Category Archives: Europe

Warmer Winter: Spain & Portugal

neelix-beach

Where has the time gone?

At the time of writing there is only one week until our ferry from Le Havre back to Blighty.

So, Autumn and Winter: We spent a long time at Camping Didota in Oropesa del Mar after the big drive back from Croatia, took up jogging, got in guitar practice every second day, and stood by as the temperature crept down from the high 20s to loitering between 16 and 20.

Eventually, it was time to move further south for nicer climes and we made our way over to Portugal, via a huge, beach-side camp at Mazarron, an Aire on the harbour wall at a marina, and a very run-down ‘tropical’ site between Malaga and Marbella – not such an aesthetically pleasing part of coastline.

South of Cadiz we found an ideal little site with lots of sun, high-speed internet, and farms around it, but there was absolutely nothing to do and nowhere you could get to without the rigmarole of rearranging the interior of the van and driving, so three nights proved enough.

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Mazarron’s seafront; Chocolate Salami in Portugal (no meat); A gorgeous sunset; A Red squirrel in Altea

We crossed into Portugal mid-December, time enough to meet with Chrys’s Aunt and Uncle who have a house in Lagos, near where we stayed in Alvor. It was hanging on to the low 20s, very well priced and very pretty, alas the quirky camp was quite full and we ended up in the furthest possible spot from everything, at the bottom of a steep hill, where the Wifi signal was dire.

Arriving at the decision to go back into Spain, we drove past Seville and found ourselves in the strange, half-built town of Humilladero, home to a swanky new camp which had approximately five guests in residence. While cold at night, the temperature ‘soared’ to the mid 20s by day, giving us the hottest weather we’d had since Slovenia.

altea spain crystal clear waterCrystal clear water of Altea

Christmas was imminent and, against our saner judgement, we decided to go back to Benidorm for a bit of life, only to find the camp had misled us about space, offering the equivalent of some adjoining waste ground if we wanted it. No.

Thankfully, just around the corner from Benidorm is Altea, an altogether different experience: Not a vulgar highrise or mobility scooter in sight, but a quaint promenade with restaurants, cafes, and its own castle. The camp had space, enabling us to avoid a Mary and Joseph tale of woe for Christmas.

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Altea promenade by night; Around the Old Town

Come the day, we adorned the van with a tiny LED tree, roast turkey dinner with most of the trimmings, and space-savvy gifts. Though the camp hiked its ACSI price from €16 to €19 from January 1st, we decided to stay put, fearing less enticing accommodations if we left, and drove away on the 28th, back to Oropesa for a couple of nights before the mammoth drive to the border, and then up through France to Le Havre, where Neelix has an appointment with the local vet before we board the ferry back to Portsmouth on February 7th.

2picsFinal photo opps on the beach at Oropesa the day before leaving Spain.
(We’ve been cutting our own hair before you ask)

The Big Drive Back

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Departing Starigrad on the Friday morning, we expected our journey to take between seven and ten days. The first step was the long winding route back up Croatia’s coastline, in order to save on tolls, do a big Lidl shop, and find a place to change our remaining Kuna back into Euros.

As it happened, we managed all of that and driving 30km through Slovenia without having to purchase another 7-day vignette, and make a decent dent into Italy on the first day. We spent our first night at a free Aire beside a football ground in a small town and were up early in the morning to drive another 500km to Pisa, which was close enough to the route to see.

We found another free Aire in Pisa, just fifteen minutes walk from the tower, but were too done in to contemplate finding a piece o’ Pisa pizza, and were asleep by nine.

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Some random building we saw. Looks like it needed a bit of work.

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Italian non-toll routes are decidedly awful. The road surfaces are severely dilapidated to the point where we suspected we were doing damage to Scooby’s chassis. This tied with an intense rain and thunderstorm (which we had to pull over and wait out, unlike the local drivers who seemed content to speed through giant flowing rivers of rain as if there were no risk!), we decided that paying €35 in tolls was better than €300 to a garage when the wheels fell off.

Still, toll roads, smooth and quick as they are, get boring fast and although we eventually reached the French border a lot sooner than planned, we were then faced with more mountain passes to find the Aire we’d chosen. Said Aire, in the pretty town of Sospel, could be seen from the road in both directions, but there were no signs or obvious directions as to how to get to it, not what you want at the end of a long day. After about forty minutes, we spotted a tiny, nondescript unmapped ramp alongside the road that led us down to the Aire which, contradicting the information provided, turned out to be free!

We had to drive back down the mountain in the morning (always worse than the ascent) and had planned to take a look at St Tropez, Port Grimaud, and Sainte-Maxime on the way. All three turned out to be impossible to get to due to grid-locked late-season tourist traffic. Our impatience for queuing got the better of us and we persevered on to a campsite for the night for some much-needed hook-up and a shower outside of the van’s tiny bathroom.

P1010179The elusive Aire of Sospel

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We reached Cap d’Adge the next afternoon and stayed in an overpriced Aire near the port for the night, next to a British lady who seemed to be seeing the world on her own from an aged motorhome, which was awesome (she must’ve been at least 75). The plan was to camp near the border the next night, and tackle the stressful round-Barcelona route early in the morning.

However, we made such good time on the way down we decided to keep going and at around six-thirty, made it to Torredembarra, the same camp we’d used right back at the start. With only three weeks left before they close for the winter, we were as glad to see them as they were of the business, and we slept soundly for five nights back in a comfortably familiar place.

Eventually, as Andy’s birthday approached, we left bound for Oropesa del Mar, our other ‘second home’ camp, via Castellon where I could raid the giant Carrefour for functional non-space-filling gifts.

This was all back in September, so another two months have crept by with little to no movement. We’ve slept in the pitch nearest the sea, which has provided a lullaby to doze off to for all that time. Next, we move further south towards Portugal.

Croatia

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As Croatia is not part of the Schengen Agreement, for the first time since we’d left the UK, we had to show our passports to an official as we crossed the border. Our first stop was a camp at Rovinj, part of a huge holiday village that was so big it was very easy to get lost in. Swimming in Croatia is thwarted by the need for jellyshoes to avoid urchins (not essential, but advisable) and the craggy shoreline, which means a lot of beaches are just rocky slopes into the water.

Two nights at the camp proved to be enough, as August turned to September, and the families all packed up, the hugeness of the place and distance to walk to everything (including usable wifi) rendered it unworkable, so after a second night we moved down the coast to Pula, where we found a smaller, simple campsite on a jut of coastline.

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The swimming issues were still partially in place, but the water was enterable without fear of treading on something spiky due to its clarity and the boats moored up that meant the sea floor was smoothed over. Here, I finally got to revisit Scuba diving for the first time since Thailand in 2012. Though the instructor informed me in no uncertain terms not to expect anything on the same scale, I was, as ever, astonished just to be able to breathe underwater, and we found an Anemone with scores of tiny florescent fish living on it.

When we left Camp Runke after five nights, we drove into Pula with the intention of seeing the famous mini-Colosseum, as Rome was off the table due to mileage and Andy’s previous experience of driving in it (“don’t bother!”) Technically we saw it, though as it was a Saturday and there was a festival on, screwed if we wanted to stop!

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So we headed around the corner, hugging the coastline, in the general direction of Zadar and Split, stopping for two nights at Selce, an adorable town with boats moored up along a gorgeous promenade, winding down from the season. The campground we chose, as seemed to be the case with many in the country, was on an incline and difficult to level the van effectively, but the surroundings made up for it.

Upon departing Selce, we embarked on a long day of zig-zagging coast road. The optimistic nav system estimated about two hours, but the hairpin bends and speed limits that rarely went north of 50kmh slowed things down a lot. Every corner was home to an unspoiled turquoise bay, or a tiny clutch of houses, backed by the looming cragginess of the mountains and, across each bay, any of Croatia’s thousands of islands, looking aridly lifeless from afar, but every now and then a town would appear nestled in a cove.

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We camped at another hillside location, with pitches rammed between trees at all sorts of odd angles and the nearest thing to a beach so far. The water was still clear, allowing us both to snorkel around looking at the sizeable fish that ventured close to shore.

By this point, we were having to make a decision on a trip back, as the insurance had capped our mileage, if we continued further south to Split, without a ferry crossing to Italy, we’d be cursed with driving the entire length of the country twice.

In Zadar, the next day, we looked into the ferry timetables and the only options were 10-hour overnight crossings, fine if you were allowed anywhere but the deck with a dog. So we explored Zadar’s attractive harbour area, sat on the musical steps (wind and water create a pan-pipe sound), got up close to Roman ruins, and meandered up and down the narrow lanes of olde.

P1010098Zadar’s musical steps

We spent another couple of nights at the camp and made our decision to call time on Croatia after 11 days, and begin the daunting 1,500km, six-day drive back to Spain, where the weather was still like a pristine British summer…

As it turned out, no sooner had we crossed back into Slovenia, the refugee crisis effectively closed Croatia’s borders, resulting in huge waiting times at all crossings.

From Paris-ish to Berlin

Mont St Michel

After three nights sweltering in Cap d’Agde, our resolve was to reverse our planned route to escape the heat for the sake of Neelix (and ourselves), so we headed North West to the French outcrop of Brittany.

The first night of the mammoth 1000km trip brought us to a free Aire in the little town of Bourganeuf. It was still hot, but we found Scooby a space in the shade of some towering conifers. Beyond a gothic chateau opposite, there was little to see, so the following morning we drove another full day until we stopped at an Aire beside a lake in Nord-Sur-Erdre, where a strange thumping and shoals of migrating people caught our attention…

Turned out that the town was hosting a two-night music festival about 2km from the Aire, featuring a whole host of people we’d never heard of – and Sting.

Bourganeuf Aire France

Bourganeuf, France

Nord-Sur-Erdre

Nord-Sur-Erdre, France

With the back doors wide open to the lake, the stars beginning to poke through the cloak of nightfall, we dozed to the sounds of Englishman in New York and If I Ever Lose My Faith.

The following day we finally made it to the cooler climes of Brittany, though the heat had stalked us and our hike to the awesome Mont St Michel a couple of days later brought with it sunburn. The next day it rained like hell.

Over the following three days, we made our way along the coast due north, stopping in free Aires and visiting the small harbour towns and Normandy beaches, finishing our second stint in France at Fecamp, an Aire so popular it had spilled over to a second car park and was rammed with wall-to-wall motorhomes.

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Mont St Michel

July 11th saw us bid adieu to France and (whatever-it-is-in-Flemish) hello to Belgium. As we’d visited Ghent and Bruges before, it served only as a transitory overnight and, by the following afternoon, we’d made it to Rotterdam to look at some canals and windmills.

We finished out first night in The Netherlands in the cheese-themed town of Gouda, sampling the national dish of chips smothered in sauce, and taking a walk around the postcard-esque town. For the next three days we utilised the final ACSI discount period at a camp near Eindhoven. Where it rained. And rained. And rained. But there was a giant trampoline and no kids around so I didn’t care.

Hermanville

Juno Beach TankFecamp

 

<<< Normandy towns and beaches: Hermanville, a tank at Juno Beach, and Fecamp

 

Three nights at Camp Rainyskies was enough and it was time to venture into Germany. Andy had never visited Deutschland other than a flight connection at Frankfurt, and I’d only been through it on the way to Poland in 1994, so neither of us had any set expectations, and our first task was the possibly daunting one of obtaining an Umweltplakette – a windscreen sticker that states your vehicle isn’t spitting out toxic death fumes, thus allowing you into inner city areas. Without it there’s a hefty fine.

So we crossed the border and went straight to a small industrial town where we’d located a TUV branch, consulted my mild-German knowledge and miraculously managed a good 90% of the conversation in German! €5 later, we have the green badge!

Windmill near RotterdamGouda, NLGouda, NLCheese shop in Gouda

The Netherlands: One of many windmills southeast of Rotterdam, the cheesy town of Gouda, its fairytale-like centrepiece, and a shop of their eponymous queso

 

We made the most of the Germany’s über-efficient roadways to get to Kassel and eventually Göttingen, where we spent the night in a small Aire outside of the town. In the morning we drove north to Wolfsburg, found a near-central motorhome parking lot and walked through the 35 degree afternoon into town centre to explore.

In the morning we walked around the local Schloss, and paid a visit to the Volkswagen Automuseum. As VW’s ancestral home is Wolfsburg, it’s a game of spot-the-non-VW. The museum was replete with VW Beetles of yore (including Herbie!), vans, and a precious few T25’s similar to our very own Suzanne-the-Van. The drawback of this trip was having to go individually so the other could dogsit in the car park.

Convertible Beetle, Basket Beetle & Wooden Beetle, and my childhood hero

Classic Convertible Beetle, Basket-Weaved Beetle & Wooden Beetle, and my childhood hero

After Wolfsburg, we rocketed down the autobahn to Berlin, where we’d found a strange Aire-cum-campsite on the outskirts, charging just €20 a night (good, for high-season). On the Monday, the three of us hopped on a U-train from nearby Tegel and, twenty minutes later, surfaced in the centre of Germany’s capital city. Neelix was perplexed by the train, seemingly unsure how to sit without keeling over every time it braked or gained speed.

A tiring foot tour followed: The river to Brandenburg Gate (big), the Holocaust Memorial (people taking selfies inside seemed odd), a preserved section of the Berlin Wall (touching), Checkpoint Charlie (tiny!), plus Gendarmenmarkt Square, Bebelplatz, Berlin Cathedral, Mitte, Alexanderplatz, and a trip out to a suburb that seemed to be streetwalker central, even in the middle of the day! Berlin also gave us the chance for Andy to buy a replacement camera for the one stolen, and both of us some replacement clothes for the ones threadbare and/or impervious to being cleaned, thanks to the giant Primark store. We finished off with haloumi wraps back in Tegel and a long, much-needed sleep.

Out n’ about in Berlin:

Wolfsburg SchlossBrandenburg Gate, BerlinHolocaust Memorial, BerlinmemorialBerlin WallCheckpoint Charlie, BerlinDog on the subwayBerlin

Days away: 147
Trip Miles: 5,991
Trip Kilometers: 9,663

RouteMap_270715

Spain, Part Trés

Neelix stays still for once.

Today sees us 12 weeks into our journey of discovery and Tapas. It’s also our last day at Camping Didota, in the strange sub-Vegas resort of Oropesa del Mar.

Tomorrow, we chug off in the direction of Valencia to explore the city a bit, then head south to a place neither of us has ever experienced: Benidorm.

We’re meeting our great friends Shona and Karla there, so to hell with any local naffness. Plus I really want some bad food.

Oropesa with it's marina from the nearby hills

Oropesa with it’s marina from the nearby hills

Since our last update, we set up home at the nice campsite here, approximately 100 feet from the sea, which sends us to sleep in a perpetual lullaby of waves each night, backed by the chirping cicadas of the overgrown campsite-no-more over the wall. It’s quiet, well kept, and a lot of people here seem like they intend to stay for months rather than weeks.

We ventured into nearby Benicassim a couple of times, hiked from the camp the 5km into Oropesa searching for a market we never found, replacement flip-flops (they do not like everyday wear), cut our own hair (quite successfully), and taught Neelix to negotiate incoming waves and swim a little to cool down – temperatures soared as high at 38°C at one point! See his graceless lolloping here:

Andy got his action cam on a few times, strapped to the grill of Scooby: See at 8x the speed for true rollercoaster effect along the hairpin turns on the way to Morella!

Christmas came as well and we managed to angle the hardly-ever-used satellite dish to find a German channel broadcasting Eurovision. The commentary wasn’t quite Graham Norton, but we waved our arms a little as the UK dwindled into it’s usual almost-last place.

So, it’s still a slow, lazy life in the sunshine, as summer comes to northern Europe we’ll weave our way back and experience some new countries – promise!!

Group shot for this month

Group shot for this month

Route map so far with next section planned

Route map so far with next section planned

Days away: 84
Trip Miles: 2,116
Trip Kilometers: 3,405

Click to enbiggen:

Oropesa del Mar

Oropesa del Mar

FARTons - yes really

FARTons – yes, really

Benicassim

Benicassim

We love a boardwalk

We love a boardwalk

Sunrise on the beach

Sunrise on the beach

Pebbles like Brighton!

Pebbles like Brighton!

Neelix endorsing Oropesa

Neelix endorsing Oropesa

Big ant, big leaf!

Big ant, big leaf!

 

Neelix stays still for once.

Neelix stays still for once.

Spain, Part Dos

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After being turfed out of Sitges by the fuzz, we drove down the coast a few miles to a campsite on the outskirts of Torredembarra, where we set about writing, setting up revenue streams, and waiting for a few deliveries to fix a couple of minor van problems.

The beachfront camp (separated from the sands by a fairly busy trainline), good showers, and general peace kept us at La Noria for a whopping 31 nights (discounted with our ACSI card, so we essentially got one week free).

poobin-aqueduct

Walks up and down the beach, gingerly paddling in the still-too-cold Med (though Neelix fell in after misjudging a sandbar), the sand there is strangely springy, half-swallowing the soles of your feet as you tread. Neelix was treated to long 8km walks to the marina and back, exploring a lighthouse, a quaint cove, and the sparse local commerce (pretty much just a Carrefour).

The laid back nature of the camp (or even Spain!) allowed us to drive in and out of the camp at will; a pilgrimage to Tarragona and Salou to find Autogas and scope out possible new camping spots punctuated the lazy days in the sun.

bbq-lighthouse

Once the Spain/Portugal Aire book, a replacement lappie charger, and a new gear for the van’s awning eventually arrived (a real bitch to find, eventually sent to us from Rose Awnings, Dorset), we made the necessary repairs and, slightly reluctantly, planned moving on from our quiet little Shangri-La.

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Repairs! Repairs! Repairs!

First stop entailed a trip inland and up to the higher altitudes of Morella, a fortified town an hour from the sea. The free Aire there came recommended and boasted an amazing view of the town, which was replete with steep, winding streets, tiny alleyways, and artisan cheese outlets, at the centre of which looms an impressive castle. Neelix ignored much of this to bark at a cat.

The following day, we drove back to the coast bound for Peniscola (sadly not Pepsi’s new gay-centric coke), where we rolled up to a cosy campsite for a couple of nights and hiked the 1.5km to the promenade, which is largely a sprawl of giant hotels, iced off by the aesthetically pleasing castle that leans seaward, not dissimilar to Morella or Sitges.

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Morella, its oversized dolls, and Peniscola Beach

The closed-quarters of the camp meant that any regular level conversation could be heard, and proved ultimately a little off-putting after the Edenic ambience of La Noria, though Neelix enjoyed a wee-off with a yappy French dog (Britain: 1, France: 0).

Further south next, with one more delivery requiring a ‘stay’ at a camp (at Oropesa del Mar), and then the tempo will pick up as we round the coast to loop back up to cooler climes.