Vicki's Spain and Portugal

60 Days in Spain and Portugal—Winter 09-10

Though we had been to Europe many times-always camping-we had never been to the Iberian Peninsula, so we hardly knew what to expect. However, our reading had made us very wary. We had read of lots of problems with theft, inability to wild camp, poor drivers, little English spoken, etc. We did have some problems, but overall it was an excellent experience.

We did have problems with our driver’s license—for details see the Driving in Spain article. It got solved and we were only stopped to be weighed just the one time on the N road from the Atlantic to Pamplona. If you have any thought that you might be overweight or don’t have a class C International Driver’s Permit, you should avoid this road with its scales. We saw two other permanent scale installations—one near Vinaros on the N340 and one north of Figueras on the NII. In both cases they were weighing vehicles coming into Spain.

Overall we found the roads as good or better than France and England. We tried to avoid the pay roads as they are very expensive—about like France. We had no trouble on the non-pay roads. Only two that we took were awful—less than 2 lanes, few pullovers and many blind curves. The first was along the north Atlantic just west of San Sebastian on the coast road before heading into Guernica. The second was from Coripe to Algodonales A3204. The first one was very scenic at least. The second was just completely frightening and worth a long detour to avoid. Also just south of Barcelona the N340 changes to an incredibly scenic but narrow, twisting cliff road by the sea, with immense numbers of trucks. In fact if you don’t like the busiest 2 lane truck road we have ever seen you might want to do the toll road on both sides of Barcelona. Though it was amusing to see all the immense (legal) bordellos set up for the truckers and the women sitting on the highway verge in plastic chairs showing off their wares.

Speaking of roads, I am a complete coward on the roads of Europe and am always worrying about if we will be able to visit some site. The area I was most concerned about in Spain was the White Hill Towns. We are 7m long and 2.4 wide, and it was low season for traffic so keep that in mind. We visited Zahara de la Sierra—do not try to drive into town. There is parking below and the walk is not far. Then we drove to Grazalema but did not take the Pass of the Doves as the TI was closed and the weather cloudy and there was no one to ask about it.. We did see campers headed that way. We loved Grazalema though it is back a winding, narrow road. You can drive right into town and we stayed in the town parking lot right before the road heads up to the pass. There was a campground just before the road gets into the mountains but it was closed. When we left Rhonda we took the A369/A405 south to Gilbraltor. The road was winding but a wide two lane that had recently be redone. The views were tremendous with no truck traffic and pull outs were available to stop and take pictures. So the hill towns are possible even without a car and that is nice to know.

Weather. We entered Spain on Dec. 10 just ahead of some of the coldest weather on record in Europe. It snowed in San Sebastion so our plan to head to Madrid had to be scrapped as we didn’t want to cross the mountains in snow. We also discovered that though LPG is now available in most areas of Spain that it needs a special Euro adapter and we only had the GB style and the French cup. So we hugged the coast going all the way round the tip to La Coruna and then cut across to Santiago de Compostela. (Which we don’t think is worth seeing—we probably saw 7-8 cathedrals in Spain and it was the least interesting.) The plan was to go to Portugal to get LPG, then head for Madrid when the weather warmed some, then back to Portugal for more LPG before doing the south of Spain.

That worked out very well and we spent Christmas weekend in Lisbon. We thought we would need seven days or more for Madrid, Toledo, El Escorial, Segovia, but more really cold weather was moving in so we thought we did a pretty good job in 6 days.

Portugal overall was less expensive than Spain (except for diesel) but the Argave is not as warm or sunny as Spain’s southern coast. Admission prices for cathedrals, museums, etc. were quite high everywhere, averaging about $15 each. For most reduced entries you needed to be 65. A few free or reduced prices were available for faculty and Mark still had his U. of Montana card so that was good. We drove a total of 3,900 miles. We spent about $600 on food and about $300 eating out. Total for admissions and city transportation was $740, which included going to a Flamenco evening and about $150 going on a one day trip to Morocco. The Morocco trip was pretty tame. There just isn’t much to see in Tangier. Unless you are just dying to step foot in Africa, I would skip it. We didn’t have time to spend longer and take the camper over. However, the ferry we were on had at least 30 campers going over and I understand it is a very popular motorhome destination. However, there is no bulk LPG for sale there which would have been a problem for us since we couldn’t refill in Spain.

We spent about half our nights wild camping. The most expensive campgrounds were in Toledo and Madrid at $35 a night but most Spanish campgrounds were at least $28 even in the low season. Portugal was only about $15 a night but $25 in Lisbon. We wild camped for several nights right on the beachfront in Sagres, Portugal. Then again on beach on the west side of Pulpi, Spain. Pulpi was an ideal location within walking distance of town and the bread truck even made its rounds several times a week. Pulpi is just west of Aguilas. We had no problems finding places to wild camp except where it was mountainous. We thought we could park in an open area near the beach in La Linea (by Gilbraltor) but the police came around in the afternoon and told all the campers they couldn’t stay overnight. We moved closer into town at the city park across from McDonalds. It was a metered pay zone but because we stayed Saturday and Sunday nights there was no charge. I imagine that except in low season the police would have asked us to move—it also helped that it was pouring rain the whole time.

We did drive into Gibraltor and parked on the west side near the ugly beach and construction for one night. Not much parking there though. However, diesel is 20% cheaper in Gibraltor so worth driving in for. Be sure to get into the big truck lane for leaving though. We were in car lane and damaged our lower side panel as they had concrete barriers set up that we couldn’t really get through. It was also fun to shop at the British Morrison’s store and stock up on Digestive biscuits, scones, etc. but they had run out of clotted cream as it was Sunday.

We met a young couple from England who had been traveling with their baby for 6 months and were headed home. They told us that you could wild camp at any Lidl supermarket after closing hours and that many people set up even before. We haven’t tried that yet, but it is good to know as Lidl has lots of stores all over Europe.

We loved Barcelona and all the Gaudi stuff—so much better than any picture. We also stopped to see the Dali Theater Museum in Figueras—we weren’t going to go in as we aren’t great Dali fans. It was fabulous. Also don’t miss the Mesquita in Cordoba—something else we almost passed by as it was out of the way. Worth a big detour in our estimation.

So we loved Spain and Portugal but wished the weather had been better. Supposedly, this winter was wetter and colder than normal. I hope so as it was really marginal in terms of enjoying this trip. Best plan if you are wintering in Spain would be to allow 3 months and get here by mid November. That way you could get all the northern stuff done before mid December and then spend a month relaxing on the sunny coasts. But it is not Florida so you won’t need your swimsuit unless you are going to Morocco.