Gale Dodging in the Med Spain to Nice 10th June 2003

I am writing this on Intrepid in the Old Harbour in Nice, which is just east of the main Promenade des Anglais where the large hotels are. The old port is small, quaint and jam packed with yachts, and we were lucky to get in. Travelling by boat may not be as fast as car or plane, but it does have the advantage that many ancient towns and cities are centred around their port, so our ‘home’is often right in the middle of town. It’s a bit like being able to put a caravan in the middle of Trafalgar Square in London for example. Alicante, Barcelona, Marseilles, St Tropez, Nice are all examples.

Sailing around the coast of Spain and France in April/May is stimulating - the resorts look freshly scrubbed and many of the establishments have new owners who are keen – in September it all looked more jaded. But there are some really nasty gales around, and the weather forecasts don’t always spot them in advance, (and the French forecasters often seem to be on strike) so we have to rely on our own wits at times, and sort out often conflicting forecasts; and we have to work hard to get into marinas that are often jam packed (or at least say they are until we push a bit), so we have to try to work out alternatives. The distances we are sailing are not great. Aguadulce in Spain (where we spent the winter, near Almeria) is about 150 miles East of Malaga, and 200 miles east of Gibraltar. Cordoba (capital of the moorish empire in Spain with its huge mezquita cathedral built in the middle of a gigantic 13th century mosque), Granada (a semi-independent moorish caliphate with superb inlaid moorish palace ), and Seville (100 miles up the Guadalviquivir river north of Cadiz on the Atlantic coast, and centre of the Spanish gold trade for 100 years) are all about 100 miles inland north of Malaga and Gibraltar, so we went by car – absolutely fantastic places to visit . ( I have a longer account if you are interested; also about Valencia which we visited for a week for its 7 day Fallas/fireworks/Processions/statues/bonfires festival which is held in mid March every year).

We set off from from Aguadulce in April via Cartagena. It’s a large Spanish naval base where we saw the really impressive Easter Holy week parades with processions of Klu Klux Klan style hooded penitents, and ‘brotherhoods’ of 100 or so people staggering under tonne weight holy statues. Then to Alicante which has a delightful yacht club next to the city centre, and a great promenade to stroll along overlooked by a beautiful castle, and a hideous high rise hotel which is not only awful itself but also tragically blocks the view of the castle! Sometimes planners are needed! We find about 100 miles/week is a good rate to see something of the country we pass through. From Alicante we sailed via Javea direct to Barcelona, about 230 miles also NE which takes about 36 hours, so we had to share night watches and dodge fishing boats without lights.

We had never been to Barcelona, and were hugely impressed. We stayed at the marina in the old port right in the centre of the city, and visited 10 museums including the Picasso museum with 3000 works (Picasso’s father was Professor of Art at Barcelona while Picasso was 10-20 years old, and Picasso later donated much of his work from this period to the museum). Fascinating to see what a painting by 10 year old Picasso looked like. Also a staggering Salvador Dali exhibition (he lived most of his life 80 miles north weast of Barcelona near where we later anchored). We spent 5 days in Barcelona and saw lots of buildings by the architect Gaudie, which were created around 1900. His designs make even large imposing buildings look like fairy tale houses. Apparently Gaudie gained most of his inspiration from trees, so his buildings have no straight lines. His major work, the cathedral of the holy family looks a bit like Disneyworld, was started in 1890 and is now a very modern looking building site, still years away from being completed, so they have to restore the early part as they are completing the last part.

We had arranged to pick up Phil Cheeseman at Marseilles so sailed there from Barcelona direct overnight, (about 180 miles) arriving just before a strong Mistral (30 knot north-easterly winds). Marseilles is also centred around its old port, and we were guided in by the huge golden statue on the church at the top of the hill that Marseillaises say protects them. They were on strike and demonstrating about pensions while we were there, although it looked like a big street party, with the communist and far right Le Pen group in the same march. We ate some good Bouillabaise, and better Moules, and generallyu enjoyed our enforced stay as the wind howled.

As the Mistral finally lost its violence, we sailed east via les Calanques which are bewitching tiny narrow inlets 100’s of metres long into huge high limestone cliffs. We walked into Cassis – a beautiful small port, then on to Toulon (large naval base inlcuding the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier looking a bit tatty I have to say), and then a great sail in 30 knot winds to St Tropez, still a very picturesque fishing port and well worth enduring the mistral that blew us in St Tropez faces north into a large bay, which is why it was not developed earlier. Lots of early impressionist painters came here, and the small museum in an old church is a gem with works by just about everyone.

As the mistral subsided, we continued east to Cannes where we couldn’t get into the harbour (full), so anchored in the bay along with huge celebrity yachts 10 times our size that couldn’t get in because they were too big (we may have problems but not usually that one). The Cannes film festival was on, which (in case you didn’t know) is a 10 day trade jamboree for films which can only be shown if this is their premier in France. I am afraid we would not recognise a star or celebrity if one jumped out at us, and the main films and celebrities seemed to be French which did not make it any easier. But we joined the crowds, and watched the adventurous try to get hold of gold dust tickets to premiers by asking the near celebs who were braving the paperazzi to walk the red carpet to the opening – usually with success.

Phil Cheeseman by chance bumped into Elizabeth, the film correspondant for a French radio station who is a neighbour (don’t ask), so we had a highly instructive lunch getting the inside information on the festival. It appears that outside France, producers (who raise the money to finance films) generally find directors, whereas in France, directors often look for producers to finance a concept they have created. And many of the films shown at Cannes are looking for distributors to put on the movies they have already made. It sounds like a recipe for anxiety and stress, and certainly the photos of the stars we saw were smiling but looked happy (the previous day’s photos are posted outside on boards by the hundred).

The main quay at Cannes is stuffed with motor yachts about 30 metres long, 10 metres wide and 10 metres high, looking rather like white shiny shoe boxes, usually with a sign saying ‘visitors by appointment only please’. We come in by our dinghy to this quay, and came ashore at the same moment that a nameless celeb landed as well, so we shared the cameras for a while.

We noticed very few Americans (post Iraq?), for example only one floating shoe box/gin palace out of the 40 or so in the harbour had an American flag. Elizabeth claimed that the Americans had in fact come, but we suspected patriotism, and the English seemed to have taken their place. Elizabeth watches on average 4 movies/day for the 10 days of the festival, and is amazingly cheerful and well informed and enthusiastic, even after watching an apparently awfully explicit experimental (Brown Bunny) movie directed, produced and staring the same person which the critics laughed at, and half walked out. We stayed 2 days, then moved on to Nice.

I cant leave this account raving briefly about Valencia, and Andalucia, (the southern province of Spain where we spent the winter). Aguadulce gets about the best climate in Europe during the winter (Canaries excepted), and we had been getting tanned during February (but then lost it in March). We were delighted that Ian and Muraid Adamson came for February half term, and for dedicated non-boaters adapted to floating life well (albeit mostly tied up). We fell in love with an original hill village above Aguadulce called Felix and with the help of a talented teacher of Spanish, Jeanette, almost bought some land above the village. But there was always going to be a shortage of water, and in the end it didn’t work out, so we can continue our travels with all options open.

I am afraid that our previous knowledge of Spain was pitifully small – Madrid, bullfighting, sherry and few beaches might have summed it up. But we managed some fantastic visits inland during the winter and spring, and with my sister Hilary went to Valencia for the major Fallas festival with 30 metre statues that are burned at midnight on the last day. Without sounding like a travel agent I can’t recommend Seville, Granada, Cordoba and Valencia too highly especially in autumn, winter or spring.

We hope you are all well, and send our best wishes, if you would like to sail with us on Intrepid or just spend a few days at a particular place do email!

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