As we left Gastes we decided to give ourselves a small treat – a weekend on a campsite. Consulting the ACSI book we decided on Camping Larouletta on the French side of the Pyrenees, just five miles from the Spanish border. The day before we had discovered that our wastewater valve was leaking and we were steadily dripping grey water onto wherever we happened to be parked. Friend Ken did a great job of trying to fix it but eventually we had to agree that it needed replacing, so we made a plan to call in at a big motorhome dealership in Bayonne en route to our campsite. We had been there on a previous trip and arrived during the long lunch break, making it necessary to park up and wait for a couple of hours before we could get in. Being slow on the uptake or perhaps it was the takeoff, we did it again, arriving in Bayonne at 12.15 p.m but this time we thought of a solution. We decided to find a supermarket and to do some shopping rather than sitting in a car park twiddling our thumbs. (Does anyone actually twiddle thumbs? – when forced to wait a long time, we just sigh a lot and play mindless games on our ipads)
Finding the supermarket on a Friday afternoon in a suburb of Bayonne is like driving anywhere on a Friday afternoon. Everyone is rushing home from work early and they have no patience at all with a 7.4m motorhome rumbling along with both driver and passenger squinting wildly through the windscreen hoping that, just this once, the sign that said: “LeClerc 2 minutes” really meant it. If you are planning a trip to France and are unfamiliar with the process of finding supermarkets, I feel that it’s only right that we save you a lot of frustration by giving you these pearls of wisdom. Signs giving you the distance to supermarkets in minutes are lies. Leclerc 2 minutes hah! Two minutes in a jet aircraft perhaps. If you are on the road multiply by ten… at least. If you are walking, call a taxi. Also, just to crank up the angst, the sign, having promised you the longed-for supermarket is never, ever followed up by another one so, after the first roundabout, you don’t know if you’re on the right road or not. We were relieved, if a little jittery, to find the supermarket and stock up on food for the weekend, then, having eaten our lunch in the motorhome, we ventured back from whence we had come to the motorhome dealership. Before I went in I practised the French for “I need one like this” and took a photo on my phone of the dripping valve. Fortunately, the man behind the counter clocked immediately that I was an English speaker and informed me very politely that they had nothing like it in stock. That’s three hours of our life we’ll never get back.
Not to worry, we were soon on the road in the direction of the campsite. It didn’t take long to find the town but we were bewildered to find that the entrance to the campsite didn’t seem to exist. We could see the place but we couldn’t get in. Eventually, having upset another stream of Friday afternoon workers, rushing home to enjoy their weekend, we saw a small sign with the word Diversion written on it. Before long we were pulling into the site and Shirley was in the office booking us in for the weekend.
All the way down the road we had discussed the coming weekend and built it up to grand proportions in our minds. We would have a big pitch, we would put up the day shelter and have the table and chairs in there. We would have another BBQ and maybe even light the fire pit again. We would play boules and table tennis. We were going to have such a fine weekend. The first crack in our hopes came when we saw the size of the pitch. It was small – very small. Certainly, there was no room for the day shelter and barely enough room to put our chairs out. The next blow was a discussion with our British neighbours who told us that the reason we were all in the small hard standing pitches was because they were expecting the mother and father of a storm and we would sink if put on grass, in much the same way that our hearts were doing along with the dreams of our weekend. By that evening, however, we were thankful that we were on a campsite in a sheltered position and safely off the road. The wind got up, the skies turned black and the heavens opened. Along with the terrific noise of the rain hammering on the roof came the unmistakeable sound of thunder and lightning coming closer and closer until it settled overhead and came to rest. Boo hid beside Shirley and trembled. Poppy, sleeping peacefully, opened one eye and grunted ‘that’s my walk off the menu then’.
Of course, we did have to walk the dogs, if only to ease our consciences and avoid a mess on the floor. Shirley, from the comfort of the motorhome window, kindly took a video so that you can share the fun.
We sat, in the motorhome for the whole weekend, except for a small break in the weather to go and have a swim. They had a fine pool that was undercover and, as we were getting regularly soaked, it seemed like a good idea to do it deliberately and have some fun as well. We’d been amused on more than one occasion to see a man walking across the campsite in the rain wearing only his swimming trunks and heading into the pool for a swim. This idea, although sensible, was a step too far for us, so we put on our cozzies in the van and shorts and a fleece over the top and grabbed a towel and ran for it. It was only when we got to the pool that we discovered there were no changing areas and we would be forced to either return to the van with our dry(ish) clothes over wet swimmies, or we would have to wrap ourselves in our towels and dash back. Given that the temperature outside was only about 14c, neither of these options was appealing. The good news is that the pool was warm and empty. We had the whole place to ourselves and we swam up and down its length with increasing vigour. In the interests of honest reporting, the only reason for the vigour was the discovery that the other end of the pool cover was open to the elements so one end was colder than the other. The desire to get some exercise after 48 hours of enforced idleness drove us to swim lengths but the cooler water at the open end made us enter it as fast as possible and escape from it with similar enthusiasm. I had brought shower stuff with me to the pool, imagining some warm showers in there, so leaving the pool wrapped in a towel I went out into the rain and ran to the shower block where I met a lady who looked at me with incredulity. I understood how she felt. Shirley in the meantime returned to the warm van and got dried in comfort as she had had the sense to have her shower in the morning.
On Monday morning we left the campsite having inadvertently tripped the electric supply to all the pitches on our line and not admitting it. I am heartily fed up with the French habit of giving you only 5 amps of electricity. On a cold wet weekend, it is neither use to man nor beast. I am still, several days later, feeling guilty although I’m certain that by now someone will have gone to reception and got them to put it back on.
And so we left France and went into Spain with our usual fanfare of Viva Espana as we crossed the border.
Next stop was Vitoria Gasteiz, capital of the Basque region, where, thanks to the wonderful Camper Contact, we found a free aire in a suburb of the city with services and close to shops and bars, including a large Mercadona supermarket. The supermarket was hidden in plain sight across the main road and we spent quite a long time looking for it, in entirely the wrong direction, amongst the other shops before turning around and seeing it with its huge shiny slanting roof and massive green sign dominating the landscape. Our first pleasant surprise was the vast difference in prices between France and Spain. It shouldn’t be a surprise, we’ve noticed it every time we do a tour but it always makes us happy. France, we love you, but you are very expensive… apart from the free accommodation, oh and the great value menu du jours and not to mention the wine. To be fair, food in France is expensive but it is very good quality. They love their good food and so do we but by the time we were in Spain we were ready for some serious budget cutting.
Back at the van, having bought two day’s food for the princely sum of 12€, I set off to walk the dogs. That’s when I discovered that Vitoria Gasteiz isn’t much fun for pooches. They had to make do with walking on concrete paths, avoiding small children on scooters and random grannies so intent on dodging the scooters that they were at serious risk of getting tripped up by dog leads.
At around 5.30 a.m. we were woken by Poppy giving short sharp barks. Roughly translated, this means “I need something and I need it now.” Middle of the night events like this are mercifully rare but usually mean an upset stomach, so I was out of bed and into a random selection of clothes in no time, whilst reassuring Poppy who was looking upwards at the door and now bleating like a lost lamb. Out we went into the freezing night and it was then I discovered that this wasn’t a toilet emergency at all. She looked at me with blatant disbelief as I dragged her onto a patch of frozen grass. Then I did a double take. The grass really was frozen. After a reluctant pee (her not me) we returned gratefully, if grumpily (me not her), back into the van where she returned to her original position, looking up at the top of the door and yipping. Above the door are the van heating controls – she was cold! Checking the temperature inside the van, I discovered that it was 4c. I wrapped the dogs in a blanket, put the heating on and went back to bed. Too clever by far that mutt is.
North Western Spain is cold in winter. That was a discovery we could have done without but it gave us the impetus to change plans and move south. I use the word plans loosely here, but we had vaguely considered going along the northwestern edge of Spain and then round the coast into Portugal. Too cold! We’ll leave that for another trip.
Even when it’s cold we don’t usually travel far in a day so we headed about 80 miles south to the town of Palencia. Here there is yet another free motorhome stopover wedged neatly between a beautiful park and a very pleasant part of town with lots of small shops and tapas bars. It was much warmer here and we enjoyed a number of walks with two happy dogs, free to run without their leads and then two walks into town. Shirley decided to knit a woolly jumper for Poppy, who for some reason feels the cold much more than Boo and we went off to find the necessary wool and needles. The reason we had two walks into town was the forgotten nature of Spanish shop hours. They are closed between 2 pm and 4.30 p.m. Finally we were back in the van, cold beer poured, crackers and pâté at the ready … and relax.