Where to start???
Given that we’ll be full timing in the van next year we had decided to have a big holiday this year where we stayed in brick buildings and had access to a fairly constant supply of hot water, so back in the carefree days of 2019, we settled on a month’s tour of India covering as much of the country as possible. Comfy business class flights were booked courtesy of points and everything was looking good. Then came the virus from China that would bring the World to a standstill….
Fast forward to Summer 2020 and with India close to the top of the list of countries hardest hit by the virus, the tour was cancelled so we had to decide on how we were going to spend our month off (Bob had saved and booked the leave, June’s contract extension negotiation had included the leave so we weren’t not going to do something). The thoughts went something like this:
- Another long-haul destination on an Exodus tour – maybe Namibia, Botswana? Nope
- Croatia – too many borders opening and closing between home and there to negotiate
- UK – Wales, Scotland, Northumbria
- Germany – regions starting prohibiting travel
- Sweden – then Denmark closed its borders to the UK and the plan was to drive through Denmark
- UK again – actually booked campsites in north and south Wales and the Lakes (including a meeting with the company who are going to do the van carpets) for the first week.
Then the UK started to suffer its second wave with areas being tiered according to infection rates. North and South Wales were one of the first areas to tighten activities (and as I type this, they are now on the second day of 17 of total lockdown) followed by the area of Scotland covering Glasgow and Edinburgh and much of the northern part of England. We knew we would have a good time wherever we could travel in the UK but the idea of going to Europe was beginning to grow. We’d be in our own bubble in the motorhome and our preference is to be in remote, mountain regions so the chances of catching COVID would be no different to at home (possibly less with no contact with children working in pubs or at university) providing we took all the necessary caution with wearing masks and carrying copious amounts of sanitiser. A new thermometer was even purchased to monitor our temperatures so we could head home at the first sign of any problems.
With the start of our leave imminent, we took the plunge and booked our Eurotunnel ticket just three days before we left and had a very loose plan of travelling through France and around the edge of Spain and Portugal. I don’t think either of us believed we were going anywhere until we actually drove on to the train at Ashford but that we did just as Spain announced restrictions in several regions, including most of those along the French border and the north coast. Still, we’d got to France and after that we didn’t really mind where we went – a month in France wouldn’t be the worst thing!
First stop was the Aire de Baie de Somme, our usual stopover when heading south through France. Great little stop on the motorway but we arrived to find most of the parking area closed – was this a sign of things to come? Looked like they were just doing some renovations so we had to park close to the main building but managed to have a decent night’s sleep.
With the news about Spain we had decided that a slow meander around the north and west coast before heading to the Pyrenees and the Alps might be a good idea as we’ve previously just passed through France on our way somewhere else. With that in mind we took a slow drive along the coast to Honfleur taking in some beautiful scenery and unexpected fun driving.
Tonight’s stop was the aire at Honfleur, a huge car riverside car park close to the centre of the town and usually overflowing with motorhomes. We arrived about 4pm and secured a waterside pitch and although the aire got busier it was still relatively quiet. Cost for 24 hours was €11.
Whilst we are avoiding busy places, we took the short walk into town for dinner. A number of restaurants were closed and those which were open were operating a reduced capacity. It was such a good evening though that we decided to sit outside overlooking the harbour to enjoy a seafood feast!
Before going to dinner, we checked the Spanish travel websites and the map and worked out that we could go back to the original plan (well a slightly amended version of the original version of this trip – I think this is going to become a common theme!) and go to Spain but take a different route avoiding the travel restrictions in the north.
With the change in plans today was a driving day, heading south. The weather was grey with occasional showers but throughout a strong wind – Bob said he felt like he’s had a full workout by the time we got to our overnight stop. Tonight, we’re in another riverside aire at Bruère-Allichamps, a reasonable size aire with hard and grass parking plus hook up. Cost for the night was €9.79 plus €5 for the Camping-Car Park card which we can recharge as needed and use at other CCP aires.
Tonight’s destination is the town of Millau but despite it being almost all motorway we get to drive through the Massif Central and across the Millau Viaduct, a stunning piece of engineering. A first today with June finally getting behind the wheel of this van and taking a short turn at driving.
We arrived in Millau early enough to go for a short walk along the river and around the old town. We’re in another CCP aire, two minutes walk from the river which costs €11.01 for a night. After two nights parked under trees we have come to the conclusion that that’s not a good idea when it’s raining as they drip constantly all night!
From Millau we were moving on to Carcassonne to visit the old medieval fortified city. The route given by the sat-nav was again motorway all the way but we’re always keen to explore the slightly more adventurous roads and the 2-3 hour journey became a full day of winding roads and glorious autumnal forests which gradually became vineyards as we came down from the mountains.
There is an aire located next to the Cite Campsite which is about 15 minutes walk from the old city along the River Aude and costs €15 plus 22c per person per night. We were staying here for two nights to have the time to visit the city and catch up on some general house keeping.
As of today, due to the entire Basque region going into total lockdown and much of the rest of Spain under curfew we decide that we are going to spend the entire trip in France.
After the rain stopped, we had a bright and sunny morning exploring Carcassonne including paying to visit the Chateau Comtal and the city ramparts (€9.50 each for an unguided tour). It was well worth the entrance fee and pre-booking a timeslot was a good idea as we didn’t have to queue. Whilst it is sad to see so many places closed due to COVID-19 (did manage a #clewleysstopforcoffee of course) it does mean that everywhere is relatively quiet – the city is probably heaving during summer.
Our biggest expenditure today was on a detailed map book of France….
Fast forward three hours and we’re going to Spain tomorrow!!! Initially we’re aiming just across the border to Santa Pau in the Parc Natural de la Zona Volcanica de la Garrotxa before coming back to France via Andorra. The Catalonia region is still open to travel through and is the only area where you can cross the border.
Left France and crossed the border into Spain as if it was business as usual and have camped for the night in a free aire in the village of Santa Pau.
Somewhere previously it was mentioned that our plans were nothing if not flexible and we awoke this morning to the news that France may now be going into lockdown with effect from tomorrow night. The President is speaking later today so we’ll wait to see what he has to say but in the meantime we’re planning a route around Spain…..
28th October – continued!
Three hours later and another change of plan as most of Spain has gone into lockdown with no inter-regional travel allowed and France has confirmed the same. It seems we are stuck in Catalonia unless we want to head back to Calais and wait around for the next available crossing. Given it is half term and a lot of people will make the immediate decision to return home, we have no idea when that crossing would be available and at what cost.
Our other option is to stay in this area and maybe find a campsite to wait out at least the next week to see what happens next. This coming weekend is a holiday weekend in Spain so many of the travel restrictions are in place to stop people travelling for this. Thankfully we have plenty of wifi (before we came away Superdrug were doing an unbelievable offer of £20 a month with unlimited data which can be used in Europe so we have been hammering that) so it’s on to the internet to find a campsite and with the help of Google Translate, Bob fired out a few emails. Off to sleep tonight not knowing what tomorrow would bring!
Awoke to a couple of emails with one campsite able to take a week’s booking so after re-stocking the cupboard with food and drink for a week we head up into the Pyrenees to Camping Rèpos del Pedraforca.
What a little gem this place is! We’ve booked for an initial week and can stay longer if we want. We’re in the lower part of the campsite which is mostly caravans and cabins but have hook up and easy access to water. The shower block is just a few metres away and has a washing machine and drier – will be able to leave here all clean and fresh smelling!
The campsite is really quiet at the moment (the weekend may be a different story), the weather is glorious and the scenery breath-taking.
After days seemingly stuck in the van driving, today we were able to relax and explore a little of the Parc Natural del Cadi-Moixeró with a shortish (11km) return walk to the ruins of the Monastery of Sant Sebastià del Sull. It may have been a short walk by our standards but it was all downhill from the campsite to the Río de Saldes which meant the return was all uphill….
Words cannot express the beauty of the area and the trees in their autumnal colours just added to it. Spain is so much more than the Costas and the beaches.
We spent a short time at the site of the ruins just taking in the silence of everything except the river running just below us and watching the eagles soaring high above the valley.
June had to test the water and can confirm it was cold!
A quick stroll to the local Dolmen de Molers, a megalithic burial chamber dating from the Metal Ages (1800-1400 BC). Excavations had yielded a number of archaeological finds which are now in a museum and the site remains the most important prehistoric monument in the Bergueda region.
Up earlyish today for a walk to the Mirador de Gresolet with views over the Saldes valley and the surrounding mountains. Again, it wasn’t going to be too far distance wise but it wasn’t going to be flat with a total ascent of almost 700m in the first 7km.
Luckily the big height gains occurred as short, sharp climbs and a lot of the walk was in the forest and protected from the sun (we have had a very hot few days). The effort though was worth it for a lunch with a view!
Contrary to the previous walk, it was mostly downhill on the way back.
An easy day after yesterday’s walk but surprisingly neither of us ached too much! One advantage of the restricted travel is that we’re getting a taste of really living in the van rather than holidaying in it and have had plenty of time to organise (and reorganise) everything we currently deem “essential”. It’s a slow process but we are getting there.
Van days are also needed to keep on top of the chores (cleaning and washing still needs to be done) but are also cooking days – homemade bread is becoming the norm, and it’s the opportunity to be inventive with whatever we have to keep to a minimum what gets thrown away!
Weather has closed in a bit today so we headed down the mountain in search of the nearest LPG station which was in Puig-reig, about a 45km drive away. With the help of the app called myLPG.eu This also gave the chance to stop in Berga again to pick up a few fresh items from the supermarket.
It has been good to see that mask wearing is the norm here and even in the street, almost everyone complies with the law, far more than the number back home.
On the way back we stopped for lunch by the side of the Pantá de la Baells (more lake than bog – the literal translation of “pantá”!) with a view over the Baells dam.
4th – 7th November
The weather is a bit all over the place at the moment (probably to be expected given it is November!) one day being wet and the next being sunny and clear again, so we did a couple of shorter walks to explore more of the area and had a couple of van days getting on with the admin that life in general throws out. As more Spanish provinces seem to be tightening their COVID rules and locking down even more, we decided to stay another week at the campsite. At €18 a day for everything we need and with a stunning view, there seems little reason to move.
One of these days did throw up a record of which we should not be proud – the lowest ever daily total of steps recorded by the Fitbit! On Saturday 7th November, June managed the incredible total of just 471 steps…. It was very wet outside and in a van less than 7m long, there are only so many steps you can do!
However we are pleased that the above was an exception and we have done our best to take as many of the footpaths from the campsite as possible around the eastern side of the Pedraforca Massif. The mountain itself was created after the collision of two tectonic plates and subsequent folding of the rocks to leave two limestone peaks (the Pollegons) and inbetween, the fork (the Enforcadura) where the softer rocks have eroded away to form large scree slopes on either side of the mountain. This has given the mountain its unique profile which features on the local, regional flag.
There are a number of Romanesque churches found in small villages and there are the remains of a medieval castle just outside Saldes.
Today we got off our backside to walk to the aforementioned castle and church on the mountain above Saldes. Although none of our walks here have been that long, they have not been flat and after today’s one we certainly qualified for our mountain goat badges!
The walk to the castle involved descending part way down the valley from the campsite and then heading up hill again, into, through and beyond Saldes, zig-zagging upwards for a total of almost 200m.
After bagging our first geocache in the area (not for lack of trying with others!) we then started back down to the valley floor through the forested hillsides. Much of the track seemed to be following a dried up steam bed – a little slippery and steep in places and by the time we got to the bottom the knees were screaming!
We took a few minutes to have a snack by the river which was running faster and deeper after the previous day’s rain – when we’d been up at the castle, which was over 300m above the valley floor, the only noise was the river.
Van day just pottering and cooking. We didn’t know if we’d get bored with these quieter days but so far we’re both adjusting well to not doing much and even more so being that we are in exceptional times at the moment and can’t move freely around. Once we’re out on the road fulltime we don’t think we would ordinarily spend as long in one place.
After spending almost two weeks looking at Pedraforca and walking most of the eastern edges, it seemed right that we had to get a little closer at least once so today the plan was to drive to Gosol, about 10km from the campsite, to see how far we could get up the western side where the peaks are supposedly more accessible…. After an earlyish start we found the car park in Gosol which was very quiet (we reckon the town would be heaving in the summer) and began the long, slow climb.
The first part of the walk is uphill along a farm track and is very boring – boring to the point that we both thought if the rest of the walk is going to be like this then we’re not going to enjoy it! After about 1km (and a gain of 148m) we entered the forest and our mood changed very quickly. The path continued uphill but became more challenging as we were climbing over rocks and tree roots of the pine woods on the flanks of the Serra de la Tossa. After 2.3km and 475m of climb we reached the Pla de la Serra, a flat grassy plateau with breath-taking views of the surrounding peaks and valleys. A good place for a #clewleysstopforcoffee!
We carried on walking for another 700m to a height of almost 2,000m which gave us a total climb of 586m. Having looked at the scree slopes we decided that this was the point at which we turn around and do the whole walk in reverse. It is possible to get to the top of Pollego Superior but this involved crossing the loose scree and then scrambling over boulders – not something we fancied. Turned out to be a good call as the weather closed in a little as we finished our descent and if we had been up at the peak, we’d have got a little wet!
The walk back down definitely qualified us for our advanced mountain goat badges and thankfully we had walking poles with us today as they came into their own with the steep (over 40% gradient in places) and slippery path. We stopped again at the Pla de la Serra just to take it all in, and whilst not in religious way, be thankful for what we have and are able to do.
After lunch we walked around the town a little but being siesta time (plus COVID) everything was closed.
It did seem like it would be a good place to visit with a couple of restaurants and bars around the edge of a small square. The town also has a connection with Picasso and there is small museum dedicated to him. We walked up through the steep streets to visit the church and castle ruins from where we could over the plain to where we had walked earlier.
Our last full day on the campsite so it was housework day. With not knowing where we’d be staying from now until we got home on 21st November, it was a day to get all the washing wash done and tanks filled and emptied as necessary.
Although this area had not been part of our original trip, we were so lucky to have found the campsite and it was the perfect place for us to stay for two weeks, especially as the alternative was to head straight back to the UK. It’s not somewhere we would stay in the summer but would be great for families with lots to do on site, but we saw few people whilst we were there and with the weather being so good, we were able to get out and explore the wider area on foot.
Moving day and having checked the travel restrictions, we’re heading to Andorra. Looking at the map, it should be a fairly straight route but that’s not our style so there was a slight detour towards the Tossa Pelada, a peak of 2,379m and a perfect place for a #clewleysstopforcoffee. It was then a journey back down to the village of Tuixen, along a few windy roads to the town of La Seu d’Urgell and on to the border with Andorra.
The border crossing was surprisingly easy and we parked at our glamorous overnight spot of the lower carpark of the River Commercial Centre car park in Sant Julia de Loria. Not as picturesque as the last two weeks but we needed food and at least there was a loud, fast moving river next to us which covered the traffic noise.
Time to get out of the town and make our way back into the mountains. Lots of driving today (mostly just for the sake of it!) following the marked roads to the west of the main road which runs through Andorra. It’s funny in that you can always tell the towns and villages that have hosted a major cycle race (both the Tour de France and the Vuelta de Espana regularly visit the Pyrenees) as despite the terrain and gradients and the harsh winters, the tarmac is immaculate!
First stop was the top of the valley above Pal where the road literally runs out when you reach the Spanish border
From there we visited another ski resort, Arinsal and then the road out of Ordino where there is another ski resort (Ordino Arcalis) at the head of the valley. There is no snow around at the moment and very few people around so the large car parks in the skiing areas make for great overnight spots and we had two undisturbed nights here.
Another unplanned stay but worth the visit as there is plenty of good walking from the car park and with no light pollution, an amazing view of the night sky.
We followed one of the footpaths which should have taken us around the lakes that have formed in the bowl below the Pic de Tristagne however we were only able to go halfway as the path disappeared under a rockfall. Instead we took the lower path around the edge of the lakes back to the van, which was still a stunning walk.
In need of facilities we slowly inched back down the valley to an aire in the town of Massana. It’s nothing more than a roadside carpark but we’re able to empty and refill before moving to the mountains in the east of Andorra. The aire also has wifi access which we were grateful for as Andorra is not covered in any of the data packages we have and for the past two days we’ve relied on a (closed) café whose wifi became available during their usual opening hours!
Not our best night as it was noisy, there was a lot of light from outside and the wifi wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be! We did realise afterwards that we could have paid for a short stay in the car park and used the facilities before moving straight on – something to remember for next time.
Moan over and it was back to the mountains, this time to the car park of the Granelvalira ski resort in Gau-Roig. Unfortunately, weight restrictions meant we couldn’t take the winding road over the mountain but it was only a short journey and still very picturesque.
Again, we had the whole carpark to ourselves with the exception of a few workmen preparing the ski facilities for the upcoming season (although it would appear that it’s the local equivalent of a supermarket car park and there was an abundance of learner drivers practising manoeuvres!), and again we were able to connect to the wifi of a closed information office.
Last hike of the trip which like all the others wasn’t flat! This one followed a ski lift up the mountain and then back down another ski run after a short distance of picking our way downhill through a boulder field to a lake – good place for coffee and cake.
With very little light pollution, it was a good place to watch the Leonid Meteor shower and we managed to capture some footage on the GoPro.
18th -21st November
Time to start the journey home. We planned to stop tonight in the motorhome car park in El Pas de la Casa, a large “shopping resort” on the French border and only a very short distance from where we were. As Andorra is duty free (diesel was 77p a litre as opposed to around £1.12 at home) we thought we’d do a bit of shopping first but decided just to use the facilities in the car park (free for 30 mins) so the tanks were full/empty for the trip to Calais. This would also mean that we could have a slightly more relaxed drive and not have to cover 1,000km in two days and nor would we be staying in motorway aires.
A slight detour as we left Andorra led us back to almost where we started and meant that we had to use a tunnel at a cost – the plan was to avoid toll roads on the way home as we had the extra time. We managed to stick to that plan right until we got to Boulogne where we joined the motorway a junction too early so had to pay one final toll in France (one to pay for the Dart Crossing in the UK). Still we managed to save around €100 in relation to the journey down through France.
The road home took us via aires in Cahors, a quiet 3-van site riverside and surprisingly quiet for being town centre, Theillay, a small piece of ground on a bend on a road between some farm storage and a cemetery (very quiet!) and finally Berck, about an hour from Calais, in a large beachside motorhome carpark that was very windy!
The drive had been quieter than we anticipated as the French were obeying their lockdown rules and although we saw a few vehicles in supermarket car parks, most of the traffic on the road was lorries. As required, we had printed copies of the attestation document for each day of the journey and a screenshot on the phone of the French translation of “we are travelling to our home in the UK” but despite seeing plenty of Gendarme, we were not stopped. We’d also lodged our contact details with the UK Gov website as once back in the UK, we’d have to go into quarantine for 14 days.
We were up sharp on the Saturday to prep the van to drive back to the UK and directly to the storage site where it would probably stay for a couple of months. The last day’s driving was uneventful although the UK roads were far busier than France, despite the UK also being in lockdown and only “essential” travel allowed.
We’ve been home since yesterday afternoon; bags are unpacked and the washing machine has been going non-stop all morning. We had an amazing month away despite the challenges of COVID which, initially, made us constantly have to revise our plans. We could have just given up after the first week when France and then Spain, region by region, closed their borders but a bit of luck and some random emails led us to the campsite in Saldes which proved to be an ideal place to spend a couple of weeks. We found a beautiful area of Spain to explore which was not on our original route and it added to our thought that northern Spain is such an under-rated region. We will certainly be back.
We did weigh up the situation with staying remote in Spain and Andorra vs coming home and saw no advantage to returning to the UK until our scheduled date. The only concession we made was to do a few big supermarket shops rather than multiple visits to village shops or markets which was nothing different to what we’d do at home. In fact, it felt safer in Spain as we saw few people not wearing masks even as they walked in the street and we were actually stopped for not using hand sanitiser as we entered a supermarket (we had used our own a couple of minutes earlier when taking a trolley).
Amazon has been hit hard today with things we found missing from the van which we will need when we move in to it next year to travel full time. Maps for planning the next trip were also in the basket as we start working on Plan B for 2021, just in case COVID continues to rumble on and postpone the big Canada and Pan American Highway trip.
Whatever happens in 2021, whether it’s driven by COVID or Brexit (that’s another story!), we will be travelling – there’s still so much of this world to see!