Santiago de Compostela was unfortunately a bit of a washout. We knew from early in the day that the weather for our visit was going to be ‘poor’, but that turned out to be a bit of an understatement. Virtually from the moment we arrived the clouds opened and as we walked through the heart of the city and approached the cathedral the rain literally cascaded down the streets and poured off the rooftops. Timing, as they say, is everything and our other disappointment came as we entered the cathedral expecting to experience its glorious baroque interior only to find that we’d timed our visit to coincide with a major refurbishment which effectively screened off virtually everything of interest. Now, if we were disappointed just imagine how you’d feel if you arrived in Santiago soaked to the skin and very footsore from your several hundred mile pilgrimage only to find that the builders were in! Still, that’s faith for you.
After a spot of essential drying-out we drove the 60 or so miles to Lugo which boasts the most complete and impressive Roman city wall in Spain. Built in the 3rd Century AD, at 15-20m high and nearly 3km long it provides an excellent footpath around the heart of the city though, as our Rough Guide pointed out, unfortunately the views of, and from the wall are a bit disappointing.
This morning (Friday), after a brief exploration of Lugo and a perambulation around its walls, we drove up to Spain’s northern coast and were fortunate to find a lovely little campsite at Playa Penarronda which is just to the east of Ribadeo. Once again we’re camped/parked within yards of the beach and able to enjoy the fabulous scenery and impressive breakers as they storm their way up the beach.
We’d originally considered staying an extra day near Cangas but as the weather forecast wasn’t brilliant we decided to make best use of the day and move a little further up the coast. We included a brief visit to Pontevedra, where one of Columbus’s ships is supposed to have sailed from, and where some people think he may have originated. The old part of town is pleasant with some interesting lanes and buildings, and once again we found ourselves on a Camino with the ‘Way’ marked by brass scallop shells set into the pavements, though this time there were fewer pilgrims in evidence.
We exhausted our first gas bottle quite early in the holiday and have been a bit nervous about running out of gas altogether as there’s apparently no way to refill our Calor bottles in Spain or Portugal; so for the last few stops we’ve tended to look for sites that provide electricity so that we don’t have to run the fridge on our remaining gas. Fortunately the tiny site we’ve found at Pragueira near Sanxenxo has electricity – no toilets, showers or anything else, but it does at least provide electricity. Our van is parked about 10 metres from the beach with absolutely stunning views of the surrounding coastline and the Isla de Ons which dominates the entrance to the Ria de Pontevedra. Whilst the days are still mainly sunny the westerly wind has had a bit of a bite to it for the last couple of days and the temperature has dropped to the mid to high teens – in fact, just like any English summer. Hopefully we’ll get a bit more warmth shortly, though frankly we’re more than happy with what we’ve got.
This morning we took a walk along the beach looking into the hundreds of the rock pools created as the tide receded, then sat on the beach while Denise produced a nice little watercolour of the bay and the hills opposite.
Sunday morning in Madelena started with a touch of sea fog but this soon burned off as we drove north, once again shunning the motorways as we wove our way out of Porto. We stopped at a local Lidl for some supplies – apart from Portuguese prices being perhaps just a little lower most items on the shelves were identical to those we get in UK and even the ‘boy’s toys’ in the central aisle were the same. I debated buying a new compressor or arc welder but decided that space in the van was just a bit too limited.
I’ve started to notice the huge number of car sales lots along the roadsides. In the rural areas every possible bit of free space seems to be given over to vines or olives but in this part of the world you can’t turn an urban corner without coming across a used car dealer. Portugal and Spain have a high percentage of older cars still on the road, including a number of models that have long since disappeared from the UK and which British enthusiasts are starting to describe as ‘modern classics’. Perhaps there’s an opportunity there ……or perhaps not.
We spent Sunday evening in comfortable but rather lonely isolation in Paredes de Coura as the only occupants of a 50 space automated motorhome site. Looking for signs of life we walked into the town to find that we’d stumbled on the Festa da Truta – sadly the only entertainments on offer were a demonstration of ‘101 ways to stuff a trout’ or the local accordion band who unfortunately seemed only to know the one tune. We’d missed a Pink Floyd tribute band by two days. Bugger!
The following morning was a touch grey and drizzly so we stopped only briefly to visit the impressive fort at Valenca. As it happens we were in the company of the Paraedes branch of the Derby and Joan Club – what seemed like thousands of Portuguese pensioners let out for the day, all wearing blue peaked caps as identification, presumably to ease the task of their minders when it came to rounding-up time.
Monday night’s stopover was at a nice little campsite near Cangas, just to the west of Vigo, with great views out to the Islas Cies which were apparently noted as having some of the world’s best beaches in a recent survey.
Having been on the move for most of the last fortnight we decided to stay near Porto for three nights for some R&R; fortunately the site we picked more or less at random out of the camperstop book turned out to be an excellent choice. We’re at Madelena on the coast about five miles from Vila Nova de Gaia which sits on the opposite bank of the Douro to Porto. The campsite is about 500 metres from the beach among a mix of pines and eucalyptus which provide welcome shade in the 30o+ temperatures that we’ve experienced for the past few days. As it’s early in the holiday season the campsite is quiet and relatively empty, though I suspect it gets absolutely heaving during the height of the summer. On Sunday evening we cycled down to the beach but our good intentions of going in for a swim were downgraded to a quick paddle when we dipped our toes in the chilly Atlantic which has yet to warm-up to a respectable level.
Yesterday we took the local bus into Porto and discovered why there are no Portuguese racing drivers – they’re all driving buses at high speeds through the incredibly narrow backstreets of Porto. Given our experience in Amarante I spent the entire journey in a muck sweat- perhaps not the most relaxing of ways to start your birthday!
Porto is a lovely city built on the banks and rising cliffs of the Douro where it’s spanned by numerous impressive bridges of varying ages. Sparing no expense we took an enjoyable ‘six bridge’ boat trip, which would have been perfect for taking photos of the city if it hadn’t been so crowded that you dare not stand up to take a photo for fear of someone nicking your seat.
Following a lunch of sardines (her) and prawns (me) we splashed out (did I mention that it’s my birthday?) on a visit to the Calem Port ‘lodge’ which provided an interesting insight into how the wine is made – with the added attraction of three complementary glasses of port at the end of the tour. At one point I thought that Denise was about to start dancing on the tables – I offered to drink hers for her, but my generous offer was politely declined.
Leaving Sao Joaõ da Pesqueira the following morning we returned to the Douro valley to follow the river valley west towards Peso da Regua. Along the way we passed the massive lock which lifts/drops river-going vessels about 100 feet enabling them to navigate the river from Porto at its mouth up as far as Pinhao. We watched one of the large river cruisers pass through the lock and got some childish amusement from watching passengers sunbathing on the top deck dive for cover as the boat passed under the vertical lock gate and water cascaded down on them from above.
We stopped for lunch at Peso da Regua before moving on to Amarante where we had an unfortunate coming together with the walls of a lane which turned out to be just about a centimetre narrower than the van. It ended up in one of those situations where no matter whether you go forwards or backwards you know that it’s going to be expensive. Bugger!
The campsite we’d intended to use in Amarante turned out to be closed until mid-June so we ended up parking on a market site alongside the River Tamega which turned out to be a good base for exploring the town. An evening meal in a local bar watching the first half of a very indifferent Europa Cup Final between Chelsea and Arsenal in Baku helped to restore a certain amount of soporific calm after the day’s frustrations. We weren’t entirely sure whether FARTURAS was a comment on the day’s frustrations, a summary of the football match or a local delicacy, but eventually decided that it was probably all three.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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. Starting 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. Our 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?
….holiday blogs, motoring obsessions and a look at our family history