All posts by John Ewbank

Segovia to Salamanca

One of my ideas when we originally started (not) planning this trip was to visit the sites of some of the Peninsula War battles (Wellington’s campaign in the early 19th Century to throw Napoleon’s armies out of Portugal and Spain).  I’d recently read Mark Urban’s book ‘Rifles’, which follows the 95th Regiment of Foot through that period, and am currently part-way through Peter Snow’s ‘To War with Wellington’ which also covers the campaign.  As one of the major battles of the campaign it was obvious that Salamanca should be included in our visits.

Our route west from Segovia took us along the road from El Espina to Avila, which passes through some of the most open and sparsly populated countryside that Europe has to offer.  We’d caught glimpses of the area while watching ‘The English’ a TV series supposedly set in the US mid-west but actually filmed in this area of rolling grasslands and near-desert in the heart of Spain.  As it turned out the countryside wasn’t quite as desolate or ‘desert-like’ as I’d expected, but if you’re looking for the ‘great outdoors’ you couldn’t do much better that this.

The countryside between El Espina and Avila
The wide-open-spaces betwen El Espina and Avila

As we arrived in Avila we realised that we’d passed this way on our travels back in 2003, though on that occasion we only stopped long enough to take a couple of photos of the city walls which, having been ‘sympathetically restored’ a number of years ago, are distinctive and impressive  This time we lingered long enough to stroll though part of the old city and walk around the walls, which provide great views both of the city and the surrounding countryside.

City walls and cathedral of Avila
Avila city walls and cathedral

We arrived at the Don Quijote campsite on the  outskirts of Salamanca at around 3.30, which experience has taught us is about as late as you can leave your arrival at a campsite if it’s a) any good, and b) you haven’t booked in advance.  Just in time – we nabbed the last pitch with electricity just a few minutes before half the population of The Netherlands polled up in our wake. 

Soria to Segovia (What the Romans did for us)

We’d intended to visit Soria but failed to find a convenient parking place and decided to push on before my grumpyness could get a firm foothold.  Instead, we stopped for lunch in the walled town of El Burgo de Osma, the centre of which has the appearance of being very original and untouched by the past several centuries.  It was a pleasant place for a stroll but we eventually decided that it must have been cleverly but quite heavily rebuilt in recent years – no harm in that but it was a bit like the woodman’s axe (if the shaft and head have both been replaced it tends to detract from the originality.

The well preserved heart of El Burgo de Osma
The (perhaps too) well preserved heart of El Burgo de Osma

Our destination for the day was Segovia.  We’d planned to stay at a campsite on the outskirts of the city but arrived to find that, much to the frustration of the occupants of a couple of other vans that were trying to gain entry, and despite having an active presence on the web, the place was shut up with no sign of being in use.  In fact that did us a favour as the camperstop we ended up in was next to the bullring and only a mile’s walk from the centre of the city.

The one thing you really mustn’t miss if/when you visit Segova is the aqueduct that runs into, and across the centre of the city.  By good luck our walk into town took us along the route followed by this masterpiece of roman engineering.  Built in the second half of the First Century AD it really is a phenominal sight and despite undoubtably having been maintained over the years (a bit like the axe) it richly deserves its World Heritage status.

The roman aquaduct at Segovia
The aquaduct at Segovia – so what did the Romans ever do for us?

Spain (again). Plan, what plan?

It’s a well known, and often quoted, military axiom that no plan survives contact with the enemy.  Bearing that in mind we took particular care to ensure that this trip in the van would go completely smoothly – by not making a plan!  With four weeks in Spain ahead of us, and nowhere in particular that we wanted/needed to visit, we decided to go where the fancy takes us with no itinerary and no deadlines.

Which is all very well in theory, but we couldn’t just get off the ferry in Bilbao, sit on the quayside and ask ourselves ‘where next’?  So as every story has to have a beginning we decided to start this one in Pamplona.  The drive from Bilbao is an easy one; we stuck mainly to the ‘N’ roads which are the equivalent of British ‘A’ roads, the only real differences being that the Spanish roads are virtually empty, and have no potholes.  Pamplona is a nice city with plenty of history; unfortunately our visit didn’t coincide with the ‘running of the bulls’ but I’m not entirely sure we really fancied jogging through the streets hotly pursued by several thousand pounds of lean beef.

Denise on the ramparts on Pamplona
The city walls of Pamplona – not a bull in sight!

After a night on a camperstop we set off for Soria (yes, okay, we do have a sort of plan), enjoying the weather with temperatures in the mid 20s and of course no rain.  Spain has endured several consecutive years of above average temperatures and below average rainfall, with draught as the inevitable outcome.  We saw several wooded areas that had been scorched by fires and the only lake/reservoir we saw was virtually empty, with cattle grazing on the bed that should have been several metres under water.

We stayed the Sunday night at a campsite at  Valdeavellano de Tera just to the north of Soria.  Despite being large and reasonably well appointed it was virtually empty, the only other occupants being a French couple in a motorhome and some Dutch visitors in a 4×4.  We woke the next morning feeling a little chilly and only then realised that we were at 3,000 + feet – a bit like camping on the top of Snowdon!


A West Country Stag Party

This would be a pretty poor ‘Triumph Blog’ if it didn’t occasionally include some mention of Triumphs – so here goes….

Some months ago our good friend Dave Hardy suggested that we take our Stags (he and Jane have a lovely green MK2) for a short road trip to the West Country, and as he volunteered to do the route planning and hotel booking we could hardly refuse.  Despite having to delay the start by a couple of days to enable us to attend Tom and Emily’s marriage ceremony, that still left five days for a blitzkreig tour which, as it turned out, was just about right.

  • Day One.  (Monday 3rd April). Met with David, Jane and Finn (the dog) in Cirencester before enjoying a gentle cruise down to the Blue Ball Inn at Linton, stopping for a break at the Windmill at Portishead.  A topless afternoon drive along the north Somerset and Devon coast and an exciting blast up Porlock Hill – will the cars make it?…… No problem!  Joined for supper that evening by Simon and Debbie Kidner, who live just around the corner.
  • Day Two.  A lovely run across the eastern edge of Exmoor with a brief stop for coffee at Heanton Court – a Hardy ancestral home! And then down the coast for lunch and a short stroll around Boscastle, marvelling at just how high the floods went in 2004 (was it really that long ago?). Nice weather – so topless again for the afternoon run down to Fowey.  Overnight at the Ship Inn.
  • Day Three. The day started with a brief, and rather damp, ‘sea cruise’ across the Fowey River on the Bodinnick Ferry before visiting Slapton Sands for a short walk and to collect a £25 parking fine.  Followed by an interesting drive along some of the smallest and muddiest lanes that our intrepid leader could find to the Waterman’s Arms near Totnes.  Supper that evening at the nearby Maltster’s Arms. 

    In France we call zis ‘ze carwash’
  • Day Four.  Another cracking day and another opportunity to get our tops off.  Our lunchtime stop was at Lyme Regis, beloved holiday destination of Mrs Ewbank, before a pleasant drive along the coast, with great views of Chesil Beach, ending up at The New Inn at Cerne Abbas.  At supper that evening we were joined by Jane’s brother-in-law, Jeremy.
  • Day Five.  The final leg of our ‘Staggering Adventure’  took us home through some of Dorset’s most scenic countryside (topless of course) and eventually back to Cirencester. 

In all we covered just a tad short of 500 miles with no breakdowns or dramas of any kind (leaving aside the parking fine!).  Lovely places, good food and great company – what more could anyone want?

Seville – February 2023

For various reasons the week we’d been invited to spend with our friends Jamie and Vivien in Portugal last September didn’t happen, so we were especially keen to get a little winter sunshine this February.  We explored various options, including cruising and/or heading to somewhere warm outside Europe, but eventually settled on a week in what is said to be the hottest city in Europe – Seville.  In point of fact we’ve already booked to take the van to Spain for the month of May, but reasoned that we’re unlikely to get as far south as Andalucia on that trip, so fitting in a few days in Seville now would enable us see a bit of Spain that we wouldn’t otherwise get to visit whilst soaking up some much needed sunshine and allowing Denise to practise her Spanish.

We booked a week in the Hotel Zaida (she was a Moorish Princess) which sits in the heart of the old part of the city and is within easy walking distance of just about everything that we wanted to see.  Not the most luxurious or well-appointed accommodation in Seville, but clean, quiet, convenient and inexpensive. 
Having a full seven days to explore a place that a few years ago might have taken us three or four meant that we could take our time and get to see the city without getting completely knackered.  With more than a thousand years of Christian and Moorish history behind it Seville has plenty to offer by way of interesting architecture, plus  it’s fairly pedestrian friendly – provided you keep an eye out for the cars, scooters, buses and vans that thunder through the narrow streets!  We decided that we’d definitely done the right thing by visiting in February when the temperatures are pleasant and the number of visitors is relatively low – certainly we wouldn’t want to be there during the hot, crowded (and presumaly smelly) summer months.   
Worthwhile visits around the city included the Cathedral (the world’s largest gothic cathedral) and Alcazar (at over a thousand years old the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe) but in fact there are plenty of other highlights, and just wandering though the orange tree-lined streets in the spring sunshine was a treat in itself.  We especially enjoyed the beautiful Maria Louisa Park with its unique buildings built for the 1929 Ibero-American Exhibition which was hosted by Seville.

A day trip to Cadiz, which is about a 90 minute train journey away on Spain’s southern tip, was a pleasant excursion.  The city juts out into the Atlantic and was a little cooler than Seville, though still warm for the time of year, and the clear blue skies and ‘starched’ white buildings gave the place a special charm.

All in all our brief trip in search of some winter sun was a success.  We enjoyed the warmth, we liked the place – and Denise even got to use some of her Spanish. Muy bien!



The End of the Holiday – with a Sting in the Tail

We’d originally planned to return to the UK on June 28th, but thanks to the family’s generosity we had a very good reason to extend our stay by an extra day – with a night in a lovely hotel at Beaugency followed by VIP tickets to see Sting just down the road at Chambord.

Beaugency sits on the north bank of the Loire about 15 miles to the east of Blois.  It’s a pretty and unspoiled little town steeped in  history and an ideal place for a quiet, relaxing evening.  The 10th  century Eglise de Notre Dame de Beaugency was especially interesting as it was here that the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Louis VII  was annuled  in 1152, leaving her free to marry Henry Duke of Normandy – who shortly after became Henry II King of England.  The marriage brought Eleanor’s vast lands in the south west of France under the Plantagenet throne and effectively kick-started three hundred years of war between England and France.
The following day we made our way to Chambord – which must surely be the most impressive and spectacular of the Loire chateaux.   Over the years we seem to have developed a knack of timing our visits to beautiful buildings when they’re covered in scaffolding, and this was no exception.   Despite the chateau looking a bit as though it had been gift-wrapped for the occasion it was nevertheless undeniably beautiful and a perfect backdrop for the evening’s concert.
Sting was quite simply brilliant.  His voice is as good as ever and his ninety minute set, which included many of the songs that we’ve listened to and enjoyed for the past forty years, captivated the audience and provided a wonderful and memorable ending to a great holiday.  Thank you family for treating us to this very special evening.

St Claude de Direy

We’d intended to spend the next two nights at Blois, but when we arrived at the freebee campsite in the heart of the town the gates were chained and it was clear that the site is no longer used.  Our fall-back position was a much smaller site at St Claude de Direy, a rural community about four miles from Blois and about a mile from the Loire.  In many ways this was a much better outcome as for much of the time we were the only occupants of the site and once again the authorities had been thoughtful enough to provide a bright and shiny, self cleaning, stainless steel, fully automatic loo. 

We initially parked the van in the car park of the village Salle de Fetes but later moved a hundred meters or so to the official camp site when we realized  that there was a wedding reception taking place in the Salle that evening.  As the wedding guests started to arrive we couldn’t help but observe that most were dressed in clothes that the local charity shops had quite clearly rejected as being sub-standard.  Whatever happened to French style and chic?

On a more positive note, at some point in time some local official had been thoughtful enough to put up a number of informative signs around St Claude de Diray telling the history of the village – they even had English translations.  One particular sign explained that the large wooden barns that are still to be found around the village were originally built for tobacco drying. 
Well, you could have knocked us over with a couple of feathers!  Tobacco growing in western Europe, who’d have thought it?  Now, Google is a wonderful thing, but once you start looking into these things you just never know where you’ll end up – for example, did you know that the centre of the 17th Century English tobacco growing industry was ………….. Winchcombe in the Cotswolds.   Who knew?

Confolens and Richelieu

We’re in Confolens – again.  We were here in October 2017 and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it hasn’t changed much, though it’s certainly worth a second visit.  The town is split in half by the River Vienne and our stroll yesterday evening provided some great views of the historic buildings that line the river’s banks. 
As we walked we got into another conversation about the dilapidated state of many of the ancient houses that are to be found in thousands, or more likely many tens of thousands, of French towns and villages just like this.  It seems that the French simply don’t want to live in them.  Whilst they (the houses , not the people) have masses of character and historic interest, many are clearly on the verge of falling down and presumably, just as in Britain, French planning laws require that repairs and maintenance be carried out ‘sympathetically’ and at great expense.  Also, at the end of the day, houses built in the 18th or 19th centuries simply don’t provide the facilities and that most younger people want for themselves and their families. The upshot is that a great many houses have been left empty and many that are still lived-in are occupied by the elderly and the poor so the properties will continue to deteriorate and much of France will slowly but surely lose its historic character.  Shame.

After a night in Confolens we drove on to the village of Richelieu which was established by the Cardinal in the 1630s when he was at the height of his powers as right-hand-man to Louis XIII.  It must be quite something to be able to name an entire community after yourself – there’s a hill in Cumbria called High Ewebank, but somehow that doesn’t sound quite so impressive.  Anyway, the grand palace the Cardinal built for himself is long gone but the village, which was perhaps the first such community to be laid out on a grid pattern, is still standing, albeit only partly occupied and very much in danger (see the paragraph above) of falling into disrepair.  Something is going to have to be done to preserve these places, or in 50 years or so they’ll be completely lost.

Bordeilles and Brantome

Our last night in Ares was marked by yet another monster thunderstorm that was still making its presence felt as we packed up the van and went through the usual palaver of emptying the toilet and grey waste,  strapping the bikes on the back and getting ready for some high speed (80 kph) cruising.  The overnight thunder and lightning had been impressive (amplified of course by the fact that we were sleeping in a small plastic and aluminium box) but nothing to what they’d obviously experienced further inland.  As we drove through the area to the north of the Dordogne we started to notice some fallen branches and lots of debris on the road, and by the time we reached La Roche Chalais it was clear that a whole swathe of the countryside had taken a real hammering.  Just driving through towards Riberac we saw literally thousands of trees snapped, uprooted or with fallen branches, dozens of roofs destroyed, cars with smashed windscreens, entire crops of sunflowers, maize and vines battered to destruction by torrential rain, giant hailstones and typhoon strength winds – quite remarkable and a real disaster for the residents.  We had nothing to compare it with other than the typhoon that swept across the south of England in 1987.

Leaving the destruction behind, we stopped off at the idyllically pretty village of Bourdeilles which manages to cram the best part of a thousand years of history into a couple of hundred square metres and has managed to do so without turning itself into a tourist trap. No doubt it gets its share of visitors in the main holiday season, but we were thankful to be able to wander through with virtually nobody else in sight.  Hopefully the pictures speak for themselves.

Our overnight stopover in Brantome was another treat.  We walked from the camperstop up past the Abbey and through the pretty little town, which sits along the banks of the River Dronne, before treating ourselves to a feast of omelette and chips at a local restaurant – who says we don’t know how to live it up?

Ares (No, that’s not a typo)

Leaving Bordeaux we headed for the coast, or to be strictly accurate we headed for the Bassin d’Arcachon which is a large, shallow bay pretty much due west of Bordeaux.  On the southern edge of the bay is the renowned Dune of Pilat (which may or may not be the biggest sand dune in the universe) and the town of Arcachon; however, our destination, Ares, is a small community on the bay’s north eastern edge, making its living from visitors and oysters and surrounded by pine forests.  We’d booked four nights at the La Cigale campsite, and with the temperature finally reaching 41 degrees for a couple of days we were glad that we’d chosen a site with a swimming pool, even though the pool surround was so hot that you couldn’t actually walk on it and in the absence of sufficient brollies we had to sit with our towels over our legs.

One of the features that drew us to the area is the network of excellent cycle paths that  provide access to the shores of the bay and to the wonderful beaches that line that part of the Atlantic coast – so on day three we girded our loins (I charged my battery) for the twenty-mile round trip to the beach.  Fortunately, much of the ride was in the shade and the only real danger was of being wiped out by other cycle path users – at one point we were overtaken by a lad on roller blades who must have been doing 20mph.  The beach, when we eventually got there, was awesome.  I have no idea exactly how big it is, but we could see at least four miles in each direction and it was virtually empty.  Surf was up, the sun was shining and not a ‘kiss me quick’ hat in sight.  Perfect.
Our last two evenings in Ares were marked by seriously impressive thunderstorms, which are presumably a natural consequence of the high daytime temperatures we were experiencing.  Aside from sounding like someone was practising their tap-dance routine on the roof of the van, the storms didn’t really impact greatly upon us but, as you’ll learn in the next blog, they caused havoc elsewhere.