There was no doubt that the aire at Betanzos was a fine place to stay for a couple of days yet on the first night our moods were low. The problem was that other than Muncho in Foz hardly anyone had spoken to us since we arrived in Galicia. Even though we understood that people can, as a general rule, recognise when someone is a foreigner and the thought of trying to communicate is a bit scary, we were feeling the effects of being strangers. One other motorhomer had conversed with us in Foz because his wife was English and he was a confident English speaker but most other people turned away from us even when we passed them walking up and down the site. There was no-one visible at all in our brief lunch stop in Guitiriz and arriving in Betanzos we felt the same sense of isolation as we looked around us and saw that people were chatting to one another but not one even looked in our direction. We were definitely the Norma No Mates in the camp. Isolation is a horrible feeling and I really hope that we remember to be friendly to strangers when we’re at home in our own familiar space.
The next morning we got out our gadget that works as both a bike trolley and pull along shopping cart and set off hopefully in the direction that we thought the shops might be. One of the other motorhomers was outside his van and he wished us Buenos Dias. A breakthrough! Then he told us his English was poor but with sign language pointed out the direction of Lidl. We felt instantly uplifted by this touch of human kindness and went on our way feeling much more cheerful. Later he asked, using only eyebrows and thumbs up whether we had found the shops and gave us the first genuine smile we had seen in several days.
It really is the strangest thing but from that moment we felt better about being there and we relaxed. The next morning the man from the motorhome beside us, who was German, came to the door to tell us that we had a puncture. We appreciated his kindness but we couldn’t help feeling frustrated. Not another challenge! Taking a deep breath we quickly realised that we could phone the breakdown service that comes with our van insurance. Once we’d had confirmation that they would be with us in about an hour I went over to our new Lidl pointing friend with my translation app at the ready to tell him what had happened and that the breakdown people were coming to help. I did this because we wanted him to intervene if another van came to park right next to us, now that the kind German man had moved on, so that the breakdown truck could get in beside us. Translation apps are only useful to a degree and this is when confusion really set in. I think he assumed that we were asking for help because he went to get his phone and spoke rapidly into it then came out to say that help would be here in five minutes. I tried to explain that help was already on its way but couldn’t make myself understood so we did the only thing we could think of which was to get ready for rescue from wherever it might come. We set about unearthing the spare wheel that was buried under mountains of stuff in the garage, hauling everything out and making a lot of grunting noises.
Then we heard someone calling “Hello!”
Around the other side of the van was a smiling man wearing what looked like a workers outfit. He told us immediately that he spoke English so I asked him if he was the breakdown person. “I’m just one of the other motorhomers”, he said “Can I help you?”. We explained to him that we had called out the breakdown people and our other neighbour had called out a local repair man so we didn’t know what to do. At that moment a car drew up and a very small man jumped out … he was the local repair man. He said something rapidly in Spanish and drove off. Our new English speaking friend explained that he had gone to get a jack made for big vehicles and he would return in a few minutes. Sure enough he was back very quickly and with an astonishing show of strength for someone who looked about fourteen except for the fact that he had a beard, he got the van up on a trolley jack and got the wheel off.
Off he went again with the wheel in the back of his car and returned twenty minutes later with it fixed. In the meantime I was trying to get through to the breakdown people to tell them we didn’t need them, feeling anxious that a big truck would turn up to rescue us. At last I got through and was reassured that there was no problem cancelling. Once the small but ferociously strong repair man had finished we asked how much for the job. The answer was 30 euros (approximately £25). Once he’d gone the friendly Spanish man who spoke no English came along with his phone on translate and asked how much we had paid – he was appalled and embarrassed, apologising because it was a lot of money. If we spoke Spanish we would have explained that it was peanuts compared with what it would have cost us in Britain. All we could say was “De nada” and “Mucho gracias”. Another adventure over and all that was left to do was repack the garage and wonder why we had so much stuff with us. The spare wheel was not required after all.
Shortly after we were all packed again, our English speaking neighbour came over again and advised us to stay another night, just in case there was a slow puncture that hadn’t been evident. Feeling as though we now belonged we happily agreed that it was a good idea and settled down again. Later, out chatting with him in the early evening, we talked about the strange but satisfying nature of motorhome touring. He and his wife, still relatively young compared to us, had sold a large house in the south of Spain and set off in their motorhome for an adventure. He took work as and when he needed it and otherwise just lived each day as it came. He said that he’d never been happier. Despite the fact that we have another life waiting for us at home in Scotland we couldn’t help agreeing with him. There is something very restful about the motorhoming life and now that we no longer felt like strangers we could enjoy it again.
Next stop for us was a camper park in the outskirts of the city of Santiago de Compostela. We had planned this stop as a high point in our visit to Galicia and we were looking forward to it. On the journey there, which is only about 50 miles, we thought we could pull in somewhere and buy some yoghurt, an essential part of our breakfast. We’d had nothing to eat that morning and we were hungry so I asked Mr Google if there was a supermarket on our route. “Oh yes,” was the reply and we were duly instructed to turn into a small town not far from Santiago. We did that and found that the supermarket was on the very busy high street and there was nowhere to park. In fact there was barely enough room for us to get Heidi through the town and we were relieved as well as disappointed once we made our way through.
All this talk of breakfast is to explain why we ended up driving into Santiago not on the big motorway but instead on the country roads running parallel with it … and we were still without yoghurt. That route into the city was horrifyingly rough and about a mile before we got to our destination the van started to shake. I was convinced that there was a problem with it but Shirley kept reassuring me that it was just the road surface. I didn’t believe her probably because my confidence in the old girl (Heidi not Shirley) has been somewhat eroded. Once we had been given a friendly welcome at Lavacolla Camper Park by Tony, the owner, I went across to ask him whether anyone else had mentioned the road surface to him. He was clearly bewildered by the question but once I explained he came up with a solution. Why not drive to the nearest Lidl, do a bit of shopping (I had mentioned that we needed a few things) and see how it drove on the better road? Full marks to Shirley – there was nothing wrong with the van. It drove beautifully on the smooth surface and we could breathe easy and we could get some yoghurt. We’ve clearly developed a yoghurt habit and we might need therapy but we don’t care – we could now enjoy our breakfast at 3 p.m. Parked in the Lidl carpark we were approached by a man we didn’t recognise at first. He was smiling and miming a circular shape. It turned out that he was the German man who had told us about our puncture in Betanzos. We were delighted to see him and say that all was well. The motorhoming community is small and of course, now we were feeling more positive, we saw straight away that even without a shared language people are looking out for one another. About the van – we’ve come to the conclusion that having twin wheels at the back gives more of an unpleasant ride on rough roads, presumably because each pair of wheels has its own axle and bounces separately.
Santiago de Compostela was a real experience. We took a bus into the city helped by Tony’s great instructions complete with what we would see when we got to the right stop – two monasteries and a pharmacy. We made straight for the cathedral where we saw a number of people carrying heavy backpacks approaching. Some were limping, most looked exhausted and some were calling out “we’re nearly there!”. I felt a bit tearful watching them approach their final destination and feeling the power of their emotions. Walking the Camino is a well loved but physically gruelling pilgrimage that can begin from a number of places in France, Spain or Portugal and includes walks of many hundreds of miles. Many describe it as life changing. The outside of the building is enormous and we stood for a while trying to take in the magnificence of it and also trying to get a photo of it all – it was so big that we couldn’t get it all in the picture even standing at the back of massive square. Approaching the door we saw that there was a sign to say “No backpacks” Shirley had a small one on her back carrying our raincoats and water bottle so we agreed to walk through the place separately. I sat outside on a stone wall with the bags and waited. It was very cold – around 11c – and I was hoping she wouldn’t be long because my bum was starting to freeze when a young couple approached me and asked a question I couldn’t understand. I replied in my newly developed twelve words of Spanish that I was sorry but I only speak English. The young girl took a deep breath and said, in English, “I wonder if you have a spare face mask, I’ve come all this way and I can’t get in without one.” Straight away I delved into the depths of my handbag where I know that there are numerous spare paper masks and gave her one. She almost cried with relief and thanked me profusely. The next minute Shirley came back and said that we could go into the church at the same time because it was only the big walker’s packs that weren’t allowed. The pilgrims have to leave them in a place especially provided for them but smaller packs like ours were fine. It passed through my mind that having a cold bum was worth being there to help that lovely young woman.
For us, the inside of the cathedral was a bit of a disappointment. The main altar was dripping with gold and the famous swinging thurible (incense burner) was much smaller than published images suggest. It was busy in there and staff were trying hard to keep the crowds quiet. We wondered if the pilgrims felt that same anticlimax when they arrived. For us the beauty of the place was the wonderful external structure and, even more so, seeing the people who had walked that gruelling route, especially watching their faces light up as they approached.
I would be lying if I said that exploring old buildings was one of our big passions. Shirley and I share three great loves – travelling, meeting interesting people and eating. I might as well be honest. So, having explored the great cathedral we were soon wandering the streets looking for a place to have breakfast. We quickly found a pleasant looking café bar.The menu offered raciones (bigger portions than tapas) and coffee. No yogurt for us that day. We quickly decided on sharing two raciones – tortilla and patatas bravas. There was some confusion with the waitress who tried to understand if we wanted two of each meal and we tried to explain that we would share one. We ordered coffee as well and, to our surprise, we were presented with two complimentary tiny ham and cheese rolls and a slice of cake each. After a while and a few whispers from behind the bar, another waiter appeared and asked in perfect English if we really wanted both of the dishes each. We are so glad he checked because when our one plate of tortilla and one dish of patatas bravas arrived they were huge. Having wolfed our little ham rolls we were struggling to finish the food. After the meal we had a second coffee each but thankfully no more snacks. The total bill for the whole meal including four coffees for the two of us was 13.50 euros (£11) – a surprise as we were right in the middle of tourist central. I wondered briefly how Spanish people feel when they come over to the UK. The prices must be a huge shock.
We were back at the camper park in plenty of time to take Poppy out for her mid afternoon walk and to do our washing in the site machines. Later we sat down with the online weather forecasts and came to the reluctant conclusion that the weather wasn’t going to improve for another week or so and we should say goodbye to Galicia and head east to Sitges where we would be spending a few days enjoying the place with Shirley’s brother Chris. We would definitely recommend Galicia as a lovely place to visit but probably not until late May or June. The weather is a lot like Scotland and it rained most days while we were there. Probably even more than it does at home. The locals are still wearing winter clothes and most of them always carry a rolled umbrella, even when the sun is shining.
Time to head for the sunshine
Leaving Santiago we were aware that there weren’t many camper parks in the first part of the journey east and the first one we stopped at didn’t feel right at all so we took a leap of faith and travelled over the mountains and into Portugal where we stayed in the lovely village of Montalegre and spent a quiet night overlooking the mountain views.
Something you might not know about driving a motorhome through the mountains is that the changes in air pressure can cause the chemical toilet to develop a kind of internal combustion where the contents are inclined to fly skyward when you open it. We once had a messy experience like this in the Highlands of Scotland so we were very cautious and didn’t get a nasty blue surprise. However, our diesel tank seems to have been negatively affected by the pressure changes and it now jumps down to empty and back up again at odd moments. We had a huge fright when the warning light came on when we were miles from anywhere and then, filling up at the next possible opportunity, found it was only half empty.
Going into Portugal meant that clocks went back to UK time before returning to European time a couple of days later when we returned to Spain. This does all kinds of funny things to your internal clock and we ended up going to bed at 8.30 p.m. the next night. From Montalegre we drove to Bragança, still high up in the north of Portugal and an old favourite of ours. We worked out the route using both a motoring map of Spain and Portugal and the satnav. We suspect we drove much further than necessary but we ended up there in one piece. It was Sunday but no sign of any buns to be had so we changed our normal routine and had tapas in a lovely little restaurant within the citadel walls instead. Local baked goats cheese with red onion relish followed by chicken goujons. Yum.
What a splendid place Bragança is with its large motorhome parking up beside the citadel. It is very popular and on a previous visit we spent three nights there and really got to know the place. This was a one night stopover and we were reminded of the one thing that makes it not so good – it’s almost impossible to get level and we spent a long time trying to get Heidi high enough on the blocks to make us comfortable, giving up in the end and settling in for a crooked night’s sleep The views, the friendly folk and the tapas made it all worth while and the next day we were back in Spain heading east.
Next time we head for the Med.
Adios amigos! Hasta la vista!