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Pippins in Spain and Portugal 2011 PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

The Pippins in Spain and Portugal 2011

Rosemary Newton
Autumn 2011

Introduction

Rosemary and Andy travel in a Rapido 746F, which they have had since the untimely death of their previous motorhome, Tilly, in Bulgaria in 2005. The dramatic and laconic account of the drowning of Tilly after 11 years of faithful service, and the subsequent bureaucratic battles with the Bulgarian Customs and UK Insurance Companies, is well told at: http://www.pippins.me.uk/2005/2005_bulgaria.htm.

Since 2001 the Newtons have motorhomed in France, Turkey, Bosnia, Croatia, Greece and now Switzerland, as well as travels within the UK, covered in their own website(http://www.pippins.me.uk/index.htm ). 'Pippins', by the way, refers both to the apples they would like to grow and the name of their house in England.

Since 2007 they have aimed to travel for 2 months in May and June, and again in September and October. We are all fortunate to be able to look over their shoulders, in words and pictures, and thereby experience Europe afresh.

Pictures are regularly uploaded to – www.photoblog.com/bacchanalia  This promises to be a better site than previously used, as it shows pictures at a reasonable size without enlarging.

See their excellent Greek Travel Log on this website at: Pippins in the Peloponnese 2010 and Switzerland in 2011.

Here is Rosemary's Travel Log for Spain, moving on to Portugal.

Friday 2 September.  After a rather frantic preparation, with a family camp at the weekend followed by a busy week, we set off for Dover and caught the 2.40 ferry. We were rather disgruntled to be put at the very back behind all the lorries. However, they were unloaded quickly and we persuaded the German family in front just to follow after they said they were waiting for instructions.

It was very strange indeed turning right, as we are so used to going left then following the same route on German autobahns. We drove through lovely rolling countryside in late afternoon sunshine to an Aire at Le Crotoy on the Baie de Somme. A lovely setting but the town was largely modern seaside properties, not as charming as Valery sur Somme on the other side of the water. The tide was out and the bay full of wading birds. It was wonderful to be able to leave our door open and enjoy the balmy evening, which I don't think we did in the UK this year.

Saturday 3 September.  Drove on in very warm sunshine through the Normandy countryside around Rouen, then down a very small road thanks to Sally Satnav, where we found a lovely village, La Madeleine Bouvet, in a wonderful setting beside a lake. We stopped for a cup of tea while I painted the church and its reflection and Andy read in the sunshine. We would have stayed there but were worried by a notice we did not understand, which we now think referred to travellers (Us?). We drove on a short way but the sky began to look so threatening that we stopped in a pleasant square in Nogent le Rotrou. We then had a large thunderstorm and rain for the rest of the evening. Is this it for the summer? Most unfair, we thought, as it was still warm.

Sunday 4 September.  We drove out of the surprisingly large town and headed for Fontevraud. Another enormously heavy shower whilst we were having lunch stopped in time for us to go out.

I visited the Abbey on one of our first visits to France, probably more than 20 years ago, when it had just stopped being a high security prison and they had started to restore it. I remember little more than the huge white church but what an impression it had made - no decoration or furniture, just 4 faintly coloured tombs set in the floor of the marble nave, towards the altar, including Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II and Richard the Lion Heart. Eleanor had always loved the Abbey and spent her final years here; it had become something of a retreat for wellborn ladies.

Andy did not see this on the first visit and I was so worried that it might have been spoilt. However, the magic was still there in the church, despite other people this time. The light streaming in through the clear windows made the white stone almost shine. Much of the rest of the Abbey was now on display, large and impressive architecture, and much detail had survived the use as a prison for 140 years. The elaborate kitchen was very similar to the one at Glastonbury.

At last on the N10, route to the sun? We drove on to an Aire at a village called Chateau Larcher, south of Poitiers. Three vans: Dutch in a German van, French in a Slovenian one and us in a French one!

Monday 5 September.  A long drive down a straight road, often due South, but often rather boring. Then into an absolutely horrid crawl through Bayonne and Biarritz and many surrounding towns. There is a toll motorway but it is so expensive for us, as we are classed with lorries, that there is no option but to crawl - and this on a Monday in September! We won't go this way again.

However, after a fruitless trip down a farm track, we found a lovely Aire in a park of mixed woodland, south of San Sebastian. Looking out through the oaks it is hard to believe we are in Spain. Aires de camping cars are new to Spain and we are looking forward to using them.

Tuesday 6 September.  The journey westward proved easier than expected, as the motorway proved to be a free one. Once again toll motorways are very expensive for us.

We arrived at the Cueva de Castillo after lunch and made our way to the entrance to wait for them to open. The caves are noted for their cave paintings.

Whilst waiting a group of Americans arrived. Their tour guide proceeded to warn them that they might not be very happy with their tour, as the guides in Europe would always identify parts of the animal and ask the group for their ideas, whereas he always started with identifying the animal then showed the parts. How I wished I had explained that we like to work things out for ourselves, which is how we learn, rather than being spoon fed with information that is easy to forget. We saw one of the ladies later, complaining about the food (the hamburger she had had was not up to her usual standard) and she didn't like the local cider either. I could feel Bill Bryson laughing behind my shoulder!  

We thought the cave most impressive, with wonderful stalactite formations as well as paintings of animals and many negative handprints.

We drove on to Santillana del Mar, a very well preserved medieval town. We parked easily in the town square outside the walls and had a most enjoyable wander, trying tapas and the local cider, which was surprisingly pleasant and much better than other local ciders. The town was very touristy but very pleasant. We returned in the twilight and enjoyed the town as the light faded. I attempted a picture whilst Andy caught up with the mail.

Wednesday 7 September.  We are very surprised to wake each morning, usually around 7 o'clock, to find it is still totally dark. We returned to the main town square before 9 o'clock and before anyone was about. I tried a painting, much to the annoyance of a couple of delivery men, as wherever I sat I seemed to be in the wrong place. The town gradually woke up, much later than we expected, and a surprising number of people stopped to look. In Italy you are totally ignored, as everyone seems to be painting - it cannot be as common here! It was great to be able to afford coffees when we wanted them, unlike in Switzerland!

We then drove on, along a largely deserted free motorway through the most beautiful countryside, past the Picos. Eventually reaching Cudillero, we parked on the harbour. The town is Cornish fishing village/Hastings Old Town, with lots of painted houses up a steep valley and a large harbour with many gaily coloured fishing boats. The weather was rather warm. We climbed to the lookout above the town and later walked around the modern extensive harbour arm. There was a heavy bank of cloud out to sea and later it rolled inland, thankfully without the expected rain. We also spent some time trying to unravel Spanish menus. We were joined by 10 other vans, mostly Spanish. This is new, as previously we have seen very few Spanish vans, even in Spain.

Thursday 8 September.  We woke again to brilliant warm sunshine and, after Andy had explored a tunnel containing a stream and a footpath, we set off, firstly to a noted beach called Playa Silencio. Sadly the sun had not reached it and, as the tide was coming in, we did not wait for it, continuing to Cabo Busto for lunch. The coast thereafter for a while was rather boring. We had a brief foray inland up the Navia river valley but decided it was a long way to Lugo, so carried on along the coast, aiming for the promised Aire at Porto des Bares. However, we were disappointed as it had closed and camper vans were banned from ports in Galicia, so this meant we could not visit the lovely little fishing port of Barqueiro either. It was getting late when we found a very pleasant spot beside a beach next to Ortigeira.

Friday 9 September.  We had a wander on a board walk beside the mud flats of the very extensive estuary, Rio de St Martha de Ortigeira, then wandered on round the far side of the estuary with views all the way. We did some shopping in Carino. Supermarkets are often quite hard to find, as they are not always well marked. When we presented a card to pay, the assistant asked for a passport but seemed very happy to accept Andy's bus pass, which she probably took for an identity card. You never know when a bus pass might come in handy!

We drove out to a spectacular lighthouse on the Punta de los Aquillos, then back through most spectacular coastal scenery on the far side of the headland, past signs of industrial archaeology – perhaps coal mining - in an unlikely setting. We had lunch amongst marine pines then continued along the coast. We did not get out to the next headland at the Punta Candiera as the sea mist had rolled in, bringing visibility down to a few yards.

We then drove on past Ferrol to Coruna. Andy felt worried by the first aire, beside Coruna at the port of San Pedro de Vismo and a considerable distance from the city, but we replenished our supplies of water and drove to the other spot we read about, which turned out to be a very busy car park beside the Torres de Hercules, a massive landmark of a light house.

There were plenty of other Spanish vans squeezed into this car park, so eventually we found a space and walked into town.

Coruna was as interesting as we remembered, surrounded by a generous promenade. We found the old town and went inside the Romanesque/Gothic Iglesia de Santa Maria, largely lit by a single rose window above the altar, which was richly decorated with white flowers. When we came out people were gathering for a wedding; later we saw the bride arrive with her father. She had a plain satin dress with a beautiful full-length richly decorated lace veil. This year it has been very interesting to note outfits at weddings! The most elegant guest was easily a lady in a drapey dove-grey Grecian dress.

We returned to the very busy car park and, after supper and a spectacular sunset, we walked up to the lighthouse and admired the views over the city and harbour.

The Spanish Armada called at Coruna on its way north. The main square is named after Maria Pita, who led the defence of the town against the attack of Sir Francis Drake in 1589. There is a triumphal statue of her, with her foot on an attacker. We revisited the grave of Sir John Moore, who evacuated the British when Napoleon overran the town in 1809, and was buried here in what is now a lovely garden on the battlements. 

Saturday 10 September.  Eventually the rain stopped and about 10.30 am we walked into the centre of Coruna,  round the promenade on the west side of the city, and watched a very large liner gradually slide beside the innermost quay. We wandered round the shops, all small individual shops, had a coffee and by lunch time (2 o'clock) we were very hungry indeed and discovered we had left dictionary and notes behind. Hunger does not lead to rational guesswork but eventually we found a restaurant where the charming waitress could translate!

After lunch we continued to wander, as the sun broke through, among pleasant squares and interesting buildings above the shop fronts. A feature of the area are the galerias - the buildings fronted with elaborate 19th century glass panels, most impressive.

Eventually we headed for the western side of the isthmus, where there is a handsome beach, and round the headland back to the van. In the evening I made my way once more around the very impressive lighthouse, claimed to be the oldest working one in the world, though this might allude to the Roman foundations.

There were 23 vans in the car park for the night, mostly Spanish. We really have seen an increase in people touring. When we were here in August 10 years ago, there were very few people indeed.

Sunday 11 September.  Another wet morning! Over breakfast a small van arrived and a young man proceeded to feed the herring gulls and pigeons with large industrial sized loaves and cake, a whole boot full. (What would they say in Hastings, where they are regarded as a major pest!) We felt as if we were on a set for The Birds. By the time we left, even the birds were fed up and had left, but he was standing ankle deep and still hard at work, tearing up the bread despite the heavy rain.

We made our way West, to the Coste de Morte and Cabo de San Adrian, then on to Laxe where we sat on the quay looking at the boats in the rain. Every time I ventured outside it started to rain once more! At least we had an interesting view. Eventually I managed a walk along the quay and round the little town, whose streets convinced me we would not be able to get out to the lighthouse, so we set out for the Praia de Traba, a 2.5 km unspoilt beach with enormous rollers, near where we remembered camping 10 years ago. It has been much improved but we managed to find a lovely spot.

We are now 9.5 degrees west and it is very dark indeed in the mornings! Also we are able to get BBC Radio 4 here, which seems bizarre.

Monday 12 September.  A much better day, so we decided to retrace our steps on a walk that we did 10 years ago: the Spindrift Walk (see Lonely Planet). The walk wends its way around the coast, sometimes following gravel tracks, other times grassy or stony paths, where the rocks have been worn into grooves by wagons long since past. The path is surrounded by stone lined fields, mostly now disused, along an ancient track, always with wonderful views of the extremely rugged coastline. The weather was perfect for walking - brightly overcast with occasional bursts of sunshine, warm but with a light fresh breeze.

Eventually the path reached Laxe, where we had visited yesterday, but this time we could see it in sunshine. All the fishing boats were out but a very grand yacht with a Swiss flag still said 'sequestrade' on the side. After lunch on the sea front we made our way back along the path, past the Praia Soesto, where we wild-camped before. Later we sat by the sea drawing and reading and later chatting to an English couple, who were from Weymouth and were surprised to see another English van.

As we ate our lunch at Camille, a man staggered past with a huge cabbage, at least a metre/yard across - all we could see were his legs from the knees down!

We ended the day with another walk along the boardwalk through the lagoon behind the sand dunes. Interesting that the explanatory boards are in Spanish (Castilian) and Galician. I had thought that Galician was related to Celtic and that it had similarities with Breton, Cornish and Welsh, but was far as we could see the differences were word endings and the rest the same as Spanish.

Behind us stopped a small van, the lady in full sari and nose ring and the gentleman in hippie/Indian garb. I was most surprised when I walked past and we had a chat to find out they were from Belgium, on their first tentative campervan trip!

Tuesday 13 September.  Another very wet morning. I felt sorry for the 3 boys behind us, who were surfers and sleeping in their car.

We drove round the coast to Camille, which even allowing for the rain and sea mist was a very depressed place. The supermarket had hardly any stock. The town's main claim to fame had been the German, known as Man, who had lived beside the sea and created a wonderful beachscape of piles of stones and other things he had found on the shore. We had visited his 'garden' 10 years ago and we were upset to find he had died shortly afterwards, supposedly of grief when the spill from the 'Prestige' covered his creations with black oil. The garden still remains, though now rather sad and missing the less robust found items, but paradoxically there seem to be more visitors than ever. We were surprised to read he had lived there for more than 40 years, in a shed and as we saw him, always dressed only in a loincloth; he was unrecognisable from the picture of a shy young man on an information board.

We had lunch at Camille, then drove on to Camarinas, a much smarter affair. Firstly we drove to Cabo Vilan, past wind and fish farm, to the lighthouse. If our last holiday's theme was glaciers, this one appears to be lighthouses. We then settled on the beginning of the pier at Camarinas and explored the town. The harbour area was very large and there were sizeable fishing boats moored there. The wind must blow most of the time, as the trees were 4 point tethered! I went to the Internet café in cardigan and waterproof. However, the weather looked much more promising for the rest of the week, according to the BBC.

Wednesday 14 September.  Today has been hot. I don't know why I have been complaining about the wind - at times today I would have given anything for a breeze! Our efforts to shop in Ponte do Ponte came to nothing, as the 2 shops we visited had so little stock: a very poor little town. We drove to Muxia, which was recovering from a large festival the day before - they celebrate the stone boat they have, which was supposed to have brought St James to Galicia . I have never seen so much broken glass but an army of people were trying to clear up. As we drove through Cee there was a row of 3 large supermarkets, one after another, with a Carrefour promised round the corner!

We drove on to Cabo Finisterre, almost the most westerly point in Spain and very much visited. I climbed up the hill behind for a 360' view, then we went to the lighthouse and 'land's end'. The point is also the end of the extension to the pilgrim route on from Santiago de Compostela. So many people do the Camina these days that, to make a statement, you almost have to do the extension and lots of people were there. We were mystified by a notice on a mast that instructed you not to hang clothes on it - in 4 languages. It was explained by a guide, who said that it had become a tradition to burn clothes or other items at the end of the promontory but, after a fire in the undergrowth, this was banned so people started to hang clothes all over the masts, climbing them to do so. Now the burning has been re-instated and we saw a young woman staring so intently at a fire. A great mix of paganism and Christianity!

We had intended to spend the night there but it was my turn to have bad vibes about it, so we made our way to a beach car park beside Fisterra and had a lovely walk along the sand. It did not start to get any cooler till past 8 o'clock!

Thursday 15 September.  The path that separated us from the shore was the one the pilgrims used. Several had already passed by before we had our breakfast and it was hardly light by then! We passed many others – maybe 70 or so - before turning off to drive along the rocky coast to a site near Muros. The site was rather scruffy but had good facilities, including a washing machine, and a very pleasant sandy shore, set amongst rocks, where we read and painted until the sea mist came in late afternoon and it became grey and chilly once more!

The site restaurant had kindly translated the menu into English but we were rather mystified by 'Gluttonies to the chopped garlic' and 'Razors it irons', nor tempted by 'fried haunches of frog', but Andy did fancy 'Tart of apple with sweet of milk'.

Tomorrow we are off southwards round the famous Rias. I have a feeling that it will be a fleeting visit, as we are used to the wilder north and a more settled climate in Portugal calls!

Friday 16 September.  We noticed that the vans on the site were almost all of 2 types: those very large grand jobs, who have difficulty parking because of their size and are seriously expensive, or the rest that are small Volkswagens, many rising roofs or self-converted, with the occupants camping within them.

After we left the site we noticed a well dressed lady walking beside the road, carrying a large basket of grapes on her head.

We enjoyed the Ria de Muros y Nois, where there were many lovely views and bays with secluded beaches. We stopped at Porto do Son for a pleasant stroll. However when we got to Ria de Arousa, it was unpleasant, untidy development all the way, with hardly a glimpse of the sea. We gave the coast one last chance with lunch on the Isla de Arousa, which was more pleasant, then made a dash for the south, past Pontevedra, ending up in Tui on the River Mino – the border with Portugal. The SatNav propelled us into the tiny streets and announced we had reached our destination in the very middle.

We found the correct spot and after a meal we wandered into town. The main street and promenade was packed with people of all ages, drinking beer and coffee and generally taking the air - a really great atmosphere. The children were playing semi-organised games, and there were many things that looked like skateboards, but with each foot operated separately, and wiggled to propel them at speed through the crowds.
 
Saturday 17 September.  We had a morning wander round Tui but virtually no-one was about at 10.00 am and we could not have the coffee we had promised ourselves. The church was amazing with an enormous Baroque organ each side of the choir, the trumpets almost meeting overhead. There were large buttresses across the nave, put into place after the Lisbon earthquake.

We then crossed the Minho into Portugal and visited the vast 17th century fort above the town of Valence do Minho. The real surprise was that it contained a very elegant old town, full of shops, mostly selling linens and baby clothes! Far removed from the usual poor quality at a border, these were pleasant shops and already busy. The fort around it was very well preserved with many V-shaped defences, making the whole complex vast.

We had intended to then go to Ponte de Lima, but read that this was the weekend of a big festival. It would have been most interesting but the chance of finding anywhere to park a large van (or anything) was too daunting! (Think Glastonbury just before the carnival!)

We drove up the Minho with few views of the river and then headed into the mountains and the Peneda National Park, where we camped at Lamas de Mouro. At first we thought the site closed because the gate was firmly shut but eventually it was opened and the lady explained she was keeping out the animals. When we later saw the size of the horns of some of the cows grazing nearby, we understood. We went for a walk in the surrounding countryside - small plantations of pines and many abandoned stone-lined fields, with a backdrop of harsh rock-strewn hillsides.

Back at the site, a very large coach arrived and out poured about 60 people with many very large plastic bags. They proceeded in a very orderly way to construct a tent city. There were all ages, from tiny babies and boys with baseball caps, right up to lots of elderly ladies in black, including several very frail ones on sticks. They all pitched in an orderly way, despite looking most unlikely campers, and within the hour were sitting round large tables eating the contents of the heavy cool boxes.

We are yet to find out why they are all here. The only time we have seen anything like it was our first visit to Croatia, when coaches arrived at a site and disgorged the people from the factories, who staggered down to their ready tents laden with bags and cool boxes for their week by the sea.

As it got dark each group were playing cards and board games.

Sunday18 September.  Our neighbours started to strike camp by 7 o'clock and by 8 most disappeared, leaving the coach and a few stragglers. I then remembered the sanctuary of St Peneda down the road; we found out that lots of pilgrims visited her shrine in September. Most of our neighbours had likely set off to walk down the 6 km, while the coach left to join them at 9.30 am.

I tried unsuccessfully to find the other end of the path to the village, and ended up drawing the lazy river through the trees. On the other side of the river a very large group of people were setting up an enormous BBQ and tables with cloths, perhaps connected to the festival. When we walked past after lunch, accordion players were providing dancing music. I had hoped to paint a large vista but there was a dreadfully cold wind, so we walked to the village where I settled down beside the church. Several ladies passed by wearing black and very encompassing headscarves that covered their foreheads.

Yet again Andy tried to find the route back to the campsite and when I followed an hour later I was also unsuccessful. I went down lots of false paths and made my way back to the road. We have had similar problems before in Iberia, the Pyrenees and the Picos. Maps scarcely exist and are very poorly marked. The trail was the only one from this site and only 4.5 km long, yet we could not follow it! We have come to the conclusion before that the locals simply do not walk, and just come to picnic. What they would make of the Lake District!

The accordions were still playing as I passed and then I saw a fully laden coach, with everyone looking out at a small group very slowly and laboriously folding up table cloths and refilling a box. I got back to find Andy just about to come out and search for me! Tonight we have the site to ourselves and will have to go to the bar to keep the man company!

Monday 19 September.  We drove straight to the Sanctuary of St Peneda - a small flight of stairs copying other shrines and a lovely church, all light and airy, with side altars that had statues with pleasing faces and realistic stances. All quite charming.

We then drove through challenging scenery: rocky hillsides alternating with occasional villages surrounded by very steep terraced fields, a few still in use. Eventually we drove out of the national park and to the town of Ponte de Barca, where we parked by the river. The Riva Lima had an old bridge over it dating from Roman times and also lovely river walks.

We really liked the town, which was pleasant and unspoilt. I was rather touched by a magazine on offer in a café, which had a large picture and said 'Adios Amy' (Winehouse). As I sat sketching the old covered market place, near the traffic lights for the bridge, I could not fail to notice the unending flow of tractors pulling trailers each containing 2 large casks full of grapes. 

Tuesday 20 September.  A very strenuous day! We had wondered about going back into the Peneda National Park and mountains, to seek out a section of Roman road, amongst other things. However, we had been rather put off further walks and were not so inclined to follow more challenging roads, so followed the Lima westerly to Ponte de Lima, a larger town but not as charming as the previous. They were clearing away the lighting from their festival over the weekend but I noticed the total lack of litter, compared with the incredible mess we had seen in Spain. Also most notable is the total lack of graffiti everywhere, whereas Galicia had been very badly scarred; in fact the situation had changed as soon as we had crossed the border.

We had noticed very large queues of tractors and grapes on the approach road and I wanted to see what was happening, so we walked some distance out to find the queue on the ring road, then followed the queue round streets till we found the local co-operative - there must have been a queue of 150+! We saw where a probe tested the grapes, then they were taken along the road and the casks lifted off the trailer and tipped into a vat. We were beckoned in to see the vat tip and the grapes processed along an Archimedes screw onto a conveyor belt and out of sight! The whole operation was very slow and laid back, needing many more hands, so no wonder the queue.

After lunch we drove around the outskirts of Braga (which we visited last time) and drove to the shrine at Bom Jesus. This is the picture you see on many adverts for Portugal (a bit like Gold Hill) and it's one of their top sites. It is a set of Baroque staircases, interlocking V-shapes going up to a church and pilgrimage site at the top. We were surprised and saddened to see that the side chapels on the staircases were in such a poor state and compared them with similar ones we had seen in Italy telling the story of St Francis. When we got to the main staircase the effect was lost to a certain extent, as the vivid white of the walls had turned rather dingy. We were surprised to see such a pivotal attraction in such a bad way.

However, the flowers at the top were lovely and the church more attractive than I had been expecting. We spent the night at the bottom of the flight, with many French vans tightly corralled. 

Wednesday 21 September.  We left early and drove the very few miles to Citania de Briteiros, a Celtic settlement occupied 300 BC-300 AD. The hut circles spread over the hillside and were arranged around clearly defined paved roads. It was frustrating to think how little we know about their life and times, compared with Roman and Greek sites of a similar age or even older.

We then drove another short distance to Guimaraes, a World Heritage site and ancient town that claims to be the cradle of the nation, as the first Portuguese King, Alfonso Henriques, was born here in 1100. We wandered up to the castle where he was allegedly born. It was imposing to look at but inside surprisingly small, with the scariest high walk around the walls - no inner handrail whatsoever. Many people were inching their way around! Including me! There was scarcely room inside for the imposing keep. Looking down we could see that the castle car park would have been the perfect place to park, instead of the struggle we had had.

We then wandered through the town, peeping into doorways, and had lunch in the Prace de Sao Tiago, where I tried Bacchau, the dried cod that is so loved in Spain and Portugal. It was surprisingly tasty and did not taste that far removed from the smoked cod pie I make. After more wandering we made our way back and set off for Porto.

We wanted to get to Porto during the week, as weekend is not a good time to see a city. We also knew that the motorway system presented problems. Some that used to be free have introduced an electronic scheme, whereby you have to pay (at a post office or similar), loading a card with over 50 euros, no refunds, before you go onto the motorway. Even the old ones are very expensive, charging us as lorries. When we fed Porto into Sally SatNav she spent all her time taking us onto what we thought were paying motorways and we did not have the card. We could not see a way across Port, except by one bridge, that did not involve a motorway, though we might have been wrong. We had no way of knowing. Imagine driving through Bristol or Manchester and having to locate a single bridge right in the middle of the busiest part, high above the river itself!

We did ask at a taxi rank at one spot, and could not even find the campsite on the right side of the river. We got there eventually and collapsed. 

Thursday 22 September.  We caught the bus easily outside the campsite and reached the city centre in about 45 minutes, driving through some of the narrowest streets imaginable - sometimes we barely had 1inch each side, with stone walls. We visited the main station, with a most amazing set of 1920 tiles telling of historical events, including when the Portuguese King took an English bride - Philippa of Lancaster – and the ground was strewn with Lancastrian roses. There were also other pivotal moments, as well as agricultural and vineyard scenes in great detail. We wandered across the top level of the Eiffel-type bridge, looking way down on the river and the lodges and barges, Andy sticking to the inside of the bridge, then along the old water front where we had lunch. It is much easier here with everything translated into English as an automatic second language. All the architecture is decorated with tiles or sculptures and it is a shame that so many are in a bad way, or even derelict behind a façade. However, there are also very grand buildings, as was the Palacio de Bolsa, really a 19th century business exchange, which includes the most extravagant and brilliant ballroom fashioned in the style of the Alhambra Palace.

We were to find more about wine at an exhibition and a tasting. When we asked about the co-op and the small farmers, we were told the co-op would make and market the wine and were shown an appropriate bottle - so the hunt is on for some that we can afford!

Friday 23 September.  Madeleina Campisimo. We caught the 9.15 am bus into Porto and got off at the port lodges on the southern water front, at Vila Nova de Gaia. After some difficulty finding it, we visited the Taylor's lodge - the only totally English one, not taken over and still family-owned - and learnt a great deal about port! We were taken on to the caves where the port was stored, with barrels from the medium-sized, for the tawny expensive ports, to vast ones, where the late vintage bottles were kept! It was very interesting indeed, though rather a lot of it was way out of our price range. However we were able to identify we could afford and enjoy a late bottled vintage port for a special occasion, and chip dry would be a reasonably affordable aperitif.

The lodges belong to a wide variety of names, many of them familiar - Sandeman, Crofts and Cockburns. Until the 1980's the port had to be matured here to be called port, and most still are, so the caves are very extensive indeed. On the waterfront were the barques that used to carry the wine downstream; the railway superseded this; now the wine is moved by tanker. All round the town are explanatory boards, all in Portuguese and English, which really is the second language. Evidence of the English influence is everywhere, due to the port trade.

We then wandered over the lower level of the Infante Henrique/Eiffel Bridge to the other side of the river, then up on the modern cable car to save our knees - Porto is just full of very steep hills. We wandered round the shopping centre for a while, then sought out Liveria Lello, an art deco book shop that is more like a gentleman's club than a book shop, with an extravagant wooden decorated interior and an amazing convoluted staircase. I wandered on to the Igreja de Sta Clara I had been trying to see - chockablock with gold painted woodwork that had become tired with years of candle smoke, but would be almost impossible to re-decorate today - and then investigated trains for the bit of the Duero (Douro River) that it is impossible to see by road. 

We had a big toss up whether to use the washing machine and tumble drier, which cost far more than I am used to paying. As I don't know when we will find another campsite, we paid up - then got the washing trapped in the machine after the Reception had closed!

Saturday 24 September.  We left the campsite and aimed for the Douro, using the compass rather than anything else to get us out of Porto and the clutches of the motorways. We safely reached its banks and had coffee at Melres, overlooking the river, under a cork oak. Several day cruise boats came past but there appears to be little commercial traffic, apart from a coaster we saw near a pile of gravel later. We ambled on, sometimes high above the river, at other times crossing it, till at 2.30 pm we came upon an ideal spot, a short quiet esplanade at Pita, just North of Ribadouro. We had a very pleasant afternoon, reading and painting. At supper time a man led a flock of goats and sheep past and back again, and I have just seen a kingfisher!

Sunday 25 September.  We left our idyllic spot in bright sunshine and wandered on beside the Douro, stopping before Resende for coffee at a small jetty beside a small spa. I had seen several large concrete containers, roofed, which I surmised had been used for washing. The one here was being used by an energetic lady, the water being constantly refreshed by a flowing tap. It was not till later that I felt it and nearly burnt my hand: the water was 62º and too hot to put my hand into the tub.

We had a lovely coffee beside the river, noticing the train that ran right at the water's edge on the opposite shore, built for delivering the grapes to Porto. The high water marks in years gone by showed problems the river has caused. About 100 Lambrettas or similar drove past in convoy. We drove on, right above the river. The scenery changed quite suddenly from wooded hillside to never ending terraces and vines. It was difficult to find somewhere to stop for lunch.

We then turned inland to Lamego, high above the river, and after a search parked ourselves at the foot of another staircase - a copy of Bom Jesus but rather pretty, with blue and white tiles. A wander around the town, with lots of gardens and statues, was very pleasant; it was quite hot! Amusing how throughout Portugal we have seen so many branches of Barclays Bank, looking just like the ones at home. I then found a tourist shop that stocked china that looks very much like a cabbage (!) and remembered with great affection my grandmother's cucumber dish that used to come out every Xmas, now owned by Auntie Dorothy. I was really delighted to buy a very similar one. I was not tempted by the one designed for use for the cabbage soup that is on every menu here.

I attempted a very impressionist picture of a bit of the staircase - really difficult to do realistically, as it was so detailed - whilst many people climbed it and ignored me! It would appear that this town is somewhere the cruise ship customers come, and the locals for a Sunday afternoon stroll. By 7.30 pm all was quiet.

Monday 26 September.  By 9 o'clock we were up the top of the staircase in the sunshine - 606 steps. I had read a description of these staircases as being like a lobster's claws and cannot think of a better description. The Igreja de Nossa Senhora dos Renedios was lovely and airy inside, with a Wedgwood blue ceiling. The most attractive churches we have seen have all been at the sanctuaries. We did some shopping then, after noticing yet another communist poster – PCP - which we cannot decipher, we drove on. Odd to see the hammer and sickle so frequently.

We drove along the Douro  to Marco de Canaveses, where we were pleased to find GPL, which we need for cooking and heating water but is in short supply in Portugal. Then on to Amarante, where Sally SatNav took us across the historical Ponte de Sao Goncalo, before asking for an impossible 90º turn into a tiny gap between the church and the final pillar of the bridge. We ended up driving instead through the pedestrian precinct (not the first one!)

Eventually we found the parking beside the river and explored the town. I was rather disappointed, although the tiny area around the church was pleasant. A burnt out shell of a mansion is a reminder of the 'French fortnight' in 1809, when the retreating Napoleonic army held the town one side of the river until they were driven out. A large number of the shops were either very cheap shoe shops or very expensive baby shops - a frock for a one-year-old for 50 euros not unusual.

As we drive through Portugal we cannot help noticing the plant that looks very like bindweed and is clothing waste areas with attractive bluebell-coloured bell flowers. Also lots of topiary, especially low hedges of box in a pattern, and loads of fountains - a heritage from the Moors.

Tuesday 27 September.  We left Aramente after servicing Tilly in the facilities for the market, then drove over the mountains and along the Douro once more to Pinhao, which is right in the middle of the region producing wine for port. The whole area has World Heritage status, to protect what are said to be the most perfect conditions for vines. After lunch on the quayside we decided to take a boat trip up river to Tua, in a barco rabelo, a craft that was traditionally used to carry the wine downstream. We were very lucky indeed to choose one driven by a local, who was passionate about the river and its surroundings. 

He explained that there were three ways of planting the vines: on wall-lined terraces, modern ones with earth banks, and also those on lesser slopes down the land. The soil was formed of schist and the climate ideal, with hot summers and cold winters but without snow. Right by the river is not the best situation. The terraces need to be maintained to keep the look of the land but many have become derelict, since phylloxera devastated the vines, so now a licence is required to replant, to keep up the standards. I wondered why there was woodland in such a sought after area but he explained this was vital to maintain the delicate eco-structure. He said that this summer had been quite cool but now it was unseasonably warm.

The views from the boat were superb all the way. Many of the quintas had names we recognised from the caves in Porto. We got back to the van to find a very large cruise ship had tied up, denying us our great view and, more importantly, the breeze from the river! There is a bar with internet a few steps along the quay that we will visit this evening. Tomorrow we hope to catch the train, which will take us further up the Douro, as ºthere are no roads after this town that follow the river.

Wednesday 28 September.  Not a quiet night –with the cruise ship and bar nearby - and rain (the first they had had)! The rain made it not worth taking the train trip, as we would not have seen much. So we decided to visit the vineyard we had heard about in Porto.

Start of trauma! Access to the quay was a steep cobbled narrow street round a blind bend under a bridge. We got round the bend and almost up onto the main street but then could go no further. Every time Andy tried to move the van forward it slid and skidded backward towards a wall! Eventually and very slowly we got the van back round the bend and backed it round another corner and back down to the quay once more. The only way out was to wait for it to dry or go through a pedestrian part of the road, secured by a chain - which eventually we did. (Are you noticing a pattern?) We also noticed an easier place to return to. We were warned by the owner of yesterday's boat trip that the roads would be especially dangerous after the first rains, so agreed not to go far.

The final approach to the Quinta do Panascal was also up cobbles, so we parked at the bottom and walked up. We had an audio guide around the vineyard (which claimed to be Grade 1), reinforcing what we had already been told, and enjoyed the port tasting. The workers were cleaning up after the picking, which in this vineyard had finished. We decided that we would do some shopping, and we found one of the estate workers to take us down with our boxes to the van. I was glad not to walk down the slippery road. We are so impressed that people are so willing to help and sort out problems; nothing is too much trouble.

We had a short scenic drive above the Douro, with vines as far as the eye could see, and then returned to Pinhao to sit on the accessible side of the quay.

Thursday 29 September.  A quiet night until the bar decided to play the Rolling Stones at extra volume at 3am! We were very impressed about the quality of the amplification but could have done without it! The day dawned clear and warm, and rapidly became hot. We caught the 9.45 am train from the attractive station but were disappointed by the dirty train windows!

The line is wide gauge, measuring about 6 ft outside the rails – if that's how you measure the gauge of railways? Despite the dirt, the views were spectacular. How the large cruise ships navigate through such narrow rock-strewn gorges I cannot imagine. Even when the river is wide, the navigable channel is often narrow.

The train is replaced with a steam train on Saturdays in summer, but unfortunately in places has caused quite extensive fires. It's hard to see how it can continue, with valuable vines nearby.

After an hour we reached the end of the line at Pocinho. The line used to continue into Spain and connect further afield but sadly no longer. We were very surprised that there was almost nothing at Pocinho apart from the station, a few houses and a bar. Andy bought an ice cream, which was disappointing - the whole thing like something Bill Bryson might describe. We did spot a very rusty steam engine, which we investigated. As we waited to get on the train, a lady washed the cab windscreen. Andy asked if she might wash a window or two, so she offered him the sponge and someone rinsed it with a hose, so we at least had clean windows for the trip back.

Walking back through Pinhao I felt really surprised at how shabby the town was, despite being surrounded with wealthy vineyards and a steady procession of cruise ships: 2 tied up again last night.  There are derelict buildings just behind the pleasant quay.

I had a turn when I approached the van. I knew Andy was behind me, yet I could see the van door open, despite our having doubly secured it. It was not until I got closer that I could see it was another Rapido parked in front of ours!

After lunch we set off, climbing up the hills, then running very high indeed above the Douro. We visited St Joao Pesquaira, a very clean and prosperous town surrounded by vines and with an impressive 17th century centre, loads of green space and fountains. We then left the area. I shall miss the predictable but amazing scenery of vines as far as the eye can see, a real patchwork; also the all pervading smell of wine that suddenly hits you, even when you can see no cause.

We then drove SW on the N102, then N17 towards Coimbra, and were doing really well till we were almost there, when we met loads of traffic and were diverted onto a small road, following an accident on the motorway. It was getting late then to tackle Coimbra, so we settled at an Aire at Lorvao, only 10 miles short.

Friday 30 September.  We were up early to service the van and try to buy bread in the village, which was a very poor place. It was difficult to identify shops with dark interiors behind curtains. Lots of bars also appeared to sell a very few groceries and a patisserie turned out to be another café, but found me 4 rolls. The only other shops I saw were hairdressers and the inevitable posh pharmacy. I can assume the Portuguese are as worried about their health as the French.  

We drove the few miles to Coimbra along an attractive river valley, after a major shop up at Pingo Doce. We found the Aire without too much difficulty, an impressive spacious area with access to the town over a new footbridge. We climbed up to the university area, where I was surprised how little of it was old, with so much in the 'Plymouth concrete 50's commercial' style.

However, the old quadrangle was impressive and we went into the Bibliotheca Joanina: 3 very rich rooms, early 18th century, with a mass of designs and gilt pillars, tables inlaid with precious woods, and elaborate book cases floor to ceiling. There were lots of little doors that led into tiny rooms with a window on the world, a desk and chair, that looked really cosy.

We wandered down the hill past the old and new cathedrals, then along a wide shopping street, stopping at last in a lovely square, Praca 8 de Maio, overlooked by a wonderful café, Café Santa Cruz, with tables outside for watching the world go by and inside a vaulted annex of the church next door, leather tables and atmosphere. Andy caught up with the Internet while

I drew a picture, and then went next door to the Mosteiro de Santa Cruz, a lovely 16th century church. Some of the things I wanted to see were under wraps, as the floor was being relaid, but I could see the ornate tombs of the first Portuguese kings and the wonderful tiles that line the walls. In the cloister the Manueline details had largely been lost, due to being carved in soft stone.

I love Manueline architecture - 'all twistification' was how it had been described - ropes and shells, flowers and twisted stone. (William Beckford of Fonthill - he built a short-lived very grand house near Shaftesbury, of which only an arch remains. I'm reading Rose Macaulay's 'They went to Portugal'. It's interesting that everyone used to depart from Falmouth to sail to Portugal.)

We then wandered round the small shopping streets, full of most interesting shops. Andy found an amazing hardware shop and I found what is probably the best dress fabric shop I have ever been in! In one department there were hundreds of different types and sizes of gingham, etc etc. We took part in a survey, obviously by freshers getting to know their course and city! Coimbra rates as possibly the nicest town we have found in Portugal.

Saturday 1 October.  Before leaving Coimbra, Andy met Henrique, a fellow motorhomer, who told us of a new Portuguese federation that was committed to getting more Aires, and assured us they were being created weekly!

We had an easy trip 50miles south to Batalha - Battle Abbey - created after a promise made by Joao. He beat Juan of Castile at the Battle of Aljubarrota for the crown of Portugal, stopping it falling into Castilian hands against invincible odds. Henrique likened it to the Battle of Agincourt. Apparently the 6,000 Portuguese were on a hill and the 100 experienced English archers were deployed behind them. The French cavalry failed in their charge and had to demount, and when the Castilian standard-bearer was killed they thought the king was dead too and ran away - similar to the Battle of Hastings. “The French cavalry contingent suffered yet another defeat (after Crécy and Poitiers) by English defensive tactics. The battle of Agincourt decades later would show that they still had a lesson to learn.” Wikipedia.

This was on my 'must do' list. The main church and Founder's Chapel were completed in Flamboyant Gothic style but much embellished with Manueline decoration in the 15th and 16th centuries. The plain church is narrow and unbelievably high, warmed by modern stained glass. Next to the entrance is the founder's chapel, much decorated; in the middle lay Joao I, holding hands with Philippa of Lancaster; around the edges are their 4 sons, including Henry the Navigator! The Royal Cloisters take your breath away, with every arch a tangle of stone and leaves. Off this is the Chapter House, which also houses the tomb of the Unknown Warrior, guarded and with a light of Portuguese olive oil always burning. The ceiling is a vast 19m unsupported vault, and was considered so dangerous that only condemned prisoners worked on it!

The Unfinished Chapels at the end are perhaps the most amazing. They were commissioned by Dom Duarte, Joao's eldest son. There is an octagon with the most amazing decorated doorway ever - endless vastly decorated pillars, leaves, thistles, ivy flowers. Above, the work continues upward, very detailed, and then suddenly comes to a full stop; interest suddenly went elsewhere!

I wandered back to the Founder's Chapel and settled down to draw. Very complicated! After about 1½ hours I heard the most amazing music, eventually getting up to check – yes, it was live! Then I saw the flowers and realised they were getting ready for a wedding. I went back to my painting but began to worry they would clear the church and lock me in the chapel! So I moved into the body of the church and drew there, waiting for the order to move. The music was just amazing - a choir of 30, conductor, orchestra of 6 and organ, playing Ave Maria, Handel's Hallelujah Chorus, etc. The photographer arrived, then the guests (not very dressed up at all) and the red carpet was rolled out - then suddenly the Wedding March and the bride and father walking down the aisle. I hastily stood up and then carried on painting while the wedding proceeded at the front. People continued to come in and wander round as usual! You can have your wedding there but don't expect everything to stop! Music amazing.

Eventually I left to find Andy, outside photographing the front in better light, taking hundreds of pics. Then we went back for dinner. Still hot at 8 pm as I write this! Later we sat outside a café on the square looking at the floodlit Abbey with the moon behind.

It is very surprising that a country which was able to produce such splendours, founded the very early university and discovered such a lot of the world should, by the late 20th century, be in such a state. There was only four years of compulsory education before the Revolution, seldom enforced. We noticed before that most of the schools seem to be built to a 1970's pattern. I'm really seeing the lack of interest, as people walk round their national treasures and I sit in a corner drawing. 

Sunday 2 October.  Another lovely day. We went out after breakfast to catch the Abbey with early light, then I stopped in the Royal Cloister to sketch whilst Andy uploaded more pics. It took over an hour just to draw one Manueline pillar; I usually tackle a whole church! There was an excellent market of fruit and veg: we are buying it faster than we can eat it but it is all so tempting.

We then drove 20 miles to St Pedro de Moel and parked on a headland. An endless sandy beach stretched before us, backed by sandy cliffs and pine forest, and a lighthouse and rocky cliffs behind us to the south. We spent the afternoon wandering along the beach and occasionally paddling. The sea was very cold and the waves, especially the undertow, were very strong indeed. Nobody was swimming, just standing in the sea. I found it quite hard to stand at times.

Monday 3 October.  We spent the day wandering down the coast, visiting a variety of beaches. We stopped at a lighthouse and looked down on Nazare - too built-up for us, so we avoided it. We then drove along a wonderful ridge, sea on one side, with windmills in a steady line - sadly only one had arms. Their shape was reminiscent of Martello towers. We finally stopped at Sao Martinho do Porto, a small resort in a perfect bay. We had a dune walk to our left, which led to a river estuary; to our right was the town, along an impressive promenade. The town had allowed several soulless blocks to be built, which was a shame, as the town was quite pleasant.

Tuesday 4 October.  We drove to Alcobaca to visit the medieval Cistercian monastery, founded in 1153 and Portugal's largest church. The whole complex is vast. The church is very simple indeed, soaring pillars and a long nave. The highlights are the beautiful and very richly decorated tombs of Dom Pedro and Dona Ines, who face each other from the S and N transepts, so that on the Day of Judgement the first thing Pedro will see is his beloved. The story is as well known as Romeo and Juliet in Portugal, and crowds flock to see their tombs. Don't read the story below unless you can cope with the gruesome:

Dom Pedro fell in love with his wife's Galician lady-in-waiting, Dona Ines de Castro. Even after his wife's death he was forbidden to marry Dona Ines, because of her Spanish family's influence. However, they lived together in Coimbra and had 4 children. Various suspicious nobles continued to pressure the King and he sanctioned Dona Ines' murder in 1355, unaware that the two had married in secret.

Two years later, when Pedro succeeded to the throne, he exacted revenge by ripping out the hearts of the murderers. He then exhumed and crowned his wife's body and made the court pay homage by kissing her hand. Details of the story are illustrated on the Wheel of Fortune on Dom Pedro's grave, as well as their life together. Dona Ines is portrayed as a queen, with an equally elaborate grave.

There is a lovely cloister with delicate carvings and a kitchen, which has a river that was diverted to run through and a most enormous chimney. For all its size, the church lacked the atmosphere of Batalha, but it was great to see the tombs as I've known the story for a long time.

Unhappy with the parking at Alcobaca, we then drove on to Obidos for a late lunch. Obidos is a very pretty and rather touristy hilltop town, which still has complete walls and a very impressive 16th century aqueduct, which we parked beside. The town used to be by the sea until the bay silted up. There are half a dozen cobbled streets; the houses are white, edged with blue or yellow. The main church of Santa Maria is built on the site of a Visigoth temple that was later a mosque. The whole town has a very Moorish feel. During the evening, when everyone else had gone, it felt very atmospheric.

Wednesday 5 October.  National Holiday in Portugal - Republica Day. We needed to do some washing, so drove the short distance to Peniche, a rather scruffy town as far as we could see. We did pass one campsite that looked too awful for words, on a windswept wasteland next to hoardings and factories, full with statics and motorcaravans everywhere. The site we found was near a large sardine-canning factory but was right on the rugged coast. We did get the washing done - more expensive than ever but I prefer not to hand-wash towels and sheets if I can avoid it. I thought the sea breeze would soon dry it but it was too moisture-laden to be that effective.

I had a wander in the afternoon to the nearby lighthouse, across very interesting rocks. They clearly showed the strata, which had eroded at different rates to give fantastic stacks. Some places showed chasms caused by circular water erosion, but were high above the sea. The lighthouse area was really crowded, real Bank Holiday stuff. On the way back I called in at a tiny village on two opposite sides of a square, with a church on one side of it. The church was tiny and almost underground, with a barrel roof and totally covered with blue tiles telling many stories. I wondered if it had once been a mosque because there was a garden before the entrance. Very atmospheric.

I had a dip in the hotel pool and we ate outside before retreating inside, as it got chilly. There are more UK campervans here than we have seen in all of Portugal.

Thursday 6 October.  A very restless night due to the incessant wind and the sea crashing into the cliffs below us. There was much amusement at the security at the campsite, which necessitated using a card to leave, or even to reach the reception to ask a question - such as 'why does my card not work?' There was general international puzzlement, as everyone did not bring their card, or did not understand the system, and everyone routinely ducked under the barrier. Why was it necessary, when for the rest of the time we have been safely wild- camping along with 95% of the rest of the vans in Portugal?

We drove to Obidos, where I had a couple of happy sessions sketching. I climbed onto the walls above the gate and settled there to draw a detailed picture of the town. I had to steel my nerve, as the parapet was only calf high, and I had the steep stairs back down to look forward to. After lunch I could not decide what to do - either the light was wrong, there was nowhere to sit or I was in the way. Eventually I settled for the gate into the Pasada, which was once a Moorish castle and had been turned into a defended palace by Dom Dinis.

At Foz do Arelho (river mouth) there was a large bay and sand bar, where people were wind-surfing and making spectacular jumps into the air! We drove back to Sao Martinho do Porto with the intention of spending the night but the wind was equally strong there, so we made our way back to Batalha, which we both love.

Friday 7 October.  Had a lovely time at Batalha, wandering about and sketching. It was a real wrench to leave at 3 o'clock when we drove to Tomar, a short distance. We had read that there was an Aire at the Monastery, the reason for visiting, but when we got there the tiny car park was chaos and the car park down the hill roped off for a fun fair. Eventually we went to the municipal campsite, close to the town centre, and easily the nicest site we have been to this holiday. Signing in was the usual palaver - the lady had great trouble filling in every detail about me onto her computer and kept sighing about the long address! Why she needed my date of birth, I have no idea!

I have been looking further into literacy in Portugal. Whilst today's education system has very similar standards and aspirations to ours, in 1995 a report found that 47% of Portuguese people aged between 15 and 64 had little or no ability to read or do sums. Today the basic literacy rate of the Portuguese population is 93%; however the functional literacy is still amongst the lowest in Europe. According to official sources in 2007, 64% of the population had never read a single book; within the population component that is functionally literate, only 17.9% read more than two books in one year. I suppose being a teacher makes it seem so interesting. The price of books cannot help, as they appear to be at least 50% higher than at home! The literacy problem might go some way to explaining their economic plight - as a people, they seem so very hard-working.

Saturday 8 October.  We spent the morning wandering around Tomar, a very pleasant town with lovely old streets. We arrived a bit early at 9.30 am, when few of the shops were open, but the town slowly came to life. They also have the best-preserved medieval synagogue, only used for a few years before the expulsion of the Jews. As usual, I was struck by the similarity in style to a mosque - square with impressive pillars.

In the afternoon we walked up through the gardens to the Convento de Cristo at the top of the hill - you don't get anywhere in Portugal without walking up a hill! The building was founded by the Knights Templar, who in Portugal were tasked with clearing the country for the Moors.

When the job was largely done and they had become very rich and powerful, they were suppressed throughout Europe. However, Dom Dinis saw the advantages and refounded the order as the Order of Christ. His son, Henry the Navigator, became the Grand Master and used the immense wealth to fund the Age of Discoveries. Successive kings turned the castle into a vast Abbey - I have never seen so many cloisters, two decorated in blue tiles whilst another has Renaissance decoration and secret staircases at the corners. One highlight is the tiny Knights Templar original church, a richly decorated Charola, 16-sided and based on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It has been incorporated into the main church. The other highlight is an amazing Manueline window, which includes tangled ropes and floats, seaweed and coral topped with royal insignia. The stonework is not as crisp, however, as Batalha and some moss has crept in.

We made our way cautiously back down the steep gravel path to the site, which certainly boasts a very international range of customers, almost all with vans of a similar size to ours. Weather has been really super today - lovely and warm but occasionally a fresh breeze, and cooler in the mornings.

Sunday 9 October.  We drove out of the Ribatejo and into Alentajo, and instantly the scenery seemed to change; everything became more Mediterranean, the ground more barren with large rocks and olive trees, and the houses even whiter!

We reached our destination of Castelo de Vide by 11.30 am and went for a walk, thinking the town was going to be pleasant but small. How wrong I was - there was so much to see! We climbed up the hill through tiny streets, about 19th century, of pretty white houses, then climbed further towards the castle, which we clambered around and enjoyed the extensive views.

There was a museum about the monoliths to be found locally and giving the wider picture, including Stonehenge. Then there was a wonderful tiny medieval town within the walls, totally unspoilt. At one point we felt we were walking through someone's garden, there were so many pots and seats.

We wandered down the hill to the 18/19th century town, with pleasant well kept squares. We had lunch at the 'Sol Nascente', with a most energetic host; at one point his elderly father looked out through the shutters to check business! After a cup of tea back at the van I went out for a further explore and found a 15th century fountain that boasted health-promoting waters. Then, up an exceptionally steep hill under the castle, I found the old Jewish quarter, filled with very ancient houses and tiny stone Gothic doorways. We are so impressed with this lovely place: so much to enjoy and such a lovely atmosphere, and not in the slightest bit touristy.

Monday 10 October.  We had one last wander around Castelo; it's very difficult to get the light right in lots of the streets. We then had a last Portuguese shop up at Pingo Doce, which appears to be a sort of Waitrose. We drove the short distance to Marvao, a walled village set on a mountaintop. This is much more visited but still was unspoilt and not full of the gift shops we found at Obidos. The castle was most impressive and quite extensive, with incredible drops from the walls and no inside guard to the walkways around, so it took some nerve to walk about! The views were all very far reaching, far into Spain - easy to see why it had been such a good defensive position.

Re-entering Spain

We then drove over the non-existent border into Extremadura and a very barren landscape: just rocks, olives and scrub with few signs of habitation. Caceres stood as a large city in the middle of this wilderness, then as we drove along the Tajo valley there were dams and reservoirs and there were mountains ranges on each side. (This river becomes the Tagus and flows out through Lisbon. Water is set to become a big issue between Spain and Portugal.) The landscape looks so deserted to us, as everyone lives in large towns so there are no homesteads or even villages to add interest. However, Sally SatNav has been adding a bit of variety by saying left when her map is clearly right, several times!

We arrived at Lagartera, almost the only Aire in the vast middle of Spain. We are here with 2 other Spanish Rapidos. I did wander up into the town during the evening, and eventually found an older core, but the place really lacked charm. I could only feel sorry for some youths who made a racket behind us at some unearthly hour - at least I was moving on in the morning!

I have just realised that we have seen very little graffiti since re-entering Spain. Galicia was full of it, really unpleasant, and the fact that it stopped dead when we entered Portugal was really noticeable.

Tuesday 11 October.  We drove through quite a bit of rather uninspiring countryside, alternating with areas with coloured earths and then low ranges of hills. There were many adobe buildings falling to pieces. We stopped in Toledo for a brief look round - a shame to drive straight past such a sight of interest, when parking was very easy on vast tracks of wasteland below the old town.

There was an impressive flight of escalators to whisk everyone up the hill - most useful as I think my knees have had just about enough staircases for the time being!

The town was chockablock with old churches and palaces but, as time was limited and we have seen so much, I limited myself to just a wander around the streets. I was surprised how much traffic was trying to move in the impossibly narrow streets (it would have helped if everyone had sensibly sized cars). This also made it difficult to see the impressive buildings, as the town never widened out into the squares I was expecting, or perhaps we did not visit the right places. There was much Moorish influence in the town's architecture, unsurprising with the history.

We then drove on past Cuenca and up into the mountains behind. The Rio De Jucar had carved out the most spectacular canyon. I have never seen such cliffs, with multi-coloured layers. We overnighted up a small road after the village of Una. Loads of lovely trees, many with autumn colours, but still brilliant blue sky. I saw 2 deer as I left the van for a stroll, and heard a stag rutting. The smell of Mediterranean pines was lovely.

Wednesday 12 October.  Spanish holiday - National Day, Armed Forces and Columbus Day, also a religious holiday. It was so cold this morning that we had the heating on; mid- morning this changed to air conditioning!

We had a lovely drive over the Montes Universals: loads of canyons and rock formations and, best of all, brilliant autumn colours set against dark pine trees. Every valley was full of these (aspen?) trees. We stopped by a waterfall, then again at Albarracin, a walled village set high amongst the rocks and coloured wonderful shades of warm red. It had been part of an independent Moorish kingdom for over 100 years, ruled over by a Berber dynasty. (Interesting to think that it is being suggested that the Berbers may be being paid to look after Gaddafi in the desert!) When re-conquered it became an independent Christian city, and only became part of Aragon in the 1300's.

I have never been in such a medieval town, every street was perfect. I kept waiting for a Shakespeare play to begin. The balconies met over our heads and, despite the holiday crowds, it kept its atmosphere. A really amazing place and not overtly touristy - in fact I could not find a postcard to buy! Hope all the pictures give the atmosphere!

We drove past Teruel onto a plain, with more trees in the river valley beside us. Sometimes the scenery was harsh and almost desert like but with multi-coloured rocks, at other times there were unused terraces or wheat fields, then a mining area around Escucha with mines - coal and other minerals - still in use. The railway that had served the area was no longer in existence and there were sad, roofless but substantial buildings at regular intervals. We found a quiet spot for the night beside the Calanda reservoir. As I settled down to knit we could clearly hear tiny hooves just outside the door - two deer must have been looking in!

Thursday 13 October.  After a very peaceful night, apart from some distant fireworks, we set off in good time. After some more impressive rock formation, alternating with olive trees and ploughed fields, we came to a flatter and more boring area around Llieda with many industrial units. We could not visit the Aire to empty and stock up near Llieda, as it was on a toll motorway heading to Barcelona!

We gradually made our way upwards into the Pyrenees and the countryside became lovely again, with autumn colours once more set off by rocks and dark pines, not to mention bright sunshine. We took a side valley, the Val de Bois, and drove to the end by late lunchtime, followed by a walk up the valley: more colour to admire. The Calde de Bois has a hot spring, and a pleasant park, with a gravity fed fountain and open-air baths, but no times given for opening. We picked up our Internet from a bar in Blarrula. Tomorrow France, all being well.

Into France

Friday 14 October.  We overslept a bit and spent the rest of the day catching up. The journey through the Veilha Tunnel and down the other side was very easy indeed. The Val d'Aran is interesting because it is on the French side but belongs to Spain, although they traditionally speak Langue D'oc - the old South French language. The buildings were more reminiscent of the Alps than Spain or France. The journey around Toulouse was trying, with endless roads of retail outlets and industrial parks.

We had hoped to stop at Cahors to explore but the 3 allocated places were already taken so, in lots of traffic, we drove on and chanced upon an Aire at the little village of Arcambul, near the River Lot.

I can report that the boulangerie opens at 7.30 am, a lot earlier than Spain; the library opens 2 afternoons a week; but the post office closes for good on 11 November. Around the church there are interesting old farmhouses; part of the upper floor has no outside wall on one side, making a vast cool veranda for outside living in summer. We are parked behind the new Mairie adjacent to the sports area, which includes pitches for most sports and a large floodlit football pitch. All this in a small village. We were much amused by two people struggling to get their large dogs under a fence, especially when the woman demonstrated what they had to do! Left to their own devices, the dogs just stepped through!

Saturday 15 October.  We left Arcambul and followed the Lot valley: lots of cliffs and lovely trees to St Cirq-Lapopie, a preserved village perched high above the river. The village used to control traffic in the area, and was an important centre. I spent a happy hour painting while Andy took pictures and checked his emails. As we drove on we had to do an emergency stop to avoid a baby red squirrel!

We drove north via Figeac and Aurillac and into the Auvergne. We spent the night at Super Lioran, a small scale ski resort set in the crater of an extinct (I hope) volcano. Lovely autumn colours everywhere. Very cold indeed morning and evening - tonight I have had to resort to full-length trousers at last.

Sunday 16 October.  It was so cold this morning, there was ample frost on the ground and ice on the windscreen. We spent the day toddling about the Auvergne, looking at lots of volcanic plugs, autumn colours and generally loads of views and scenery. Most of our travels were about Chastreix, La Bourboule, where the Aire proved to be up a mountain and beside an abandoned hotel so we didn't stop, and Super Besse, another ski resort but with super views where we spent the night. We did come to this area about 22 years ago but would like to return, as this and the Lot valley are most spectacular.

Monday 17 October.  Andy got up in the night to put on the heating, as he was worried about the water heater freezing, as well as us! We let Sally SatNav take us up through France - she chose the N9 and N7, which was direct and quite well used, with lots of camper vans heading south! We were stopped at a roundabout at Riom by a protest - red banners reading PCE. We could not make out the details, despite lots of shouting. Outside Gannat a white car really upset a lorry and repeatedly did quick stops in front of him. Eventually there was almost a standoff when the lorry driver got out at a roundabout; we were glad when they both turned off. We passed a charming roundabout with a large dinosaur made of cacti and similar plants.

We eventually stopped at Briene, beside a canal and near the Loire, rather further than intended. However, this place was a real find, lovely setting and almost adjacent was an impressive aqueduct - the Pont Canal de Briene. The original canal linked the Loire to the Seine and was started in 1642. However, the bridge crossing the Loire and extension was completed in 1894 (rather late, I felt) to provide a reliable waterway, as the Loire was difficult. It is made of metal throughout and is the longest metal aqueduct in Europe at 670 metres. Each end has an impressive entrance, with ornate pillars and lights, and the whole thing looks great lit up at night!

We are noticing lots of empty shops in France and especially lots of restaurants for sale.

Tuesday 18 October.  After another admire of the aqueduct in morning sunshine, we drove north on the N7 and it gradually got greyer and greyer. One roundabout had enormous flowerpots about 4 feet high, full of large plants. We looked at an Aire at Souppes sur Loing; the setting was pleasant beside the canal but the town also rather grey, so we decided to carry on. We have always given Paris a very wide berth and gone to the east. However Sally SatNav took us to Fontainebleau, through lovely woods and past a monument to Napoleon I - you don't often see him referred to as that - and then on easy motorways and quite close to the city centre, about 3 miles, and we were round in no time. We then headed for Rouen but discovered a pleasant little Aire at Pont de l'Arche a few miles south. The town was very pleasant with lots of timber-framed Normandy buildings and a very ornate parish church. Inside was quite plain but they still had the box pews, complete with latches and keyholes. I don't remember having seen provision for locks before!

Wednesday 19 October.  We tried to visit Rouen as we passed but could not find the Aire. We did however locate a very large Carrefours and did a shop-up. Useful not to have to go shopping as soon as we got home. We then drove through attractive Normandy countryside to Boulogne. We parked on the quay for a cup of tea, as well as loads of people to watch. We were most impressed by a unicyclist nonchalantly texting on his mobile phone! The Aire was some way out on the road towards Calais, which suited us well. This Aire was attractively set out in small areas; we chose the one occupied by three other vans. We were therefore very amused by a dozen French vans that shoe-horned their way into the same small area.

Why they did not choose an empty bay, or divide into 2 adjacent ones I have no idea. The coast was adjacent to the Aire and above us was a large Second World War defence, as well as defences built into the cliffs below us. However, the most amazing thing was how clearly we could see England. The white cliffs were so bright and clear, and the view made England seem far less than 20 miles.

Thursday 20 October.  It was an easy drive to the ferry and Calais. Once again the English coast was very clear: we could see both coasts all the way across, most unusual. We were very pleased to be travelling on the westward M3, as the eastbound traffic was diverted in 2 places. In one there was an awful accident, and I doubt if the road would be open for the rush hour!

Home to the news that the village pub is re-opening tonight!

Final Thoughts

We really enjoyed Portugal - it somehow feels very comfortable for the British. The climate is largely ideal, loads to see and do throughout the country, lots of variety. Feels very 'safe'- not that we have often felt unsafe!

Next time we would probably catch the ferry to Spain, to give us more time travelling at our destination.

Loads of recycling everywhere in Portugal; much less in Spain.

Loads of new Aires are being created in Portugal, making it ideal for motor caravans.

Motorways are a nightmare in Portugal - some have always been toll roads, others have just been made so and require a special electronic card only available from post offices etc! We tried to avoid them, despite our SatNav not knowing and so sending us on to them!

Most Spanish roads across the middle of the country are free and excellent – however, there are no Aires across the middle. Easy to find spots to wild camp!

We used about a litre of GPL per day (heating water for showers, cooking and fridge), which costs about 90p. When heating was needed we used much more!!

Finding places to pick up internet was no problem in Spain or Portugal.

Most people seem to be travelling in our size vans, which might suggest that it is the most useful size.