Wednesday, 5 June 2013

A Quiet Stroll Down the Rio Seco (A Guest Post by HeatherC)

For the latest, second, guest post at The Rough Guide to a Lonely Planet, I have asked an old friend of mine (and a published magazine travel writer) to contribute.  Heather has produced a really entertaining and insightful guide to an area of Spain many people are close to, on the Costa Blanca, but may not necessarily take the time to visit.  I hope you enjoy reading about the Rio Seco as much as I did and that it provides you with the inspiration to take that step off the beaten track to explore somewhere new in a part of the world already 'conquered' by the package tourist.


Last month I called upon a friend I’d met in Ecuador several years ago. She had come to visit me when I lived in Sheffield and we’d kept in touch over the Internet, but it’s been a good few years since we last met up. She now lives in Spain, and I thought it was about time I took advantage of the outrageously cheap flights to Murcia and paid her a visit. To be quite honest, I wasn’t expecting much from the destination itself: The Costa Blanca. An internet search of the area, Pilar de la Horadada, yielded pages and pages of golf resorts, 18-30 style holiday offers and ‘Dream Homes’ in the sun. Not really my cup of tea, but a bit of sunshine and a catch-up with my old pal would make a lovely break in itself – so long as I could avoid theme bars and golf courses.

The Rio Seco and Pinar de Campoverde is located north of San Javier and east of Murcia.

View Larger Map

Finn came to pick me up from Murcia airport, which is a good job as it is really quite tiny and doesn’t seem to be furnished with taxi ranks or bus stops (this explains the enormous queues for car hire I had to steer through in the arrivals hall). I spent the 20 minute journey to our destination peering through the darkness and getting very excited at glimpses of citrus groves, with unpicked fruits illuminated by the headlights. The area around Pilar is largely agricultural. Whilst it is true that many of the little fishing villages on the coast have been turned into ex-pat communities and concreted monstrosities, you don’t have to go too far inland to find yourself in rural Spain.

Finn had to spend most of the daytime at work, and I set about getting to know the village where she lived – Pinar de Campoverde. It didn’t take too long, to be quite honest; the centre of Campoverde is essentially one street with a couple of basic shops and some alarming-looking bars with names like ‘Coco Loco.’ Many British and German citizens have emigrated here, or have holiday homes where they spend the summer season. This is still a Spanish village, however, and you’d get short shrift in the tobacconist (run by the ex-Mayoress) if you insisted on speaking English.

What is really special about Campoverde, however, is that it perches on the edge of a truly beautiful national park – the Rio Seco. Just off the main street is a little road leading to one of the entrances to this protected area, based on the course of a dry riverbed. When I visited, however, it was not so dry – heavy showers punctuated my holiday, incredibly unusual for an area that is usually baked dry by the endless sunshine. This meant that a ghost of a river had begun to flow along its old path, adding a lush freshness to the landscape. In places the colourful sandstone cliffs have eroded into stunning columns and caves which catch the sunlight in red and gold. In other places, trees, grasses, shrubs and reeds have grown so thick that sunlight is blotted out and you find yourself walking through a tunnel of greenery. A huge variety of wildlife lives in the Rio Seco area. I saw birds such as Bee-eaters, Hoopoes, Finches and Long-tailed Tits, as well as lizards and rabbits. Snakes are also reportedly common here, as well as hares and red squirrels. The flora is so varied, from Aloe and Pine to Bullrush and Rubber Plant. Bougainvillea, Tamarisk and Red Bottlebrush add splashes of red and pink to the greenery, against the gorgeous golden sandstone. What most amazed me was that there was no one else there. It was just me and the Bottlebrush and the Hoopoes. Walking alone in this dreamlike landscape was fantastically peaceful. I love being solo in this kind of environment, where you can truly soak up the tranquillity and let your thoughts wander at will. Aside from the trickling of water and the chatter of birds, there was beautiful silence.

A Bee-eater (source - HeatherC)

 Red Bottlebrush (source - HeatherC)

Signposting the way! (source - HeatherC)

Ridges of rock (source - HeatherC)

A red squirrel (source - HeatherC)

Rubber Plant (source - HeatherC)

Sensible precautions must be taken, naturally, as all solo travel necessitates; a phone and a bottle of water are essentials. Finn warned me not to go when heavy rain was forecast as flash-floods can be a danger, and you wouldn’t want to be caught there in the heat of the day, so it’s best to set off early morning or late afternoon. You can walk for several miles along various paths, either towards Mil Palmeras on the coast or in a loop back to Campoverde. In drier weather it’s possible to cycle along the route, though you should be prepared to carry your bike at times!

HeatherC's underwater adventures in Spain (source - HeatherC)

The last thing I expected in visiting the Costa Blanca was a rural retreat, but that is exactly what I got. I had a dip in the sea at a lovely quiet beach, Torre de la Horadada, and a glorious walk at another nature reserve, Lo Pagan, where there are colonies of Flamingos and various seabirds. Still, it was the fantastic solitude and ethereal beauty of the Rio Seco that really impressed me, and reminded me that a solo rural getaway can be just as rewarding as an action-packed city break. It has also reminded me to seek out beauty in unlikely places – a bargain flight to tourist central could land you a stone’s throw away from a pastoral paradise.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

One Year On - The TRGTALP Review of the Year So Far...

I know I said in my last post that this blog isn't about me writing about all the places I've visited; thus, leaving many readers relying on this site as a cure for insomnia.  Nevertheless, I thought it might be nice to review my year in travel so far and, rather than blather on about all the amazing neoclassical churches I visited or the many sites of Estrucan interest I encountered, I had the idea of picking out why each place provided the makings of some top trips that you too might want to take inspiration from too...

Best Budget Destination...
It has to be a tie between Budapest and Krakow!  The food and drink in these destinations is very good value.  A three course meal in a great restaurant in Krakow with alcoholic drink 9 Euros.  Who can argue with that?!  Plus, the dessert was the best tiramisu I have ever had...and, boy, have I wolfed down some  fine Italian marscarpone sponge desserts!

Fun and frolics in the Market Square in Krakow!

Worst Budget Destination...
This does no way imply I didn't enjoy myself here (see my post 'Hej Sverige - AKA Storming Stockholm with Friends') and I would certainly recommend a trip, but Stockholm provided one of my costlier trips this year.  I was prepared for the high living costs the Swedes have, but on several occassions I was still amazed at some of the prices I saw....and paid!  Prepare your wallet for a shock.

Photo-Bombing the Gamla Stan!

Most Satisfying Tourist Attraction...
The Szechenyi Baths, in Budapest, offer a great half day of fun and frolics in a thermal spa right in the heart of the city.  I loved every minute of sampling the different indoor pools and steam rooms before heading out to bathe in the thermally-heated outdoor pools in the glow of the yellow pastel hues of this amazing building!  The underground train ride to the baths is an event in itself, offering you a train carriage made from what seems like flimsy balsa wood and a network that makes the London Underground look like something out of 'The Jetsons'!

The Szechenyi Baths in Budapest

Best Day Trip...
Horrific as it is, the tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau was just incredible.  We all know the history, but to actually stand in the same place (in gas chambers, on train platforms and in camp accommodation) as the victims of the Holocaust was a truly humbling experience and one that will stay with me for life.

The enormous collection of shoes taken from the victims at Auschwitz

Best Accommodation...
The Budapest Bubble has to take this hands down!  It may not be the flashiest hostel on the scene, but what it lacks in pizzazz, it more than makes up for in charm and a brillianty warm welcome.  Olga and Gabor run a tight ship where fun and laughter rein!  On arrival I was treated to the best welcome I have ever had in a hostel that was fueled with alcohol and some hilarious hour before I made it to my room to drop my bag.  On top of this, Olga, makes sure everyone in the hostel feels welcome (sometimes with a shot of Palinka) and almost always takes her newfound friends out on the town; showing them the best nightspots that Budapest has to offer.  What this girl doesn't know about the bars of Budapest is not worth knowing.  On top of this, she is so lovely, it is like staying with a friend in their apartment!  If you visit this fine city, stay nowhere else.  I insist!  Don't believe me?  Well, then just read the reviews...


Best Travel Experience...
The title has to go Lake Bled in Slovenia.  In one day, I visited the awesome Vintner Gorge, walked to the top of the Ožujsko Viewpoint at the edge of the lake and then swam out to the island in the middle of Lake Bled.  The holy trinity of fantastic experiences!  All of this shared with a great, fun-loving couple from Manchester.  I was their gooseberry for the day, but one very happy gooseberry!

The stunningly beautiful Lake Bled in Slovenia

Best Journey...
I don't think it can get much better than being bussed about Slovenia to Lakes Bled and Bohinj with the stunning Julian Alps as background scenery.  Even the walk back from the Vintner Gorge back to the town of Bled was breathtaking.

The walk from the Vintner Gorge back to the town of Bled...incredibly beautiful!

Biggest Surprises...
The Baltic cities were a real surprise for me.  I did a two centre trip to both Riga in Latvia and Vilnius in Lithuania, last May, and have recently returned from another double-header involving Tallinn in Estonia and Helsinki in Finland.  All of these places were an absolute joy to visit; filled with historical sights, great food, welcoming people and some of the greenest cities I have ever seen.  Flying into Riga I was stunned to find the capital is surrounded by an abundance of forested land as far as the eye can see.  It looked fantastic!  And, as a result, the food from these green and pleasant lands is some of the freshest I've ever tasted.  Although, all very similar, they were all immensely satisfying and offered some pleasant sights and surprises along the way.  One other major bonus of these destinations is that they were not too crowded with tourists; so on several occassions I would find myself sharing tourist attractions with one or two other people or having them all to myself...mwa-ha-ha-ha!

The House of the Blackheads in Riga, Latvia

Vilnius Cathedral in Lithuania

Where next, readers?  Where should my next 'Best Journey' be?  Where will I find the next 'Biggest Surprise' on my travels?  And, where will be my next 'Best Day Trip'?  I would love to hear what you think!