow in another luxurious bath (lots of bubbles) before heading out for yet more underwhelming and overpriced food. I’m really not good at choosing where to eat, and must do more research next time (adds Lonely Planet Salamanca to shopping basket on Amazon).
Tarifa aside, Salamanca is my favourite city in Spain (although I do still have to visit Cadiz and Grenada). To many people, Sevilla is the most beautiful city in Spain, and it really is extraordinary, but for me it’s no contest that Salamanca pips it to the post. I’m not sure if it’s the fact that it’s smaller, so the incredible architecture feels more immersive and accessible or perhaps, because of the university, there’s a higher concentration of ancient buildings to admire than Sevilla.
It’s such a vibrant city, mainly thanks to the large population of both local and international students, stunningly floodlight by night or illumined with soft warmth when bathing in the afternoon sun. The facades of the spectacular buildings make for a visual feast, bursting with mythical heroes, impressive religious scenes and exquisite coats of arms, bestowing the whole city with a magical quality and mystical feel.
Its history is equally as fascinating as Sevilla; the university is the oldest in Spain and one of the oldest in the western world, Christopher Columbus lectured there; the ‘new cathedral’ was only built in 1512 (restoration work in 1992 saw a faun eating an ice cream and an astronaut carved into the façade!); and the city was also Franco’s headquarters making Salamanca the de facto Nationalist capital and centre of power during the entire Spanish civil war.
A late breakfast more than made up for my disappointing dinners from the two previous evenings. Outside on the terrace, I over indulged in a smorgasbord of bucksfizz, yoghurt and homemade compot followed by scrambled eggs, bacon, grilled tomatoes and a petite pain au chocolat to round it all off. Only when travelling is chocolate ok for breakfast. Somewhat stuffed, dazed and confused from an inevitable food coma, I took Tiggy for a long walk, ready for our last three and a half hour drive to Santander and the ferry that night which would carry us back across the Bay of Biscay and down The Channel into Portsmouth.
As we were leaving, I risked life, limb and the wrath of the Spanish drivers of Salamanca by parking The Beast diagonally across a pavement to get a ‘money shot’ of him in front of the cathedral and another of us going through an ancient tunnel. And then, still satiated and most content, we were off once more.
The lemon scented freshener had already run out of smell, which made it one of my poorer 1.5 euro investments, but thankfully the eau de chicken-sick had definitely gone too, so I didn’t really feel it was my place to grumble.
The road to Santander was hilly and The Beast drank a lot of diesel – we traversed viaducts, zoomed through long tunnels and were in the queue for the ferry in no time at all. There’s not much to say about Santander that’s really of interest (that I saw), it’s headquarters to the bank, it’s ugly as sadly much of the town was destroyed by a fire in 1941, and the port is very big.
My passport was scantily checked, Tiggy’s passport was thoroughly checked and a new yellow “Pet On Board” sticker was affixed to The Beast’s windscreen. And that was that, our time in Spain was up, we were ready to board and commence the penultimate leg of our long journey home.
Once on board, Tiggy and I bundled into the lift up to the doggy deck. It’s a pretty slick and efficient service, except that Tiggles, much to her utter horror, has to go in a kennel that somewhat unfortunately – thanks to its very hygienic stainless steel casing and bars – looks very much like a jail. The nice thing is that dog owners can visit their precious pups any time of day and night, and because the weather on the crossing was stunning, we spent most of the day on the outside doggy deck, Tiggy toasting in the sunshine on my knee, and me writing this blog.
I started to write something about how eccentric, quirky and possibly downright bonkers, the other the dog owners were and then realized that, really, I was more than probably simply verbalising what they all thought of me. Contemplating and chuckling inwardly over this self-realisation for a short time, I stopped typing and sheepishly tapped the backspace button to delete what I had written. We fellow travelling dog owners need to stick together.
Long, lolloping waves greeted us head on as we left the shores of Spain behind and the ferry gently rocked over and slid down the back of them as we headed out into the Bay of Biscay. I looked down onto the waves and thought what fun it would be to kite surf out there on them – a watery, wind powered roller coaster, oh how I do love the sea.
Yet one more unsatisfactory supper later (should have stuck to Jamon Ruffles and Haribo) gave me the excuse to go via the shop after tucking Tiggy into bed that evening and, along with a cup of lukewarm PG tips, I gorged on a whole bar of Dairy Milk Fruit and Nut in bed whilst reading my book. Some crumbs of chocolate dropped and melted onto the sheet, I felt both guilty and naughty – it was rather like being at a pyjama party except I was the only guest. Satiated (and a bit sickly if I’m really honest), I turned off the light and, suddenly feeling utterly shattered, settled into my narrow bunk for a good night’s sleep.
Lying there I thought about Tiggy, up at the bow where it’s way more bumpy, and hoped she’d be ok with the waves that continued to roll towards us as we crossed Biscay. My cabin was towards the stern and, as I’d chosen the cheapest (yet still reassuringly expensive) cabin available, I was only one level above the car decks; I could feel the ship’s propeller shudder and judder beneath me.
Once I’ve got used to the vibrations and the constant noise of the engine, I find sleeping on a ferry really peaceful but annoyingly, despite being really tired, it took me ages to get to sleep that night.
My mind kept wandering – how did I feel about heading home? Would I miss the ‘Reefa? How can the time have flown by so quickly? Am I still doing the right thing? Am I keeping busy enough? Is there anything I else I should be doing that I’m not? I was all at sea; already homesick for Tarifa, and, at the same time, homesick for home. I don’t know how it’s possible to miss two places (or the people in them) at once, but it is.
Everyone keeps asking me what I will do when my gap year is over – the truthful answer is, I don’t know yet. I’ve been in touch with a few headhunters, but the opportunities that would be right for me (and I right for them) are really few and far between. There was one utterly amazing job, it would have been a dream job five years ago, and the interviews involved having Skype meetings with some of the most powerful people in fashion – but it was 50% in New York. I’ve more than been there, done that, got the t-shirt, along with the sweatshirt, cap and shoes – no amount of money or bragging job title in the world will induce me to spend half my life on an aeroplane ever again.
I trust myself well enough now that I will know when I find the right opportunity (or the right opportunity finds me) and when it does, I shall seize and embrace it.
Eventually my mind stopped whirling, I fell sound asleep and, unusually, didn’t wake up until my alarm sang softly in my ear. After showering in what must be the smallest bathroom known to mankind, I dashed upstairs to release Tiggy from jail, give her breakfast and a leg stretch on the doggy deck. Once she realised that food was on the cards, she quickly got over her umbrage at having been incarcerated all night, along with fifteen other howling and wailing four legged friends, and leapt around as much as one can on a gently ducking and diving deck.
It was a blissful day of quiet contemplation, writing, reading and soaking up the sun in the lee of the doggy penitentiary. I considered going for a swim in the open air, postage stamp, roof top pool, but it was closed due to the ‘sea state’ which was causing the swimming pool’s water to slop rather violently from one end to the other as the ferry rolled up and down the waves. I was gutted, it would have been fun I imagined, rather like swimming in a washing machine on a slow cycle.
It’s a long passage from Lands End (which we couldn’t see, but Google maps told me we’d passed) along one of my favourite coastlines in England – past the pretty little seaside towns of St Mawes, Dartmouth and Fowey; where I have spent many a happy summer, pottering around on the water. Seagulls squawked above us in the clear blue sky and a warm breeze puffed gently from the west.
After countless tummy tickles for Tiggy, many cups of tea and a plate of soggy chips for me, we eventually passed Portland Bill, a point around which I have sailed so very often, but never in such glorious conditions. A small shiver of anticipation ran through me.
Sliding Tiggy off my lap, I stood up and we ambled over to the ship’s railings, Tiggy bravely peering at the sea below, me peering out to see if I could spot the Isle of Wight. Squinting into the bright light, far away in the distance, out beyond where the sunlight bounced off the waves and the wind made patterns on the water, I could just make out the outline of a small, dark mound and instinctively I knew; I was home.