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’.
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.
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!
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
Long drive back, and an evening meal in the campsite restaurant.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
I hate myself so much when I leave a week or more between diary blogs! And, oops, I’ve done it again. Would be ok only I have such a shocking memory so have to work hard to remember what we did!
We decided to spend a third night at the Vila Cha campsite and have a second day in Porto. So we retraced the steps of the day before – taxi and metro into the city – but stayed on the metro a little longer to go across the top level of the bridge. From the other side at that level were marvellous views. We then walked back across the top level of the bridge, past the cathedral (but not in it as there were huge queues to pay respects to the bishop who’d died a couple of days before) and down to pick up one of the antique trams that run around the city. We did the route that goes alongside the river right out to the coast. Had lunch there sitting outside a restaurant with an enormous number of flies (but the food was good) and then caught the tram, then metro then taxi back again.
There’s a national park the Penedes-Geres in the north of Portugal and we wanted to visit there, so headed off northwards and inland. Another campervanner we’d met at Peniche had told us of a good place to spend the night beside a reservoir so we headed there by some scenic routes.
Very exposed spot by that reservoir and pretty cold too – the combination of being later in the year and further north means we’ve had a very rapid change in temperatures! Made a rookie mistake in the evening – we’d drunk some wine then decided to move the van to face into the wind rather than side on, so it didn’t rock as much in the gusts. Stupidly we left both glasses on the table while we shuffled the van around to a level spot we were happy with. Both glasses fell off and broke, of course. You’d think after 5 months we’d be more clued up! (Luckily we brought 4 wine glasses with us so don’t worry, we will still be able to drink wine!)
We headed into the national park on a back road. Passed two dogs in a cart, and a woman knitting in a field while she tended her two cows. And no one else for hours. Very beautiful scenery.
Eventually reached Geres where we had a look around the small town, and then parked up for the night at a car park just out of town. Had a (not great) meal out in a nearby restaurant.
Time to head out of Portugal and back into Spain. The road north from Geres continued through the national park, got rougher as we reached the border, and then suddenly much better once we were in Spain. Probably the prettiest border crossing we’ve done.
In Spain we stopped at a sweet little town named Celenova where we nearly got to look around a monastery and its attached church but everything seemed to be closed. From there on we were on motorways and making much quicker progress towards our destination for the day – Santiago de Compostela. We reached a sports centre car park listed in Park4Night, and walked into town from there. Huge hill walking in! We visited the cathedral and explored the beautiful old town. Lots of people with rucksacks around who’d hiked the pilgrimage trail!
We decided to have our evening meal in the city and found a small cheap restaurant. Santiago had been on my list of must-see places for a long time. It certainly has charm and although busy most of the people seem to stick to the cathedral and main squares, so you can easily escape them all on side roads.
We debated going back into the city but couldn’t face that steep walk in, so instead decided to move on, westwards towards Cape Fisterra. The Romans thought this was the most westerly part of Europe (and hence the edge of the world) but actually Cabo da Roca in Portugal is further west. The drive here was gorgeous – slow twisty roads alongside bays and inlets. The further west we got the more it felt like the west of Ireland (only with different architecture and better roads) or Scotland, or Cornwall or Brittany. Of course these are all Celtic places bordering the Atlantic!
Along the way we stopped to look at a couple of small fishing towns and also at a waterfall that falls into a salt water inlet (very few do this).
Just beyond the town of Fisterra is the cape, and a lighthouse, and a great place to park for the night. We had a look around the headland. Many Santiago pilgrims continue to here and leave mementoes (walking sticks, shoes, photos of themselves and little notes) tucked under the rocks.
Onwards around the coast, heading north. Galicia is a lovely part of Spain to visit if you like wild coastline. (And I do.) Again we stopped at a couple of small fishing towns. Eventually arrived at A Coruna which is a largish city I’d managed to never hear of, but it is lovely and well worth visiting. A nightmare to drive around however, even the satnav was totally confused. We managed to find a car park by the acquarium where you can spend the night but it’s a way out of the main city, on a headland.
Spent the afternoon walking round the headlands here and I went up the Torre de Hercules. This is an old Roman lighthouse. The outer shell was rebuilt in the 1800s but the inner tower is Roman with a staircase added. It’s still a working lighthouse though they have replaced the old giant oil lamps with electric…
Ignatius decided he ought to visit the Roman lighthouse too, so he went up it this morning. We then moved the van to a dedicated (and expensive) campervan park at a marina nearer the interesting bits of town. Walked around from there, past a cruise ship that had come in (and there were English voices everywhere!) and around the town. It’s an odd shape – there’s the headland where we’d spent the night, the centre of town on an isthmus and a long sweep of sandy beach. All very pleasant.
Left A Coruna in the afternoon and headed along the coast north-eastwards, ending up at Spain’s most northerly point at Bares, where there’s a lighthouse. Very pretty spot. We are drawn to these wild and remote headlands! Spent the night here, once more with a lighthouse beam sweeping the van every few seconds (but with the blinds down you’re not disturbed by the light).
Time to head east, as we need to pick up our son Connor from Santander tomorrow evening. The first part of the route was still on slow roads hugging the coast, and we stopped at Viveiro which has a lovely beach and looks like a sweet little town. A little further on near Ribadeo was an amazing beach with loads of stacks and arches. We got wet wading from one cove to the next. Got to bring Connor back here!
From there we were on the motorway and drove as far as Gijon – a large city in Asturias. We parked just east of the city at a car park on a headland, and the city prom stretches round as far as here. Had a walk to look at the view in each direction. There’s no time to explore Gijon so that will have to wait for a return trip to northern Spain – am sure there’ll be one in time!
Today is all about preparing for Connor’s visit. He arrives this evening around 9.30pm. We drove this morning the rest of the way from Gijon to Santander, and arrived at a Carrefour petrol station running on fumes, where we put 81 litres of diesel into our 80 litre tank… (ok so it might be 85 litre tank, I am not sure but even so, bit close to the wire!)
Shopped for Connor then out to a headland just north of the city where there is a lighthouse – we might come back here to spend the night and keep the theme of capes and lighthouses going a little longer!
There are a few hours before we need to head to the airport, time to clean the van and catch up on blogging etc.
Our journey round Europe has been an interesting coffee experience.
Both of us like black coffee, no sugar. But ‘black coffee’ comes in many strains, from an intense Italian espresso to the soup bowls of ‘americano’ you get in Britain.
Our coffee of choice is a cup with ‘diluted’ espresso, preferably letting the water run through the grinds for a bit longer than an espresso or at worst adding a little hot water to the espresso.
In Italy, outside of touristy areas you can get away with asking for Caffè Americano and get a decent coffee. In tourist areas they can assume you want a coffee like the Americans want and serve it large with a lot of water .. or dishwater as the Italians refer to it! Says it all really. In these situations you have to enter into discussions along the lines of a plumber telling you it’s a tricky job, make a face, suck air through your teeth, say stuff like Americano but with poco acqua calda (bad Italian for little hot water) and hope for the best. If it arrives as decent cup, exclaim perfetto, if not make another face, shrug your shoulders and hope for better next time!
In Italy, if you don’t want to risk the Americano challenge you could try asking for Caffè Lungo which should get you a long coffee made with espresso.
This should get you the desired coffee in France. Just be careful that occasionally you could end up with a filter (drip) coffee. You can try Americano but the two dangers in France is the large cup of watery coffee or the French just shrugging their shoulders and looking at you as if you’re mad and have asked them a complicated theoretical physics question!
This should do the trick in Spain … remembering to roll that ‘r’ !! But occasionally you may have to enter into the Italian game of a little hot water (con poca agua caliente).
My bad Portuguese pronounces this as Abba-tan-ah-doh but it generally works with getting an ‘extended’ espresso.
Be warned Americano can sometimes get you instant coffee in Portugal!
In our travels across a small part of southern Europe it is hard to disagree that Italy has the best coffee and coffee culture. But using a little local knowledge and language can get you decent coffee no matter where you are.
But the morning coffee is not just about the coffee … what do you have with it. Some small, sweet, pastry type thing surely!!
We have raved on previous blogs about Italian cornetto (a sweet croissant filled with jam, cream, chocolate) and cannoli (crispy pastry roll with creamy ricotta filling and flavourings of lemon, chocolate, pistachio). Perfetto!
In France you can have pain au chocolat, raisin etc. but our current favorite is the Portuguese Pastel de Nata, a small custard tart with crispy pastry.
I’m not sure about Spain … they didn’t seem to have a sweet morning coffee accompaniment. The locals in southern Spain seemed to prefer bread and ham. Very nice ham they have too … but missing the point really 🙂
We’d been preparing ourselves for the heat of Seville, and yes it was hot. On bikes you generate a pleasant breeze as you cycle, and thankfully Seville is a great place to cycle around as it has a lot of well marked cycle paths. Not in Bolzano’s league but way better than most cities. We headed off fairly early to try to see as much as possible before the heat really built up.
After the usual tourist information office and coffee shop stops, we arrived at the cathedral. There was a queue to get in, but only because it hadn’t yet opened. Once inside there was a very good self-guided audio tour to follow. Latest measurements suggest that this cathedral is bigger than St Paul’s London, and bigger than St Peter’s Vatican. So, very big then! It is huge. Loads of side chapels, all containing countless works of art. Lots of gold everywhere. We spent quite a long time in it and were suitably impressed.
You know a town is hot when they have shades draped across the streets, and when the outdoor tables of restaurants are supplied with a constant mist of cooled water. We ate at one of these and those cooling sprays do work. Kind of outdoor air conditioning. As mad in the opposite direction as the outdoor heated swimming pool I’ve been in at Alpe d’Huez in winter.
We visited another church as well, also jaw-droppingly ornate. And then headed out of the centre on our bikes to some shady parks which were very pleasant to pootle around.
Left Seville late afternoon for the drive into Portugal. We’d vaguely planned to stop at a beach car park not far from the border but all the car parks turned out to be packed with people still on the beaches. Finally we reached a camperstop a little way inland. Quirky place – it had a loo and shower and electricity, but was basically just a field with a couple of permanent caravans in it. And a bloke with cute puppies.
Our plan today was to try out a couple of the famed Algarve beaches and then get to a campsite. First beach we stopped at was nice enough, and we went for a swim. Second beach was Marinha Beach, ranked amongst the best in the world. It was very busy, but we were only there to swim not to grill ourselves. You can swim into caves and through rock arches here. Absolutely beautiful and well worth the visit.
We had lunch at a lovely cliff top spot, off a dirt road. Then on to a campsite in the western Algarve, at Salema. It had already started up ACSI discounts and at 11 euro a night was a bit of a bargain. We were ready for some campsite vegging time.
After doing the washing and all the boring catch-up stuff we got the bikes off and cycled the short distance downhill into Salema. Had a good lunch by the beach and went for a swim (though I think Marinha beach has spoilt us for swimming anywhere else). Then cycled uphill back to the campsite.
Just lazed around the campsite all day, doing a bit of planning etc. Our pitch had shade for most of the day so was pretty perfect in that respect. I got a fair amount of writing done too.
Today in the morning I had a radio interview scheduled with Talk Radio Europe to promote my new book (The Girl from Ballymor, out 7th September!!) Must admit I was pretty nervous about it even though it was to be pre-recorded. I was glad when it was over. We packed up and left when this was done, driving just a short way along the coast to Cabo de Sao Vicente or Portugal’s answer to Land’s End.
Had a look around here then went to nearby Sagres where we explored the fort, walked around the headland and into the tiny town. We spent the night at the fort’s car park along with quite a lot of other campervans. As the sun went down we strolled along the cliff top to watch the sunset. I love this corner of Portugal!
We drove up the west coast, calling at a couple of beaches on the way, but didn’t swim. These beaches are much rougher than those on the south coast, and cater for surfers. At the first we had coffee and walked along the beach and over the rocks. It reminded me of Cornish or Devon beaches. At the second we sat on the cliff top and had lunch, watching the surfers.
And then a long drive inland and north to Evora in the Alentejo region. We stopped for the night a few miles outside the town, at a megalithic stone circle surrounded by cork oaks. Magical place!
After a morning wander around the stone circle we drove into Evora and parked up just outside the medieval town walls. It’s much much hotter here than on the coast, although the night was cool.
Walked up through the town, visited the Chapel of Bones (not a design feature you’d want in your own home) and the associated museum, then the cathedral (bit uninspiring after Seville) and the roman baths which were discovered under the town hall of all places. Had a very pleasant lunch out, actually inside, in air conditioning, as they don’t have the Seville style outdoor aircon here!
Left mid-afternoon and drove back to the coast, north of Lisbon. We’re skipping Lisbon as we have been before and large cities aren’t good in campervans. We’re parked for the night on a cliff stop near Santa Cruz, listening to the roar of the ocean. Substantially cooler here – needed a fleece for our evening walk along the beach!
One more little problem has occurred today – the habitation door lock won’t work from the outside. Which means we have to lock it from the inside and go out through the driver’s door. Another problem which happened back in June is that the driver’s door handle is broken and won’t open from the inside. So getting in and out of the van and securing it is a bit of a logic puzzle now.