Mark and Vicki Sherouse just completed their 23rd month (over 4 years) of RVing in Europe. Their email is firstname.lastname@example.org and website is TheRoadGoesEverOn.com with links to their blog, http://www.roadeveron.blogspot.com/.
August, 2012 France and Northern Spain
We were careful not to be driving in France on August 1st and left Chamonix and headed west on August 2. We noted that there was no queue at the Mount Blanc tunnel into Italy. Far different from last Saturday morning where posted delays were 60 minutes and looked much longer. We headed for Perouges just north of Lyon. It was one of only a few 2 star Michelin sights that we hadn't been to in this area of France. For the regular 2e parking fee, we spent the night in the parking lot at the foot of the hill. Arriving around 4 in the afternoon we missed the tour bus crowds but all of the shops, etc. were open. We have visited many walled medieval cities, but this one was much smaller, having at its peak perhaps 1500 souls, which dwindled to 90 in the early 20th century. It was being slowly dismantled when historical preservationists stepped in and bought many buildings. Now it is again a working town, though all the inhabitants are working in the tourist industry. It was easy to see in a couple of hours, and I especially enjoyed the medieval costume shop—if I didn't sew myself I surely would have bought one of the reasonably priced outfits for our granddaughter. One caveat is that the town is paved in river rock and it is a bit tricky to walk on. Wear sturdy shoes.
Last year we had bypassed Lyon for various reasons and wanted to try again. It is less than an hour's drive from Perouges and on a Saturday morning in August we had no trouble finding parking along the Rhone. We, unfortunately, took the 300 stairs up the wrong hill looking for the St. Jean Cathedral. Luckily, we gave up early and bought an all day transit passes for 4.9e each on the bus headed for the Hotel de Ville. The metro took us to the main tourist office and with a good map we explored the rest of the city. The funicular (same pass) took us up to St. Mary's Cathedral. Though built mostly in the 19 century, it had many art nouveau touches that I really enjoyed. Lyon is famous for its food and a shopkeeper recommended the restaurant Maitre Boeuf. My steak was only okay. Mark had the tripe and thought it really good as long as he didn't think about what it was. We took the bus back to the camper leaving town about 6 headed south for an hour or so to a free aire at the winery Cave Saint Desiret.
Our plan after a quiet night was to continue on the n7, free national road, south to Orange. Leaving at 9 am we thought we would be there by 1 for lunch. It was not to be. Apparently everyone who hadn't headed out of the north of France for the beaches was headed out today. We later learned that the Saturday after August 1 is considered a RED day in France and most people who don't have to travel, stay home. We spent hours moving 2-3 miles. We finally gave up and found some shade at a large Intermarche. Leaving again at 4 pm things were much better and we arrived at the free parking in Orange, about a block from the Arch de Triumph erected in 20 BC. The weather has been in the mid 90s since leaving Chamonix, which has certainly taken the edge off sightseeing. However, Orange turned out to be a lovely, walkable small city when visited on a Sunday morning. We walked over to the Roman theater, which was indeed one of the best anywhere outside of Turkey. We skipped the inside and following the map from the TI walked up the hill in back of the theater where you could see most of it and also wonderful views of the town and countryside.
Pont du Gard
We headed to the Orange McDonald's and spent the afternoon in air conditioning downloading the Spanish map to our Tom Tom and catching up on email and our blog. At 4 we left, hoping to catch a quick view of Pont du Gard and perhaps spending the night there. Oh my gosh, how times have changed. Twenty years ago there was a gravel parking lot with a few cars and we could walk right onto the aqueduct itself. This year we arrived at a huge parking lot with hundreds of cars and an 18e charge to park! The new museum (an extra charge) completely blocks any view unless you pay to park. After 8pm it is 10e and there were campers obviously planning to spend the night. We made a u-turn since we had been there twice before. Certainly, if you haven't seen a really good aqueduct you would want to see it, and it obviously needed more protection than it had 20 years ago, but I am glad we visited before it became a 3 ring circus. Getting out of the area and heading for the beach at Sete, Tom decided on an interesting but hair raising shortcut over the limestone hills. We did see hundreds of French families on the river enjoying the beaches, canoeing, etc., before we took to the hills. Thank heavens we hadn't gotten there earlier on this hot Sunday afternoon as we could hardly thread our way through all the double and triple parked cars and people.
The route to Sete is 2 lane and as it was Sunday afternoon the traffic heading north was bumper to bumper—we were glad to be heading south. We passed this way two years ago and noted that the town looked very interesting. That time it was February, now in August the town was jam packed but still looked interesting. We were headed south along the spit of land that connects Sete to Agde. This entire spit has wonderful sand beaches and much of it is public. We stopped for the night at a free aire that was not in the Camperstop book at N43.36667 E3.61566. There was room for perhaps 50 campers and it was completely full. Since it was now about 8pm several campers had parked in the handicapped area obviously waiting for morning when they could snag a spot from someone leaving. We did the same and were actually legal as I still have a month left on my handicapped hangtag from my knee replacement. We only spent the night, but if you are beach people this was a great spot. Very nice rest rooms with outdoor showers, two beach restaurants, lifeguard station, dump, water, even a place to hook up to electric. Unfortunately, the water required a debit card—we hope this won't be a trend. There was also a bus stop so you could take the bus to Sete or to the next beach town. By the way if you prefer being in a town with a beach rather than right on the beach, the next town, Marselier Plage had a huge aire at N34.31920, E3.54905 but I think it was 10-12e a day. Heading inland Monday morning again the traffic headed to the beach was horrendous—we were again lucky to be going against the grain.
Tom had a difficult time finding the aire sending us through tiny streets in the newer city. We gave up and tried to go to the campground following their good signage, but they were full. They told us that sites usually opened up around 9 am and they were full by noon. The nearest other campgrounds were 10 km away, but they said to follow the signs to Le Cite parking—direction Narbonne, 2000 places. This we found and it was not yet full at 4 pm. There is a dump, free water, and the parking is free from 8pm to 8 am and about 1e an hour the rest of the day. Knowing that Carcassone would be a madhouse, we followed all the guidebook's advice to go in later in the evening. It was still wall to wall people and even when we left at 10:30 pm people were still arriving. The church though was still open at 7:30, past normal closing at 6 and we were very impressed by its architecture and wonderful stained glass windows. Also there was free wifi at the Cave of Vins, where a small glass of wine was only 3.3 e. The next day we headed out to the small town of Caunes Minervas to have dinner at the Hotel which our friends had recommended. We could find no parking, it was terribly hot, so we decided to just not do dinner and head on to Albi. Our Tom Tom decided to send us across terribly small roads and then into the hills along the Gorge. He can be so exasperating at times and we were low on diesel and in the middle of nowhere. Down out of the hills, we headed for the aire at Albi.
N43.94583 E 2.15111 the aire has no services but is only one block from the Cathedral. We arrived late at about 8 pm and though Tom had a hard time finding it (street construction) there was plenty of room. However, the next morning we noticed that the lots were pretty full by 10 am as this is also the downtown parking for cars, so it would be wise to arrive after 6 pm or before 10 am. The Cathedral was amazing and if you pay the 2E to visit the Choir, which is beautiful, you also get a free audio guide to the entire Cathedral. The Choir doesn't open until 9:30 am so go there first, get the audio, and then see the whole place. It may be overly detailed for some, but it did a great job of explaining all the Biblical and Catholic importance of what was done and cleared up several questions I still had even after visiting probably 50 cathedrals in Europe. We decided against the Toulouse Lautrec museum but if you like his work, it is supposed to be fabulous.
Just 20k to the northeast of Albi is a loop tour of several fortified bastide towns dating from the 13-14th centuries. The first Cagn sur Glen was stunning from the road but the guidebook said that in high season it was a zoo. Penne looked too difficult to get into. So we finally stopped at Pep which had parking outside and was a reasonable walk to get to. Not much there but excellent views of the countryside and interesting architecture.
We spent that evening with a lovely couple from GB who had retired to a village east of Toulouse and spent four years renovating a ruined farmhouse. They have done a lovely job and after ten years have decided to sell—cost about 200,000E which includes the 3 bedroom, 2 bath house, a 1 bedroom with bath and full kitchen guesthouse, a barn with stable, workshop, parking and full covered outdoor kitchen and terrace. If you want their email, let me know. They also rent out the guesthouse for 100-200e a week, which is a true bargain. Mark has pictures at our blog and further details. They are located about 2 hours north of the Pyrenees which was our next stop.
Two years ago we did some of the Cathar sites in the eastern area, but we had never been to the central scenic area. I was, of course, apprehensive about the mountain roads but was pleasantly surprised. Yes, they are full of hairpin turns, bicyclists, limited guardrails, but the drivers drove pretty conservatively and they were almost two lanes wide and in most cases you could see ahead. If only all Europe's mountainous roads were like these. Overall, the Pyrenees reminded Mark and me of the Rocky Mountains area near Denver. We had planned to spend the first night in Arreau but Tom just couldn't locate the camperstop at N42.90708 E0.35912. We did see it as we headed back north out of town. If your GPS gives you trouble, just park at the town lot, and walk north to reconnoiter how to get to it. The town looked interesting so we regretted missing it. Instead we started up the pass to Col d' Asp and spent the night just beyond it at the aire at N 42.93528 E0.29222. This was a huge area with well over a hundred RVs parked on grass and gravel.
After a quiet night we were off over the next set of passes to Gavarnie and its famous cirque. Gavarnie is a very small town and in every month but July and August the aire is free and closer to town. In high season you must continue 2k up to Parking Holle at N42.73857 W0.01959 which has water and a dump. Everyone pays to park in high season; for rvs 5e. There is a path to town just off the road below the aire. We also chose to take the high path for the cirque view as it was partially shaded and temps were in the low 90s even up in the mountains. The cirque with its 4500 ft walls and the longest waterfall in Europe really is beautiful, but the tiny town is not much to speak of and of course, terribly crowded during the day. We made the mistake of walking the road back to the aire—no shade and lots of extra steps.
Though we were enjoying the Pyrenees our time was getting short and we wanted to be sure to make it to the Picos de Europe in Spain as we were not planning on going that way next year. Instead of going to Cauterets and more hiking, we headed back through Lourdes to the main road to the Atlantic Coast. Luckily along the way we passed a LeClerc auto store and were able to buy the 100% synthetic oil that our Sprinter needs for its oil change, which was now due. We had been keeping an eye out for it and none of the regular discount stores had carried it. When we hit the coast at Bayonne and headed south traffic immediately soared. Crawling along I spied a Lavarie—laundromat on the right side of the road with a space large enough for the camper. While washing, a nice French couple pulled in to ask about the camper and where we were headed. Being a camper himself he said all the aires near here filled early in the morning and offered us a place to park for a night in his neighborhood at an empty lot. So if you are desperate you might try N43.44308 W1.58427 in Bidart (don't know if that is the French or Basque name for the town.) He also mentioned the continuing problem in Spain of RV burglary and reminded us to be careful where we parked. After parking, we walked straight across the road and down to a lovely beach (beach parking only for cars.) It just happened also to be the start of a 16 mile beach walk south to the Spanish border. It looked very interesting with restaurants along the way and we wished we had time to do some of it.
San Sebastian, Spain August 12-14, 2012
Two years ago in December we had actually had snow flurries in San Sebastian but we still remembered it fondly as a beautiful beach city. Arriving in late morning there was still room in the offical aire at N43.30797 W2.01426 which holds about 40, has free water and dump, 48 hr limit at 6.5e per day. There were at least a hundred RVs parked in the area at the various university lots and on the street but there the stay is limited to 24 hrs and no guarantee you won't be asked to move. However, since the university didn't seem in session in August there didn't seem to be an issue. We caught the bus in the early evening (#5 or 25), caught up on email at the McDonald's near the TI, and then headed out to have tapas. (The bus takes a different route back, so it is easy to miss the stop, but you can just stay on it another 10 minutes and get off where you got on.) It turned out that this is a Folkloric Festival week for this Basque city, so we not only enjoyed wonderful food at the bars but were treated to a live stage show of Basque dance groups. At 10:45 pm the second night of 7 nights of fireworks went off at the beach. These were done by an Italian firm that night and they were truly amazing. Much louder than any American ones we have seen in San Francisco or Disney World, perhaps because we were much closer. We enjoyed the evening so much that we decided to do it all again a second night. We didn't have shade during the day but it was only high 80s and our fans are working well. Mark spent the day at McDonald's catching up the blog anyway. Our second night of folk dancing, tapas, and fireworks was splendid as well.
In 2009 we took the tiny coast road between San Sebastian and Bilbao in our quest to stay off the toll roads. It is an extremely scenic road but quite narrow and twisty. Not wanting to repeat that in August traffic, we took the toll road and were pleasantly surprised at only having to pay the auto rate of about 10e. Granted that still seems a lot for 30 miles but by French and Italian toll prices actually quite reasonable. Bypassing Bilbao for now, the toll beyond was only 1e through a group of tunnels and then the major highway is free. We had left San Sebastian late, so left the highway at Santillana del Mar to find a spot in the many aires along the coast. (We had visited the Alta Mira cave in 2009 and it is a must see, but you can't park there overnight.) At 4 in the afternoon, all the aires were packed with no parking available anywhere until just before St. Vincent de la Barquera at N43.38983 W4.36432 where a farmer had opened a field for parking. 5E during the day and an additional 5e to spend the night. It was immediately across from a huge, fabulous beach with snackbar, restrooms, water and outside showers and less than 2k to walk to St. Vincent. About 30 campers were spending the night and many were obviously staying much longer. The beach was sandy, very clean and very wide—150-200 yards and probably 2k long. There were lots of surfers and families and yet it was rural with cows grazing just above the sand. If you are a beach person, this was certainly in the top ten of the hundreds we have seen world wide.
Picos de Europa
Our goal at this point was the Picos de Europa National Park. We had glimpsed these striking limestone peaks in 2009 but with the December snows we were sticking strictly to the coast. Our Fodor guidebook advised taking the road from Cangas de Ona to Riano so that is where we went in. The road was good for the mountains and there wasn't much traffic—basically because there just wasn't much to see or do. A passable gorge and a couple of okay panoramas not worth 3 hours of mountain driving. Turning north again at Riano we headed for Potes and Fuenta De. At Potes the best part of the mountains appeared and it was a strikingly large resort town for an area without skiing. However, we couldn't explore as every possible parking spot was taken. Our Camperstop book advised parking overnight was allowed at Fuenta De; the end of the road at the cable car station. Our plan was to spend the night, ride the cable car in the morning, and perhaps explore some hiking. Alas the parking lot was clearly marked no overnight parking, the cable car was 15e each, and really not much viable hiking except straight up. We decided to move on as we had gotten a very early start for us and it was only 4 in the afternoon. If you do want to overnight in the valley, the ranger said you had to be out of the actual park boundaries. We passed a couple of rest areas between Potes and Fuenta De that would have been candidates. We actually ended up driving all the way back to the beach at St. Vincent and arrived 12 hours after we left. So you can definitely see much of the Picos in a day though I am sure we missed some of the better parts.
Checking through Fodor's for anything of interest on the way back east, I discovered Comillas. Only a few miles from St. Vincent was one of the first buildings Gaudi ever built. Ever since Barcelona we have been devoted fans of Gaudi and all things art nouveau. We arrived in town at 9 am and easily found parking. Unfortunately, the villa didn't open until 10:30. But it was wonderful inside and out and well worth the 5e admission. We also got a lead on a mechanic to change the oil in our camper. We had brought the filter from the US and bought the oil in France, but Mark couldn't get the oil filter to budge. The wonderful mechanic took us in right away and in the time I went to the grocery, changed the oil and charged us a whopping 15e. We saved about $600 versus taking it to a Mercedes dealership. He doesn't speak English but if you need a mechanic in this part of the world, we highly recommend him. Mark said he had never seen such a clean and orderly garage. In walking around Comillas we did notice likely overnight parking at the stadium and a few miles out of town there was a shaded picnic area at N43.32895 W4.26315 where you could also stay the night.
Bilbao August 16
The aire at Bilboa is at N43.25961 W2.96355 at the top of a long hill with a stupendous view overlooking the city. It costs 15e a night but that includes electric and water at every site. There is a free parking lot next door but it has no security and this is a city of a million. Arriving by 3 we decided to go ahead into the city to see the Guggenheim since it was open until 8 pm in the summer. We caught bus 58 a block from the site and bought tickets on board and asked the driver to let us off at the tram stop—this stop is near the Hospital with all the tile crosses on the roof if he doesn't understand you. At the Hospital tram stop across the street buy the 5e card and punch it once for each person riding the tram. The stop is the Guggenheim. This card is much cheaper than paying individual fares by the way. The Guggenheim was spectacular outside and in and I wish we had had more than 3 hours. Seniors pay a discounted rate of 7.5e which includes an audio guide. When we do it again, and we will, we will plan on a longer day with a break for lunch in the middle. We really don't much care for most modern art but this was something special. Do try to be there as the sun sets to catch the glow of the titanium panels. It is unforgettable. Arriving back at the camper (the bus stop is left after getting off the tram) it was 10pm and still 85. Rising temps are having a real effect on our plans, and we decided to forgo going back into Bilboa the next morning. Instead we head back to San Sebastian to catch the last night of the folklore festival and fireworks. To stave off the heat we parked on the street near the University but well away from other campers so we could run the generator and the blessed air conditioner as our thermometer is wavering between 99 and 102 and even shade isn't enough. I spent the day catching up on this epistle and Mark headed into town for blog posting at McDonald's.
Bad news for details on these two towns. I have waited too long to finish this and don't have GPS etc. of aires. However, we did enjoy the cathedral at Auch and the cave with the prehistoric handprints at Gargas. Also at Gargas you can spend the night in their parking lot. The morning tours were sold out but there was room in the afternoon. The temps in mid August continue in the 90s so we are ready to head for the central California coast. Our plans are to return to the Toulouse area in mid April and then spend our last seven months in Europe returning to Spain, Great Britain, and Italy. We will be ready to sell our 2008 Roadtrek Adventurous in November, 2013, which will have mileage in the low 60s by then. So if you are interested in buying and having a vehicle already in Europe, keep us in mind. Vicki and Mark