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Return to England through Spain and France 2013 PDF Printable Version E-mail


Margaret and Barry Williamson
April 2013

Continued from: Spring in Portugal 2013

To Camping Isla de Puebla, Puebla de Sanabria, Castilla y Leon - 263 miles (Height 2,972 ft)     

Open Easter-30 Sept. See www.isladepuebla.com. €22.50  per night, inc 10-amp electricity and Free WiFi. Cash only. N 42.04930  W 6.63068

On a fine morning in mid-April Cliff & Chris, our neighbours at Camping Asseiceira, skilfully manoeuvred their fifth-wheeler out into the lane, as Gary hastily pruned the olive trees and the rest of us stood by to shout STOP. We too set out to tow our caravan on the long journey through Spain and France, exiting somewhat less dramatically after Felipe had come by in the bread van. We shall very much miss this scenic and historic corner of the High Alentejo and its friendly people, including the local hairdresser who had transformed us both! Like many others, we came to Santo Antonio for a few days and stayed a month.

We drove northwest past Castelo de Vide to join the IP2 (good new highway) after 20 miles at Alpalhao. Continuing  north, this road descended to cross the River Tejo 16 miles later, down at 300 ft/90 m – the border between the provinces of Alto Alentejo and Beira Baixa – before climbing for 2 miles to join the A23 motorway at 650 ft/200 m. This was a toll motorway, with electronic cameras at regular intervals working on number plate recognition of vehicles registered for the system. There were no toll-booths and no indication of how to pay (in advance or later). We'd been advised by Portuguese residents and other travellers that no system had yet been devised for charging foreign vehicles and that we should just forget the tolls – so we did.

The virtually empty 4-lane motorway climbed gradually past Castelo Branco, reaching 2,120 ft/642 m on entering a pair of tunnels at 84 miles, then dropped to a service station 5 miles later at 1,360 ft/410 m. A lunch break here near Covilha on the edge of the Serra de Estrela Natural Park, site of the country's highest mountain, Torre (with a stone tower on the summit to bring it to 6,600 ft/2000 m!)

The A23 continued via a series of short tunnels to Guarda (Portugal's highest city at 3,300 ft/1000 m) at 117 miles. Here we joined the A25 towards Celorico da Beira for 15 miles, leaving at exit 28a to take IP2 north for Braganza. This mostly new road (not shown on our road atlas or SatNav) is a big improvement on the twisting N102, which we had to take on incomplete sections, for example where a new bridge is under construction across the River Douro. We traversed a hilly landscape of red soil, olives and vines (no cork trees since we left the Alentejo), our progress alternately fast and slow.

From Braganza at 235 miles the narrower rd 103-7 led north through the bleak Montezhino Natural Park. A campsite 7 miles along on the right was firmly closed (as we knew, from phoning the Tourist Office earlier). We climbed for another 8 miles up the winding river valley, past the tiny villages of Franca and Portelo where horses ploughed the fields, to the top of a pass marking the Spanish border at 2,690 ft/815 m.

Putting our watches forward an hour (this was turning into a long day!), we entered the Zamora district of Castilla y Leon and continued on rd 925 across heather-clad moors. In Calabor, the next village, the plough was pulled by a donkey. The road climbed above the tree line, reaching 3,625 ft/1100 m, before gently descending for the final 6 miles to the little medieval town of Puebla de Sanabria.

Turn right at the sign, immediately after the roundabout on entering town, to find the campsite down by the Rio Tera river. Unusually the price for a car + caravan was considerably higher than a motorhome but the Receptionist was not willing to discuss this, despite speaking excellent English and repeatedly calling us 'Darling'! But there was a cosy bar/restaurant/take-away on site in the old water mill and we were more than ready for the excellent home-made burgers and chips it supplied.

At Camping Isla de Puebla, Puebla de Sanabria, Spain

On a beautiful sunny mid-April morning (after complaining to no avail that the campsite showers were cold), we walked the footpath into the village and climbed cobbled alleyways up to the 15thC castle. For €3 each, we explored the enormous well-restored fortress, looking at the displays, climbing the 4-storey tower and walking some of its outer walls, with good views over the town and our riverside campsite, where anglers fished for trout at the weir.

The large church next to the castle was locked, despite lying on one of the Santiago de Compostela routes. A lone pilgrim, complete with scallop shell, trudged by in search of the Tourist Office to stamp his 'passport'.

For images of this splendid hill town, Click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/puebla-de-sanabria.html

After lunch (without the caravan in tow) we filled up with diesel, costing less in Spain than Portugal, then drove out to Lago de Sanabria Natural Park about 10 miles north of the town. Up at 3,635 ft/1100 m, the deep clear Lago claims to be Spain's largest glacial lake. We parked at Ribadelago de Franco, a tiny settlement at the far end of the lake, intending to cycle around the water. However, we soon found that the track was just a rough stony footpath and an air of desolation hung over the place, which smelt of recent forest fires. Then we saw the memorial to a catastrophic flood in January 1959, when 144 people - the majority of the population - lost their lives.

Back at the campsite we tried a tasty pizza from its restaurant – and watched helplessly as an incoming British motorhome snapped its roof aerial on the low overhead wires.

To Camping La Viorna, Potes, Cantabria - 188 miles (Height 1,230 ft)     

Open 23 Mar - 3 Nov. See www.campinglaviorna.com. ACSI Card rate €16  per night, inc 6-amp electricity and Free WiFi. Cash only. N 43°9'16” W 4°38'37”

Just 2 miles from the campsite to the eastbound A52, which had 4 quiet toll-free lanes. Near Benavente, 50 miles later, we turned north on the equally empty A66, the Autovia de la Plata, across rolling open country planted with wheat and vines, every pylon crowned with nesting storks. In the absence of service stations, we joined 2 trucks for a break in a large rest area at 57 miles.

At 85 miles, shortly before Leon, we took exit 152 and made our way via the A231 (Autovia de Santiago) for 20 miles to Mansila, at 2,670 ft/810 m. From here rd 625 begins its tortuous route northeast towards the Picos de Europa – the snowy peaks we saw ahead. At first it climbed gradually along the Valley of Rio Esla, where storks nested on every village bell-tower. Parked for lunch in Vidanes, at 128 miles and 3,035 ft/920 m, we watched dozens of storks following the tractors that ploughed the red earth, like flocks of seagulls in Britain.

Two miles later there was a new bypass round Cistierna, the only town on our route, then rd 621 started to twist through the foothills of the Picos. At 141 miles, height 3,300 ft/1000 m, we crossed into the Parque Regional de los Picos de Europa at Cremenes, on another of the Camino de Santiago paths. Five miles into the Park, now at 3,600 ft/1090 m, we drove through a pair of tunnels alongside the dammed Embalse de Riano. The road, edged with snow poles, became much narrower after Boca and the towing skills of both Barry and our Sprinter van were about to be tested.

For dramatic mountain images, Click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/picos-de-europa.html

At 165 miles, Portilla de la Reina (4,042 ft/1225 m) marked the beginning of a 3-mile gorge, which climbs over 500 ft to Llanaves de la Reina. Then the road snaked up another 2 miles to the Puerto de San Glorio at 5,263 ft/1609 m, where we parked to photograph the lingering snow at the top of the pass – the border between Castilla y Leon and Cantabria.

A 10-mile descent (gradient 8%) hairpinned down to Vada at 1,770 ft/536 m. With a sigh of relief we continued north for 6 easier miles to Potes, suddenly busy with tourists, hotels and souvenir shops. Quite a contrast with the mountains we'd emerged from! Turn left along the popular road towards Fuente De, then left again signposted for Camping La Viorna and the monastery of Santo Toribio.

It's a great campsite, level and grassy with a good view of the peaks of the Picos. Our only disappointment was that the “excellent restaurant with an appetizing Menu of the Day” was closed.

To Camping Orio, Orio, Nr Zarautz, Basque Country - 192 miles (Sea level)

Open 1 March-1 Nov. ACSI Card rate €16 per night, inc 10-amp electricity and Free WiFi. N 43°17'12” W 2°7'34”

Sadly we awoke to a mist of drizzle, the snowy peaks no longer visible, and the weather forecast poor. Decided to abandon any plan to visit Fuente De (and its cable car into the Picos) or the monastery of Santo Toribio de Liebana and its holy relic (reputedly the largest surviving piece of the True Cross, complete with nail hole, brought by Christian refugees from Muslim-occupied Spain in the 8thC).

In persistent rain we drove north on N621, through the stunning gorge of La Hermida that twists its way for 18 miles alongside the tumbling River Deva from Potes (at 1,247/ ft/378 m) to Panes, down at 120 ft/36 m. The narrow road criss-crossed the river on old stone bridges and would have been a delight, except for the number of tour buses coming down from the coast and proving a hazard at each bend.

In Panes the road widened, continuing north for another 8 miles to meet the motorway at Unquera. We shopped at a large supermarket just before joining the A8/E70 Autovia del Cantabrico motorway, eastbound. It was wet, grey and busy, but toll-free as far as Bilbao.

At 52 miles (junction 230) we left the motorway, in order to avoid Santander on a dual carriageway that our atlas showed 'due for completion March 2009'. It was still a congested 2-lane road, with roadworks! Rejoined the A8 at Solares after 20 slow miles, then parked for lunch and diesel 5 miles later at a Repsol services by exit 194. Continuing eastwards, we had a glimpse of the sea near Laredo then turned inland after Castro-Urdiales. At 115 miles we passed the first exit for busy Bilbao, which looked grimly industrial. A series of new tunnels bypassed the port, with a toll of €1.13, willingly paid!

At 141 miles a toll booth issued a ticket, which cost €9.39 when we left the A8 at exit 11 for Orio. And still it rained. The campsite proved difficult to find, poorly signed and awkward to access through the busy town and its one way system. Nor was it really worth the effort, being a very basic and rule-bound municipal. The swimming pool, shop and restaurant were in various stages of demolition, in order to build more statics. The sea view was blocked by high-rise flats and the 'free WiFi' lasted for 2 hours only. With hindsight (a wonderful thing) it would have been better to continue into France to Camping Larrouleta at Urrugne, where we stayed on our outward journey last December.


To Camping L'Arbre d'Or, Parentis-en-Born, Les Landes, Aquitaine - 123 miles

Open 1 April-31 Oct. ACSI Card rate €14 per night, inc 10-amp electricity and free indoor heated pool. See www.arbre-dor.com/campsite-landes.  WiFi cost varying, eg €14 for 2 days, €18 for 4 days (continuous use). N 44°20'46” W 1°5'35”

Rejoined motorway AP8 at junction 33, paying €1.48 toll (NB: westbound traffic cannot exit at J33). Continuing east past San Sebastian, we bought diesel after 17 miles at the last Spanish services, paid another toll of €2.12, passed a heavily armed Customs post where the heavies were searching a battered car, then paid a final toll of €2.50 at the border at 23 miles. Bienvenus en France.

We took Autoroute A63 past Urrugne, Biarritz and Bayonne, paying a toll of €3.40 after 13 French miles. It poured with rain again as we crossed the Adour River at Bayonne. The last toll (€5.20) was paid at 53 miles at J8. 10 miles later we turned north up the N10 - still free, though it is being upgraded and the toll booths stand in readiness. The sun came out as we stopped for lunch at the L'Ocean Est services at 83 miles.

Easy driving now across the flat landscape of Les Landes, to exit 17 at 112 miles. The final 10 miles, west on D43, brought us to the small town of Parentis, with at least 3 campsites. We headed for the ACSI Card site, which is level, modern and quiet. With time in hand for our ferry booking (Roscoff-Plymouth) and a good weather forecast, we stayed over the weekend.

At Camping L'Arbre d'Or, Parentis-en-Born, Les Landes, Aquitaine

Time to catch up with laundry, shopping (Super U, 2 miles away, for delicious patisserie, ιclairs, croissants), emails and writing. We also cycled from the campsite, using a vague free map of Pistes Cyclables. They were not well signposted!


1.  A 40 km/25-mile return ride from Parentis to Biscarosse and beyond. This used various sealed bike paths through the forest, as well as a segregated bike lane alongside road D652 past the airfield to Biscarosse. We rode on to Port Navarrosse on the Etang de Sanguinet lake but found it over-developed, with a busy marina, water sports, many campsites with statics, and Aires filled with motorhomes (entry fees payable by credit card!) Back at the campsite, where the restaurant was closed until next week, we treated ourselves to a chicken curry out of the freezer – bought from Carol at Camping Asseiceira, Santo Antonio das Areias, back in Portugal. Fond memories!

2.  A 51 km/32-mile return ride from Parentis to Ste-Eulalie-en-Born and Mimizan. We cycled out on forest paths and alongside roads through Gastes and Ste-Eulalie to Lake Aureilhan, near Mimizan. Stopped for a welcome coffee at the little bar in Ste-Eulalie on the way back.

To Camping Municipal Le Bois Dinot, Marans - 182 miles

Open 1 April-30 Sept. €15.80 per night, inc 10-amp electricity. See www.ville-marans.fr. Free WiFi near Reception (no good). N 46.31682 W 0.99158

Dry and sunny as we drove east from Parentis on D43 for 11 miles, then N10/A63 north (still free but due to become a 6-lane toll-motorway). Anticlockwise round the busy Bordeaux ring road, the Rocade, exiting onto the A10 at 63 miles. We crossed the Dordogne (on its way to join the Garonne in the Gironde estuary), took a toll ticket, then stopped for lunch on the Saugon services at 86 miles.

At 129 miles we turned northwest on A837, the Autoroute des Oiseaux with a Hoopoe symbol. Rain set in as we passed the ancient quarries of Crazannes, source of the stone for the nearby Roman town of Saintes. Across the Charente river, lined by poplars heavy with mistletoe and a stork nesting, unusually, in a tree. A single toll of €20.80 was paid at Rochefort at 145 miles, from where A837/N137 continued to La Rochelle. Here at 169 miles we took N11 east for 5 miles, then turned north on N137 to the sombre canal-side town of Marans.

The campsite is on the right, a mile after the town centre, next to the swimming baths. An easily accessible night stop, it's wooded and grassy with hedged pitches, though the Sanitaires are basic and the 'free WiFi around Reception' was not working. After settling the caravan down and a pot of tea, we nipped back into Marans to shop (Aldi) and refuel (SuperU). Rain gave way to sun for a pleasant evening.

To Camping Les Jardins de Kergal, Guidel Plage, Le Pouldu, Brittany - 199 miles

Open 29 March-30 Sept. ACSI Card rate €14 per night (+ €1 local tax), inc16-amp electricity and free indoor heated pool. See www.camping-lorient.com. WiFi cost varying: €14 for 2 days, €18 for 4 days (continuous use). N 47.77466 W 3.50616

One mile north of Marans camp, turned right onto D938. Joined motorway A83 to Nantes with a toll of €13.10 at 75 miles before joining the free ring road clockwise. This crossed the Loire on a high bridge at 88 miles, to the west of the city, before we exited onto N44 and N165 heading along the coast of Brittany – a Region with no toll roads.

At 130 miles we crossed the dual carriageway to park for lunch on the Aire de Marzan – a huge rest area on the west side of the road that we'd used back in November when it was all but empty. What a contrast today: we could scarcely find a space! Continuing northwest past Vannes, we took exit 45 for Guidel at 193 miles. Road D306 led us to the village of Guidel, then via an awkward deviation round the centre and on towards the coast. The large campsite, signed left before reaching the beach, turned out to be busy with families, games, a bouncy castle … It's the start of French school holiday week! This was our last night before the ferry and the minimum price for WiFi was €14 for 2 days, so we easily resisted that temptation.

Once settled in, we drove 2 miles back to Guidel for a last raid on the SuperU (diesel, patisseries, bleu d'Auvergne cheese, a roast chicken), then had a look at the sea at Guidel Plage, half a mile past the campsite.


To Riverside Caravan Park, Plymouth, Devon – 98 miles in France + 6 miles in England

Open all year. £22 inc16-amp electricity. See www.riversidecaravanpark.com. No WiFi.

It was overcast but dry and calm, good weather for the Channel crossing. Just 5 miles back through Guidel to N165, then north past Quimper to exit 18 at 64 miles. We were closing in on Roscoff: rd D18 to Sizun, D30 to Landivisiau, D69 and D788 to St Pol de Leon at 92 miles, finally arriving in the harbour town before noon. It was a surprisingly hilly journey, max height 560 ft/170 m.

We waited in the large free car park shortly before the port until it was time to check in for the 3 pm Brittany Ferries sailing to Plymouth. On board the splendid Armorique we dined well (salmon & rice for M, fish & chips for B) and had a smooth passage, arriving on time at 9.15 pm – or rather, only 8.15 pm in England.

Luckily it was not yet dark, as we made our way through Plymouth to the nearest campsite. Reception was closed but, as we'd booked ahead, the caretaker was looking out for us. We have a gravel 'superpitch' (own tap and drain) but no privacy at all on a busy site.

We took a second night here, in need of time to shop and readjust to England's noise and traffic. With just a few days of April left, we now head for our base in Cheltenham.