Living the dream on the ‘Edge of Somewhere’ in Extremadura (Spain) and Alentejo (Portugal)

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I’ve lived in towns and cities all my life, but always dreamed of living nearer to the countryside. Not the middle of nowhere country, but someplace on the ‘Edge of Somewhere’. To live in the middle of nowhere is brave and just a little bit scary. But living on the ‘Edge of Somewhere’ means you are still close to all the nice things that towns bring; public transport links, shops, family, friends, medical care, and you have the countryside right on your doorstep. A bit more space, a bit more peace and quiet.

And so, as we travel to the Extremadura region of Spain, which I must admit I had never heard of before now, to a campsite near the Parque Nacional de Monfragũe it feels a bit more like the middle of nowhere, than the ‘Edge of Somewhere’. We drive across miles of Dehesas, Spanish pastureland, dotted with holm and cork oaks. This is not like the pastureland we know, there are no lush green fields here, instead it’s dry, yellow and dust filled. Sustainable farming is practised in the Dehesas, where there is only 1 livestock (cows, sheep, black pigs and goats) grazing per hectare. It’s not an easy way of making a living, especially as the summers are getting longer and hotter. Looking out across these vast plains with their big bright open skies it feels more like the wild west, than western Spain.

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Dehesas, near Plasencia, Extremadura

We settle into our campsite and I’m keen to venture into the national Park, so I go on a birdwatching trip. Our guide, Valentin, tells us that Monfragũe, Spain’s 14th national park, established in 2006, has been a protected area since the 80’s. The park straddles the Tajo valley and is home to some of Spain’s most spectacular colonies of raptors (Griffon and Black Vultures, Spanish Imperial and the Short-toed Eagles) and the Black Stork. It’s much greener in the park as the indigenous Mediterranean forest still thrives here. Our first find is a stag red deer camouflaged on the hillside. It’s early October and the rutting season is approaching. The wailing’s and grunting’s of the stag deer reverberate across the valley. The bigger the stag, the deeper and louder the call. If the vocal threats aren’t enough to ward off a competitor, rivals parallel walk before locking antlers in a fight for access to a harem of fertile females. A bit like Sauchiehall Street on a Saturday night!

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Tajo valley, Parque Nacional de Monfragũe

Next, we stop at Salto de Gitano, the Gypsies Leap, where more than 200 pairs of Griffon Vultures are known to roost. They say a gypsy running from the Civil Guard managed to jump across the river gorge, stunning the guards and giving the rock formation its name. The veracity of the legend is up for debate, but the rock formations at the entrance certainly have a similarity to the old Spanish Civil Guards, tri-corn hat! We admire these magnificent birds having fun in the thermals, circling the cliff tops and swooping down low across the bright green river Tajo (which I think might be some weird Algal bloom).

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Salto de Gitano, Parque Nacional de Monfragũe

Huge groups circle above us and zooming in our binoculars on the rock face I see a few stragglers dithering on the ledges. Valentin tells us that these birds weigh up to 10 kg, have a wingspan of around 2.5m, but can go for a week without eating. Vultures generally get a bad press as they only dead prey, but they play a very important role in the ecosystem and public health.

A Griffon Vulture resting on a ledge and circling above Salto de Gitano

Vultures constitute a natural animal disposal system, feeding on animal carcasses preventing the spread of deadly bacteria and fungus into the ground and water as unlike other scavengers, the vulture’s metabolism is a true “dead-end” for pathogens. I remember hearing a story about the impact of the vulture decline in India when we were in New Delhi. Many cows are thrown into the rivers as only a very small proportion of cow meat is eaten in India. In the 1980s there were 40 million vultures in India, but now only 100,000 vultures remain, representing the fastest decline of any species in the world. The cause seems to have been due to the use of diclofenac in farming which remained in animal carcasses, causing kidney failure in the Vulture populations.  The carcasses formerly eaten by vulture’s now rot in village fields leading to contaminated drinking water and the population of other scavengers, not as efficient as vultures and linked to the spread of rabies, have grown. Studies have shown a direct relationship between the decline of vultures in India and the spread of deadly diseases like rabies. So, as I stand in awe of the Griffon Vultures in the Monfragũe National park, I reflect on how there is more to these magnificent birds than meets the eye. As they say, ‘Never judge a book by its cover.’

We visit some of the small towns in Extremadura, Plasencia, known for its medieval walls and old quarter and Trujillo, home to Francisco Pizarro, who conquered the Inca empire. It’s Sunday Lunch, and the restaurants in the beautiful Plaza Mayor fill up with large family tables, several generations enjoying a long and lavish meal served with plenty of wine. We treat ourselves to a few beers and the Tapas (tortilla, bread, slices of black pudding and Iberian ham) are forthcoming…. another great Spanish tradition in  wild west Spain.

                      Plaza Mayor, Trujillo

I had hoped to make it to Portugal before we head home and we just have time for a short visit. We stay at a campsite near the Portuguese town of Estremoz, in the Alentejo region, famous for Wine and Cork production. There is a different feel here. The towns and villages are white, the countryside is more rolling, and the language is completely different, sounding more like Russian than Spanish! The small family run campsite (on a farm) has everything we need, a small pool, lovely bathrooms, as bread, beer and pizzas to order. It is a favourite stop over site for the silver surfers heading south for the Winter. The nearest town is 13km away, so just on the ‘Edge of Somewhere’. We visit Estremoz’s Saturday market. Here you can buy anything from old gramophones, books, china and cow bells to huge copper stills. It’s hard to pick out the real antiques form the junk! Running parallel is the fruit and veg market complete with live chickens, turkeys and ducks. What a great way to spend a Saturday morning!

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Saturday morning market, Estremoz 

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Fruit and Veg, Saturday morning market, Estremoz 

We walk up the hill to Esteremoz Castle and I get a Déjà vu feeling. I’ve been here before and then I remember. The town is very like the old city of Cochi in Kerala, Southern India, that we visited last December. The Portuguese colonised Kerala in 1500 and remained for more than 250 years and very much left their architectural mark there. We have come full circle.

                          The streets of Estremoz 

We cycle to the nearby village of Evoramonte and in this remote rural village we stop at the top, near the Castle where a small guesthouse/café is serving coffee. I go in and place our order in my best Spanish, but the girl behind the counter replies in a Scottish accent. She’s from Annbank in Ayrshire. She is living her dream, on the ‘Edge of Somewhere’, trying to build up this small business. We chat for a while before I sit on the terrace with breath-taking views of the Alentejo countryside enjoying my pot of tea and a piece of honey cake.

The village of Evoramonte

On our last day before we start heading north again, we walk through the Cork Forests. Of course, I knew that cork came from trees but what I didn’t realise, is that the cork we use in our wine bottles, flooring and summer wedges, is actually a thick protective layer that cork oaks grow round their trunks to help them survive summer forest fires. It’s harvested every 10 years ( and the year of harvesting is marked on the trunk) without causing any permanent damage to the trees. The remaining bark is bright red and the landscape is quite Salvador Dali, with its twisted red tree trunks, contrasting against a bright blue sky and parched yellow grass.

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The cork forests of Alentejo 

Before I know it, we are sitting outside our van and it’s our last evening before starting our journey home. I reflect on what a wonderful year this has been. I have been truly privileged to have had this opportunity to travel in our wonderful world. We started our journey in India last November and have voyaged in all directions of the compass. Now I am now looking forward to spending quality time with our family and friends.

None of us know what the future will bring. My dream for a long time has been to travel and so if you are sitting there with a dream too, if you really want it, you can get there too. If you find yourself saying “I’d love to do this or that someday” or “I wish I did this when I was younger”, then think again. Hoping to do something someday doesn’t work. Someday may never come. Start doing small things that will get you nearer to realising your dream today.

So now, after 11 months of travelling, visiting 17 countries, on 12 planes, 6 ferries, and nearly 9,000 miles in the motor home, traversing the globe on trains, buses, canoes, scooters and by foot and pedal power, we are on the ferry from Santander, travelling back to the UK. I am ready to go home. I have been so lucky to have had the chance to ‘live my dream’ and explore our wonderful Earth and this year will remain in my memory for the rest of my days. So, I must say goodbye for now and thank you for staying with me on my journey and listening to my ramblings. I hope you have enjoyed seeing and hearing about the places I have visited along the way. Now it’s time for you to ‘Live your dream’ and to make sure you squeeze in just a little of ‘bit of adventure before dementia’!

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