Leaving Bathala, we decided to head East towards Spain. The decision was made partly on the weather forecast as we noted that going north through Portugal could involve some very cold nights as we crossed into Spain. Another thing that swung our decision was the novelty factor. We would be crossing into Spain on a route we had never used before and finally, and perhaps the strongest pull of all, was the city of Caceres. More on that later.
Having never driven this route before we were a bit worried about the condition of the roads. As we’ve mentioned before, in Portugal they can be very rough and we get fed up of listening to the contents of the van bouncing about and worrying about the state of our fillings. In fact the drive towards the border was much more pleasant than we dared hope and we pulled in for the night in a little town called Maçao. Just four miles off the main road it is up a steep hill and once there you find out that you are parking for the night in the bus station. I use this term loosely as it is a very small place and two buses were parked up in a massive parking area.
We were very happy to discover that not only was water and waste free to use, they had two free electricity points and we hooked up the van and plugged in everything that needed charging. Toothbrushes, rechargeable Dyson handheld vacuum cleaner, laptops … they were all happily plugged into the mains and we looked forward to watching TV on the laptop all evening. There are lovely walks around this little place, looking out over the hills and plains and a few bars and restaurants in town plus an Intermarché at the bottom of the hill as you come in from the main road. It’s too far to walk from the parking so if you need shopping go there first. Before long we were joined by two Portuguese vans who managed to share the remaining electric point using a splitter. One of them kept walking past the van and smiling and doing thumbs up signs each time. I think, like us, he was delighted to find free electricity, especially as it got cold in the night and we could leave the heating on a low temperature.
The next morning we drove towards the border, stopping for breakfast in a layby beside a small farm where goats were in the field beside us. We noticed that there was a Billy goat amongst them. Surprisingly he had apparent free access to about thirty females. Billy came over and stood by the fence, looking at us dolefully. That was when we noticed that one of his front legs was tied to his back leg by a length of rope. This rather basic method of contraception rendered him helpless if he tried to mount one of the females but he could still walk about in the field and graze. No wonder he looked so miserable. I distinctly heard the females chuckling as they walked by. The countryside here was like the UK in early summer. Green and lush with copses of small trees scattered in the fields. It really is beautiful and another time we would spend more time there but Spain and the city of Caceres was calling to us, so we drove on.
The strangest thing about the crossing between Spain and Portugal is that there is a line in the road at the border where the quality of the roads changes immediately. Going into Spain you meet smooth, flat tarmac and a subtle but distinct widening of the carriageways. Before long we were keeping an eye on the speedometer because the amount of pressure we needed on the gas pedal was so much less than before. We drove across the plains towards Caceres on near empty roads with Spanish music playing on the stereo at full blast. There is something liberating about travelling that gives us a thrill every time we set off for somewhere new.
Caceres, in the Extremadura region is a historic city with a campsite that has a unique feature. Every single pitch has its own bathroom. In a small stone building in the corner of your pitch you find a wet room with toilet, basin and shower. Outside there is a hose for filling the tanks on the van, a strange stone basin with a drain and an electric hook up.
I can’t deny that this feature alone caused us to make the decision to stay there, helped, it must be said, by the ACSI card discounted rate of 20€ per night and if you stay four nights you only pay for three. There is literally nothing to dislike about it – except perhaps the occasional but irritating sound of a disco several hundred yards away. We were reminded, rather forcefully, that one big difference between the Spanish and the Portuguese is volume. Boy do the Spanish know how to party! The site itself was quiet and well looked after, if a bit utilitarian looking and we loved our time there.
To get into town you cross over a dual carriageway on a pedestrian bridge and get on a bus into town. For 1.10€ each way you are whisked into the city on the Line 5 bus and return again at your leisure. On weekdays they run every half an hour. Having got lost numerous times before in other cities we used the feature on Google Maps on my phone to mark where we got off the bus so we could find our way home again. By the time we had taken this bus a few times the driver was greeting us with a cheery “Hello the Campers!” Caceres is beautiful with an old town full of historic buildings, tapas bars and restaurants every few yards. There is endless capacity for people watching … my personal favourite and shops galore if that’s your bag.
On one morning we had breakfast in a tiny café in the old town. It was full of people enthusiastically ordering coffee and pastries, many to take away, presumably on their way to work. A handful of tables inside were filling and emptying at a great rate as people struggled their way through the waiting customers to try to find a corner. We ordered toast with ham – Shirley did the order and she kept asking for mantequilla and the waitress double checked, “mantequilla?” and Shirley kept nodding enthusiastically. I whispered “That means butter,” and she whispered back, “bugger I wanted cheese” but by then it was too late so we asked for two coffees to go with the toast and were given a small plate of exquisite small biscuits free of charge. Somehow we found a table where a gathering of elderly ladies on the next table kept growing until I found myself under the armpit of one of them who couldn’t lower her arm as there was literally no space. Fortunately we had a third chair at our table and I wriggled my way out so that we could both breathe. Despite the crowd and the noise it was probably the most fun we’d had at breakfast for months.
Back at the van we discovered that our previously deserted part of the campsite had filled up with numerous German vans, all on an organised tour so we settled down with a mug of tea and the promise of some people watching.
Next to us was a single man in a motorhome and before long it became obvious that he was not an experienced motorhomer. The pitches were slightly sloped with a distinct rise at the very front of the pitch. The day before, when we arrived, we had quickly realised that reversing right to the back of the pitch gave us the best chance of getting level on our wedges as the rise at the front made the slope even more pronounced. Mr Newcomer however stopped his van as soon as he was on the pitch, checked his level and went to get his wedges out of the garage. He then placed them in front of his back wheels and drove forward at speed, flying over the front of the wedges and hitting the ground with a bump. He got out, scratched his head and picked up the wedges, putting them in front of the back wheels again before repeating the previous error. The third time he was almost on the road and his level was getting worse by the minute – as was his mood. Finally he gave up, driving over the front of his wedges for one final time and disappeared. We imagined that he would shout, “Sod motorhoming, I’m going home!” as he shot out of the site but we were wrong. He came back a couple of hours later and settled on his pitch, giving up any pretence at getting level. We felt a bit sorry for him but the entertainment value was almost as good as watching a married couple putting up an awning. You have to get your fun somewhere.
Speaking of fun, I was persuaded that Caceres was an ideal spot for visiting some historic buildings. My preference, when we do this kind of thing, is to visit a place where there is some information about real people and the way they lived. I was to be disappointed in Caceres as the two buildings we chose to visit were not my thing at all. One was a tall tower with a view of the surrounding area – pleasant but overrated as somewhere you might want to pay to climb a few stairs. The other was an ancient Church with an audio tour in English. I was cheered for a minute or two until I started to listen to the audio. The narrator was clearly as bored with the content as I was – at least we had that in common. Amongst the gold and silver, the priceless paintings and rich fabrics in the church I couldn’t shake the thought that people had probably starved to death outside its walls.
Don’t let me put you off though – Caceres is lovely and just wandering around the old streets is a delight. We loved breathing in the atmosphere and seeing the mixture of Moorish and Christian influences in the architecture. We also enjoyed having lunch in the Playa Mayor. There’s probably no point denying it…. food and people watching win every time for me.
After leaving Caceres we drove across country to Aranjuez, just south of Madrid. It was a long drive compared with our usual short hops and we were tired as we drove around Toledo in heavy traffic and finally made our way into the town of Aranjuez. Our plan had been to park up in a motorhome parking close to the Royal Palace. Following the instructions on the satnav we were appalled to discover that the only way to get to this parking was to drive through the palace gates and along narrow cobbled paths that twisted and turned backwards and forwards. If we hadn’t been in a queue of traffic we would have honestly believed that this was a pedestrian route. When we finally got to the parking place we discovered that it didn’t officially allow motorhomes to stay overnight and we would be at risk of being moved on later in the evening so we moved on to the campsite on the other side of town. Here we showed our ACSI discount card and got allocated a good sized pitch. It’s in a good position – we could walk into town the next day, visit the palace and stroll around the beautiful gardens.
The palace, although magnificent, had two things in common with the ancient church in Caceres – it was dripping with priceless objects and paintings and the audio guide was delivered with almost no enthusiasm. The narrator could not pronounce Aranjuez so it took me about half an hour to work out what Arran Wezz was. Some of the rooms were incredibly beautiful but no photography was allowed so we can’t share it here, except for this little beauty I found on Google.
Despite my feelings about the audio guide we would definitely recommend Aranjuez as a great place to visit. As well as the delights of the town itself, you can easily get the train into Madrid from there. On another visit we would stay longer for sure but the campsite filled up on our second day for the start of the Mardi Gras Carnival weekend. Enough said – time to head to somewhere quiet.
We were now heading north in the direction of Zaragoza and chose the beautiful town of Medinaceli as our next stop. In order to reach the town and the generously provided motorhome parking you come off the motorway and head uphill into the mountains. It’s only about two miles but it feels like a lot more – it’s one of those winding roads when you have a sheer drop on one side and rocks on the other. The van with trailer worked hard getting up there but we arrived without incident – apart from Shirley saying her bum ached from clenching it – and parked up overlooking the mountain views. This place is a real treat. It has ancient buildings, cafés, restaurants, a small shop and a great tourist information office with Emilio, who not only speaks perfect English but having lived in Edinburgh for ten years he spoke it with a Scottish accent. Just for information, we recommend stopping off for any fresh food you need before heading here as the shop mostly sells tins and preserved local ham. You can get bread in the mornings but nothing else fresh is available. We stayed for two nights, partly because the weather was so good and the air so clean that we felt energised just wandering around and partly because we are in no hurry. It’s a great feeling and we are determined to enjoy it rather than think ahead all the time.
Next time we have a brief city break before heading east to the seaside.