All posts by John Ewbank

Stags on Tour – 2024

The thing about blogging, and I recognise that not every blogger subscribes to this point of view, is that it really helps if you have something worthwhile to blog about.  Now, it certainly isn’t the case that we’ve just sat on our backsides and done absolutely nothing since returning from Spain twenty something months ago, but in all truthfulness there really hasn’t been too much to blog about – or perhaps more to the point, I just haven’t felt the urge to put fingers to keyboard.

But what about Stags on Tour 2023?‘, I hear you cry.  ‘Didn’t that memorable adventure get your creative juices flowing?‘.  Well, of course it did, but for some inexplicable reason I just couldn’t be arsed to sit down and write about it at the time, and as the months slipped past the passage of time started to become more of an obstacle than an incentive.  Still, one of the wonders of this ‘internet thingy’ is the ability to play all sorts of tricks, such as backdating a blog and pretending that it was written months ago – rather like handing in your homework a week late and convincing your teacher that it really was in on time!  So a short account of Stags on Tour 2023 will magically appear shortly.
Anyway, to business.  This year, the Famous Five (David, Jane, Denise, John and Finn the dog) decided to go exploring in South Wales.  Perhaps, given the weather we’ve had so far this year, thinking that we’d be ‘going topless’ in early April was a touch ambitious, but in the end the rain held off for much of the time, and we were able to feel the wind in our hair and the sun on our faces when the weather allowed.  This year it was the turn of the  ‘White Stag Team’  to set the route and do the bookings, so the itinerary looked like this:

  • Day 1.  Home to The Gower Peninsula.  Staying overnight at the Kings Head in Llangennith.
  • Day 2. Llangennith to Pendine Sands via Kidwelly Castle. Staying overnight at Caban.
  • Day 3. Pendine to Manorbier with lunch in Tenby and staying overnight at the Castlemead Country House.
  • Day 4. Manorbier to home, skirting the northern edge of the Bannau Brycheiniog (that’s Brecon Beacons to you and me) National Park.

Tuesday 2nd April dawned reasonably dry and clear, so after meeting up with the Green Stag Team just off the A417 we headed westward around Gloucester and into The Forest of Dean.  The Green Stag had their top off, so before long we followed suit and were enjoying the gentle ‘burble’ of 16 cylinders singing in unison.  All would have been well if the route I’d chosen hadn’t slavishly followed the A465 ‘Heads of the Valleys’ road from Abergavenny to Neath, which just happens currently to be the largest civil engineering project in the western world! Well, perhaps I exaggerate just a touch; but believe me, if you want to enjoy free-flowing, open-top motoring – pick another route.

Arriving on the Gower, our route took us to The Mumbles where we’d hoped to enjoy the allegedly stunning scenery, but unfortunately by this time the rain was falling, so after a short walk and coffee stop we made our way to Llangennith and the King’s Arms.  Comfortable accommodation and a bar within STAGgering (see what I did there?) distance made this a good choice; so Day One’s objective was achieved with the troops all in good order.

Day Two started with a visit to Kidwelly Castle which, I must admit, I’d never previously heard of.  Famed for having been one of the most powerful castles in Wales, to say nothing of having featured in the opening scene of ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’, it’s well worth a visit if you happen to be passing (which, to be honest is unlikely). Our next stop was Pendine Sands, which had its moments of fame in the 1920’s when the seven mile long beach became the location of choice for those brave enough to make attempts on the world land speed  record. Rivalry between Malcolm Campbell and John Parry-Thomas saw the record pushed to 174mph until, in 1927, Parry-Thomas was tragically killed when his car overturned at more than 170mph.  We stayed in the brand new, and quite comfortable Caban, which sits alongside The Museum of Speed, right on the beach.

A room with a view, or what?

Unsurprisingly, the Museum’s focus is the history of the various speed record attempts, but most importantly it’s the usual location for ‘Babs’, Parry-Thomas’s record-breaking car, which after the fatal crash lay buried in the sands until it was unearthed in 1969 and subjected to a 16 year-long restoration.  Unfortunately our visit coincided with the car’s absence for some essential repairs – shame they didn’t think to tell us that before we paid our entrance fee!Day Three was dry and sunny for our short journey to Tenby which, I confidently informed my traveling companions, I had last visited on a family holiday in 1955 – aged three.  If the town looked a tad unfamiliar to me it was probably unsurprising as I’ve subsequently discovered that the holiday was in Teignmouth; so, wrong town, wrong county and wrong country, but otherwise a very understandable mistake.  Our accommodation that evening in Manorbier was a bit of a mixed bag.  Clearly trying to live up to its ‘country house‘ name, it’s obviously tried hard to cultivate a ‘shabby chic’ atmosphere – well, they got the first bit spot-on, but chic it definitely was not.  Having said which the evening meal they provided was excellent.

Our journey home on Day Four was pretty uneventful.  We deliberately chose a more northerly return route to avoid the roadworks on the Heads of the Valleys road, and this took us through some wonderful countryside skirting the Brecon Beacons.  I had a momentary panic as we passed Sennybridge Military Training Area until I remembered that it was just a 40 year-old memory and I’d no longer have to dig innumerable trenches and traipse across endless sodden hillsides while muttering those memorable words ‘if it ain’t raining, it ain’t training’. Arriving back in Gloucestershire Stags on Tour 2024 ended ‘happily ever after’ with the sun shining, the cars purring and The Famous Five already thinking ahead to their next adventure and what trouble we might get into………  I’m looking forward to it already.

Comillas & Bilbao

For the final few days of our trip we decided to stay at a campsite at Comillas about 30 kilometres west of Santander on Spain’s northern coast..  On arrival we found that the site we’d chosen wouldn’t open for another few days, so we spent the night wild-camping on the sea front in Comillas.  Lovely beach and the port still has plenty of old-world charm despite having a large number of what we presumed to be holiday apartments.  In the height of the holiday season I imagine the place must get packed.  Denise nearly got the swim she’d been pining for but the tide and undertow was a little too strong.  We ended up spending three nights on a very nice campsite about five kilometers away which fortunately had a pool. The 120 kilometre drive from Comillas to Bilbao is fairly uninteresting, though we noticed, not for the first time, that the woods and hillsides are heavily dominated by eucalyptus trees which were originally planted for the local pulping industry but have spread and obviously thrive in the warm and damp climate of the northern coast. The fact that they are now out of control is increasingly being recognised by the Spanish authorities for the threat they pose to native species and the increased fire risk.  An obvious and worrying example of the law of unintended consequencess.

We stayed our last night in a camperstop high on a hill above Bilbao with superb views of the city.  We started our 2019 trip to Portugal there but this time it was virtually full and we were fortunate to get a slot.  In the afternoon we took the local bus down into the old part of the city to have a wander and enjoy an icecream while sitting on the embankment and watching the world go by.The ferry port is only about 20 kilometres from the camperstop but we left in plenty of time and were among the first in the queue for the ferry. – which inevitably meant that we were among the last to board!  The one consolation was that I had a nice conversation with the owner of this beautiful Aston Martin DB3S.  It looked to me to be in fabulous condition but he was taking it back to UK for a complete, year-long, rebuild – I suppose you can afford to do that when your car is worth £5-6 million………

Tordesillas and Fromista

From Zamora we headed east towards Valladolid, but as our route took us through Tordesillas we decided to check the place out.  During one of our earlier stops we’d got into conversation with a guy who explained why Tordesillas, which virtually nobody has ever heard of, played a vital part in the history of the modern world.It seems that back in the fifteenth century, whilst explorers from a number of European nations were setting out to find, invade and plunder any lands that they came across, Spain and Portugal pulled a sneaky one and met at Tordesillas to carve up the New World between them – getting one over on France, England etc.  The Treaty of Tordesillas, signed in 1494, effectively gave the land that is now Brazil to Portugal and allowed Spain to lay claim to the rest of South America.  Of course the other nations took exception to the treaty and totally ignored it – but if you’ve ever wondered why Brazil, alone among all the South American nations, speaks Portuguese- it’s all down to The Treaty of Tordesillas.Heading north again we took a back road through some wonderful countryside and past the village of Tamara de Campos, which is another of those communities that boast a church that’s totally out of proportion to its size.

The Iglesia de San Hipólito at Tamara de Campos
The impressive Iglesia de San Hipólito at Tamara de Campos.

We stopped overnight at Fromista, which is on one of the acknowledged routes of the Camino de Santiago, and enjoyed a drink at a small bar populated by a number of footsore pilgrims.  Enjoyed, that is, until we were charged nine euros for two small beers!  It seems that The Church isn’t the only institution that’s happy to take advantage of the devout!

I couldn’t bring myself to include a picture of overpriced beers – so here’s one of a nearby irrigation canal instead ….


We stayed one night in a camperstop in Zamora.  It was fairly busy with space for about twenty vans and located only about half a mile from the old part of the city.  Like most of the historic locations we’ve visited Zamora was built on an outcrop of rock which is surmounted by a citadel/fort that gives views out over the surrounding countryside. Plus, of course, there’s the usual large church or cathedral – though this one didn’t seem to be quite as impressive or lavish as others we’ve seen.We took a stroll around the historic quarter and had a beer in the Plaza Mayor while doing a bit of people watching and taking in yet more of the wall-to-wall sunshine that we’ve enjoyed this holiday.

Salamanca (Again)

With about eight days of our holiday still ahead of us we decided to start heading up towards Spain’s north coast with the hope that we’d be able to enjoy a few days at the seaside before our return ferry from Bilbao.

Although it would mean crossing our earlier track we decided to return to Salamanca to visit the Museo de Historia de la Automocion de Salamanca, which we’d somehow managed to miss on our earlier visit – despite having cycled literally past its front door.  We stayed a night at a camperstop about 30km short of Salamanca at the tiny hamlet of Narros del Castilla which didn’t have much to recommend it other than some nice views and some huge falling-down walls which presumably meant that once upon a time it was a place of some significance.

Despite having a couple of MGs in its collection and not a Triumph to its name the museum was worth a visit, with a wide variety of marques on display, including a couple of Spanish makes that I’d never heard of.  A small worthless prize to anyone who can name three Spanish makes not including Seat (without using Google!).

No, not a Triumph – but nice just the same

From Salamanca we headed north again to Zamora, very nearly coming to grief on the way.  We were in a line of traffic plodding along nicely at about 50mph when the Stig’s Spanish cousin coming in the opposite direction decided to cross a solid white line to do some overtaking.  I think that I must have just had time to swerve slightly to the right before there was a massive, expensive-sounding bang – and he was gone.  I couldn’t stop immediately but pulled over about a mile down the road and was followed into a layby by a Spanish guy in a white van.  According to him, the other driver’s left-hand door mirror hit the side of our van, flew through the air and landed on his windscreen.  Fortunately the only damage to our van is a broken flue cover from the hot water heater.  If his car had been a couple of mm closer there would have been a long scrape down the side of our vehicle; a couple of inches further over and it would have been ’emotional’.

Aranjuez and Madrid

Right from the start of our holiday Denise said that she would dearly like to visit the Reina Sofia and Prado Galleries in Madrid, but as we couldn’t find any campsites in the city and really didn’t want to take the van there, we decided to stay for a few nights in Aranjuez (about 50 kilometres south of the capital) and let the train take the strain.

We stayed the night prior to Aranjuez at a camperstop at Aldeanueva de Barbarroya, which is just to the south of the Embalse de Azutan (Azutan Reservoir).  With just enough space for two vans it wasn’t the largest site we’ve visited, but with a bar in easy walking distance it met our needs extremely well.  Whilst enjoying a beer we got talking to three Belgians who had cycled from somewhere in Portugal and were intending to pedal their way all the way home to Belgium.  3,000 km – completely bonkers!

We always enjoy using the train services in the countries we visit and the 40 minute trip from Aranjuez to the Atocha station in Madrid didn’t disappoint.  Clean, comfortable, on-time and at eight pounds a head for the return journey, what’s not to like?

Fortunately both the galleries are within easy walking distance of the station.  We started with the Reina Sofia which has an outstanding collection of modern art, including works by Dali and, of course, Picasso.  I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a great fan of most modern art, but their coverage of the Spanish Civil War period was interesting.  The star of the show was Picasso’s Guernica, which was way beyond my understanding.
The Prado was equally impressive, though I’m afraid that after the first few hundred paintings my ability to appreciate each and every masterpiece starts to wane – and the Prado has thousands.  Call me a philistine – and you’d be right.

Aranjuez is yet another place that we’d visited previously, though this time we could at least remember our fleeting visit back in 2003.  As a ‘royal city’ the architecture is predictably impressive – apparently until 1752 only people with royal connections were allowed to live in the city – which may account for the fact that there are no well-preserved slums.

Trujillo and the heart of Spain

We’d originally planned to stay in Caceres for four nights but the presence of the film crew in the old city rather ruined it for us.  We still loved the age and character of the place, but being a little frustrated at not being able to ramble at will we decided to move after two and when Thursday morning dawned we headed the 40 or so miles east to Trujillo.

Trujillo is yet another place that we remember visiting in the course of our travels in 2003, but yet again when we arrived we struggled to remember anything about it.  Perhaps we were like American tourists (if there are any Americans who chance upon this blog I apologise for casting you all in the same dim light) and did all our sightseeing at high speed from a moving vehicle (“if this is Thursday we must be in Trujillo”) or more likely senility has now taken a firm hold.
View of TrujilloAnyway, arriving in this lovely and ancient town we looked forward to getting stuck into some serious rambling, only to find …………. yes, the place was also full of film crew, fully intent on recreating a mythical world for the entertainment of all those who believe that dragons are real and can’t be bothered to get off their arses to visit the real world.  Fortunately, the layout of Trujillo is such that despite some restrictions we could still get to see many of the beautiful buildings and take in some magnificent views of the city and surrounding countryside.

Film crew filling the main square at Trujillo – HBO making a takeover bid for Central Spain

Leaving Trujillo we continued heading east across more lovely scenery, rising at times to a couple of thousand feet before dropping down to vast and largely empty plains (except for several billion olive trees) interrupted by the occasional village or small town.  At one point we stopped to admire the view at a mountain pass to be told by a Dutch couple that they’d seen vultures and a ‘black ostrich’.  I thought of alerting the Spanish Zoological Society to this rare sighting before  rumbling that something might perhaps have been lost in translation – for ostrich read stork! 

We spent the night at a camperstop at Aldeanueva de Barbarroya – only two spaces but a nice bar in staggering distance.  Perfect.

Coria and Caceres

Leaving Rodrigo we headed south, once again sticking to the virtually empty ‘N roads’, through the Sierra de Gata to the small provincial town of Coria where we spent the night on a camperstop outside the local sports centre.  We had a quiet (we found out later that we’d arrived at the back end of public holiday) beer in a small square next to the obligatory cathedral (every town with a population of more than 10 seems to have one) and enjoyed the view out over the River Alagon.

Part of the walls of Coria
Part of the walls of Coria

Our drive to Caceres yesterday morning took us across the River Tajo which has been dammed to produce a large reservoir, the Embalse de Alcantara, which provided some more fine views but looked to be worryingly empty for so early in the year.  The campsite in Caceres is next to the local football stadium, a few miles outside the city, so this morning we took the bus and managed to find our way into the heart of the old city which as a UNESCO world heritage site has a reputation for being both beautiful and very original. 

In point of fact its so original that the producers of ‘House of the Dragon’ (a Game of Thrones spin-off) decided to film part of their second series there – so the place was packed to the ramparts with the film crew and their hundreds of hangers-on.  On the one hand it meant that access to some parts of the walled city was quite difficult, but on the other hand the film crew were going out of their way to make the place appear as it must have looked in the fifteenth century.

Moving the props around – part of the not so glamorous side of film making. Spoiler Alert – I think that someone must die in one of the episodes!
The horses look okay, but I don’t believe the Targaryens ever dressed like that…….

Ciudad Rodrigo

Ciudad Rodrigo lies only about a hundred miles to the south and west of Salamanca.  We could have followed the excellent motorway that runs directly from one to the other but chose instead to stray slightly off the beaten track.  This part of central Spain is vast and largely empty, which is to say that towns are few and far between and the distances from one village to the next are much greater than in other parts of Europe we’ve visited.  I don’t know whether or not the land is fertile, but very few crops seem to be grown and where the land is put to use it seems largely for beef production.  Many of the ‘fields’ we saw were literally hundreds of acres with a few cattle finding shelter under isolated oak trees.

Our arrival in Rodrigo brought back vivid flashbacks of our Portugal experience.  I don’t know if we put the wrong numbers into the satnav, or perhaps the  coordinates given on the website were wrong, but as the directions took us further and further into the narrow lanes of the walled city we started to have one of those conversations that starts “this doesn’t look right ……..” and swiftly turns into “how the hell do we get out of here”.  Fortunately, being British we were able to ‘keep calm and carry on’ and I’m sure we’ll be fine once the nightmares stop!

The narrow streets of Ciudad Rodrigo Just look at those narrow lanes (shudder)!

The campsite, when we eventually found it, is just across the River Agueda from the city – a short walk, if you don’t mind skipping across a few stepping stones and a long pull up a fairly steep hill.  The city itself is lovely and, at this time of year at least, fairly tourist free.  Some of the buildings, especially the tower of the cathedral, show signs of the battering it took in January 1812 when Wellington’s army laid siege to the French garrison and gave the walls a ‘damn good thrashing’ before their succesful, but particulary bloody, assault. 
The River Agueda

The cathedral at Ciudad Rodrigo You can still see some of cannonball impacts on the cathedral tower

We enjoyed a coffee and some churros in the warm spring sunshine; all-in-all a very nice place to visit – but don’t take your motorhome into the city unless you want to be in therapy for quite some time!
Ciudad Rodrigo

Salamanca, and not much else.

Having arrived at the campsite on Tuesday afternoon we decided to  treat Wednesday as a day off and did very little other than  have a general sort-out, enjoy a beer in the bar and get the bikes off the back of the van.  In doing so we noticed that Denise’s bike had a slow puncture, so the following day we set off into Salamanca (around five miles along an excellent cyclepath) stopping along the way at a local bike shop who kindly replaced the innertube for the princely sum of eight euros.

Salamanca is an ancient university town (a bit like Oxford without the traffic problems) and, despite having been well and truly hammered over the years in the course of various wars, boasts some beautiful architecture and a lovely ambiance – admittedly, wall-to-wall sunshine helps with the latter.  The cyclepath took us as far as the Roman Bridge over the River Tormes from where we walked up into the heart of the old city.

The Roman Bridge at Salamanca The Roman Bridge with the Cathedral in the background

Salamanca university buildingsAs with virtually all the Spanish cities we’ve visited over the years the cathedral is especially impressive/beautiful/spectacular (choose any similar adjective) and we got to discussing what Europe of the Middle Ages would have been like if all the wealth that was poured into the Church had been distributed more directly to the poor and needy.  Would the arts have developed in the same way?  Would wars have been so frequent and so destructive?  Answers on a postcard please – but don’t expect a response.

Salamanca CathedralAs we were leaving the old part of the city we spotted a sign outside a shop that obviously caters to all the needs of visiting tourists.  That’s Spanish enterprise for you!

Salamanca shop sign