All posts by John Ewbank

Heading south to the Douro

From Braganza we moved on to Chaves and were lucky to find a quiet campsite next to the river and only a short cycle ride from the centre of the old town which has kept much of its original architecture and charm.  We spent a couple of nights there before heading south across the Sierra da Padrela which is the high ground that sits to the east of Villa Real and leads down into the upper Douro valley.  The descent into the valley itself is spectacular with great views of the extensive terracing that’s been created over hundreds of years in order to make use of every inch of available space for the growing of grapes.  The soil, what little there is of it, is already baked rock hard this early in the year and it’s difficult to see how anything can grow here – let alone produce some of the world’s best known wine.  Apparently the vine roots can go down seven metres and the soil (or schist as it’s known) contains mica which helps to keep the roots cool and contributes to the sweetness of the grapes.

We crossed the Douro at Pinhao, which is the collecting centre for the fermented grape juice before it’s shipped down the river to Porto in January or February each year.  It’s also the destination for the large river cruise ships which bring tourists up the river in what looks to be considerable comfort to enjoy the scenery and no doubt to sample the wine.

Sao Joaõ da Pesqueira

We spent the Tuesday night on a quiet camperstop just outside Sao Joaõ da Pesqueira, which is just to the south of the Douro valley.  Our cycle the mile or so into the village was rewarded by a beer in a local bar, where I don’t think they can see too many visitors, and on our return to the van a French couple (the only other residents of the site) presented us with a bowlful of fresh cherries which they’d just ‘scrumped’ from a nearby orchard.

Bugger. Again!

After spending Friday night on a campsite in Puebla de Sanabria we crossed into Portugal through the Sierra de Cabrera which, although not quite as high as some of the mountains we’d already passed through, is remarkably large and remarkably empty.  To experience this sort of remoteness in the UK you’d have to venture into the Scottish Highlands or perhaps parts of Northumberland.  Again, we were surprised by just how empty the roads have been – sometimes travelling ten miles or more without seeing another vehicle.  The villages on the other hand are always quiet, nobody wandering around and with all the window shutters closed you could imagine that the places are deserted.

We spent Saturday night in Braganza which would have been a great experience if, for the second year running, and in a virtual repeat of what happened in Italy, I hadn’t managed to crunch the van.  Whilst manoeuvring into a slot in the Braganza camperstop I managed to reverse into a lamppost, smashing part of a rear light cluster – fortunately all the lights still work and we’re legal for the rest of the holiday.  Still, at least I know where to buy the replacement parts when we get home.  Bugger!

Braganza’s ‘old town’ is charming.  A large medieval keep is surrounded by cottages and fortifications which the city has sensibly kept more or less intact to provide a good visitor experience.  No doubt it gets crowded during the holiday season but we were able to wander about the place in relative peace and quiet before sitting down for a beer in a local bar whilst listening to local music and doing some people watching.  It almost made up for my earlier faut pas.  Almost.

Caminos and Storks

From León our route criss-crossed several of the Caminos de Santiago which are marked by signs in the shape of a scallop shell and by large numbers of pilgrims making their way westward along roads and paths, some of which pass through the centre of towns (including León) and along busy roads.  No doubt the journey brings peace and solace to those who complete the pilgrimage, but finding time for reflection must be a challenge when you have cars and trucks thundering past at high speed.
We stopped to stretch our legs at Hospital de Orbigo which is reputedly the oldest bridge in Spain.  As it’s on one of the Caminos we tagged along behind some groups of pilgrims deluding ourselves that our half-mile stroll had some connection with the somewhat longer pilgrimages being made by those around us.
This part of Spain is home to large numbers of Storks who have a habit of building their nests in the most inaccessible but obvious of places.  Presumably at the end of every season the locals have to get out their ladders and shin up to remove the remains of the enormous structures – if one fell on your head you’d know about it!


From Bilbao to Leon

We headed south-west out of Bilbao staying off the motorways as far as possible and sticking to the minor roads.  Driving in this part of Spain is a pleasure in that all the roads are in excellent condition (no doubt as a result of European grants) and the traffic is incredibly light.  Our original plan had been to head for Burgos but we opted instead to drive through the Cordillera Cantabrica which has mountains rising to a couple of thousand metres – a few of which still had traces of snow on their peaks.  We plan on visiting the Picos de Europa, which were just to the north of our route, on our return journey to Santander.

We spent Wednesday night on a municipal camperstop at Cervera de Pisuerga.   Perhaps not the most salubrious of locations being next door to the council dump, but it was convenient and quiet – except when the local cowman brought his herd through the site.  We met a couple in a Land Rover ambulance who were heading to Portugal to watch the Portuguese round of the World Rally Championship; if time allow and it’s not too far out of the way we might take a look.

On Thursday morning we headed off towards León sticking once again to the back roads.  Our route took us through Guardo and Almanza, much of the time following the sides of valleys that have been dammed to form lakes which feed hydro-electric projects.

We were fortunate to find an overnight space at the camperstop in the centre of León allowing us to walk through the old part of the city up to the cathedral which by all accounts has some of the most spectacular stained glass in Europe.

It’s art Jim, but not as we know it….

This year we decided that our ‘long’ trip in the ‘van would be to Spain and Portugal; starting off in Bilbao and then wending (one of the good things about having a van is that you can wend) our way over the course of about a month down towards the Duoro valley towards Porto, and then gradually making our way north around Spain’s northern coastline back to Santander for the ferry back to Portsmouth.  We last visited northern Spain about 15 years ago and were pleasantly surprised by the countryside, the roads, the architecture and the fact that everything seemed to be reasonably priced.  Hopefully we won’t be disappointed this time, though no doubt that the weakness of the pound against the euro (don’t mention the ‘B’ word) will have an impact upon how far our pocket money stretches.
The GuggenheimMuseumStarting in Bilbao it would have been downright rude not to have visited the Guggenheim Museum which, aside from being a wonderful piece of architecture, is home to some of the world’s best regarded modern art.  Now, I’m not renowned for my love of modern art (I tend to work on the premise that if I think I could have created it, it can’t be art) but I was prepared to be shown the error of my ways.  Suffice to say that with few exceptions the prejudices and narrow-minded opinions that I’ve built up and cultivated over many decades remain largely unchallenged.  The one exhibit that I did appreciate was Richard Serra’s ‘Matter of Time’ works which are astounding and well worth the visit.

The centre of Bilbao is a nice mix of largely early twentieth and early twenty first century architectures.  We were fortunate with the weather and enjoyed our walk along the Ria de Bilbao in the ealy summer sunshine.
Ria de BilbaoOur campsite is a fantastic location high on a hillside overlooking the centre of the city  – views to kill for, clean toilets and a regular bus service.  What more could anyone want?

… a pocketful of Rye

With autumn fading fast we decided to take the ‘van’ for one last short jaunt to the seaside before putting it to bed for the winter months.   As luck would have it we managed to time our trip to coincide with a spell of lovely ‘Indian Summer’ so the countryside of East Sussex looked at its very best.

A pleasant drive from home was made a little more exciting by an encounter with a narrow, tree-lined lane that the satnav picked for us; but that aside we managed to arrive at our campsite unscathed.   The following day we cycled into nearby Beckley and caught the local bus down to Rye Harbour where we took a stroll down to the mouth of the River Rother and watched the yachts and fishing boats coming and going .

Rye itself is an attractive  little town and as one of the Cinque Ports has plenty of history and interesting architecture to recommend it – though the charity shops weren’t up to much!


Lightning Sometimes Strikes Twice

Our visit to Nürnberg at the tail end of September came just a couple of weeks after we’d learned that Richard and Collette had been busy again and were expecting the arrival of identical twins  in early April next year.  Who says ‘lightning never strikes twice’?  By the time of our visit I think that we’d all more or less got over the initial shock, so it was great to spend a little time with them commiserating congratulating them on their exciting news and hearing their plans.  It was also wonderful to have a few days with Gretel who unsurprisingly seems to change and grow with every week that passes.

For this visit we used Airbnb to book a very nice room in Weilandstraβe which is no more than10 minutes gentle stroll from Richard and Collette’s apartment.  We didn’t see a great deal of our hostess, Karin Wittenstein, but she made us very welcome and the room was comfortable and relatively inexpensive, so in all likelihood we’ll use it again for future visits.
A sunny day in the centre of Nurnberg

Statue in the centre of Nurnberg
These Nurnberg folk really know how to throw a party!

Once again we struck lucky with the weather and had an opportunity to do a bit more exploring around Nürnberg, including a fascinating visit to the building in which the war crimes trials were conducted in the aftermath of WW2.  Courtroom 600 and the associated visitor centre provided an excellent and well-balanced insight into the history of the Nazi era, the accused, the trials themselves and the social and political environment in which they were held.

On the Saturday we decided to venture a little further afield and, in company with Richard and Gretel, we let the train take the strain for the hour-long journey to Bayreuth.  On the way Denise enjoyed a long and detailed  conversation with the German lady who she sat next to – a great opportunity to practise her language skills but quite what they spoke about I don’t think even Denise is entirely sure.

See! – my Granny speaks perfect German

Bayreuth itself is a quiet and elegant city and well worth a visit.  As we sat in the main concourse enjoying our lunch I was reminded of our life in Germany nearly 40 years ago.  When all’s said and done things haven’t changed so very much – the beer and sausages still taste good!

Abroad with the Tufty Club

With the summer drawing to a close we were fortunate to enjoy a late spell of really good weather for our recent jaunt to Brittany with a small (and select) team from Gloucester TSSC (otherwise known as the Tufty Club).    The idea of an late summer trip to France was mooted about a year ago and as I had somehow managed to stumble upon a group of ex-pat petrol-heads enthusiasts in central Brittany it seemed like a good idea to meet up with them for a ‘cultural exchange’.

The Staaag taking the lead for the journey from Ouistreham to Gouarec

Early on the Thursday morning fourteen intrepid adventurers in seven cars (The Magnificent Seven?) met up at Portsmouth for the short cruise to Caen followed by a 200 mile drive on the excellent and relatively empty French roads to Gouarec, which lies about 80 miles due west of Rennes. Our campsite, which Denise and I had recced earlier in the year on our way to Le Mans, sits on the bank of the Nantes/Brest Canal and is an excellent base for touring the region, albeit its a bit rough around the edges.

On Friday morning a number of members of The Interesting Car Club arrived at the campsite in their eclectic range of cars to take us on a short drive around the surrounding area before  we settled down to a typically Breton lunch at a local restaurant. It was good to have an opportunity to chat with our hosts and to establish a strong connection which may well form the basis for future visits.
Saturday was given over to a visit to the Manoir De L’Automobile at Lohéac which is about  a two hour drive from Gouarec.  With an excellent collection of more than 300 vehicles of all ages and types its probably one of the best such museums  in Europe and well worth a visit.
On Sunday some us gave our cars a rest and stayed local whilst others went north to explore the Granite Coast.  A few of us went back to the Abbaye Do Bon Repos where a stroll around a local market and a short walk down the canal bank were followed by a couple of beers and a bite to eat in a local café whilst taking in a little more French sunshine.  Marvellous!
We broke our drive back to the ferry on Monday with a short visit to Pegasus Bridge between Caen and Ouistreham .  Not having enough time to visit the local museum we opted for refreshments at the small café that sits alongside the bridge – which would have been fine had they not charged €7.80 for a pot of tea!  Am I bitter about the ruthless financial exploitation of  an historical site where large numbers of British soldiers died in the liberation of France?  You bet!

Frejus to Amboise

Rather than subjecting the van and ourselves to the slow and probably stressful task of climbing over the Alps we decided to make a large investment in the Frejus Tunnel Company which by Wednesday evening brought us to the lovely little mountain town of Aiguebelle just to the south of Albertville. The market square, which should have been our overnight stop, was full of the lorries, vans and enormous caravans belonging to a visiting funfair so, rather than trying to slip in unnoticed, and risking having no wheels on the van when we woke in the morning, we parked on the edge of a small park and passed a peaceful night with just the occasional rumble of passing freight trains to disturb our slumbers.

Our destination the following morning was Annecy and, after a brief ‘Lyon moment’ when the road signs said to go in one direction, Denise said another and Kate suggested a third we eventually arrived without the discussion having descended into excessive violence. We knew we’d arrived when we joined the lengthy traffic queue to enter the busy tourist town and it quickly became clear that there was little prospect of finding parking. Tant pis! We moved on and [mappress mapid=”6″]stopped briefly at Nantua, which I’m told is a very pretty, little, lakeside town, but by this stage my cold had the better of me so I stayed in the van frightening passing children with a cough that sounded a bit like a Klaxon. Fortunately the Nantua Tourist Office recommended an excellent campsite at L’Ile Chambod which sits on the banks of the lovely River Ain and provided an excellent location for a couple of days of much-needed R&R – this holidaying lark is hard work!

The lovely, and very original, medieval centre of Moulins – the perfect setting for a new production of Les Miserables …  only, no singing please Russell!

On Saturday we’d planned to visit a local ‘vide grenier’ but for once the weather let us down and we actually had rain – the first proper downpour we’d experienced since before leaving home. So we decided to get a few miles under our belt and drove for most of the day – through Bourg-en-Bresse, Macon, Moulins and Bourges, finally ending up at Amboise which, by spooky coincidence, just happens to be the last resting place of Leonardo. We spent a morning visiting the Clos de Luce where the great man spent the last three years of his life under the patronage of Francis 1st; lots of interesting stuff, and in some ways better than the Leonardo Museum in Vinci, but I got the impression that the chateau and its contents were more of a re-creation than a restoration.

Amboise castle/chateau viewed from Leonardo’s home at Clos de Luce

Maranello and Beyond

We’d already decided to avoid returning via Genoa at all costs, so leaving Pistoia we headed north towards Modena. By the way, did I mention Pistoia seems to be the garden nursery capital of the world? Forget Dobbies, not a tearoom or soft furnishings area in sight, just field after field after field of shrubs and trees under cultivation all waiting to be shipped around the world to a posh garden somewhere near you. Fantastic!

Anyway, our route took us through the fabulous wooded and mountainous backroads of Emelia Romagna towards Modena. One of the problems with driving in Italy is that if you want to get anywhere in a hurry there’s really no alternative to the autostradas. In France if you opt to stay off the toll roads the regional RN roads are an excellent alternative, but in Italy anything you don’t pay for is likely to be slow, crowded and with a road surface that even British highway authorities would be ashamed of. Unfortunately our problem was made worse by Kate who, for the past thousand miles, has been rather too silent for our liking. Now this may be just a girly phase she’s going through, but to be honest a non-speaking satnav with a 12 year old database probably isn’t the most reliable means of navigation currently available. I know that the British Empire was largely founded by intrepid young men clutching copies of their Phillips Modern School Atlas, but there are limits – even for tight-fisted Yorkshiremen.
Now just next door to Modena is Maranello which, as the cognoscenti among you will know, is the home of Ferrari; so it would have been rude to pass through without paying homage at the Ferrari Museum. In all honesty I was a little disappointed. Rather too strong on hyperbole and a little short on good ‘man-facts’. You wouldn’t get that sort of show at Aston Martin or Jaguar ………………… much.

OK, It’s not quite a Triumph, but I suppose if I were to be offered one ….

Next stop was a slightly disappointing and overpriced campsite at Salsomaggiore Terme just to the west of Parma – where the ham reputedly comes from. One interesting fact is that in all our travels since leaving Brittany I don’t believe that we’ve seen any livestock enjoying the benefits of outdoor grazing. Lots of straw being cut and baled, presumably for bedding, but not a single cow, sheep or pig to be seen.

It was now Tuesday night and by this stage I was suffering from a bit of a monster summer cold, courtesy of our lovely granddaughter, so was largely taking the role of ‘pathetic passenger’ rather than that of ’ dynamic group leader’. Looking for a campsite in San Damiano d’Asti we found what would have been the perfect location had it not been for the clouds of hungry looking bugs that surrounded the van as we arrived, so we ended up in the carpark of the local cemetery – which we reasoned had been provided for visitors, such as ourselves, rather than residents.