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One year on…

It’s hard to believe it was a year ago today that we set off on our Big Trip. A year ago, we were at the first campsite near Mont St Michel, and planning the next day’s drive southwards through France. The whole adventure was ahead of us!

I’ve been reading back through the early entries in this blog. All that squealy excitement when we were preparing for the trip, and the vaguely overwhelmed first few diary entries when we didn’t really know what we were doing (and I hadn’t yet discovered how to navigate via Google maps on my phone…)

We have some local friends who are about to set off on a long trip in a motorhome – they came round to look at Gertie and hear our stories about our trip. They’ve bought a similar van and are hoping to rent out their flat and set off on an open-ended trip. And yes, we are dead jealous of them! I’d love to do it again.

This year we are planning two fortnight trips away – one in June/July to the Loire valley in France, and one in late August to Ireland. Very much looking forward to them. Sadly, me being tied to workplace holiday allowances means that’s about all we’ll manage, apart from a few weekends away when the weather gets warmer – maybe with some other friends who recently bought a VW California…

Meanwhile Gertie’s sitting out on our driveway, still in ‘winter ‘ mode (boiler drained, water tanks empty etc) and mostly unpacked. We did visit the motorhome show in the NEC a few weeks ago, and bought new camping chairs and new melamine plates, ready for the next trip.

Here’s Gertie, somewhere in the middle of France. This photo was taken at some point in the first few days when we were heading down through France, finding our feet. gertie somewhere

 

 

 

 

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Roads we drove and loved

We’ve been home three weeks and are no nearer sorting out our photos… However I have gone through and picked out a number which illustrate the kinds of roads we drove on – some great, some scenic, some not entirely suitable for Gertie… Many of these photos were taken through the windscreen as we drove along, so they should give you a good impression of what life on the road was like. Sigh. I miss it.

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Driving along the Promenade des Anglais, Nice
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Monaco. Mostly you drive through a tunnel but we did pop out of it for a little while.
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Approaching Positano on the Amalfi Coast. We weren’t allowed to go much further in a campervan.
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Vesuvius!
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On Sicily, the motorways go through a lot of badly lit tunnels
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The Apennine  mountains in Abruzzo 
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Somewhere in Croatia
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A tight fit. This bridge was in a campsite that was on both sides of a river, in northern Italy
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Passo di Gavia. This was one of the better sections. In other sections there was a sheer drop on one side and no room to pass. other vehicles. I still have nightmares about this one!
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Much better on the way down the other side.
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Gorgeous mountain passes
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We drove round an awful lot of these. 
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We weren’t the biggest vehicle using these roads!
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In the Gorge du Tarn in France. We spent the night here. Above that wall on the right is the other lane of the road, see next photo…
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Gorge du Tarn. At 3m high we have to watch Gertie doesn’t bump her head…
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An easier road to drive. Approaching the Viaduc du Millau
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Not a tunnel, this is actually a natural cave that the road goes through. 
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PANIC! WHAT ON EARTH IS THAT WATER DOING ON THE WINDSCREEN? We forgot what rain was after several months of glorious sunshine.
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My regular view while we were driving.
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Pyrenees. See that little arch? We’ve got to fit through that…
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Ah, it’s bigger when you get nearer. 
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Driving in Portugal was sometimes like this. And yes, we were on the main road through this small town. There was no bypass.
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In the Portuguese Penedes-Geres national park, approaching the border with Spain. The road became progressively narrower as if they didn’t want you to go that way.
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Across the border into Spain, and the road was much better
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I think this photo was trying to capture those horreos (grain stores on stilts typical of north-west Spain) but mostly managed to capture the cracked windscreen we drove around with for the last 6 weeks of the trip.
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In the Picos de Europa. Lots of stunning drives there!
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Gertie has travelled some amazing roads and spent the night in some stunning locations

Summary

An overview  of the stats …

We spent six months travelling through seven countries;
France (38 nights), Italy (78), Croatia (15), Bosnia Herzegovina (1), Switzerland (4), Spain (28), Portugal (16). Plus 4 nights in UK and 1 on ferry.

Took five ferries; Poole – Cherbourg, Villa San Giovanni – Messina, Messina – Villa San Giovanni, Dubrovnik – Bari, Bilbao – Portsmouth.
Two flights; return Bergamo – Manchester.

Drove 20,500 km.

Of the 185 nights, we spent 71 at campsites, 30 wild camping, 51 in car parks, 28 at Aires, 4 in Fionn’s flat and 1 on a ferry.

We spent €3,000 on diesel, €1,500 on nightstops (average €8.54/night), €1,000 on ferries, €385 on tolls, €1,100 on main repairs, €200 on replacement bike and €77 on LPG.

We had ~ 220 coffee stops, which considering we generally had something ‘nice’ with the coffee probably amounted to ~€1,000.
Dinner out ~30-40 times, lunch ~60-70, which means we prepared ~ 400 meals in the van … in some stunning locations!

My personal highlights were …
Travelling with Kath, a very agreeable travelling companion!
City – Bolzano
Region – South Tyrol
Country – France (obviously!) but really liked Italy (and Portugal, and Spain)
Sea shore – Croatia.
Campsite – Camping Stobrec outside Split.

The trip inspired future trips …
France (endless possibilities)
South Tyrol and the Dolomites.
West coast of Portugal
North west coast of Spain.

These ‘stats’ or any possible words could not describe the immense enjoyment we had.
I will wrap up with one thought.

Voyager c’est vivre – get a Motorhome and go travel 🙂

Ignatius

Northern Spain

I have put up the route page detailing our journey through Northern Spain. It is the last route page as we left Bilbao on a ferry for Portsmouth.

We had eighteen days and covered 1,633 miles in Northern Spain.
Our nightstops were four nights in two campsites, four nights wild camping, six nights free in car parks and three nights in aires, one of which was free.
We stuck mostly to the coast, going in land mainly to visit the mountainous Picos de Europa. Connor joined us for a week, flying in and out of Santander with Ryan Air (which turned out to be an achievement in itself!).
We retraced our steps, somewhat, between Praia das Catedrais and Santander , getting to know the A8 quiet well. Fortunately it’s mostly a toll free motorway.

Highlights include Santiago de Compostela, the Galicia region (north west) in general, Gijón, San Sebastian, the Picos and many places along the coast too numerous to mention.
Another region we’re planning a return visit too.

You will need to visit the blog to read the detail and see the pictures! For non-bloggers, click here and then ‘Northern Spain’.

Ignatius

Back to work

We got back safely on Thursday night, after a 28 hour ferry crossing. Drove home from Portsmouth and were in the house around 10.15pm. The car wouldn’t start, having sat on the driveway for 6 months, so Gertie had to be parked in the street. And the boiler wouldn’t turn on, so despite the chill (compared with Spain!) we could not turn on the heating, although we could use the immersion for hot water.

Friday was my birthday. After breakfast out we called our local garage to come and sort out the car (they replaced its battery and re-enabled the immobiliser) and fiddled with the boiler until it came on. Finally Ignatius was able to go shopping for ingredients for the roast chicken dinner I had requested as a birthday meal. After 6 months of food cooked on 3 gas burners I was longing for something oven cooked! I was also longing for a long hot soak in the bath. Bliss!

Now, three days on, we’ve unpacked the van, cleaned it inside, done many loads of washing and got up to date with post and paperwork.

And tomorrow I am back at the day job. Can’t say I am looking forward to that, but I can say I’ve absolutely made the most of my 6 months long leave. What an experience it’s been!

The last week

I’m writing this sitting in the van in a car park which is overlooking a sweet little fishing port, just a few minutes drive from the Bilbao ferry port. It’ll be the last Diary entry on this blog, though we’ll do some reflective wrap-up posts after we get home.

27th September

After writing the last blog Connor and I went down to the beach and in the sea. It was quite rough – lovely crashing waves – and we played catch and Connor recreated all the games he’d invented when we were last here, when he was 12. Lovely to see him regress like that!

28th September

Beautiful day – sunny but not too hot (around 22 degrees) so we decided to spend the day at the beach and campsite. Firstly though, to give Connor the full campervanning experience, we had a minor problem to sort out – a water leak. Thought it was the boiler for a while but it turned out to be the bathroom sink waste had disconnected itself again. It’s now duck-taped up. That’ll teach it.

I bought a cheap kids’ surfboard at the campsite shop, and we went down to the beach. Played catch, played on the far-too-small surfboard, sat in the sunshine. All very enjoyable. Although we have been to lots of beaches on this trip this was actually the only time we sat down on one (we are too pale-skinned to sunbathe!)

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On Playa Joyel

In the campsite all around us the caravans that had been there for the whole season were being packed up and towed out. A real end-of-season vibe about the place.

29th September

Connor’s last day with us. We drove first to Isla, the small town the other side of the river that flows out at Playa Joyel. Had coffee there. At low tide you can wade across the river from Playa Joyel.

Then drove on to Santander, where we parked up in an aire by the university. Great aire but not a great location for seeing the city. Nevertheless we walked down to Santander’s attractive beach, and from there up a main road and through a 600m tunnel to the city centre. Yuk. We wandered around for a bit – it’s a nice enough place to while away a few hours. Walked back to the van making use of a funicular up the hill rather than brave that horrid tunnel again.

We drove back out to the marina where we’d spent the first night with Connor to have dinner, and then dropped him off at the airport for his late evening flight. It’s been wonderful having him with us for a week. We’re so glad both boys made the effort to come out and join us for a while in our travels.

Ignatius and I decided to go back to the university aire rather than the marina for the night.

30th September

First stop today was a supermarket to buy a few bits of food to last us the final few days. Then onwards round the coast eastwards, picking out any scenic roads. Connor seems to have taken the good weather away with him as it was drizzly and grey all day. We found what we thought was a good place to park for the night – on a headland by a lighthouse and you know how much we like those! I went for a walk, ended up getting wet and muddy as the path was very overgrown. And then the lighthouse’s foghorn started up, and we realised we did not want to spend the night with that going off every couple of minutes!

Drove to another nearby place showing on Park4Night but it had no mobile data reception and we didn’t fancy it, so we ended up in a layby near Bermeo, with a view of the town and the sea, and a strong smell of fish.

1st October

Another dreary day weather-wise.  We drove inland to Guernika, a small town that was carpet-bombed during the Spanish civil war and then inspired Picasso’s famous painting. It has always been a centre of Basque government, and the old parliament building escaped the bombing and can be visited, along with the generations of oak trees under which the politicians originally met. Interesting place – we enjoyed our couple of hours poking around here in the drizzle.

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Inside the parliament building in Guernika

Drove on via roads that I’m sure are very scenic if the mist would lift, and ended up at an isolated cliff-top car park somewhere. The only other van there when we arrived was another British-registered Hymer. We got talking to the couple (Lee and Suzanne) in it, walked with them to the nearby viewpoint, and after dinner they came round for drinks. It’s always lovely to meet new people and have a good chat about our respective experiences. They live in their van most of the year and were heading south to Portugal for Christmas.

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Weather a bit ‘Irish’ but still pretty!

2nd October

More rain, so after a lazy start and saying goodbye to Lee and Suzanne we pushed on to San Sebastian. After a bit of driving round checking out car parks and calling at the tourist information we ended up in the official campervan aire on the edge of town (near the university again!) Spent the afternoon walking down to the sea front. We visited San Sebastian on a camping trip about 10 years ago. Lovely town, even in the bad weather.

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San Sebastian

3rd October

Today was our 25th wedding anniversary, and also the last full day of our trip. When I booked the time off work a year ago I wasn’t sure if we’d come back earlier in September but we always thought it would be nice to be away for our anniversary and do something special. So a few days ago we’d researched fine dining restaurants in the town and had booked lunch at Kokotxa, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the old town.

After six months in a campervan it’s hard to polish yourself up to go to a posh restaurant. I struggled particularly with shoes as my only half-decent pair tore a couple of weeks ago, so I had to team my going-out frock with a pair of Decathlon walking sandals. Anyway who’d be looking at my feet?

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Attempting to look smart

We caught a bus into town, went to a Basque cultural museum (which should have been fascinating but was confusingly laid out) and into a couple of churches before it was time for our lunch.

The food was amazing. Beautiful to look at, even better to taste. We had a tasting menu of tomato gazpacho, squid, a soft-shell crab that was delicious and I want to eat it every day for the rest of my life, an exquisite fish course, beef fillet and then dessert. We drank a glass of Cava, then white wine then red with it. Lovely.

From the restaurant we walked around the sea front to a hotel where we had a rather pricey cocktail each, then on to a beach bar for another drink (Ignatius had Guinness), and then back to a bar near the camperstop for a final beer. Great way to spend our anniversary, and it didn’t rain too heavily – just drizzled all day.

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Anniversary cocktails. Cheers!

4th October

Last night was the last night in the van. This morning we had our last breakfast in it. The sun’s come out again at last to wave us off. We drove via the motorway back to Bilbao, called at a hypermarket to stock up on wine and Cava, then came to this little car park by the fishing port. Nice spot for lunch and to spend our last few hours before it’s time to go to the ferry.

We should get home late tomorrow night. It’s hard to believe it’s all come to an end, but we feel we made the most of the six months. We’ve had some brilliant experiences and have built up a store of incredible memories.

There are several thousand photos to sort out, of course – but that’s a job for rainy Sunday afternoons at home.

 

 

Travels with Connor

I wrote the last diary blog while we were sitting at a car park on a headland near Santander passing time until it was time to collect Connor from the airport. His flight arrived around 9.30pm. We moved to park very near the airport and actually saw his plane land, about 20 minutes late. We spent the night parked at a camperstop on a marina very near the airport. Lovely to have our boy with us!

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With Connor!

22nd September

Headed back westwards, retracing our route from yesterday, as far as the Picos de Europa where we went to a campsite near Potes. Gorgeous campsite with a view across the mountain range. On the way we stopped at the national park visitor centre which was beautifully laid out.

Spent the afternoon walking down to Potes village and having a wander around. There was a museum all about the history of a monkish scribe but all in Spanish so didn’t mean much to us. We realised we’d been to this town before – 7 years ago when we had a family camping holiday in northern Spain.

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With Connor in Potes

The evening was spent planning the next few days and getting the washing done – should be the last time we need to use a campsite washing machine!

23rd September

Today was a first – we drove off the campsite despite being booked in for 2 nights! Left the small tent Connor is sleeping in and the outdoor table and chairs. There’s no easy way to get around the Picos other than by driving.

Beautiful route round to Cain on increasingly narrow twisty roads. We parked here so we could walk part of the Cares Gorge route. This is an incredibly narrow gorge, and the path goes through several tunnels at the start. Very beautiful. We’d made a picnic lunch which we ate part way along the track.

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Incredible path of the Cares Gorge
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Lunch spot

Long drive back, and an evening meal in the campsite restaurant.

24th September

Slow start today after our long day yesterday. Finally left the campsite around midday and drove along the northern edge of the Picos, stopping at a small restaurant for a very large lunch. The owner/cook/waitress spoke no English and our Spanish is non-existent, but luckily Connor’s art skills (drawing chickens, pigs, fish for her to point at and nod) were good.

From there we went on to Covadonga, a Catholic pilgrimage site which is also of historical significance in Spain – it’s where King Pelayo began the fight-back against the Moors in the 8th century. Apparently 31 fought off 400,000, or something like that. Anyway, the cave his troops sheltered in and where the Virgin Mary appeared before the battle now contains a chapel and the king’s tomb, and there’s an atmospheric cathedral. The whole place is in a spectacular setting deep in the mountains.

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Cave, chapel and waterfall at Covadonga

And onwards to Oviedo where we found a suitable car park for the night. It was beside a park where you could play a round of frisbee golf (throwing frisbee into special net things) so we had a go at that, using our ancient silk fold-up frisbee which had so far had a long journey and no usage. I was terrible at this game. Ignatius won, but only just.

25th September

Walked into Oviedo town centre to have a look around. It being a Monday the museums were closed. And we arrived before most of the churches opened, for a change. You had to pay 8 euro each to go into the cathedral which we objected to, so in the end we just walked around a bit, had a coffee, and left pretty early, although it’s an attractive medieval town centre.

Drove on from there to the beach we were at a few days ago – the one with the arches. We had a tide timetable so knew we could be there for low tide. What we DIDN’T know is you need to buy a ticket to access the beach, from a website, which is mobile-unfriendly and only in Spanish and I couldn’t get past the Captcha. Last time we’d paddled round from the next cove along, stumbling on the pay-beach. This time the tide did not go out far enough to be able to do this. So much for plans! Anyway, we went to the next cove and walked the other way for free, exploring a few caves and other arches before the tide came in. No one on this section of the beach!

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You don’t have to pay to explore THIS bit of As Catedrais beach!

We then had a rethink and decided that rather than spend the night near this beach we would turn back eastwards and go to Gijon. So it was back on the motorway to Gijon, which is actually very near Oviedo. 260km round trip to see or not see that beach! Ho hum.

Parked in the same camperstop in Gijon as we’d been in the night before Connor arrived.

26th September

We walked into Gijon town centre in the morning. We’d thought last time this would be a good place to explore and it was. Very beautiful town. Long walk along the prom to the centre, and out to another little headland where there were some old defensive remains and a weird sculpture that was supposed to be a monument to the horizon but which perhaps needed a bit of interpretation. Looked in a couple of churches as usual. Had a very nice lunch sitting outside a small restaurant in the old part of town.

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Gijon. The statue is King Pelaya who is everywhere in this region.

We walked along the beach on the way back to Gertie. Gijon’s a lovely town and well worth a visit.

From there we drove east another hour to a wild-camping spot (found on Park4Night) near Llanes. This was a lovely little parking spot down a steep gravel track, above a secluded beach. In summer there’s a cafe here but it was closed.

27th September

Had a morning walk on the beach which was beautiful. Going up the gravel track was a little tricky – Gertie’s wheels were spinning and there was a distinct smell of burning clutch… Connor and I got out to lessen her load a bit and with a bit more wheelspin and flying gravel Ignatius managed to get her up the track. Phew!

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Morning walk on the beach

We headed east, not on the motorway to start with but on a very scenic part of the coast road. I would definitely like to come back to northern Spain again for a few weeks – some lovely small coastal towns and many wonderful beaches. But for today we wanted to get to Noja, just east of Santander, where we camped 7 years ago on a holiday both boys remember as being one of the best.

At Noja we checked prices of a couple of campsites then arrived at the top quality one we’d stayed in before. According to the website it would be 35 euro a night for the 3 of us with electricity, but then the receptionist said if any of us were over 55 it’d be just 26 euro. Ignatius, helpfully, is the right age.

So here we are, camped at Playa Joyel beside a wonderful beach. Probably our last campsite (most of them close this weekend anyway). We’ll stay here for Connor’s last 2 nights with us. The campsite has an end-of-season feel to it, and so does our trip.