South Central France and Spain, March and April, 2013
Vicki and Mark shipped their RoadTrek to Europe in May, 2009 and are now in their 25th month of European RVing. They plan to sell or ship their camper back to the US in November.Originally we had planned to come back to Europe in early April but our landlord in California (where we were babysitting granddaughter Penelope) decided he needed our cottage for his mother, so after easing Penelope into daycare, we headed for Toulouse March 17. Apparently this winter has been a cold and wet one in Europe. We came in on the tail end of it—temps in the 40s day and high 30s at night. This would have been fine except our furnace wouldn't come on. It turned out to be a simple problem of worn out thermostat batteries but jet lagged as we were it took two days to figure out and correct. Transition days are always problematic—unpacking, sanitizing the water system, re-stowing everything all on just a couple of hours of airplane sleep!
Within a few days the weather warmed by 5-10 degrees and restocked from a great Carrefour market, we were off. Over the past four years the larger supermarkets in Europe have started stocking far more products such as inexpensive paper plates, plastic containers etc. A couple of things they don't have are peanut butter—everyone eats Nutella—relish, shredded coconut, a variety of salad dressings, zipper lock sandwich bags and Press n Seal—which I love because it covers things tightly in the frig. Of course we have to bring anything from the US that uses 110 electricity with us too. This time a small electric heater with a low wattage setting which we can run off the inverter even if not in a campground or off our small converter if we are plugged in to 220.
Auch Our first stop was back to Auch to revisit the marvelous cathedral. The tiny camperstop for 3 motorhomes allows only one night so we then headed to Grimont about 10 miles away to their aire, a very pleasant spot on a small fishing lake right in the village. Grimont is on the Auch-Toulouse train line, and we had been warned that parking was impossible in Toulouse. This is pretty much universal in Europe. You have to park in the outskirts of any city or even town and take public transportation. This is usually easy enough if in a campground as they will have directions and schedules for you—much harder if you are just parking for a day trip on your own. The train fare was a steep 23 E each round trip and the only way to get a ticket was with a chip credit card from the machine. After running into several frustrating experiences in the past we had finally gotten one from Citi bank as an affinity American Airlines card (by special request.) Just a note that I am no longer going to list the longitude and latitude of where we spend the night if it is already in the Camper Stop book or a campground book.
Toulouse Toulouse was worth a day and we had a nice lunch in one of the restaurants upstairs in the market. Our past 4 years in Europe we have not really eaten out much. A combination of not wanting to overspend and timidity about ordering. However, with so much experience with our budget, we have decided to actually spend the money we budget for eating out, if not a little more. To have a nice meal at lunch makes a wonderful break in the cities. Also since we have already visited most of the cities on our itinerary this year, we don't have to be in a rush to see so many sites each day.
After getting the fuel filter changed on the van at a Mercedes dealer, we headed south to , which is a splendid cathedral that we somehow missed last August when we went to the caves at Gargus. They are actually only a couple of miles apart. The cathedral has another wonderfully carved rood screen like the one at Auch, only I don't think quite as good. A comprehensive audio comes with the ticket, but it takes a good 90 minutes for the visit. Ours got cut short when we didn't realize how long it would take and the cathedral closed for lunch from 12 to 2. Even after so much time in France, one quickly forgets the pesky lunch closings! We spent the night before in the parking lot at the bottom of the hill with several other campers. The official aire is a about 1k away but very small and not as nice. There are also some Roman ruins to explore just a few steps from the parking.
Cave of Niaux Our next stop was Cave of Niaux for the cave art. They require, and they mean it, advance reservations by phone. Unfortunately, the automated system is only in French. When we arrived we were lucky to get places for a tour that afternoon. I don't think it would work in high season as they only allow 20 people on each tour which lasts 90 minutes and they have lots of school and tour groups. The tour is conducted with battery powered lamps and the cave floor is uneven and wet. It was do-able by this 65 year old but not recommended if you have any walking difficulties. The drawings of horses and bison were very dramatic and impressive and certainly worth the hassle. The night before we spent in the parking lot of the Prehistoric Park, which we went to by mistake and which was still closed for the winter season. It is fairly isolated and you could probably park there overnight any time of year. The French are the most tolerate of wild camping of any country in Europe. Driving on we headed for the Cathar site of Montsegnr and arrived just as the museum closed. The hike to the chateau itself looked more than I could do because of the loose gravel and verticality. So we decided that just seeing it was enough (after reading Labyrinth twice, I couldn't have missed it) There was a municipal campground but at 16 Euros per person we drove on to spend the night at the free aire in Quillon, which is at the railroad station. Unfortunately, the water was still turned off, as it has been in all the aires so far except Auch. However the public bathrooms were open so we got enough water in containers to refill most of the our fresh water tank. Mark searched in vain for a bar or hotel nearby that had Internet but none was to be found.
We headed next for Rennes du Chateau, another Cathar site. Though it is out in the middle of nowhere, the signs make it clear you can't spend the night in the parking lot. The view from the hilltop village was spectacular. We visited the church but passed on the expensive museum, so it was a pretty quick visit. It really wasn't far off our route to Perpignan, otherwise I would say it is an easy skip. We had already visited the wonderful Cathar site of Peyrepertuse on our previous trip in 2010.
Figures, Spain Heading south from Perpignan we decided to take the toll road as we weren't sure what the mountains would be like as there had been snow only two weeks before. We were pleasantly surprised that the toll to Figures was only 5 Euros, though we had the old road in sight most of the way and I think it would have been fine. In Figures we parked at the aire at the Esclat market where we had stayed before. The next morning was Good Friday and the market and all the shops in town were closed but we were there to see the Dali Museum again. We walked the 1k and got there about 10:30 am. It was packed but we enjoyed it anyway. When we left the line had grown from 7-8 people when we arrived to several hundred, wrapped down the block! Apparently, this is the case any holiday weekend in Spain, so go early. We were also happy that having now reached 65 that we got a discounted admission unlike in Italy where you have to be an EU citizen to get the senior discount.
Back at the Escalt Mark talked to a French camper and found out that his window had been forced open and the camper robbed the day before while he and his wife were shopping. This redoubled our vow to be extra careful in Spain and not to leave the camper unattended. We wanted to visit Dali's home at the coast and it was well worth the somewhat harrowing road. However, reservations are a must but they do have English speaking operators. There is daytime parking in the village but for overnight you would have to stay in the large Cadaques parking lot at 24 Euros for 24 hours.
Barcelona On to Barcelona and Camping Barcelona, the campground we had found in our ACSI discount book in Mataro—a northern suburb. We ended up staying 9 nights for only 16 Euros a night including electricity. It is right across the highway from the beach, super clean bathrooms, unlimited hot water, restaurant, market, free shuttle into Mataro every half hour or so and twice a day free shuttle bus to the heart of Barcelona. (45 min) We could have stayed a month. They also have 2 bedroom bungalows with kitchen and baths starting at 55 Euros a night for two. It would be a great place to stay for an economical visit to Barcelona even without an RV. We loved Barcelona even more this time though it was definitely tourist season already. We bought the Route Modernisme Book with map and visited or walked past dozens and dozens of fabulous Art Nouveau buildings. This time we also visited inside the Familia Sagrada Cathedral—wonderful, but the line is at least two hours—get tickets on line and walk right in. We also got in the Gaudi's Palau Guell for free as it was the first Sunday of the month. The city spent years restoring it to perfection. We had done the Casa Predura by Gaudi last time so we did Casa Battlo—again worth every penny. All the admissions were reduced for pensioners, but if you buy the 12 Euro Modernisme Route book you can also get discounts if you're younger! And I mustn't forget the Palace of Catalonian Music—definitely worth a second tour for its top ten in the world stained glass and other decorations. So we spent a lot on admissions but saved on meals—most restaurants offered a 3 course lunch with wine for 12 Euros or less which when eaten at the Spanish lunchtime between 2-4 pretty much counted for our lunch and dinner. Well, augmented by the thick chocolate and churros about 11 am.
We also met a lovely American couple from Colorado who had just bought a used camper in Amsterdam with a six month sell back provision. Unfortunately, they had already broken down twice with one tow costing 160Euros. But they were in good spirits. They had planned an ambitious trip for the 6 months including Spain, Italy, the Balkans, Greece, then back north through Switzerland, Germany and Great Britain. We inquired about how they were handling the Schengen visa issue and they said they planned to go to Tangiers for a day! After I explained how it really worked, they were rethinking their plans and maybe leaving the Balkans and Greece for another trip and heading to Great Britain before their three months were up. I felt badly to be the bearer of such news but ignorance is not bliss when it comes to Schengen.
West of Barcelona lies Montserrat which we had missed on our last trip. The winding road going up is actually quite wide, and we were able to find parking though the lot is for cars at the top. Do not try to pay with the machines or it will charge you the 30E bus price—just go through the manual line on the way out. The views from the top are wonderful as are the rock formations. In high season you will have to park near the bottom and take the train/funicular up. Coming back we went down the back side which is less steep but affords more wonderful rock formations. There are lots of hiking trails on this mountain but most are very vertical.
We drove another 3 hrs towards Madrid using the toll road which was quite reasonable at about 15 E from Mataro all the way to where it becomes free on the way to Madrid. We spent the night feeling quite safe at a truck stop restaurant N41.30604 W1.96376. There are lots of these along the route. If your rig is overweight there is a weigh station about 20 miles north of Guadalajara. It was closed when we went past as they were working on the highway. Being overweight in Spain can cost big bucks in fines.
Madrid We had been dreading the campground in Madrid because when we were there in January, 2010, it was crowded, muddy, and a general mess. This time was much better though be warned that the shower block is not heated and open air (though completely private.) It was still quite cold our days there so we used our own shower. We have tried to avoid heating water and using the furnace as we don't have the right filler for the Spanish propane. Without using the furnace much,we should be able to go a month on our tank of propane. Camping Osuna is not well signed so here are the coordinates for the entrance N40.45374 W3.60332. The first afternoon in Madrid we did the Fodor walk through the old city. Fairly hard to follow and basically not interesting. Madrid has no medieval quarter as it is too “new.” Our second day we spent 8 hrs at the Prado. Retired persons are half price and we took 3 welcome breaks at the reasonably priced cafeteria (we also brought sandwiches.) The paintings have good signage in English but we got the terrific audio guides, too. The down side is no pictures allowed and there is a guard in every room. The collection is magnificent though and worth the trip to Madrid. It is only a 10 minute walk to the metro from the campground—the campground south of Madrid is 30-40 minute walk and then a much longer commute into the city.
Toledo A quick drive to Toledo brought us to the camperstop right at the foot of the town and across from the bus station. At least 10-15 campers were there and it seemed pretty safe. We had stayed there 3 years ago, too. Toledo has a very compact and interesting old center. Most of the sights are free or low cost as a bonus. Since it was Saturday afternoon we got in free to the old Jewish synagogue and the El Greco house. If you are paying you might want to skip the Jewish museum—it was very basic and assumes you know nothing about Judaism. The synagogue however, had the wonderful carved screens like they have at the Alhambra so don't miss it. We also enjoyed the tile museum that is an often overlooked part of the Museum of Santa Cruz. We skipped the cathedral as we had seen it before and its admission price is now a hefty 8E. Toledo is definitely a not to be missed stop in Spain.
Granada And now the drive to Granada. The roads are 4 lane and free which was really nice. We stayed at Camping Reina Isabella where we stayed 3 years ago. This time 16E with the discount card. I have noticed that almost all the campgrounds that accept the card also sell it. I am sure they run out but if you are traveling in the spring you probably don't have to order it. We have been surprised at how full the campgrounds have been—it seems that many northern Europeans are headed back home after wintering in southern Spain. The Alhambra was of course, wonderful. We took the two buses to get there so about 6E each round trip. You must get a timed ticket in advance which the campground will reserve for you at 2E each. You must pick the ticket up 1 hr before your visit and the second bus runs only every 30 minutes, so allow plenty of time to get there. You can park at the Alhambra. If you have a 6 meter or so camper you can use the car parks and it is only about 2E an hour. The bus/camper lot is 3E an hour (29E for 24 hrs.)from Oct-May but almost double that for summer. There were campers there obviously spending the night. The last bus leaves at 7 pm so plan ahead. Also it does not drop you off where it picked you up in town so you have to walk back across the river. This was confusing so you might ask the campground person to explain it. We had seen the Royal Chapel etc. last time and also the flamenco show in the caves so really this visit was just the Alhambra. By the way, the Alhambra was the only site in Spain where they required you to be an EU citizen to get the senior discount.
Cordoba At Cordoba we parked at the camperstop at N37.87515 W4.76626 with the big tour buses. It is a little less than a mile walk to the Mesquita from there and it seemed safe enough. I would advise early afternoon so there will still be lots of bus drivers around. We could have spent the night but the temperature had risen to 90 and there was no shade. We decided to go ahead and drive on towards Seville. Though we both love the Mesquita, we have not been impressed with the rest of the town that we've seen so haven't really stayed there or explored much.
We spent the night at one of the huge restaurant/gas stations along the highway. Again we have not been concerned with safety at these places as we have multiple chains/locks and an alarm system. Supposedly there have been some instances of “gas” being fed into campers but I have also read that that would be pretty much impossible. We are far more worried about the camper being broken into when we're not in it.
Seville There is only one campground for Seville in the nearby town of Dos Hermanas. There are supposed to be two camperstops. Even though we arrived at 9:30 am the first was full and it was basically paid street parking near the train station and not secure enough for us. So we didn't even look for the other one and went on to the campground where we had stayed before. We knew that this week was the April Fair but did not know that Tuesday was a city holiday and all the shops etc. would be closed. We took the bus at mid afternoon and joined the throng headed for the Fair. I have no words to describe how amazing this was. There are 1020 casitas--white tents-set up by families, friends, business groups for partying and dancing for an entire week. There are public ones—but they are a little hard to find, but the tourist offices have a map. Most of the tents have small bands and all of them have pretty much constant flamenco dancing from tots to the elderly. This lasts for a week from mid afternoon to 4-5 am. During the day there is also a constant parade of horse carriages and riders in Andalusian dress. Next to all this is a giant carnival amusement park. It is a spring party like nowhere else. There are very few tourists and though there is plenty of drinking, little drunkenness as it is a family affair. We went back again for the evening two days later. I must have seen 5,000 different flamenco dresses. If you can ever attend this, you will not be sorry.
Of course, Seville itself is a beautiful city. After the 1929 World's Fair it kept most of the pavilions and turned the surrounding area into lush parks. Then there is the Cathedral and most importantly, The Alcazar. The Alcazar takes the idea of the Alhamba and goes one better. We skipped the royal rooms on the second floor having done them before and found them ho-hum. The rest of the palace and gardens is a whole day anyway and if you're over 65 2e each is the entrance fee. If I lived in Seville, I would go once a month! It was crowded though with school groups of all ages plus tours, so late afternoon gives you more peace and quiet for the main palace. We may have to come again for the April Fair.
Heading north we entered a part of Spain we missed on our last trip. The Extramadura is sparsely populated but we decided to spend the night in the town of Caceres which has a lovely medieval center on a hilltop. The camperstop was full by 6 pm but we parked in an overflow area. Then on to the very famous Roman bridge at Alcantara. A little out of the way but even the small roads were good. There was plenty of parking at the bridge if you wanted to spend the night—however, the bridge gets lots of traffic even at almost 2000 years old. We elected to drive on to Salamanca. If you venture out into this area be sure to have enough fuel as gas stations are few and far between.
Salamanca For Salamanca we stayed at Camping Don Quojite with our discount card 14E per night and excellent free wifi (they also have cabins.) April 23 turns out to be a provincial holiday in Castille-Leon so we missed seeing the inside of the old cathedral and the convent. The town is all built of a beautiful light sandstone and the sites are in a compact and walkable area. The new cathedral is not that interesting—they don't even charge admission! However, we loved the Lis, a museum of Art Nouveau. It was a beautiful home, now museum, where every window, skylight and the immense atrium is stained glass. Their collection of dolls was the best we have seen in Europe plus wonderful Art Nouveau furniture, glass, jewelry, bronzes—an amazing collection. Much of it is on line at their virtual site—if you go to the site and you love Art Nouveau, you will immediately begin planning your trip to Salamanca. We elected not to stay in town until dark to see it lit up, but I am betting we will be back. There was a closed weigh station going north.
Burgos It is a 2-3 hour drive from Salamanca to Burgos. We planned to park in the camperstop in town but the tour buses occupied all the appropriate spots. If you arrive in the late afternoon, room might be available. We did find ample parking in a new neighborhood of apartment buildings at N42.33397 W3.70649. It seemed safe enough, so after locking everything up and leaving our transitor radio on, we walked the pleasant mile mostly along the river to the Cathedral. With admission (6E for over 65) you got an excellent audio guide. By the way, this was one of only a few places in Spain that we haven't been asked for proof of age. It takes 1-2 hours to see all the cathedral and it is stupendous. Normally, we are not fans of flamboyant Gothic/Rococo but everything in this Cathedral is beautiful. The lantern tower is now my favorite in Europe. Burgos is basically a one site town, so we got on the tollway and headed north to Bilboa. Usually, we don't use tollways, but our experience so far in Spain (where they are only in the north) is that they are not nearly as expensive as France or Italy. We stopped about 20 miles south at a hotel/restaurant/gas parking area to save the expense of an extra night at the camperstop in Bilboa. The toll was 21E from Burgos to Bilboa.
Bilbao We enjoyed the Guggenheim Museum so much last August that we had decided to return. Also we hadn't seen any of the rest of the city as the temperatures were in the high 90s and the camperstop had no shade. We arrived at the hilltop camperstop to find it closed. Another camper was parked in the park's parking lot next door, so we decided to catch the bus and inquire at the tourist office about its closure. They said it would be closed until June, that the nearest campground was 30 miles east, but that probably the police would tolerate our staying at the parking lot. We ended up staying 2 nights with 5-6 other campers each night. Catching the bus is quite easy and the line ends in the Old Town area only 1 block from the market. The market is 75 years old but has been completely renovated inside to such a degree that it really had lost a lot of the European market feel. The Old Town had several lovely squares and pedestrianized shopping streets. We visited the Basque Museum which was free for retired folks and was unusually complete but no signs in English though some explanation sheets were available. A second day was spent at the Guggenheim—retired persons admission is only 7.5E with audioguide. Ask the bus driver to let you off at the Hospital stop. Then walk diagonally to the tram stop. For 5E buy a card to use the “trein” or bus (each end) for less than half price. You must stamp the card for the tram before getting on. Two can use the same card by stamping twice. Going back to the camperstop when you exit the train continue going left about 1 ½ blocks until you see the 58 bus stop.
Some of the “art” is beyond me—a roomful of about 10 sets of Ikea kitchen cabinets with a stuffed cat? 16 slightly different paintings of Stalin and Lenin painted upside down in different colors? However, the building is amazing and we love the The Matter of Time installation where you walk through 7 giant steel geometric structures. Unfortunately, the weather, which has been rain free since Barcelona, has turned very cool again with a forecast of highs in the 50s and rain for northern Spain and southwestern France for the next 9 days. Heading to San Sebastian we paid for the toll road (10
E) as the coast road is narrow, hilly and twisting. It is scenic but not for us in the driving rain. The campstop in San Sebastian is about 3E a night in off-season with free water and dump. In high season, starting in June, it is 6E a night. Between showers we intend another tapas crawl and will spend a couple of days resting and planning what we want to do in France.
For those of you who are wondering what this costs, here is the breakdown for 31 days in Spain with the Euro at about $1.31 and diesel about 1.36E per liter. Groceries: $370. Eating out $334 (very high for us) $412 camping fees (18 nights campgrounds, 13 free) Diesel $583., Admissions and local transportation $391., Toll roads $61., Laundry $41 (we dried several loads on our clothesline) Propane $35