Week 23 – Mérida to Libourne via Cáceras, Alaejos, San Sebastián and Biarritz
Week 23 – Day 158 – Monday 5th March 2018
Mérida to Cáceres – 49 miles
When we returned to the van yesterday evening, tired but satisfied after enjoying a great day sightseeing in Mérida there were still two of the main Roman sites we had still to see, the Circus and the Aqueduct, both only five minutes walk from the van. We stirred about 9 after another rain disturbed nights sleep and had a quick breakfast as the intention was no nip out and see the sites when we had a brief interlude from the rain.
As I was taking some pictures of the well preserved Aqueduct you could see the sky in the back ground getting darker and darker so after completing the picture taking we headed quickly back to the van as we needed to service the van before leaving the site. I disconnected the electric cable and moved the van over the drain and started filling the fresh water tank when the rain and hail came on in a massive downpour and we got soaked to the skin.
To see the special blog post on Mérida click HERE
Once the task was completed and we had changed clothes we headed off after a brief hiccup at the car park barrier which would not let us out. Eventually the attendant arrived and lifted the barrier.
The first port of call was a Repsol garage about 3 miles away which my LPG App directed us to to fill up the gas tanks again. The filling station was actually a service station on the northbound E 803 which was perfect as that was the route we were taking after filling up. The E 803 is a new looking dual carriageway / motorway with a perfect surface running north from Mérida towards Salamanca, but today’s destination was not as far as that, in fact we were only travelling about an hour to the ancient city of Cáceres, again, another place I had never heard of until studying the route home, but one that was deemed necessary to stop and visit. The drive was very pleasant, not just because of the quality of the road, but the countryside was well tended with green grassy fields containing well spaced out trees with either cows or sheep grazing between the trees. The early heavy rain had given way to strong winds.
Where Mérida was famous for its Roman remains, Cáceres is an ancient walled city that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986 because of the city’s blend of Roman, Moorish, Northern Gothic and Italian Renaissance architecture. Thirty towers from the Islamic period still stand in Cáceres, of which the Torre del Bujaco is the most famous.
The city was founded by the Romans in 25 BC and the old town (Parte Antigua) still has its ancient walls; this part of town is also well known for its multitude of storks’ nests. The walls now contain a medieval town setting with no outward signs of modernity, which is why many films have been shot there. Narrow cobbled streets twist and climb among ancient stone walls lined with palaces, mansions, arches and churches, while the skyline is decorated with turrets, spires, gargoyles and has survived almost intact from its 16th-century period of splendour.
After finding the Aire we had a quick lunch and as it was dry and did not look like raining imminently, we set off for the ancient centre. Cáceres is a hilltop town so it meant an uphill walk of about 20 minutes to get to the centre, with the first impressive site to see opening up from the narrow cobbled streets into a large impressive square, the Plaza Mayor is reputed to be one of Spain’s most beautiful public squares.
The old walled town is just off the square through an archway. Before entering the old town we walked through some of the shopping streets and noticed many with charcuterie products, another claim to fame for this area. Most of the shops were closed for the afternoon siesta so we returned to the square and headed into the old quarter and it was worth the wait and it certainly lived up to its billing.
The lack of people and traffic meant you could certainly envisage what life would have been like in these narrow lanes and squares a few centuries ago.
Yesterday we were transported back to the Roman era, and today, we were steeped in the Medieval period. I can assure you that no hallucinatory products were consumed in the preparation of this blog post.
Week 23 – Day 159 – Tuesday 6th March 2018
Cáncales to Alaejos – 169 miles
We had a great nights sleep and might have slept on if the Municipal workmen hadn’t started work at 9am in the bin compound behind us. The Spanish don’t seem to have the same household bin system we have, instead taking their waste and recycling to large communal bins scattered about their streets which lorries seem to empty on a regular basis, including during the night in some places. Because a large part of Cáceres has narrow cobbled lanes, especially in the old walled town, what seems to happen is a small flatbed van goes round and collects the bins with the aid of a tail lift, brings them to this compound and the normal sized bin lorry comes and empties the bins, then the van returns them whence they came. A clever, but noisy solution.
We set off around 10am to head a couple of hours further north up the dual carriageway to visit Salamanca, a large city on the banks of the Tormes river. The name Salamanca was known to me, and to anyone who has watched Breaking Bad, as that was the name of the ‘baddies’, but I knew little of the city. It is situated approximately 120 miles west of the Spanish capital, Madrid, and 50 miles east of the Portuguese border. The drive north passes through lovely countryside, very agricultural with a broad mix of fields with cattle, sheep and trees. You can see for miles most of the time as the landscape is mostly flat, ‘the plains of Spain’, with some undulating hills now and again. After an hour or so the road started to climb slowly and this slow climb went on for ages,but then started to climb more steeply through some hills and it started to rain with the van buffeted by strong winds.
We past the city of Béjer which was shrouded in the clouds with severely reduced visibility, and there were snow ploughs parked up ready to start work, if they were required.
In the gaps in the clouds we could see snow on some of the surrounding mountains. The motorway had taken us to a height of 3,146 feet but the climb was so smooth I was never out of top gear, thanks also to the 3ltr engine pulling us along. As the road descended the visibility improved, the torrential rain eased, and 15 minutes later we were still high, but back to fairly flat countryside again.
Salamanca was not much further on and we reached it just after lunchtime and the satnav took us to the spot the App recommended that motorhomes could park for free overnight, but this turned out to be a full car park. I pulled over and looked up the next nearest spot and when we got there it wasn’t suitable for the van. These car parks were on the banks of the river and the amazing looking Cathedral, and the old town around it, were just the other side, but we couldn’t find anywhere to park, even just for the afternoon to visit and move on.
We found a Mercadona and Lidl side by side but their carparks were too small and too full for us so I pulled over again to consider our options. The App was consulted again and it indicated that there was a village 45 minutes north, just off the motorway which had a small free Aire with all the facilities so we headed there enseguida (toute suite). Salamanca looked great, but it was not to be today!
The sun was out, but the wind was strong on this next leg of the journey. By now we were starving and it was about 2pm when we pulled off the motorway and found the little Aire in Alaejos. It was small (7 vans) but perfectly formed and we joined the only other van there, a large German Frankia.
After lunch and a relax we walked into the village but as it was around 4pm by this time everyone must still have been on siesta as we were the only two living souls walking about. There was a church with a huge spire, but it was locked, the cafes and bars were all closed and the one small supermarket had a sign up indicating it would reopen at 5pm until 8pm.
Although bright and sunny, the wind was icy cold so we beat a hasty retreat back to the van for a cuppa.
Week 23 – Day 160 – Wednesday 7th March 2018
Alaejos to San Sebastian – 266 miles
It was freezing last night and the heating was being temperamental so an early night was necessary to get warm under the duvet – not sure it worked as you could see your breath. Some nights you have a good sleep, some nights not so good, and last night was one of the better ones even with the low temperature. The chill is explained by the high elevation, Alaejos is 2,474ft above sea level and in the morning, to confirm how cold it was, white frost was visible outside. Here’s an interesting fact about the little village of Alaejos – it is the antipode of the capital of New Zealand, Wellington, and to explain – an antipode is the point on the Earth’s surface diametrically opposite it. Aren’t you glad you read this blog?
We were back on the Autovía de Castilla by 10am for one of the longest drives of the whole 6 month tour, some 266 miles to San Sebastian on the north east coast just short of the French border. I had decided to head straight for San Sebastián without another stop as the towns along the route did not seem to merit a diversion, plus we need to put some miles on the clock. Google Maps indicated it would take about 5 hours of driving and it was, isn’t technology wonderful! The route started off going over the Spanish high plains, in fact you could say we were High Plains Drifters (boom boom) (Clint Eastwood 1973). The landscape was very agricultural with well tended ploughed and grassy fields as far as the eye could see, but very few farm buildings, which was odd. Another odd thing was a contrast from yesterdays drive we noticed. On the drive to Alaejos there were stork’s nests on many of the pylons, with either one adult stork, or one with a chick clearly visible (they are big birds), in fact on the 45 minute drive from Salamanca there were clusters of 5 or 6 baskets right beside the motorway trying to attract them to nest in close proximity to the passing traffic. Today we did not see a single nest or bird, they were replaced by many buzzards circling over the fields next to the motorway.
The first town of any size we passed by was Valladolid off to our right and from there the N62 heads further northeast towards Burgos, which if we were going to stop off en route it would have been here as it has many historic landmarks including a Cathedral and a large number of churches, palaces and other buildings from the medieval period. El Cid, the Spanish nobleman and military leader in medieval Spain was born nearby and was raised and educated in Burgos. The road climbs towards Burgos which is just short of 3,000ft above sea level, and was one of the Spanish cities badly affected by snow a couple of weeks ago, with evidence of that with some patches of snow at the side of the road, a lorry jackknifed and smashed through the barriers on the other carriageway, and the peaks of some mountains in the distance were still covered in snow.
From here the next major signposted place was Vitoria Gasteiz and the motorway narrowed to one lane for a large part of this section and it went close to rocky hills and through tight valleys, many with little villages which this main, busy road has butted right up against.
The scenery was in stark contrast to the flat rolling fields of earlier in the day. After just short of 4 hours driving we reached Vitoria Gasteiz and stopped at a large motorway services for a break and to have lunch. The city is bypassed by the motorway so we did not see any of the centre, only the industrial outskirts, but the old town is reputed to contain some of the best preserved medieval streets and plazas in the region and it is one of very few cities to have two Cathedrals, and, it is consistently ranked as one of the 5 best places to live in Spain.
Fed and watered, we now set off on the last leg to San Sebastián and after all the scenic delights of the previous legs, this one turned out to be the best by far. Beautiful scenery, almost Swiss like with snow covered mountains, well tended fields and picture postcard villages always with a significant church dominating all around them. We were back on a well surfaced motorway again, with light traffic, and it was a great drive. One of the things that stood out was, from the hundreds of lorries we passed, a Dutch lorry was the only non Spanish or Portuguese truck on the entire five hour journey, a big contrast from UK roads which are full of lorries from most European countries, especially Eastern European.
With about 40km to go, the road started to descend from the high level we had been at for most of the day to get us down to sea level at San Sebastián. One 6km drop was particularly steep at an unrelenting 6% and most vehicles observed the 80km speed limit but a few nutters driving 40ft trucks belted past us. The motorway dropped down through a fairly narrow gap between the hills but the surprising thing was how populated these gaps were as well, with not just housing but heavy industrial factories and warehouses. It reminded me of the drive through Barcelona a few years ago as you drive through miles of industry there before you arrive into the gem of a beautiful city, and that is what this drive into the gorgeous San Sebastián is like too.
We had intended to find a Mercadona to top up on our favourite Spanish products before we head into France in two days but the store was in the city centre and was not conducive to park a 22ft van anywhere near it so we headed for the Aire near the university where we stayed in mid November. If you haven’t seen it you can find the 123 Seconds In San Sebastián video by clicking HERE. We arrived between 3 and 4 and decided to relax for the rest of the day in anticipation of our day in the city tomorrow, and our final tapas of this trip!
Week 23 – Day 161- Thursday 8th March 2018
San Sebastian – 0 miles
I suppose its not rocket science to know that it will be milder at the coast than at 3,000ft, so this morning I can’t see my breath when I exhale as happened the previous two mornings. There are a few fluffy white clouds but the sky is mostly blue and no rain is forecast so we are heading into San Sebastián later in the morning for our last full day in Spain, rather fittingly, as it was San Sebastian where we spent our first full day in Spain back in November.
After breakfast we did a few outstanding little jobs about the van that have needed attention for a few days but as we were either sightseeing or driving, they had been neglected. After completing the work we took the bus into the centre of the city and got off just outside the Cathedral. We popped our head round the large wooden door but could quickly see that it did not measure up to any of the Cathedrals we had been fortunate to see on our travels.
We then headed towards the old town along the promenade and, like the last time, we were amazed at the number of people of all ages milling about enjoying the warm sunshine. As we approached the town hall we could hear a noise coming from the square nearby so went to investigate and found the square packed with people, I say people, but probably 95% were women with placards and banners and chanting some sort of slogans.
It turned out that this was women workers in Spain marking International Women’s Day with an unprecedented strike targeting gender inequality and sexual discrimination. Unions said 5.3 million women had joined the 24-hour strike, and it was backed by 10 unions and some of Spain’s top women politicians. The Navigator was given the option to either go and join in or head to our favourite tapas bar for lunch and guess which she chose?
After lunch we wandered about the old town and down towards the harbour and we climbed up to an elevated walkway where we had never been before for some pictures of the bay and a seat to take it all in.
We then went down to another part of the city we had never seen before, including a huge old church which was all locked up, as was the market and some of the surrounding shops for siesta. We found our way back to the square that was earlier thronged with people, but it had returned to normal and a few municipal workers were clearing up the mess on the ground. We sat in that square watching the world go by, mostly women now enjoying the rest of their day off, shopping and eating ice cream from a nearby shop.
We had arrived on the No. 40 bus at the Cathedral but it was a one way street and therefore there was no stop going the other way! As it was a fixed fare of €1.70 we decided to get on it when the next one came and do the full loop, which is what we did. We certainly got our moneys worth this time as the bus crossed the river and went all around this suburb before returning to the city centre and on along the seafront and up towards the university to where the van is parked. A few more Brits had arrived at the Aire, including one bought at Don Amott in Derbyshire where we purchased Louis.
Week 23 – Day 162 – Friday – 9th March 2018
San Sebastian to Biarritz – 34 miles
Pigeons cooing, cockerels cock-a-doodle-doing, assorted birds chirping, seagulls screeching, donkeys braying, cows mooing, road noise, airplane noise, fellow motorhomers leaving early, bin lorries emptying bins, a chain saw, wind noise, rain battering down on the roof, the sea crashing in on a shore. These are just some of the noises that have woken us on our travels but this morning gave us the first owl hooting. Now if we were in the countryside you could understand it, even welcome it, but we were in the middle of a busy cosmopolitan city which made it all the more surprising.
This was our last morning in Spain, a country we have really enjoyed and would certainly return to. We will give a fuller summary of our impressions of the this 6 month trip at the end when we have both had time to reflect on the whole experience.
After breakfast and topping up with water we set off for the short hop into France to spend a couple of nights at the elegant resort of Biarritz. On the way there we made our very last stop at a Mercadona for some of our favourite wine to take home and for some chicken and pork which are considerably cheaper than in France.
The one other place we stopped at was the petrol station to fill up before crossing the border, as, at €1.04 it is the cheapest diesel we have seen on the whole trip. The road into France is very familiar to us now and it was reasonably quiet, most traffic seemed to be heading into Spain, and no wonder as the first diesel we saw on sale in France was €1.44. No more than 10 miles and €0.40 of a difference.
We headed for the Aire we had so much difficulty getting into back in November due to an entrance barrier that refused to budge and defied the mechanic who tried to fix it. We had no such problems getting in this time as the barrier was missing due to ongoing problems no doubt. It is a bit grey and overcast with some spots of rain so we will leave Biarritz until tomorrow.
Week 23 – Day 163 – Saturday 10th March 2018
Biarritz – 0 miles
The weather was not great early on so we stayed in the van, and, as we were back on a mains hook-up, I updated the blog on the laptop and The Navigator did too many jobs to list in the time I have a available to type this!
After lunch, and with a break in the rain, we went for a walk. We are just to the south of the centre of Biarritz and the Aire we are on is very close to a lovely sandy beach, Plage de la Milady, an area that must be busy in the summer considering the number of spaces in the various car parks. A convenient underpass takes you under the road separating the Aire and the beach. There is a modern surfing school building there and we saw some brave souls enjoying the waves and wind to practise their skills.
We walked south to take in the view down the coast and over to Spain. The Spanish border is not that far away and the hills in the distance you can see in the following picture are all in Spain. You can’t see them in this picture, but San Sebastián and Bilbao are on this coastline.
Rather than walk on the sand, The Navigator decided to divert onto the grass, only to put one foot in on a piece of soggy grass cunningly hiding a patch of mud so her shoe got covered in gooey mud up to her ankle. This gave me a dilemma, show concern and sympathy, or, laugh out loud. I chose the latter option and lived to tell the tale, but may not now that I have told the world about her mishap!
I should maybe mention at this stage that The Navigator has no idea what is in the blog, or which pictures have been selected, until it is published. She has no prior knowledge of its contents, or indeed when it is uploaded. When I do tell her it is now available to read, it is a mad scramble to get online to see if she can beat her friend in Tarbert, Ishabel, but Ishabel nearly always wins the race to be first to read it.
We spent the night listening to a few podcasts and then watching a Netflix film, Eddie the Eagle, which was reasonably good, if highly embellished.
If you haven’t seen it, you can find the 123 Seconds In Biarritz video by clicking HERE.
Week 23 – Day 164 – Sunday 11th March 2018
Biarritz to Libourne – 169 miles
Not a lot to report today. It was grey and overcast in Biarritz, but still mild. The forecast was for temperatures to reach 68 degrees which we Scots will take all day long for a summers day back home, but here, everyone was in anoraks and scarves!
After breakfast we headed off for a three hour drive to Libourne, near Bordeaux and right in the heart of premium wine country. We set off around 10ish and left Biarritz (the pretty place) and went through Bayonne (the not so pretty place) and after about 40 minutes we cleared civilisation and hit the open countryside. The road north towards toward Bordeaux is flat and mostly wooded until just south of Bordeaux when the trees give way to huge flat grassy fields as far as the eye can see. The area is known as the Landes de Gascogne Regional Natural Park and is a protected area of pine forest, wetland and, further west, oceanic coastline, located in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of southwestern France.
Even though the satnav is always set to ‘no tolls’ we joined the A63 which is in most parts a toll motorway. When you approach the ‘payage’ toll booths the satnav guides you off the motorway onto a normal road which runs directly beside the motorway and then takes you back on again to run on the motorway again at the first opportunity after the toll booths. Clever. The speed limit on the motorway is 130km an hour which is 80.7 miles per hour, and even though Louis has a 3ltr engine, 70 is about its top speed, but it sits comfortably at 60 to 65. Guess what? I was flashed 3 times by speed cameras sitting at just over 60! Concerned that if this continued I might lose my license by the time I eventually reach Calais, I pulled over into a rest area and googled the French speed limits for motorhomes and the Caravan Club website confirmed that vehicles under 3,500kg, which Louis is, are treated as cars, so the limit is 80.7, so why I was being flashed for doing just over 60 beats me. You can see in this still from the Dashcam that I was only doing 61mph, and I’ve highlighted the camera which was a nano second away from flashing.
This is exhibit 1 in my defence M’Lud…
We reached Libourne without further incident, until dodgy satnav co-ordinates took us into the centre of the town up some very narrow lanes so I had to pull over and reset the satnav with the proper postal address of the Aire we were heading for, and that did the trick. The Aire is right beside a lake and recreational area which was very busy with families out enjoying the mild sunny Sunday afternoon weather. After lunch, and a snooze, we went out a walk around the lake, well half of it anyway. If you know of Holme Pierrepont Nottingham, it is very similar to that with lanes marked off for rowing competitions.
Where we are staying is only 7km from the pretty little wine towns of St Émillion and Pomerol, famous for its chateau based red wines, which we may visit tomorrow, dependant on the weather.
COUNTDOWN – 1,114 MILES TO HOME!
To put this week into context here is the route we travelled…
Next week we continue heading northeast through France for our final full week abroad…
Stay tuned to find out where we end up…
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