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Monday, 30 May 2011

Europe trip 2011 - Barcelona to home

2nd April.
We left Camping Barcelona in Mataro late afternoon (helpfully, checkouts are allowed up to 2000) and made our way to Montserrat via Granollers, Sabadell and Terrassa - all industrial towns, but the C1415 and C155 were scenic in between and a pleasant drive.

Our route from Mataro to Santander

(Microsoft Autoroute 2010, GPS track: Globalsat BT 338X Data logger)

The approach to the Montserrat range on the C55 was impressive in the fading light, the "saw tooth" profile of the mountain standing starkly against the sky.

The mountain road to Montserrat

We drove immediately up the steep, twisting road to the Monastery complex, which nowadays consists of a small town, complete with a rail station, police HQ, two hotels and even a supermarket!
Sue had found out that motorhomes were tolerated overnight in the large pay-parking area, and indeed as we arrived a French couple told us it was possible to stay in the level bus park at the very top, provided we vacated by 0800. There is an overnight security guard and he was quite happy with the arrangement, although officially motorhomes are not allowed to use the Montserrat parking at all!

The views as far as Barcelona are fantastic and a clear night gave us a beautiful image of the city's lights. The road far below us looked like a luminous snake as the evening traffic moved along. We could hear owls calling and the clear sound of a train echoing up to us.

Barcelona lights up as Montserrat is swallowed in the dusk

3rd April
I slipped out of the van early to catch the scene from the vantage point and was rewarded with a view over the clouds.

An unusual sculpture adds interest to the vantage point

A poignant memorial to fighters in the civil war

Our friends did not hang around after we had moved out of the bus park, they reckoned it would get very crowded being a Sunday, and they were not wrong! To make it even more busy there was a broadcast TV crew setting up to film the morning service.

I decided to climb up to see one of several hermitages high above the monastery. For all that sweat inducing effort the end result was a bit disappointing, as when I got to the Ermita de Santa Anna it was long gone, having been destroyed in the Peninsula war in 1812! Still, there was a plaque to tell me about it and some fine views on the way down.

A view of Montserrat from the hermitage trail

The 1100 service had just started as I entered the church and the film crew and dozens of other people were taking pictures, so I didn’t feel guilty about joining in. It was standing room only, the floodlights and packed crowd creating a strange vibe in what was intended to be a hallowed atmosphere.

I paid our 5 euro parking charge at the machine and soon afterwards we departed - before the van became totally blocked in by cars.
Farther down the road the traffic had come to a virtual standstill as the car park was filling up, a lot of disappointed people stuck in their cars in the hot sun, including a Nun in a motorhome!

We hacked our way back to the coast just below Barcelona, but it wasn’t really worth the effort, working through heavy traffic, endless junctions and an industrialised landscape.
By the time we got to Sitges it was time to call it a day and we booked into Camping El Garrofer, a 2-star ACSI site. We seemed to have landed upon mayhem, there were literally children and animals under our wheels. It felt a bit like a refugee camp, but it would have to do for the night.

GPS: 41.2314 N, 01.7799 E

4th April
We awoke to an eerie peace, the campsite was silent except for the birds singing in the trees - all the weekend partygoers had decamped and the place was transformed.
The bikes came off the rack and in a few minutes we were on the Sitges seashore. The first thing that caught my attention was an eye-watering Euro 750 fine for walking on the rather weedy grass alongside the beachfront (or letting your dog poo on it)! When do you ever see that kind of penalty for painting grafitti?

Thats an expensive walk on the grass!

However it is a nice sea front promenade, with no high rise apartments and a few fine houses dotted amongst the more mundane. To our surprise, we came across a Cornishman, an ex-fisherman, building magnificent sandcastles on the beach. He assured us that he was making a viable living from it. A distinct talent, I asked him if he painted as well: “yup, do a bit of that”

Cornish talent on display in Sitges

The heart of the old buildings around the Palau Marcel were (naturally) undergoing a major renovation, but the seafront beyond, towards the marina had been nicely redone with new paving and stainless steel railings along the beachfront.

Sitges (despite the crane) is not a typical Spanish resort

One of the quieter streets in the old town

In the old town, the characterful narrow streets are well supplied with tapas bars and restaurants. Compared with so many Spanish resorts, Sitges is an unspoilt little gem.

5th April
Our departure from Camping El Garrofer was pleasurably delayed by a long chat with a couple of full-timers, Paul and Tracey, living in a Carthago – amazing how the time passes once you start swapping tales of motorhome living!

As usual, we faithfully hugged the coast as much as possible on the way down to La Mora, 7km north of Tarragona. I can tell you now that Vilanova i la Geltru, Torredembarra and everything in between are all terminally compromised by the coastal railway track and are instantly forgettable.

Looking for a campsite with good access to Tarragona, we settled on Camping Torre de la Mora. It has a lot going for it in that it is an ACSI site, is on a bus route into the city, and has direct access to a nice beach.
There, however, the commendations end. Compared with the slick, welcoming and friendly reception we had experienced at the previous three Spanish campsites, the management here were in turn officious, patronising, hostile and indifferent to our pleas.

We were intermittently shown a selection of small pitches with very tight entrances and daft high kerbs by a chap on a scooter, spending 90 minutes or more (well past beer time!) manoeuvring in and out, only to be told each time by scooter-man (after conversing on his walkie-talkie) that they were “no possible”! After the fourth attempt and verging on a sense of humour failure, we refused to move anymore, despite having to sleep on an incline.
It wasn’t just a culture clash either, a Dutch couple in a camper, returning to the site after a few days elsewhere, were gob-smacked to be told haughtily that they couldn’t return to the pitch they had occupied earlier because “it is only for caravans”! Some crossed wires there.

Tight entrances and high kerbs make pitching more difficult

The highly restrictive campsite rules and regulations ran to two pages of tendentious language - the restrictions on dogs alone would really have been better encapsulated as: “No dogs allowed”. I did think they were on to a child-friendly winner though with: "HOURS OF SILENCE…. SIESTA 1 pm – 4 pm"!

GPS: 41.1270 N, 01.3439 E

6th April
The day dawned bright and warm, the bus into Tarragona cost 1.20 euros (running every hour and more frequently at busy times).
We got off on Rambla Vella, a busy street which runs alongside the old city boundary. It’s a short walk up the Via de Limperi Roma, where there is a small tourist office. They gave us a free town map and a useful guide.
All-in tickets for six of the most popular attractions are available for 10 euros at the entrance to the Muralles or Archeological Promenade along the old city walls nearby. Included are the Casa Casttellarnau and Casa Canal, both former residences of Taragona’s rich and famous, and also the Roman Circus and Praetorium, Ampitheatre and Forum.

Colourful streets

We managed to fit them all in except the forum, but included the cathedral (undergoing extensive restoration, of course) and the archaeological museum.

Beautifully kept gardens in the Cathedral cloisters

Finally we had a walk up the boulevard Rambla Nova, just as a chill sea mist rolled in over the city, removing the building tops from view.

The sea mist rolls in over the seafront

7th April
Declining to pay for 50 cent tokens to fill up our water tank from a tiny hose at the campsite car wash (we used a nearby tap instead), we left Camping Torre de la Mora with a happy heart for Salou, a mid sized resort with a long beach extending to the Cap de Salou.

On the way we had hoped to top with autogas at a Repsol depot on the C31b, but came away unreplenished as they had discontinued that service two years ago! (Time to update our Dutch-published “LPG tankstations in Europe” guide - available from Vicarious Books).

Having seen Salou, we considered complete our navigation of the entire Spanish coast that we had started in 2007 – and headed inland. Our ultimate destination was to be Santander, for the ferry home, domestic reasons calling a premature halt to this year’s trip.

We had done our sums to compare the costs of driving back through France to Calais for the cheap cross-channel trip against the Santander-Plymouth route with Brittany Ferries, and excluding motorway tolls and campsite fees (which we would normally avoid) it still came to about GBP 200 cheaper. However, faced with a daunting array of tasks when we got home we decided the speed and comfort of the Santander trip to be worth it.

We had a quick look at Montblanc – a medieval walled town, now in the process of being rebuilt and developed as a major tourist attraction. I was interested to discover that Saint George had slayed his dragon outside the very gates!

The central square of the walled town of Mountblanc

Along one side of the town, houses and shops are being demolished to reveal the ancient wall and restore it to its medieval splendour. Unfortunately, both of the churches recommended in our Green Guide were locked up, but it is a pleasant stroll around the narrow streets and centre market square.
There is a large, free, dirt car park nearby which would do nicely for an overnight.

Car park, Montblanc
GPS: 41.3745 N, 01.1617 E

We moved on to our next ecclesiastical excursion, the Cistercian monastery at Poblet. It was a bit late to do the tour, but there is a vast visitor’s car park, so we tucked ourselves in at the far end for the night, joined later on by a Swiss campervan.

Car park, Santa Maria de Poblet
GPS: 41.3789 N, 01.0783 E

 The first rays of sun catch the monastery

8th April
The monastery of Santa Maria de Poblet was founded, along with Santa Creus and Santa Maria de Valbona, in the second half of the 12th Century as a means of reorganising and repopulating the lands of New Catalonia that had recently been wrested from the Moors by the Catalano-Aroganese monarchy. In the 14th century, at the height of its influence, its jurisdiction reached over seven baronies.
Sacked and devastated in 1835, and the monks expelled, it has since been reconstructed and is now a UNESCO world heritage site.

High vaults in the chapel

Visits are guided tours only, in Catalan or Spanish, but we were given English language leaflets and the guides were able to our answer our questions in good English.

Our gas bottles were now quite low so we hit the N11 for Zarragoza. The sun was out in force and the temperature later hit 35 degrees on this popular route for truckers.

This time our LPG guide came up with the goods and we topped up at the Cooperativa Auto Taxi, a busy petrol station serving, unsurprisngly, mostly taxis. The button on the autogas pump had been dismantled by sombeody, but the girl behind the counter cheerfully left her post and came out to fix it.

GPL Station
GPS: 41.6341 N, 00.9229 W

We had heard from friends of an old monastery that had been converted into a hotel and the surrounding woodland developed into a spectacular park of lakes and waterfalls. Thus we headed south-west again on the A2 - undergoing much work to convert to motorway standards - before turning off at Calatayud for Nuevalos and the Monasterio de Piedra.

The extensive car park is grassed, under trees and terraced, and even has a sign directing caravans to park. We found a level spot away from the entrance and opened a welcome beer after a long, hot day’s driving.

Car park, Monasterio de Piedra
GPS: 41.1945 N, 01.7842 W

Long after dark we heard a vehicle arrive and move very close to us. Half expecting a knock on the door, we turned off the lights and peeked through the blinds - a young Spanish couple in a camper had come to join us.

9th April
The Monasterio de Piedra park is Spain's answer to Croatia's Plitvice falls – it’s not as gobsmacking for sure, but well worth a detour, and with the added attraction of caves and tunnels.

The Saturday crowds were swelling as we bought our Euro 13.50 tickets, but the sun burned down out of an empty sky, highlighting the waterfalls beautifully with dappled light at every turn.

Beautiful scenes abound.....

Behind the largest waterfall is a passageway into a limestone cave, which leaves you standing behind the fall, which was pretty "cool", especially with all the drips. (Grippy soled shoes are recommended for the damp scramble to the back of the cave!) A long tunnel cut out of the rock leads back to the outside world.

Behind the waterfall.....

Deep turquoise water in the cavern

Water dripping from the roof

The monastery is partially ruined, but is included in the park ticket, together with a wine making museum and some old horse carriages. Some interesting stonework remains.

The van was roasting in the noonday sun when we returned, but the good old Fantastic vent fan swiftly cleared the air. After some lunch we departed, leaving half a dozen Spanish vans behind on the grass parking.

The N234 from Calatayud to Soria is a fast straight road with very little traffic, probably as rural a landscape as you will see in this area. In Soria there is a riverside parking area where you could probably spend the night, though it would be brightly lit.

Car park, Soria
GPS: 41.7521 N, 02.4636 W

Out of Soria, we took SO810 to Vinuesa. It is a nice lakeside drive, and with plenty of signs prohibiting wild camping on the laybys, though until Easter there are no campsites open. Coming into Vinuesa, we found a parking space by river, opposite some modern apartments. On the other side of an ancient stone bridge sits the old town. A Spanish couple were parked up in their van and said they had been coming for ten years: “muy bien para la noche”

Parking spot, Vinuesa
GPS: 41.9109 N, 02.7606 W

10th April
It was a cold night, but Storks were up circling around as the air warmed in the sun, quite an impressive sight, watching 8 or 10 of them in the sky at once.

A stork brings nesting material to the treetop

Vinuesa has a nice little old town, narrow sloping streets and a surprisingly ornate church. In the distance I could hear the howling of a pack of hounds as the Sunday hunt commenced.

The age old streets of Vinuesa

The bread shop took some tracking down, eventually the smell gave it away and I found a partially open brown door in a stone wall, the tiny bakery within.
The people I nodded to in the street seem reticent, certainly not welcoming – perhaps not looking forward to another influx of tourists as the season robs them of their solitude.

Leaving Vinuesa, we took the CL177 to rejoin the N234 to Burgos. It’s a very scenic road and we passed several water fountains until we saw one too good to pass up – a plentiful running supply of sweet mountain water. The jerricans filled in seconds and our nearly depleted tank was swiftly full. Just as we were about to leave an elderly group turned up in an old car with a couple of dozen containers, their poor vehicle must have been down on its stops when they were finished.

Mountain water fountain
GPS: 41.9164 N, 02.8448 W

Passing through the Sierra Mountain’s National Reserve, it appeared well developed with mountain bike and walking trails, along with logging and light industry.

The N234 to Burgos is a good fast road through a largely unspoilt landscape.
On arrival at Burgos we found a car/bus/motorhome park that was in our Camperstop guide. About a kilometre walk from the cathedral, it was very nearly packed on a Sunday afternoon. Sue made her pilgrimage to the church whilst I minded the van, watching many motorhomes arrive, hesitate and depart again. Over the two hours I didn’t see any suspicious lingerers – but then I probably wouldn’t know one if I saw one!

Car park, Burgos
GPS: 42.3403 N, 03.69305 W

Burgos Cathedral

Sue came back well impressed with the cathedral, fabulously ornate, with many artworks and fine sculptures.
We had decided on the N623 from Burgos to Torrelavaga as it was the most direct and scenic route. We stopped at the spectacular San Felice where there is a good size car park, together with a small bar and a shop. We considered calling it a day there, but had a cuppa and moved on.

Car park, San Felice
GPS: 42.7523 N, 03.8019 W

Unfortunately, as we climbed and got close to the Embalse del Ebro, a lake where we planned to turn off onto the CA171 and hopefully find a pitch for the night, the weather closed in and we went from warm and sunny to rain and fog in a few minutes. One of those times when you wish you had stopped earlier - looking for an overnight spot in darkening heavy mist and rain is not our idea of fun - but it had to be done and eventually we found a blind turn off to the lake and settled ourselves virtually out of sight of the road. As the traffic diminished it became very quiet and Sue cooked up a fine fish risotto.

Parking spot
GPS: 43.0354 N, 03.9167 W

11th April
The overnight rain had lessened a bit, but back on the main road we were again into thick fog and eased ourselves very gently around the bends as we descended. Suddenly at lower altitude the fog lifted and we were in another country – lush and green and alpine looking, what a world away from two days ago.

At Torrelavaga we found the Carrefour supermarket, but for the life of us couldn’t find a way around the 2.5 metre height barriers – so Mercadonna got our business instead.

Our decision was to stay a little way out from Santander at Ruiloba, a few kilometres west of Santilana. Camping El Helguero is an ACSI site and promised us peace and quiet in a rural setting and a wi-fi point. It had in fact just installed the sensible delfynet system that we had used at Camping Barcelona, which allows more than one laptop to be used on the same code (though not at the same time), and after an early hiccup we enjoyed internet access in the van, surrounded by trees.

The pool was just being prepared for the season

GPS: 43.3828 N, 04.2439 W

12th April
Sue lived to regret siting us too close to the trees, as a gentle rain in the night resulted in a loud and intermittent drip on the bedroom roof – how many times have we done that?! It stayed grey and damp all day and we hardly moved a muscle.

13th April
Time to make a move for the ferry, but not before we had met up with George and Pam who had just returned from Portugal. At their invitation we had lunch at a local, local’s restaurant about a mile from the campsite. What a revelation compared with tourist prices. A huge bowl of pork and bean soup, bread, some superb fried fresh fish and chips, plus a chocolate mouse and a beer each came to 9 euros a head!

Can't remember the name but we recommend the "Menu del dia"

We took the A67 into Santander and checked in with hours to spare until the 2100 sailing.

Amazingly, when we boarded a less than full Pont Aven, the crew placed us on a steep, enclosed central ramp necessitating wheel blocks, and which also forced us to walk down the ramp with one leg either side of 300 mm high ridge - one foot in the gutter, one foot in the road so to speak. Comically, there was a “Don’t walk here” sign right outside our window. We thought this worth a mention to the reception desk on board and happily they seemed pleased to have another report form to fill out. (You have to get your monthly quota of Accident “near miss” forms in or the “management” wonders if you are doing your job properly!)

We had indulged ourselves in the luxury of an outside cabin but to be honest we didn’t spend much time in it apart from trying to sleep – must remember to bring our own pillows!

14th April
Still reluctant to go straight home we stopped off at the Britannia Inn near St Austell for the night. They keenly support Motorhomers overnighting in their car park, serve excellent food and also have free wi-fi in the bar. Listening to some Belgian motorhomers chatting at a table near us in the cocktail bar, we suddenly realised one was talking English in a Yorkshire accent! After an introduction we spent the rest of the evening chatting with Mel and Bill and their Belgian wives Lieve and Martine. How can Motorhomers who were total strangers find so much to talk about – it’s not a bad life!

GPS: 50.3455 N, 04.7392 W

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