Through France to Northern Spain

Saturday 14th March 2009, Urrugne
Tonight we are back on the same campsite we have used in the past, first when we visited our friend Ralph in Salies-de-Bearn in 2005, and later returning from our circumnavigation of the Iberian Peninsula in February 2006. The same charming Frenchman with his Basque beret welcomed us on our arrival, our details were all still on the computer and we were directed to the same pitch we used on our last visit. Such familiar things mean a great deal when far from home. Tomorrow we will cross into Spain, just a few kilometres further on. From there we have no fixed plans but our activities will be dictated by where we can find open campsites so early in the season.

This site is full of Dutch and British pensioners in transit to and from southern Spain and Portugal. Already we have given five guided tours of Modestine to incredulous motorhome owners. Do we really live in something so small? Many of them have sold their homes and live completely in their camper vans, following the sunshine around Europe. This is fine until they are in their seventies. One man this evening told us he'd been travelling to Andalucia every winter for sixteen years but this year his wife was not with him as she suffered dementia and he'd left her in a nursing home. He told us how lonely he felt travelling alone in his huge vehicle. He also told us he had no insurance as nobody would insure him now he is well over seventy. So many of these intrepid Brits strike us as very vulnerable and perhaps a little foolhardy. Another couple are returning to Yorkshire earlier than planned because they had become disenchanted with their immediate neighbours since September on the campsite down near Cadiz!

After a week back in Exeter our departure was delayed slightly waiting for me to shake off the very worst of a particularly unpleasant cold. It did mean though that we had longer to enjoy or daughter Kate's company. She is now safely home from her South American travels and speaking Spanish far better than we ever hope to achieve. She will house-sit for us during this trip as Paula is moving on, having spent the past year looking after our fish and sorting through our junk mail, allowing us the freedom to visit so many different countries of Europe. It was only last April that we set out to explore Greece, just 68 blogs ago, and we are still travelling!

At lunchtime on Thursday we decided we'd risk my splutterings and cross overnight to Brittany. By 7a.m. on Friday we were heading out of St. Malo in bright sunshine, the grassy roadside verges dappled with yellow spring flowers, the trees a haze of pink and white blossoms. Modestine was in fine shape after her recent MOT and seemed eager to push Northern France back behind her wheels. By lunchtime we had passed through Rennes and Nantes and were down into the Vendée. Here we recognised a picnic site we'd used some eight years ago and stopped for lunch and some fuel for Modestine – still cheaper than in England despite the drop in the value of the £. We passed beyond La Rochelle and soon the gently sloping terracotta pantiled roofs showed that we had made the transition from northern to southern Europe. We were well on our way towards Bordeaux by the time we decided to stop for the night at a delightfully rural, clean, and deserted campsite lying amidst an intricate network of waterways on the estuary of the Gironde. The weather all day had been superb with temperatures reaching 25 degrees. So we sat alone in the tranquil silence, surrounded by gently clucking chickens and barrel rolling goats, drinking wine as the sun set, leaving the sky diffused with scarlet and purple. After hot showers we slept deeply and by 9am this morning we were on our way again.

Goat cabaret, St. Palais, Gironde

The campsite owner assured us the ferry we hoped to catch across the Gironde from Blaye to the Medoc wine region would be running at 11am. Just time to take a drive along the waterways and wetlands of the Gironde estuary. This looked fascinating on the map, just a grid of blue waterways and a couple of dykes with roads along the top threading through them, out to the nuclear power station where the river meets the sea. The area is a haven for wildlife. We saw many birds of prey, herons and egrets amongst the reedbeds as well as ragondins. Drained areas were home to flocks of sheep, raised on the salt flats for their specially flavoured meat, and also for herds of large, shaggy cattle with long horns.

Fishing boats drying their nets at Callonges, Gironde

Fishing hut on the banks of the Gironde

Nuclear power staton seen across the wetlands of the Gironde

Aware of our ferry we arrived in Blaye in good time. We never tire of this attractive town with its Vauban fortifications. Unfortunately we are always rushing through catching or disembarking from the ferry. Today was market day and the town crowded with a very cheerful atmosphere. We watched, amused, as a lady with a large butterfly net crept along the canal bank in pursuit of her escaped cockerel. We were quite sorry to be unable to linger, but at this time of year there was no later ferry for us to take.

One cockerel successfully recaptured, Blaye

The ferry is old and battered. It takes only a few vehicles on each crossing. Happily for us Modestine was considered to be a car and therefore only half the price of a camping car. The ferry chugs its way slowly across the Gironde estuary, a journey that takes a good half hour, fighting its way upstream against the chocolate brown swirling, muddy flow. Along the river banks little huts are raised up on stilts with huge nets in front that are lowered into the water to catch the estuary fish. We passed this way briefly back in 2006 where we have described the area in more detail.

Ferry at Blaye

Once on the far side we were immediately in the very heart of the Medoc wine producing area. In all directions the vines stood in regimented rows, just brown stumps showing as yet no sign of life. They looked, for all the world, like the serried rows of crosses we had seen spreading across the green fields of Normandy back in December. Happy though, life will shortly be returning to the countryside and the chateaux now standing starkly amidst these bare, brown lifeless limbs, will soon be nestling amongst the warm green vines and ripening grapes of next autumn's vintage.

This route, while being far more interesting than the main routes, also meant we avoided the Bordeaux ring road. It carried us on minor roads across les Landes, the vast area of flat, sandy heathland that stretches south from Bordeaux right down almost to the Spanish border. The roads are die-straight and the scenery identical for mile after mile. It is so monotonous that we needed to stop several times just to avoid falling asleep! It's not ugly, just unvaried. There is yellow gorse, some heather, but mainly spindly, shapeless pine trees – millions of then! Or at least there were! The area was struck by really violent winds back in January and probably half the trees throughout les Landes have either been blown down or their tops broken off with the force of the winds! In some areas we passed there was hardly a tree left standing! They had tumbled, like matchwood, against each other, breaking through the trunks or uprooting their neighbours, all falling in the same direction like dominoes. A few weeks ago these roads would have been completely impassable, and even now side roads are still blocked. Timber cleared from the roads has been stacked in huge walls of wood along the roadsides but as yet it has been impossible to clear within the woodlands. What can be done with so much damaged timber? Even those few trees left standing will need to be removed before replanting can take place and it will take years to replace these woodlands. The forces of nature are awesome! Savage winds blow in from the Bay of Biscay, hitting this area with full force. It was at St. Jean de Luz, very near here, that we stood on a cliff top in 2005 and watched, mesmerised, as a towering water spout spiralled its way in across the sea, thankfully blowing itself out as it reached the shore.

Gale damage, Les Landes

Uprooted and broken pines, Les Landes

Another stunningly awful French loo. This one even lacks doors! Les Landes

We rang our friend Ralph on the off-chance of him being in nearby Salies-de-Béarn, but he is currently in London. So we decided to head on to this site in Urrugne, for which we have a particularly soft spot. Attempting to avoid rush hour through Bayonne and Biarritz we took the motorway. It turned out to be a bad move financially. Hopefully not all motorways are the same but now there is a height barrier at 2 metres. If you pass below you are a car, if not you are a lorry. Modestine is 2.3 metres and we were obliged to pay eight euros for the 35 kilometres around Bayonne. We exited as soon as we could and crawled through Biarritz and St. Jean de Luz instead.

Today, at 11 degrees, it has been much cooler than yesterday but after England it still felt mild enough to sit outside Modestine for a cup of tea when we arrived. Most of the other campers were sunburned and on their way back home. They shivered and marvelled at our hardiness!

Sunday 15th March 2009, Santillana-del-Mar, Spain
Well here we are, camped for the night at the only open campsite we've been able to find. It's fine, though at 23 euros is more expensive than France where we were only paying 11 and 16 euros.

It has been an exhausting day but, it being Sunday, there have fortunately been far fewer lorries around than normal, something we greatly appreciated as we followed the autovia along the coast of Northern Spain, the only route between France and Spain at this end of the Pyrenees. We took the first possible opportunity to turn off and follow the more tranquil and picturesque road right down beside the sea, passing through several delightful little towns where the local residents were out in crowds enjoying the warm sunshine. There were families with children, retired couples with umbrellas, young men with girlfriends, old men with berets and countless lycra clad cyclists with punctures! We'd forgotten how keen the Spanish are on cycling and they all seem incredibly fit. Entire teams were racing each other up hills that even Modestine found tough going!

Coast road, northern Spain

We stopped at Getaria, right on the coast, and explored its steep, narrow cobbled streets, festooned in washing from the upstairs flats, leading down to the port. Here the colourful fishing boats were at anchor while just outside the harbour huge, bright green and azure waves rolled in from the Bay of Biscay. Geologically the cliffs were intriguing. The clear sedimentary layers laid down when the rock was formed had become contorted and the strata was now completely vertical.

Port area, Getaria

Rock strata, Getaria

Getaria was the home town of Juan-Sebastiàn Elcano, captain of the first ship to circumnavigate the globe. Though Magellan had overall responsible for the expedition which set out in 1519, he was killed by natives in the Pacific and Elcano captained the only ship to return safely from the voyage some three years later.

Juan Sebastiàn Elcano, Getaria

Traffic was heavy around Bilboa and we decided not to attempt driving into the city. Further west the landscape gradually became mountainous and rugged. There was nowhere to conveniently pull off the multi-lane highway to investigate our camping book until just before Santandar where we'd hoped to pass the night. Unfortunately the campsite there does not open until April.

Having settled Modestine here, we walked down into Santillana, which claims, quite probably accurately, to be the prettiest village in Spain. It is certainly perfectly maintained, full of huge Spanish mansions, emblazoned with coats of arms and now generally used as tourist hotels. We found it all a bit too beautiful to be real but it's an extremely agreeable way to spend a sunny Sunday evening out of season, watching the local people busy with their paseo, strolling the streets in their best clothes. Everyone looked very well dressed compared to most other countries we have visited.

Santillana-del-Mar, Cantabria

Plaza de Ramón Pelayo, Santillana-del-Mar, Cantabria

Colegiata, Santillana-del-Mar, Cantabria

Palacio de los Velarde, Santillana-del-Mar, Cantabria

The main street, Santillana-del-Mar, Cantabria

We are rather addicted to northern or "Green Spain" as it is known. Everything about it is green, from the rich pastures, pine forest, citrus groves and pale eucalyptus leaves, to the bright green sea breaking on the region's rocky coastline. It is completely different from central or southern Spain and has managed to retain much of its rural beauty. It's an area we returned to during our travels in 2006 when we described Santillana. For us the main attraction of Cantabria and Asturias have always been the stunningly beautiful Picos de Europa. There is a high probability they will seduce us again this time, though the lack of campsites in the area is a major problem.

Ian has found his first Spanish manhole covers. He even found one in Basque!

Bilingual Spanish and Basque manhole cover!

Monday 16th March 2009, Llanes, Asturias
Well thanks to a helpful English lady with a different camping guidebook at last night's site, we are now camped on a low cliff top along this rocky coast, immediately above a sandy deserted beach. The sound of the sea will lull us to sleep tonight, while the cattle in the neighbouring fields will no doubt wake us tomorrow with the gentle clanking of the bells each one wears around its neck. Knowing there was another site further along the coast meant we didn't have to rush through this so beautiful of regions, or return to Santillana again this evening. We pottered our way along, recovering from the last few days of intensive driving. It has been bright and warm all day and jackets have been redundant. This evening our faces are suffering from the sea wind and the sunshine.

First we stopped at the largely unspoilt little town of Comillas with its tiny fishing harbour. It has several interesting, grandiose buildings including one by Gaudi. There is also an enormous and imposing pontifical university set in extensive grounds. We assume it means a seminary for training priests.

Our first view of the Picos de Europa from the beach at Comillas

Palacio de Sobrellano, the 19th century residence of the Marquis of Comillas

It was very pleasant exploring the steep streets of the old town with its tiny cobbled squares flanked by heavy Spanish houses with wooden balconies and enclosed glass-sided verandas. We spent longer than expected, in part because we sat on the beach with a picnic lunch and mugs of coffee, feeling too lazy to move.

Typical houses with glass sided balconies, Comillas

Washing drying from balconies, Comillas

Our route along the cliffs took ages, passing through countless tiny rural villages and hamlets, each with speed restrictions. The Spanish seem good, patient drivers and obey the law. There is an excellent system in even the smaller towns. Instead of traffic humps there are amber lights that stay flashing until somebody exceeds the speed limit when they immediately go red, stopping not only the offender, but everyone else. This causes such embarrassment everybody takes great pains to avoid it happening.

At St.Vincente de la Barquera we stopped for a stroll around this pleasant fishing port where we stayed for a couple of nights of modest luxury in early 2006 when all the campsites were still closed. The same hotel still charges just 25 euros for a double room with a bathroom. That's just two euros more than last night's campsite! Why are we bothering to camp? Unfortunately, over time the drop in the value of sterling does make a big difference in costs.

Recognising the name of the cliff top village of Pechon we had once visited we turned off, up a steep and winding little road through eucalyptus groves to admire the stunning estuary views from the headland and to see whether the man building his house in the shape of a ship had finished yet. He had, as you can see!

Private residence in Pechon

Tina Mayor from Pechon

Eventually we arrived down at the coast in Llanes. It looks a pleasant place to explore tomorrow but we were anxious to check whether this campsite really was open so didn't linger today. Really there is nobody around the site yet except us and a Spanish campervan. It contains mainly static caravans but here on the sea's edge we're hardly aware of them.

Just a few kilometres inland from here tower the jagged, snow covered mountains of the Picos. They've been luring us all day, white and shining against the clear blue sky. Having made a massive journey through them in March 2006, just as the snow ploughs were clearing the roads through, we will hopefully be content just to take a short drive up there tomorrow for a taster.

This evening we went for a walk along the beach and amongst the strangely shaped rocks, mesmerised by the endless rolling of the green waves and the sound of them breaking onto the sand. While supper cooked we sat watching the sea with a glass of wine, listening on Modestine's radio to British parliamentarians worrying about binge drinkers and elderly alcoholics.

Evening shadows on the beach at Celorio

Tuesday 17th March 2009, Llanes, Asturias
Today has been our 38th wedding anniversary spent in one of the loveliest areas of Europe. The weather has been superb, the scenery sublime and we have been completely lazy. We've ended the day hot and very sunburnt.

View from our bed. The fence stops us falling into the sea as we emerge bleary-eyed! Celorio

After breakfast outside overlooking the rocky cove, watched by a field of curious, long horned cattle, we decided to spend the morning walking the headland of Cabo Prieto beside the campsite. We had the coast to ourselves and not a building in sight as we clambered up between flowering gorse bushes with magnificent views across the curiously weathered rocks to a scattering of islands just off shore. We discovered a couple of blowholes where the sea surged up through the rocks. The steep cliffs were pockmarked with deep caves where the waves crashed in torrents of white foam.

View from the cliffs back to Modestine on our campsite at Celorio

Nearby cliffs, Celorio

Scattered islands, Celorio

Holes in the cliff directly above the sea, Celorio

Rocky headland of Cabo Prieto, Celorio

Down at sea level we crossed a couple of deserted beaches of smooth white sand and found ourselves in the neighbouring village of Celorio where we bought some essentials at the only shop before returning home for a cliff-top lunch of the traditional Asturian dish of fabada. This consists of white beans cooked with bacon, sausage and black pudding. Hardly a healthy meal but it had to be tried.

Once we could find the energy to move we packed up Modestine and drove into Llanes, about five kilometres back along the coast. It seems a pleasant coastal town with a couple of pretty sandy beaches and an active harbour. The old town has mediaeval walls and there are several streets of large Spanish houses with their glass sided balconies. It was once a major whaling town, as were many along this coast.

Plane trees grafted together to form a shady canopy in summer, Llanes

Jill and friend at Llanes

It's hard to discover where a population the size of Llanes gets its food. We've always found this a problem in Spain. Supermarkets, when we find them, seem very uninspiring, selling mainly dried foods – beans, pasta, toasts and salted cod, or tins – usually tuna, mussels and octopus. The freezers are full of sardines, squid, octopus rings and empanadas. None are ideal for cooking in Modestine. However, we eventually found a supermarket open and returned home with the necessaries to cook a tuna and crab pasta of our own invention. While waiting for it to cook we made the most of the evening sunshine drinking glasses of the local cider, more popular here than either wine or beer.

Ian has had a particularly nerdy day. Spain must be the European hotspot for manhole covers and he has spent a really happy afternoon in Llanes blocking traffic as he stands in the middle of the road enthusiastically photographing street ironmongery from as far afield as Santander, Oviedo, Gijon and Torrelevega.