The drive down from Benarraba in the mountains was challenging. The satnav is good at choosing the shortest route and even takes into account the height and length of the van. What it doesn’t do is make choices based on the condition of the roads. Our ‘shorter and faster’ route turned out to be on roads with almost no tarmac, a number of ferocious pot holes, very steep down hill stretches and hair pin bends. Add to that local drivers in 4×4 vehicles and you have seriously bum squeaky conditions. Fifteen miles of bone shaking brought us neatly down to the coast by Gibraltar. Spanish roads are normally excellent and we were delighted to be reunited with tarmac and white lines. Bowling along the motorway, sighing with relief at not having to hang on to our seats and our sphincters we opted not to visit Gibraltar, choosing instead to head across country to the coast west of Cadiz to a place called Sanlucar de Barrymeda. There was a free aire there (note my use of the past tense) that had been wholeheartedly recommended by many. Sadly it has been closed by the local council because of a few people abusing their hospitality and leaving the services and the surfaces in a dreadful mess. Of course we didn’t know this until we arrived, tired and thirsty, only to discover we couldn’t stop there. A quick recce of the CamperContact app took us 4k up the road to a commercial aire near Chipiona where you pay €8 for a proper pitch, all the services except electricity which is a little extra and there is even grass there! Spanish camp sites are often completely denuded of grass. Some of them don’t even try to grow any because the conditions make it nigh on impossible to keep it alive. At our little cheap camper place we had our own little patch of lawn to sit out on, we were about 50 yards from the beach and surrounded by happy people cooking on BBQs and cheerily greeting us as we drove in. The owner is Alfonso and we really liked him … more on that later.
We stayed two days at Alfonso’s place and relaxed a lot. We cycled to Chipiona on the cycle path, visited the local shop, washed the motorhome floor that was distinctly gritty and sorted out the under belly (the massive storage under the bed). We only made one mistake – we didn’t ask for electricity. The sun was shining a good bit of each day and we assumed, wrongly, that the solar panel would have the batteries in tip top condition in no time. It was a day or two later that we realised we were wrong about that. We left Alfonso’s place a bit reluctantly and made our way in the direction of Seville and onwards to the Algarve.
Sometimes being a two female outfit has its disadvantages and one of these is making decisions about where to stay if the surroundings are a bit iffy. We wanted to visit Seville but the reviews we could find about motorhome stops seemed to be a bit questionable in the security department. We decided to leave a visit there until another time and drove on towards Portugal, following our agreed protocol of ‘don’t do it if it doesn’t feel safe’. We were surprised to find ourselves crossing the border into Portugal not long afterwards. Spanish roads seem to eat up the miles, probably because they are nearly empty outside the big towns. We stopped for the night at Castro Marim literally just over the border into Portugal, having put our credit card in a machine and been given a bit of paper that allows them to take money out of it every time you pass an electronic toll on the motorway. We are still hoping that this was a safe procedure but other options didn’t seem to be available. Portugal has been famous for its appallingly poor management of the new toll system. We’ll just have to wait and see.
…was full of motorhomes. Two large parking places were brimming with them so we happily settled in next to a British Hymer A class that had seen much better days and wandered through the town, bought a coffee, took some photos and relaxed. The town has had a colourful history, wrestling with authorities that wanted to take away its status as a region. It has a ruined fortification, some pretty churches, lovely tiling on some of the buildings and good coffee costs 80c in a pleasant café. For a few heady hours we thought that Portugal was going to be cheap. It wasn’t long before we discovered otherwise but its a struggling country and adding our tourist Euros to its economy can only be a good thing.
The next morning, having been three days and nights off electric hook up, our blown air heating wouldn’t blow because our leisure batteries were low. That’s when we realised we should have paid for some of Alfonso’s electricity. As soon as the sun starts to shine the batteries perk up but by then its too late. Mother nature is warming the van and we don’t need the heating. And anyway the perking up isn’t real – its the sunshine on the solar panel giving a big reading but the angle of the sun and relatively short sunshine hours in winter don’t boost them right up. We could add another battery and solar panel but then we’d be overweight. I have now started hankering for a van with heating that doesn’t require an arm and a leg of 12v power to blow it round the van.To be fair I often hanker for a different van – it’s the middle aged motorhomers’ version of fantasy. The one I fancy is as expensive as a decent semi in Scotland but unfortunately it doesn’t appreciate in value.
We decided to visit the local supermarket and were shocked to discover it was very cold outside. Around 9c!! We shivered our way over to the shop, looked at the prices and gasped, bought a few toilet rolls and rushed back to the van to get ready to roll.
Armacoa, Portimao and Silves
Our next stop was Armacao. This lovely seaside town is a favourite of our pal Mary and we’ve arranged to meet her there in early January. By the time we arrived the sun was shining, the air was warm and the earlier frigid experience was long forgotten. There is a motorhome parking there that charges €1.50 a night. It has views of the sea, is a short walk into town and there is a lovely friendly atmosphere. Unfortunately there is no access to electricity so we only stayed for a couple of hours. Enough to take a picture or two to torment Mary with, buy a mahoosive ice cream and sit watching the atlantic waves on the long golden beach.
Our immediate priority was to find a motorhome parking with electric hook up, so we made our way to Silves, slightly inland from Portimao where there are two commercial aires, both with a good reputation. At the first one we were turned away – completely full – and at the second we could have the last place but there was no electric. Uncertain what to do we opted for the second offer and had the most challenging parking experience of the trip so far. The manager of the site was lovely and the new parking area in top condition. He apologised for the fact that the electric hookups were still being installed and that he only had one space for one night but on the positive side there were people we’d met before on site and the security was good. We accepted the last pitch and he guided us to it, ready to help me back into it. What we weren’t expecting was a large party of Dutch people having a long meal and drinking session opposite the pitch. Around twenty people, tables and chairs, a small car and several merry Dutch folk were in the way of our progress. Up jumped four of the men to assist us in our somewhat dangerous procedure. Somehow I had to make sense of four different sets of instructions, three of them a bit squiffy, avoid knocking some merry Dutchwomen off their chairs and not dent a car. Along with these challenges were two concrete circles designed to separate the parking places. Fortunately these weren’t fixed and the kind manager nearly did himself a nasty moving one to make the procedure possible. Arms waving and instructions shouting I somehow managed to follow the most sensible instructions whilst ignoring the clearly daft ones and get onto the pitch. I heard one of the Dutchmen say to the manager, in English, that only a woman could manage that – men would be too pigheaded to follow advice. I said nothing but smiled a bit despite my firm belief that sexist comments, even ones that are positive to women, are a bit out of order.
We walked up to the castle in Silves, Shirley took photos of storks roosting on roofs and then we shuffled our way back down again on the difficult cobblestones. Coming down is always more of a challenge than going up. Is this another metaphor for life?
We liked it at Silves but the lack of electricity was still an issue and anyway, pleasant town that it is, it didn’t have enough to make us want to stay. As our trip goes on, the things that inspire us to stay in a place become more obvious to us. We like to ride our bikes, go on attractive walks, play some sport and have an occasional pleasant meal out. If we can do all that and be around friends it’s the cherry on the cake.
We came up with a solution to our power problem fairly quickly – we called the Camping and Caravan Club and asked if we could arrive at our Christmas destination a couple of days earlier than planned. A short while later we received a call back to say they’d arranged it for us. Fabulous service! before we set off in the direction of Lagos and Turiscampo we decided to do a little shopping. We went first to Aqua shopping centre at Portimao and tried to find a suitable parking place for our big beast. Half way into the car park we realised she wasn’t going to fit so we crept in through an exit and parked up near the back of the car park. By the time we returned an hour later we had been joined by several other motorhomes – we’d started a trend! Next we went into our old friend Lidl to buy some food. The car park there was partly covered over by awnings to keep cars in the shade and the back of the car park was open with a big sign We Welcome Motorhomes. “Grand!” we thought and trotted in to the shop. When we came out we discovered something alarming. The way out was a lot, lot tighter than the way in and, horror of horrors, I managed to scrape the top of the van on one of those awnings. I was watching the front nearside to avoid hitting parked cars and didn’t notice the overhang until we heard the horrible crunching, rasping sound. We arrived at Turiscampo feeling very worried about the amount of damage we might have done to the van. At first we couldn’t see any damage at all but climbing up to look through one of the skylights we saw the tell tale signs of cracked plastic on the top edge. Shirley went to ask reception for a ladder so that we could check that we were watertight and then, to our relief, the German man next door offered to go up and check it for us. We have some exposed insulation material under the cracked plastic so the kind neighbour stuck some gaffer tape over it for us until we can get it to a repairer. Later, on the motorhome forum, we were given advice about where to take it near here for a good repair. We’ll do that after the festivities are over.
Some thoughts on kindness
Reading our blog you may have noticed that the strap line is ‘Motorhoming with a little kindness’. We are convinced that small acts of kindness have a big impact – on the giver, the receiver and potentially numerous others who are within touching distance. There’s a positive flow of energy that we can help to keep moving by consciously being kind. After we decided on the strap line we realised that it wouldn’t be appropriate to publicise these small acts on the blog so it hangs there under the title apparently doing nothing. We’re not travelling Europe doing massive things for others. Sometimes we are simply smiling and attempting to say something pleasant. Anyway, the reason I wanted to mention it in this post is that we’ve discovered something amazing. We are receiving far more in kindness than we can possibly give. Total strangers go out of their way to be helpful, generous or just wonderfully warm. Alfonso, the camperpark owner near Chipiona was a great example. Each time he saw me he spoke to me in English, using my first name and being genuinely kind. “Margaret!” he would call out, “Are you comfortable? Do you need anything?” Those simple words made us feel safe and cared for in that strange little corner of Spain. At the local shop, which at first glance was a bizarre and ramshackle place, the lady running it recognised that we were British immediately and when it came time to pay for our few purchases she took a deep breath and said the amount in English, glancing up shyly to see if we understood. “Thank you!” we said, “Very good English.” And she blushed a bit, clearly delighted. We left feeling warmed and decided immediately that one day we would return. It really doesn’t take much to warm your cockles. Now, after the nasty experience with the damage to the van, we’ve discovered once again how kind people can be and what a difference it makes. We set out with a plan to just be kind in simple ways and to our amazement we’ve been overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers.