January 19th 2017:
We woke up on the morning of our planned long drive back to the Algarve to find the ground covered in thick frost. It was my turn on the dog walk and I had to put on coat, gloves and a hat! This seemed unbelievable to us after all the weeks of sunshine and warmth – even more so when I later went to fill up the leaky tank and found a foot long icicle hanging from the site water tap. The man in the office said that it had fallen to -7c overnight. I found this hard to believe but it had certainly gone well below zero.
The journey back to Loulé took us five hours including an hour’s break for lunch in a Lidl carpark (where else?) and we hit the busy, clunky N125 road in the Algarve at 3.30 p.m . We found Camperserv, the company who look after motorhomes all over the Algarve, and entered its frankly terrifying carpark. The place was crammed with motorhomes, some of them moving around, others with their garage contents spilling out, drivers and passengers standing about restlessly and a couple of mechanics charging about. We had emailed a couple of days before and asked if we could pop by to find out what needed to be done and not received a reply. Looking at the amount of work they were trying to do I imagine they never get the chance to read an email. I spotted a likely looking man fixing the van in front of us and heard him speaking English. He was definitely from the UK and I was much relieved. “Hello,” I said hopefully, “we’ve got a problem.” Barely looking in my direction he said, “Everyone’s got a problem but they’ve all got an appointment.” I felt reprimanded. At this point a friendly French lady came over and warned us in French that a large motorhome was moving behind us and we should maybe move forward a bit. The nearest translation of what she said was, “You should move your arse, the one behind you is enormous!” We couldn’t help laughing, which delighted the French lady when she realised we had understood her.
I wandered into the office where a man on the reception desk was speaking fluent French to a couple at the counter. I was impressed at first until I realised he was in fact a Frenchman. When it was my turn I discovered he spoke good English too but he was in a bit of a mood, probably because he was trying to manage the juggling of numerous motorhomes with problems. I told him about our leaky tank and he did the French version of the British plumber, sucking air between his teeth and suggesting dire possibilities including the likelihood that we would need to get a new tank from the manufacturer. He nipped my ear for just turning up and not making an appointment; I didn’t bother to tell him about the email as attempting to remain on his, as yet invisible, good side seemed the best option. Finally he sent me back to the van to ‘park it properly’ and wait there for someone to come and look at it. While I was in the office Shirley was outside in the van being directed in and out of the gate by the husband of the previously mentioned French lady. Every time someone needed to move their van she had to reverse out and in again and by the time I got outside she was a tad wobbly. Reversing 7.5 metres and 4 tons through several hundred thousand pounds worth of other people’s motorhomes is pretty scary. We got ourselves tucked into a ‘proper’ parking place and waited. Not much happened to entertain us but we did see the aforementioned Frenchman run out of the gate and across the road to take a pee on the grass verge. This is difficult for us Brits to understand, especially when he had his own toilet on board. After what seemed like an hour the English mechanic came over and slid under the van to take a look. “Split hose” he said, “I can fix that” and disappeared again. A few minutes later he was back with his tools and under the van. A man of few words, I did hear a few choice ones when he took out the hose in question and much of the remaining 10 litres of water in the tank emptied out all over him. He was surprisingly friendly when he finally emerged looking like a drowned thing, told me he had fixed it easily and invited us to return if we had any more problems. To be honest I would be too scared to do so, the Frenchman on reception has the demeanour of an old school head teacher and I was still feeling as though I was six again. The total bill for the repair was ten minutes work – €6. We were amazed and more than a little grateful. So my review of Camperserv would go like this, “Great work at a reasonable price but make sure you have your big girl pants on when you turn up. A course in assertiveness before you go is advisable- oh and maybe an advanced driving course wouldn’t go amiss.”
It was late when we left the place and hit the road. We had not made any plans for the night, knowing that there were loads of camper parks around the area but we don’t usually turn up after dark and some of them fill up fast. We decided to drive the 15 miles to Armaçao where we knew there was enough space for hundreds of vans. Arriving there we got into the very last available place by the entrance and paid our 3€ for an overnight and a fill up with water for our newly watertight freshwater tank. it was late, we were hungry and a bit lightheaded with relief after finally getting the leak fixed so we headed out onto the sea front to eat fresh fish and drink local wine. The waiter was a delight. An older man with a lot of knowledge about all the fish on offer, he brought ours to the table before it was cooked to make sure we were happy with the portion size. He then expressed concern for our welfare in this incredibly cold weather and told us which red wine to drink to keep us warm. After the meal, which was delicious, he insisted on giving us a small port to finish. I was gassed! I mean seriously tipsy and was led home by the ever patient Shirley and poured into the van where I sat and talked drivel for an hour before losing several games of cards and falling into bed.
Early the next morning, just as Shirley was climbing into her clothes ready to take the dogs for their morning walk there was a loud rap on the door. Shirley slid the door blind down and gasped, “It’s the police.” As soon as I heard this I was jumping about at the other end of the van trying to pull on some trousers and a jumper, Shirley in the meantime was outside being questioned and cautioned because we were parked for the night in an illegal area. Us and about a hundred other vans, several of whom were exiting the scene still in their PJs. It turns out that the people who ‘run’ the motorhome parking there and take money from all these motorhomes don’t have a licence and have been warned and fined numerous times for doing so. They asked for our passports and van papers and, as I handed them outside, the dogs escaped and Poppy immediately tried to make friends with the crowd of police officers who were out in force. Fortunately, for once in their lives, the dogs must have heard the desperation in my voice and returned to the van without a murmur. Shirley was taken over to the entrance by one of the officers to see the sign that said ‘No overnight parking’ but to his chagrin it had been removed, making her protestation that we didn’t know it was illegal obviously true. We were told to move on quickly and given a caution and a written report but no fine to pay. We were out of there like rats out of a trap and it was only when I looked in the mirror later that I realised I looked like a wild thing with my hair stood on end and flat on one side as though a seagull had landed and stayed the night.
We had had no breakfast, not even a cup of tea, so we thought we would stop in a supermarket carpark somewhere and consider our options. We saw signs to Apolonia supermarket – a rather upmarket place a bit like Waitrose. Looking back I don’t know what made us think this was a good idea, given that we were dressed in anything we could grab, unwashed, unbrushed and distinctly unkempt. The Apolonia we found wasn’t the one we were expecting and it had only a small carpark, certainly not the kind we could park in at the back, make breakfast and have a shower. We parked up and went into the shop, bought a couple of random items and shuffled back to the van. Just as we were about to leave a man in a large French car parked right next to us and got out to speak to us. For a moment I thought we were going to receive a caution for shopping in an upmarket supermarket when inappropriately clothed but it turned out he was British and wanted to talk about motorhome online forums and ask if we belonged to the same one as him. We didn’t and having looked at it in the past wouldn’t consider it as the members can be extremely negative. I didn’t say this of course, just tried not to look as scruffy as I felt and made polite chit chat with this man in a posh car wearing posh clothes with his immaculately groomed wife sitting smiling in the passenger seat. We had breakfast in the van at the Marina in Albufeira and decided to phone the Camping and Caravan club and ask them to book us in one of the sites nearby that they have an arrangement with. The lady who answered told us that as we wanted to go today she would have to charge us a £20 surcharge for a late booking. What? We politely declined and decide to book ourselves into the site. Off we went to Camping Rio Formosa near Tavira and asked for a pitch for three nights. The receptionist told us they only had one left so we accepted it and drove in. We then discovered that the ‘pitch’ was not big enough for our van and was extremely narrow, kind of similar to a space in a car park. Next to it was a derelict caravan with what looked like police tape round it. One of the workers on the site tried to squeeze us in, almost frightening the guy in the caravan on the other side to death as the front of our motorhome almost drove into his kitchen. After the man shouted at Shirley a few times trying to get her to bend the motorhome into a space it wouldn’t go in we left. Enough already! The day was turning into a disaster.
Finally we consulted our Camper Contact app and ended up on a motorhome park in Monta Rota. We are right by a huge beach that the dogs can run on, next door is a lovely friendly Swedish man who looks like Santa and speaks great English and it’s quiet here. The price? €4.50 a night including services. Peace at last.