Shooting down through Spain & more problems

24th August

llivia
In Llivia

Last day of the Pyrenees. We’d had a quiet night in Llivia and in the morning explored the small town which had a little self-guided history trail around it. Very appealing little place. We enjoyed our stay here.

Back through the 2km of France and into Spain again, where we drove a route that apparently Jeremy Clarkson says is one of his favourite driving roads. It was suitably twisty but nice and wide with good visibility around the coming bends so much less hairy than some of the Alpine and Pyrenean passes we’ve done! Finally dropped out of the mountains and began to head towards the Spanish coast, having decided to zoom down to the south of Spain. We want to allow time in Portugal and time’s getting short!

We spent the night at a town called Vilafranca des Penedes, not far from Barcelona. Walked into town in the evening and had a pleasant meal out.

25th August

The plan today was simply to drive southwards, so we hopped on the motorway and headed to Santa Pola near Alicante where there’s a campsite that started up its ACSI discounts today. We also needed to get more LPG and it’s not that easy to find in Spain.

Journey was going well till near the end when a huge bird flew at the windscreen on the motorway and cracked it. We have 9 cracks fanning out from a point on the top left. Three run the full height of the windscreen. Yikes. I suspect the bird came off worse.

We continued on cautiously, managed to get gas, got to the campsite and then rang Autoglass who our insurers use for windscreen damage. They have a partnership with Carglass in Europe. Trouble is a Hymer windscreen is pretty specialist and not something that would be in stock…

Got the washing done, so that was good. We’d thought August would be an expensive month with no campsite discounts but we have free-camped so much it’s actually been the cheapest month!

In the evening we ate at a Chinese buffet restaurant just outside the campsite.

26th August

No word from Carglass yet and we were feeling a bit stressed so we decided to have a sit-around-the-campsite day, even though the campsite wasn’t the nicest.

Still no call from Carglass by the end of the day, despite phoning Autoglass again to chase them.

27th August

Well we can’t sit around for ever, and Autoglass assured us that as long as the cracks don’t obscure the driver’s vision it is perfectly safe and legal to drive.

Unfortunately on leaving the campsite the bikes caught on a pole (my fault as I was out of the van and supposedly directing proceedings) and my back wheel ended up badly buckled. Sigh. Another problem to deal with!

We drove on as planned, with our cracked windscreen and broken bike, and I’ll admit it was a low-point of the trip. (The other one was when my bike was stolen.) Reached a campsite near Malaga, also already on ACSI discount, and parked up there. This one was nicer than the last so that cheered me up a little.

Huge storm overnight!

28th August

We’d thought we’d have a swim in the sea in the morning but it rained, so no chance of that. Drove on, first stop being a Decathlon store the other side of Malaga where we left my bike to have a new rear wheel fitted while we went to a supermarket. Nice lads at Decathlon did the job so that was that problem solved… or so we thought!

Drove on to Gibraltar where we parked just outside the territory in a marina car park.

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At the Gibraltar camperstop

Very pleasant spot. And the temperatures were MUCH lower here than we’ve had the last few days – much more bearable. We had a short walk around in the evening, had a look at the border to see how to cycle across etc. Then got chatting to an English couple from another camper, ended up sitting outside till midnight talking and drinking. They are travelling for a year, which makes our six months seem hardly worth doing.

29th August

Got the bikes off the van, and realised that Ignatius’s town bike also had a slightly buckled wheel. It was rideable with the front brake let out. Luckily that nice Mr Google confirmed there was a bike shop just over the border in Gibraltar. Then it rained (proximity to a British territory seemed to bring British weather) so we hung around till the worst was over before setting off.

Crossing the border by bike, passport held between my teeth, was a first. And then you have to cycle across the main airport runway! Obviously the road is closed whenever a plane is due to land or take off (and they come in groups) and this leads to a long queue of traffic at the border periodically.

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Ignatius on the Gibraltar airport runway

We found the bike shop, bought another new wheel and had it fitted. Then headed into town. Gibraltar is not really a cycle-friendly place – too much traffic and in the pedestrianised area, too many people! We ended up locking the bikes and walking. Funny to see all the familiar British shops and businesses, and signs in English, prices in pounds. We had a lovely full English breakfast as a brunch, then took the cable car to the Top of the Rock where the views are astounding, across the straits to Morocco.

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Top of the Rock

Bought a Portuguese guidebook in the bookshop. All in all a good visit and I felt a lot happier!

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Macaque monkey at the Top of the Rock. I wouldn’t sit where she is!

We left Gibraltar late afternoon and drove along the coast to Cadiz, with a short detour around Tarifa which is the most southerly point of Spain. At Cadiz we parked at the docks, near the cruise liner terminal. From 8.30 to 11pm a huge brass band set up near by to practise (and they REALLY needed the practise!) but it was quiet after that.

30th August

Bikes off again, and into Cadiz. We locked them up in a large square and went round the cathedral on foot, including up its bell tower. Cadiz is a lovely looking town. Weather was sunny but only about 25 degrees so pretty much perfect. After lunch we got back on the bikes and cycled around the seafront, out across a causeway to an old castle fortification, through some pretty parks with huge trees, and back to the van. Really liked Cadiz – it has a lovely atmosphere.

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Seafront at Cadiz
tree
Meeting a remarkable tree

We”d vaguely thought of visiting Jerez but didn’t like the look of the camperstop there so headed on to Seville where we are now parked beside the river, ready to explore the town tomorrow. It’s a lot hotter here, but Seville is always hot, I believe.

Pyrenees

I have put up the route page detailing our journey through the Pyrenees.

From Saint-Girons in France to Ribes de Freser in Spain we covered roughly a 1,000km c-shaped route through the heart of the Pyrenees. We  went over 18 cols (mountain passes), climbed a total of almost 22,000 metres and averaged around 45km/hour. We spent 8 nights free camping in the mountains.

You will need to visit the blog to read the detail. For non-bloggers, click here and then ‘Pyrenees’ for the detail.

Flowers in P

Ignatius

France, Spain, Andorra…

19th August

We woke to thick mist at Lac du Payolle, and it looked like it’d be a pretty dreary day. We debated whether it would be worth going ahead with our planned route driving over the Col du Tourmalet (the most often used col on the Tour de France) or not. But you never know, sometimes the weather’s better higher up… so we set off anyway.  As we progressed the weather varied – sometimes in mist, sometimes reasonably clear but overcast. I had a running commentary from Ignatius about how hot it had been when he cycled it last year.

Up at the Col there was not much of a view, still being in the cloud. We had a coffee, then Ignatius wondered about walking up to the top of the Pic du Midi, where there’s an astronomical observatory. I googled it and discovered it’d be about a 4 hour walk up and back, and we decided to go for it. We made a picnic, packed rucksacks and set off. Once round the back of the mountain suddenly we came out of the mist and had glorious views. The climb got steadily steeper, taking us well above the cloud level. Amazing views all around by the time we reached the summit, so it had been well worth taking the risk!

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Emerging from the mist on Pic du Midi
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View from the top of the world
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Made a friend on the mountain

Drove down the other side and along a gorge up to Gavarnie where we found some parking for the night just outside the village.

20th August

We walked up through the village of Gavarnie and along to the Cirque – a magnificent semi-circle of enormous rock faces. Truly impressive. The tops of the mountains form the border with Spain. Much of the walk was on an easy track up to a hotel where we had coffee, but after that it was rougher and very steep up to the foot of a waterfall (said to be Europe’s highest). I’d love to see this cirque in spring when the waterfalls are swollen by melt-water. There was still some ice over the stream and an ice-cave.

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Awesomeness of the Cirque de Gavarnie

This walk turned out to be a little longer than we’d expected due to going up to the waterfall, but well worth it!

We did a bit of shopping in the village on the way back to the van, had lunch and drove on, through spectacular scenery (isn’t it all in the mountains?) over more Tour de France cols (Soular and Aubisque) and ended up in a small town Eaux-Bonnes for the night.

21st August

From Eaux-Bonnes the route took us south, over another col and into Spain. The border was right at the top. Usually at the top of a col there’s a cafe, a gift shop, a signpost stating the height and a load of exhausted cyclists. At the top of this one, on the French side, that’s exactly what was there, minus the cyclists (it was early). On the Spanish side there were numerous shops, a large supermarket, petrol stations and all sorts of businesses. Yep, Spain is cheaper than France. People from France must drive up here to do their shopping.

We headed on down, and did a bit of a detour to visit a monastery (San Juan de la Pena) near Jaca. Built into the rock face, it’s pretty impressive but was a long old drive to get there.

Headed east again from there, retracing part of our route down and finally spending our first night in Spain at a picnic spot near Sarvise. Park4Night reviews said that often the Guardia Civil come round and move campervans on in the mornings – this part of Spain does not seem to like campervans much. But we took the risk along with a dozen other vans and all was well. Pretty spot to spend the night anyway, and although the day had been hot the night cooled down nicely.

sarvise
Pleasant place to camp at Sarvise, possibly not entirely legally

22nd August

Another day with a lot of driving. First stop though was at Ainsa, not too far from where we’d spent the night. This is a pretty little medieval hill town – you’d think we’d seen enough of those in Italy but always nice to see another! There was a small church, a ruined castle and a wonderful little bell tower with the steepest narrowest steps up it that I have ever negotiated. We had lunch in the medieval town square.

ainsa
Ainsa medieval town square, from the top of the bell tower

Onwards, heading more or less east, through the Pyrenees. There were no major cols but certainly a lot of up and down, and some very twisty roads, used by articulated lorries. Fun when an artic in front of us met two campers coming the other way, just at the entrance to a narrow tunnel…

Once again we had a bit of trouble finding a suitable place to spend the night. It was all a bit like Switzerland with lots of ‘no campervans’, ‘no overnight parking’ signs everywhere. We’d planned to stop in Viella where we did some food shopping but the parking was in full sun and noisy. Using Park4Night we finally got to Rialp where there was a dedicated campervan aire beside the river. Very hot all evening and all night but peaceful and shady in the morning.

23rd August

More scenic driving, and into the tiny principality of Andorra. There was a bit of a queue at the border though I’m not sure why. And a lot of traffic. There is really only one main road running through this tiny country, along a valley and over a pass at the French border, and our plan was to follow that.

We stopped at Santa Coloma for a visit to a 10th century church, and had a picnic lunch in its shadow. Then on to Andorra La Vella, the capital. This place is a shopper’s paradise, if you are into the big brands. It’s all duty free. We bought a bottle of Baileys, had a wander round the historic parts of town and then left. Got stung for data charges – I hadn’t realised Andorra was not in Vodafone’s roam-free area and our few hours in Andorra racked up a fair bit of usage, downloading detail on Google maps, receiving a few emails etc.  26MB, at a charge of £39. Had I realised I would have turned data off for a few hours. Grrr.

andorra church
10th century church in Andorra

Anyway, after leaving the city we headed on towards France, over a high pass (over 2400m). On the Andorran side were loads of shops and petrol stations and nothing on the French side. Another border where obviously the French come to shop! Not the prettiest of passes – the road was too busy, the shops too ugly. We dropped down into the backwaters of France, and turned eastwards again.

For tonight we are in the tiny Spanish enclave of Llivia. This is a little bit of Catalonia which is entirely surrounded by France. So today we’ve driven from Spain to Andorra to France and back into a bit of Spain. Tomorrow we’ll drive Spain to France and back into Spain, to finish our Pyrenees travels and head south. Gonna need a campsite soon. Thankfully ACSI discounts kick in again at the weekend in some places!

 

 

Across to the Pyrenees

13th August

I wrote the last diary blog parked somewhere up a mountain where we spent a few hours enjoying the sunshine and the 4G coverage. From there we drove on through the Cevennes and into the Gorges du Tarn. Very dramatic gorge, with the road running along the bottom (this is more impressive in many ways than roads on the top looking down as at Verdun). There were endless minibuses towing racks of canoes passing us – seemed like everyone was there to canoe the gorge and be picked up downstream.

tarn gorge
On some sections of the road through the Gorge du Tarn we just had to hope we would not meet anything coming the other way…

We found a lovely free camping spot beside the gorge for the night.

14th August

Finished driving the gorge, and headed across country towards Carcassonne. We stopped to shop etc on the way. Stopped also at Viaduc du Millau, an elegant modern bridge across the Tarn gorge. There’s a huge visitor centre, audio-visual presentation etc, and a cafe where we had a very nice lunch. Drove on, along roads marked as scenic on our road atlas. All very pretty. We ended up not far from Lac des Montagnes, though not actually at the lake as all parking spots were taken. August in France is very busy! We found a layby further up the road which we had to ourselves.

viaduc de millau
Le Viaduc de Millau behind us

15th August

Drove the short distance into Carcassonne. This is a town I have always wanted to see. We’d picked out some free parking across the river from the citadel via the Park4Night app and were lucky to find space there. Once organised, we set off into the lower town first for coffee and to visit the tourist information, then across the river and into the citadel. We visited the castle, walked along some of the walls, had lunch and explored some of the narrow streets – but as to be expected, it was absolutely packed with tourists. Like Dubrovnik and Avignon – too many people want to visit and it’s hard to get a feel for it in the middle of the day.

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Walls of Carcassonne

In the evening we went back into the lower town and had a meal out, then spent the night with a magnificent view of the citadel. I loved it when people passed by the spotlights and their shadows were cast on the inner walls – looked like the ghosts of the past patrolling the fortress. A noisy night as is often the case when we stay in towns.

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Our evening view of Carcassonne

16th August

Time to head further west, towards the Pyrenees, especially as the forecast for Carcassonne was very hot today! Once again we picked a route designed to be as scenic as possible, but we never expected the road to actually take us through a cave, once inhabited by mesolithic tribes.

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Driving through the cave – a natural cave not a tunnel!

Sadly we’d missed the English guided tour of the day and you can’t go in to see the cave paintings without being part of a tour. Never mind, we had a picnic just outside, then drove on into the foothills of the Pyrenees.

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Picnic outside the cave – the road emerges just on the right of the cave entrance

Much cooler as we got into the mountains. Spent the night at St Beat, where I had a short walk to explore a ruined castle and church overlooking the town.

17th August

Ignatius had found a ‘best driving route of the Pyrenees’ description online so we decided to follow parts of that. It includes many of the high passes, some of which Ignatius cycled last year and which are used in the Tour de France. So we picked up that route and headed over some spectacular mountain passes. At Lac de Genos-Loudenvieille we parked up, began a walk around the lake and decided it was too hot, then had a picnic by the stream. A very pretty spot but once again, hordes of people here.

Drove on over the Col d’Aspin. At the top I went for a walk (I always want to get a bit higher and see the views into the next valley!). Then headed down to Lac du Payolle which is a very pretty spot among so many very pretty spots. There was a free camperstop here, so we parked up for the night. In this area animals roam free so we had to share the campsite with horses and cattle.  Lovely evening barbecue and it was cool enough to enjoy sitting outside in the sunshine.

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Campsite friend

18th August

Glorious weather this morning so we walked around the little lake, then decided to drive up to a nearby col that Ignatius knew from cycling. As we drove the mist rolled in. Had lunch half way down in weather that made me think of the Lake District. We decided to spend the night again by Lac du Payolle, so this afternoon is all about catching up, relaxing, reading etc.

Stars

Many years ago (2001) on a Motorhome holiday in New Zealand we were free camping next to a river just outside Martinborough. It was a very clear night and the stars on display were amazing. All four of us (the boys were 6 & 3 then) lay on a blanket and looked at the night sky for ages.

Last night in the Pyrenees is the first time I’ve had a star gazing experience that comes close. We are free camping at Lac de Payolle (1200m). It was a very clear night again and the only light pollution was the odd camper candle/torch. We are quite close to the Pic du Midi and I can understand why they built the astronomical observatory there.

No camera shots of the stars would do them justice so here’s a pic of our campsite!

LdM campsite
Freecamping amongst the mountains, horses and cows!

Ignatius