To Portugal the leisurely way

 

It was already dark when we left the Brittany Ferries MV Normandie afternoon sailing to Ouistreham in mid April, but we had only to navigate the one mile to Camping Les Pommiers. The site being almost empty at this time of year, we were able to pitch leaving the car attached, couple up the electricity and turn in.

 


Our eventual destination was the Algarve region of Portugal, a long way by any standards but we were not in any hurry and with stops along the way, we didn't expect to arrive there in much under a month. With Easter and May Day holidays before then and having experienced traffic and campsites in Spain during bank holidays, we intended to spend the rest of April in France, until they were over.

 



Easter we spent quietly near La Palmyre in the Charente Maritime.  Camping La Palombière is set in a large park, a bit like a stately home without the home.


There are several large "glades" for tourers and the facilities in individual shower rooms could be described as luxurious.  Although pitches were unmarked the helpful manager spread out arrivals as thinly as possible, such that during our stay we had no near neighbours. Being close to La Palmyre we were able to shop for food at the market and later burn some of the calories off exploring the coast and its fishing machines alongside the cycle path.

 


 




 

There had been no influx to the site or crowds on the roads over Easter in spite of the good weather but we decided to move south during the week before the May Day holiday and returned to an oft visited favourite of ours close to the Spanish border, Camping Larrouleta at Urrugne near St Jean De Luz.

 

Family owned and run, the site is open all year, and is set by a small lake in picturesque surroundings with view of the Pyrenees. It is a worthy holiday destination in its own right but also its location, close to an auto-route exit and large supermarket makes it a regular stopover for caravanners en route to Spain and Portugal.  We have spent many weeks there over the years but have to admit the Pyrenees that look so pretty can also have a dire effect on the weather and the countryside is not green by accident.

 




The next stage of our trip, one we have done many times, crossing Spain from north to South is for us one of the journeys where the travel is still a real pleasure. There can be few places left in Europe now where it is possible to enjoy such superb scenery while much of the time seeing very little traffic.

 

Leaving France in the direction of Bilbao the road rises and falls along the coast for a while before turning inland onto the recently opened AP-1 where the steady climb from sea level to around 900 metres begins. This toll road is superbly engineered and presented no towing problems and as most HGV's take the free but slow alternative, traffic was light. In addition to the mountain scenery, as bird lovers we also got to see lots of vultures, kites and eagles along the way.



 From Burgos onwards to Madrid the road is toll free, crossing Spain's central plateaux, the landscape here is of wide-open spaces with snow-capped peaks in the distance. This is a high road and snow is not unknown even as late as May but on the one occasion when we did encounter it an impressive fleet of snowploughs were on the road.







Our night halt after an easy 260 miles was the all year site Picos de la Miel at La Cabrera, 60km north of Madrid. Spanish motorways have the eminently sensible junction numbering that reflect the distance in Km from their start i.e. Junction 60 is 60Km north of Madrid.



Set among dramatic scenery, Picos de la Miel is a popular weekend site mainly of statics but with a useful separate area for tourers. At an altitude of over 1000 metres it can be very cold but the shower block is well heated and the water very hot. A useful tip when leaving this site is to be most careful to take the same lane as entered by, others quickly lead into a maze of statics with impossibly tight corners and nowhere to turn around.

 



Continuing south, Madrid is the only major city to negotiate and using the outer of three ring roads, the M50 only added about 10 miles whilst giving the capital city traffic a wide berth. Once south of the city the A4 stretches out for over 200 miles crossing Castilla La Mancha's wide-open spaces, the land of  Don Quixote and windmills before climbing through the dramatic Despeñaperros Gorge and entering Andalucia. This gorge carved out by Despeñaperros River and over 500 meters deep has long formed a natural pass over the Sierra Morena.   Until fairly recently this section of road would have been very challenging but the immense improvement in Spanish roads since joining the EU is very evident here and even more are under-way.  Although presently still winding and slower it does not present any difficulties and the views are stunning.

Now in Andalucia and the province of Cordoba the road descends through countryside where olives are cultivated on an enormous scale in irrigated fields.


Camping Albolafia (ASCI) is conveniently situated in the small town of Villafranca de Córdoba close to the A4 Autovia and about 15 km north of Córdoba. This is another good night halt, open all year, well managed with good facilities. There is public transport from the village into the city however we have yet to be there when it was cool enough to face a day's sightseeing in the city with Europe's highest average temperatures. 


 We were now just a days drive short of our final destination near to the Algarve town of Lagos but decided to break the journey once more and spend a few days in the extraordinary village of El Rocio and to see some of the wildlife of the Doñana National Park.

Continuing our journey and staying with the A4 we headed for Seville where we would cross the river Guadalquivir and head towards Huelva before branching off to   El Rocio.  Seville has a ring road that we are used to but this time instead of sticking to our guns and disobeying "SatNav Jane" we allowed "her" to send us on the shorter route instead of the longer simple one, now we know what the suburbs look like!

 
   

 

Camping La Aldea is a fairly new, well-equipped site in walking distance from El Rocio village centre. The village with sand roads, low buildings and hitching posts for the locals' horses resembles a cowboy film set, the roads can be either deep sand or mud according to the weather and exploration is best done on foot. The main feature of the village and its reason for existence is the church known as the Sanctuario de Nuestra Señora de El Rocío – usually simply referred to as the Ermita, where a statue of the virgin dating from the 15th century is kept. This statue forms the centrepiece of the largest pilgrimage in Spain when upwards of a million people converge on the village at Pentecost. Since we didn't want to share our visit with them and with camping pitches booked years ahead we made a point avoiding it.

 

The National Park is largely closed to the public but there are a number of easily accessed visitor centres with footpaths and hides. Wildlife does not usually appear to order but the Jose Antonio Valverde Centre seems to be the one that offers the best chance of viewing numerous species in large numbers. It closely overlooks a major nesting colony of glossy ibis, egrets, night, squacco and purple herons but is deep inside the park. There is public access via 30km of unmarked dirt tracks but to save our tyres and suspension we opted for an excursion organised by the park authorities (booked at the site) in a 4x4 bus. This was able to pass through the closed areas we would not have seen. The park is one of the only remaining habitats of the European Lynx. We did not expect to see one nor did we but we saw the next best thing, fresh footprints in wet sand and considering there are only about 50 individuals in 550sq kilometres we felt privileged to have come so close.

 

 
   




 

We left El Rocio after a few days to complete our outward journey to the Algarve. Leaving Spain crossing the Rio Guadiana Bridge we joined the A22 motorway that is currently free of tolls but work was underway installing cameras on gantrys that will automatically collect tolls when they are completed. The actual mechanics of paying under this system, already implemented elsewhere, seems to be a mystery to visitors and Portuguese alike and we met no one who had paid or knew how to.

 

 
   

Reaching our final destination Camping Turiscampo near Lagos we had towed 1400miles since leaving the ferry but with the benefit of long breaks en-route it didn't feel like it.

 

Camping Turiscampo is very pretty with terraced pitches, lots of flowers and good facilities including pool, restaurant and a useful shop. The lady who owns and manages the site actually lives there and the staff could not be more helpful. The last leg had only been 150 miles and with Portuguese time being GMT we had "gained" another hour leaving us plenty of time to choose a pitch, put up the awning and settle ourselves down for at least a month.

 


This was only our second visit to Portugal, we had made a brief recce en route north from Spain last year, but we soon formed the impression, based on the invitations in English to buy property or visit Golf Clubs that we had come to an upmarket favourite with Brits. This might be a turn off for some but as non Portuguese speakers (there can't be too many who are!) looking for a relaxing stay rather than an adventure we much appreciated dealing with friendly English speaking (usually) locals.

 

This is an area famed for its picture postcard coastline and beaches, the ideal place to get some sun and beach time in and that was how after our pre-breakfast visits to the fish market, we spent as much time as possible.

 
   


 However on a very windy day that kept us off the beach we made for one of the "must see" sights, Cape St Vincent the most westerly point of Europe. A powerful lighthouse services one of the world's busiest shipping lanes from a headland with 250 ft vertical cliffs on 3 sides.  This area has been the scene of numerous naval battles including two between Britain and Spain that took its name. Sea views were terrific but with the very strong wind blowing seaward we kept our distance from cliff tops that would have been out of bounds and disfigured with fencing and warning notices had they been in the UK.

 
   

5 weeks passed all too quickly and with 3 weeks left and other visits planned along the way we reluctantly we started our journey north.

 

Our Outfit

 

Caravan           Fendt Platin 510 TG MAM 1600Kg

Towcar            Mercedes E280CDI Estate

 

Practicalities

Choosing a route

Trips to the further reaches of Europe need time but with well planned night halts and good breaks along the way the long journey need not be daunting but a large part of the pleasure. Night halts in central Spain; away from tourist areas sites can be scarce, particularly in low season.  Routes need to be chosen that fit in with what is available and the daily mileages you are comfortable with.

 

Tolls

The route we had taken (from Ouistreham) had been largely motorway or Routes National and most of it free, we had spent €43 on Tolls and some of that had for convenience rather than strictly necessary.

 

Sites We Used

 

Les Mathes                        Camping La Palombière         www.camping-lapalombiere.com

 

St Jean de Luz                   Camping Larrouleta                www.larrouleta.com

 

La Cabrera                         Camping Pico de la Miel         www.picodelamiel.com

 

Villafranca de Cordoba       La Albolafia                            www.campingalbolafia.com

 

El Rocio                              La Aldea                                 www.campinglaaldea.com

 

Lagos                                Camping Turiscampo              www.turiscampo.com


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