Archive for the ‘Journeys in a VW Camper’ Category

Delilah does it again

January 24, 2014

This is a tale of two trips. One a 5 week European tour we embarked upon in 2011 and the other a 10 day whirl around Spain and France in the summer of this year.

Casting back a few years we had always had an ambition to take the whole summer holiday and do a bit of a European tour. A camper van was the obvious way to do it but we had hired a modern, white, fridge-like version in Australia and concluded that it did the job but just had no soul. Then, on a ferry trip between Plymouth and Roscoff, we saw an array of beaming faces in the bay window of a bright orange VW camper van and that set us on the path of a major restoration project. This was definitely virgin territory for us and, in retrospect, we were incredibly naive but sometimes ignorance is a good thing. With no previous experience and being mechanically dyslexic we obviously needed help which came in the form of a company near our home in Cornwall. They sourced a 1976 Californian late bay with a Westfalia roof to house our teenage daughters. The restoration project schedule all looked very doable including some time to get used to the bus before we set off in July. Rooky error – that took no account of the ‘little discoveries’ – nothing major, just hurdles to keep jumping, each requiring a bit of time. It went right to the wire and have only completed 100 miles ‘run in’ miles on the new engine, we found ourselves driving down the ferry ramp in Roscoff with only four days to meet with our friends at a holiday home in Portugal.

All packed and ready to go

All packed and ready to go

And it was not just the engine running in; I was still struggling to find second gear and we were tuned in to every creak, whistle or groan fearing that it would be the last before pulling over to the roadside in an ignominious admission of failure before the grand tour had even got under way. Delilah – yes, of course we named her – also had the knack of knowing when we had got used to one of her little noises and then coming up with a new one just to keep our nerves nice and taut. And so it went on for four days solid from Roscoff to Portugal, but we all made it. In fact Delilah made all 5 weeks and 3000 miles – good girl!

The more recent trip was designed to be the antidote to the head long rush at the beginning of our ‘grand tour’ two years earlier. Our plan was to do the big miles on the ferry between Plymouth and Santander and then travel west for a mere 100km, camp in one place for a whole five days, then drive for an hour or so into the Picos de Europa for some mountain scenery, followed by a couple of days in Bilbao before a short drive back to get the ferry home. But, the joy of travelling snail-like with your home on your back, is that you don’t have to stick to your plans. The Grand Tour had taught us that flexibility and once again, the original plan was completely thrown to the wind. We had looked at the forecast for the week ahead and the weather map was predicting quite a few raindrops to the west of Santander but east, into France, had a good smattering of yellow sunshine. So we turned left out of Santander rather than right and headed for the French border. We wanted to be on the beach so that we could use the two stand up paddle boards strapped to the roof and wanted to be able to walk everywhere so that we could leave the van in ‘camp and sleep’ mode. We knew, from the previous trip, that the bit south of Biarritz was a bit too populated for our liking, so we resorted to our camping bible – Cool Camping. There was only one option, Cap de l’Homy about half way between Biarritz and Bordeaux. That required a 5 hour burn up the west coast motorways and crossing of fingers that they has space. Not quite the gentle meander we had envisaged and the nerves certainly started jangling when we drew up to find a wooden sign pinned to a tree saying ‘Complet’. So, big breath, put on a smile and go into charm mode. I am not sure if pointing out our ‘tres jolie’ van helped that much, but they managed to find us a place for five nights. It was perfect, we had lucked out – a spacious pitch, under the pine trees, not too far from the ‘facilities’ (nor too close), and with considerate neighbours. So we went into ‘set up’ mode, popping up the tent and filling it with our storage boxes.

Under the trees at Cap L'Homy

Under the trees at Cap L’Homy

From the beginning we had loved the light, airiness of Bays so we had decided not to do the built in cupboard thing but just have the fridge/cooker/cupboard unit and a low storage unit in the space between that and the rear wheel arch. We reckon that the extra minutes setting up are worth it and, with the awning above the side door, it makes a nice living space. It also allows us to have a full width bed downstairs by taking out the spare wheel and adding a couple of custom cushions.

The other residents at Cap de l’Homy had that air of sharing a secret. A chat over the first washing up session revealed that the lady on the left had been coming for 30 years and the lady on the right was staying for another five weeks until the end of August. It is a municipal site so no pools or ‘entertainment’ but who needs all that with such stunning beach just a board walk away across the dunes? We mellowed easily into a routine of beach, surf, read and feed with the odd cold beer – now that was completely different from two years ago when we had been haring past on our way to Portugal.

Climbing over the dunes at Cap L'Homy

Climbing over the dunes at Cap L’Homy

The beach at Cap L'Homy goes on for ages

The beach at Cap L’Homy goes on for ages

On the original plan the mountains were meant to follow the beach but we were uncomfortably far from the Picos de Europa so we decided to head for the western foothills of the Pyrenees. As we climbed out of France into Spain and into the rain we began to doubt that decision. So it was back over towards France with a quick stop for lunch. I remembered wondering two years ago how Delilah would cope with mountain roads fully laden but she had cruised up the Col de Tourmalet – 2600m and one of the major climbs of the Tour de France. So a mere 600m was child’s play.

The lunch stop crossing back from Spain to France in the Pyrennes

The lunch stop crossing back from Spain to France in the Pyrennes


The Pyrennes: over a col and back into France heading for St Jean Pied de Port

The Pyrennes: over a col and back into France heading for St Jean Pied de Port


Once again the weather looked better in France so we decided to head for St Jean de Pied de Port, the capital of the French Basque country. It is also the start of the Camino de Santiago, a 800km pilgrimage walk across the top of Spain to the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. We camped in another municipal camp site, this time bordered by the fortress walls of the old town over looked by a citadel with the old town just across the river from the site.
Camping in the walled garden at St Jean de Pied de Port

Camping in the walled garden at St Jean de Pied de Port


Looking across the river to the camp site at St Jean de pied de Port

Looking across the river to the camp site at St Jean de pied de Port


The sense of history was palpable and the spirit of pilgrims, old and new, seemed to ooze from the walls of the old town. The sounds of mass emanating from the church would probably have been the same centuries ago.
The old town of St Jean de Pied de Port

The old town of St Jean de Pied de Port


Our two days eased by in a series of good Basque food, walking in the Pyrenean foothills and lazing by the river. Then it was up sticks and off to Bilbao. After quite a bit of practice, we all know our roles in the decamping process – Shelly on bedding, me on anything that has to go on the roof and the girls taking down window coverings and collapsing the tent. The planned route was back up and over the Pyrenees, climbing to about 1,000 meters and then skirting around Pamplona and on to Bilbao. However Delilah obviously wasn’t too keen as she started coughing and spluttering. We have had that before on a nervous two days back to Roscoff, so it did set us on edge a bit. But she warmed up, took the mountains in her stride and got us to Bilbao on schedule.

We had spoilt ourselves with a nice hotel opposite the Guggenheim for a couple of days and I was a bit smug because it had a garage. But it wasn’t a tall enough garage with the cab box full of camping chairs and two paddle boards on the roof. So I was in the dog house for not booking the hotel we had stayed in before with a nice big garage. After some soul searching, we decided that Delilah would have to be entrusted to the underground municipal car park just around the corner. Unfortunately that one was also a bit challenged in the height department so I had to block the entrance tunnel while I furiously took the boards off the roof of the van and shoved them inside. Oh and this was with temperatures in the mid-thirties centigrade. But then two bits of luck; the kit in the cab box just squeaked under the roof of the garage and there was a parking bay free right by the security officer’s office. Delilah was safely under surveillance and we enjoyed a couple of great days in Bilbao.

Bilbao: the view from the hotel terrace acoss to the Guggenheim

Bilbao: the view from the hotel terrace acoss to the Guggenheim


The Guggenheim Bilbao

The Guggenheim Bilbao


Jeff Koons' Flower dog outside the Guggenheim in Bilbao

Jeff Koons’ Flower dog outside the Guggenheim in Bilbao


The final day was a bit of a long one because the ferry did not go until after 9pm so we wended our way along the coast between Bilbao and Santander looking for a beach. It took a while but just as we were getting frayed by the heat – another day above the 35 degrees mark – we found a beach near the village of Galizano about 30kms outside Santander. A final surf and swim sorted us out and it was on to the ferry for another chilled crossing back to Plymouth. A helpful hint – if you take the Plymouth to Santander ferry try booking the best cabins, you are on the boat for almost 24 hours and they have loads more space and even a balcony – luxury!

Before we set off, we had decided that this was probably our last trip and that we would put Delilah up for sale when we got back. However, this was the fourth overseas trip that Delilah had completed successfully, so our resolved weakened as we landed in Plymouth. But, by the time we got back to Cornwall she was pouring out so much smoke that it became apparent that the ‘reconditioned’ engine was not as well reconditioned as we had thought and we are now in the process of fitting a properly reconditioned engine. That will make her perfect again so I guess that it is back to any offers?

Delilah does Europe

July 31, 2011

Introduction

This is a somewhat ‘rough as rats attempt to record our 5 week trip through France, Spain and Portugal. Our wheels and home for most of the time is Delilah, a 1976 late bay VW camper who we have reconditioned for the trip. The reconditioning process is a story in itself but not for these pages. So on with the story.

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27 July 2011
We spewed forth from the Amorique – a Brittany Ferry – at 8.15am and set off with everything crossed to see how Delilah would handle the 600km marathon that was our rather over ambitious opening leg for the trip. We have done this one before, from Roscoff to Bordeaux, but in a vehicle 30 years younger than Delilah. We managed Rennes and Nantes with relative ease, even if only at 55mph. Then it was down to Royan to catch the ferry across the Gironde to Le Verdon which was a really nice way to break the journey. Unfortunately there are no photos because thanks to the vagaries of Motorola (the tablet I am currently tapping manicaly) and T mobile (the ever-so-clever European data SIM card) I had to factory reset the tablet and lost photos in the process. Fingers crossed from now. Having crossed, we motored through the pretty surf town of Solac Sur Mer (unusual for a surf town) and then 10 kms on to camping Les Chesnay – a really nice family site with small pool and shaded by oaks. The best carbonara ever was followed by the inaugral sleep in Delilah. Our vote in the morning 10/10.

28 July 2011
Breaking camp for the first time was surprisingly painless, she really seems to be quite easy to live in, old Delilah. The next leg was short on the map but seemed to take just as long. We headed south towards Bordeaux along gloriously straight roads through oak and pine forests. Trying to skirt around Bordeaux brought our first traffic but we got through it and on the road to Spain. The sight of the Pyrennees was uplifting – really looking forward to getting back there. It took no time to skirt San Sebastian and then we veered off at Deba, mid way to Bilbao, to look for a campsite. It was a fantastic coast road through genuine basque fishing villages but was slow going when we just wanted to settle down. After a quick tour around Lekeitio, in a fit of genius, we consulted Alan Roger’s guide and discovered that Camping Leagi was just at the top of a hill. Alan was right, it was a steep one at the end, Delilah’s first ascent in first gear. A nice modern, if rather open, site. We missed the 6.30pm bus down to the villagr so we hoofed it. 20 minutes of downhill later we were wandering round the harbor trying to stretch our english stomachs into spanish time. We wolfed a couple of drinks and some pinxos in an unspanish way and we were still first into the restaurant. But it was worth it as food brought contentment. Then came the proposition of that hill with all the extra weight we had taken on. Fortunately the patron took pity and called a nice shiny taxi which whisked us up the hill. Another good night.

29 July 2011
It took us while to ease ourselves out of bed and get ourselves washed, fed and packed and hence we did not hit the road until after 11am – disgraceful. The winding road to Gernika (of Picaso fame) was very beautiful but very wiggly. Knowing how far we had to go tempered our enjoyment, so mark it down as one to come back to. After Santander and Torrelavega we were into territory we knew from a previous visit. It was hard to resist the temptation to turn left and head up to Hotel Oso and reaquaint ourselves with the glorious walk down from the Fuente De cable car. Anyway onwards past Llanes – memories of it being very pretty last time – and on towards Oviedo. We bravely took the inland route to skirt Gijon which could have been one to regret as the autovia got half way into the mountains and just stopped, que a bit of swearing and searching for signs which also stopped – not even a sign from him upstairs. As usual the sky did not fall on our heads and it was a long winding descent through forest – nicer than the autovia but tempered by my constant sniffing for signs of smoking brakes. Flying colours for Delilah once again for passing the warm up to the Pyrennees. We wound ourselves down to the coast and headed for Luarca. Thanks to a bit of pre-planning, Alan had already guided us to Camping Los Cantiles, and because we were only there for one night, we had a clifftop pitch with glorious views (unfortunately no pics, see above and write to Motorola). Having discovered why we got a strange look when we asked if we need to book the camp restaurant, we scoured the shop and Shelly pulled a triumphant pasta putanesca out of the hat.

30 July 2011
Up a lot earlier today and on the road just after 9am for the final leg and Delilah’s third country in four days. The road through the hills to Lugo was beautiful and then it was up on the open plains – nice straight driving which was just what the driver ordered after over 20 hours in the saddle since Roscoff. The aforesaid driver was on a bit of mission, so there was no stopping off at a vine clad bodega for a long lunch. More like pick the green bits off the Tesco’s ciabatta and enjoy the view from the roadside layby. In his defense, it has to be said that the spanish towns and villages enroute did not exactly inspire the bodega dream. But all change as we at last dropped into Portugal; little casas and red tiles in well tended gardens surrounded by the ubiquitous vines. We followed the river Lima past lakes, resevoirs, and flying over steepsided mountain valleys on……well, flyovers, of course. We reached Ponte de Lima, the oldest town in Portugal (read the leaflet), with the anticipation a little tempered by the fact that we knew that a marathon supermarket session stood between us and the first beer. We couldn’t help checking out Casa Do Eido Da Devesa first, but we had not realised that Portugal is one hour behind Spain, so we really were early. Back down to PDL and it only took one text before we were waving at Lisa, Mark, Max and Theo from the riverside car park. Even our travel weariness did little to stop us appreciating that PDL is really quite stunning. Enough of that, the supermarket had to be conquered, so we set off and, in the process of testing every round about in PDL – at least twice – we almost ran into a beaming Welsh family. They gave us some direction and soon the Cornish 12 were invading Intermache. Two trolleys later it was back up the hill in pursuit of that beer. First some manic obsessional unpacking – how did we get all that into/onto Delilah – and then the ‘after you, no after you, no after you’ room negociations followed by the best beer ever – until the next one.

31 July – 6 August 2011
The house proved to very comfortable, the pool the perfect temperature, the view inspirational and the outside living space incredibly condusive to lots of doing nothing and endless chatter.

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The week at CDEDD (not typing that every time) was designed to be a laid back break and was very welcome after four days solidly on the road. So you can read into the fact that, despite spending a week here, there is not as much to be said – refer back doing nothing and endless chatter.

We did get out and about between bouts of bohemian lethargy. We had high aspirations for the twice monthly market in PDL but visions of local produce and rural crafts were pushed aside by the reality of endless rows of clothes, tableware and trinkets that would make Pool Market look like Paris. But PDL is a wonderful mix of old architecture with occasional modernist block to keep it interesting. One derelict building would not have looked out of place in Havana. It was derelict so there is now a grand plan to buy it and turn it into a new brand of bohemian boutique hotel called something like Hemingways – or perhaps something less naff.

The boys took Delilah for a quick spin to the coast which was really a cover for a certain person surf searching – but there were four beers in the fridge so the Pied Piper succeeded in working his magic. Not much beach at Viana do Castelo and rather wind blown so off up the coast to Pria Paco. Still no surf, too small and high tide so we took a refreshing dip and discovered why none of the locals were bathing. Then the reward from Delilah’s fridge for the boys and back home. However there is a happy ending as surf was found at Vile Praia de Ancora. I managed two good sessions and after the obligatory drop in on the grumpiest local – but fair call – I found my own little left and got the travel fish going really well – thanks richard for a great board. Shelly accompanied me on the first trip but did not mind because it was a beautiful almost Sennen-like beach (but you do appreciate how lucky we are in Cornwall as it is so difficult to beat). Went back the following day on my own. It was just a bit bigger and I went straight back to my favourite left to keep Anglo/Portguese relations sweet. An even better session – must come back with POGS.

The other aquatic activity involved the whole team in a canoe trip up the Lima from PDL. Island were invaded, canoes were boarded, one portuguese eight year old was rescued and managed to swim in two feet of water.

6 August 2011
In an almost military fashion all four families were mobilised and ready to move out of the house at 09.55 hours. And, in an equally military fashion, the army of cleaners moved in to attack the deitritous of our week of lethargy – but we actually left in quite nice. So the team were back in the saddle and Delilah set off with us into the pissing rain. Yes it had rained all night and into the morning which added an extra dimension of frustration to the packing But it was done and we set off back towards Spain. Caminha did not really measure up to the reputation of the Hamptons of Portugal – more like Halfords. Tried to do the ferry thing across the Minho but was put off by the, maybe yes and maybe no, estimated time of departure. We crossed back into Spain on a more conventinal bridge type affair and took the coast road to Bioana. Some dramatic vistas.

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A great drive but the sand spit campsite turned into a Tescos car park by a marsh – time to move on. So up went the anxiety stakes but we had a new plan – Cangas just west of Vigo. Got to Vigo looked over the river and ditched that one. So on up to Pontevedra and a new plan for Sanxenxo. Now that is more like it declared the girls as they got the first view of the Sanxenxo shops. But we were only there to get information from the tourist office – look the other way. But it was a pretty place, pretty expensive but also pretty pretty.

6 – 9 August
The tourist information involved handing us two maps and suggesting that we look for campsites on the coast road – nice building though! So we did as instructed and we went from one site to the next with descending hearts – the Go Kart track was a low point – but just after it, was a somewhat delapidated sign for camping, so we gave it a go. Strike! We found camping Monte Cabo at the end of a track lined by fir trees set just off a headland that could have been Cornwall. It is strange how long it often takes you to realize that you are on to a good thing, so we sniffed around the campsite like dogs making their introductions, but it was actually fantastic – small, low key, quiet, overlooking the sea and not as cheek-by-jowel as we had become accustomed to in Spain.

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We treated ourselves to dinner in the camp restaurant. It had an unassuming ambience but the food was spot on. Fresh, beautifully cooked fish – Shelly won dish of the day for that one – but also great squid and tasty sardines. A complete result and good apple pie as well. This one place that really should be in the Cool Camping book.

The following day, 7 August I guess, was beach day. I had done a recce run in the morning and reckoned that it was only a 20 minute walk. So we did and it was good – even gave the Richard’s fish a couple of runs (sorry, surf board shaped by Richard). Beautiful sunset and now time for poker – thanks Max and Marston for the lessons.

Monday 8 August was a have-look-around day. We hit Sanxenxo (don’t ask how you pronounce it) which is a bit like a Spanish cross between Salcombe and Padstow ie money and polo shirts but with browner skins and firmer jaw lines. So what do you do? We shopped. Shelly got 2 bikinis – both got my vote. The rest was holiday crap but made us happy. Then lunch overlooking the marina, sorry, no Michael Winner cheesy pics with The Patron and we actually enjoyed our seafood feast – even Geraldine! Then off in hunt of the Bounty ad waterfall to which we had been given directions the previous night by the campsite owner. Needless to say we took the long route – but Pontevedra was a nice town. We got back on track to Parque Natural Ria Borosa. They were building a much bigger car park so it looks like we made it in time. It was a ravine walk up a mountain river, but the spanish variety, shorter than Shelly’s protestant work ethic demanded and with a mill/restaurant halfway – well actually within minutes but it made a nice change from the previous adventures in the Italian Alps. The lunch venue looked fantastic and, as we had a quick drink, it was obvious that that the family lunching had been at it for a while. Here are a few pics. The sliding into rock pools was good too.

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Tuesday 9 August was a beach day again – hot with not even a hint of a wave so plenty of chilling. Tried to surf a pathetic wave or two but got muscled out by two paddleboards – yes, Jon there is justice after all. Off tomorrow up the coast towards Muros so better back off the wine but Monte Cabo has been good, so if you are camping in Galicia, give it a go and do Ria Borosa for lunch.

Wednesday 10 August
Back on the road again heading away from Monte Cabo with a touch of sadness, but it was hot, dam hot, so another day on the beach did not hold much attraction. Once again we followed the coast road, this time heading towards camping San Francisco at Muros. As we headed towards Noia we could see across to Muros and it looked a bit similar to the road we had just travelled, pretty but it felt a bit like ‘been there…’ and it was hot and Muros was another beach location. So we dropped into a hypermarket for lunch, as you do and, in a fit of free roadedness, decided to change the plan and head north to just beyond Ferrol. A nice Autovia hack up to Ferrol and then onto the coast road north of Ferrol. Once we got beyond Valdovino the countryside became much lusher but also with some fantastic beaches and estuaries up to Cederia. The popular surf beach of Pantin was surrounded by some wonderful countryside. We got to Cediera and dropped into the tourist info to find that the nearest camp site was back in Valdovino. So it was back there. Not the most attractive town – a bit Perranporthy – but a fantastic broad beach. We settled into a nice enough site within 5 mins walk of the beach and Shelly concocted her version of Fabada (Asturian stew) with lentils and great success. I was up early for a dawn surf. A bit of one turn beach break but I had the dawn to myself so no complaints.

Thursday 11 August
Next stop was back onto familiar territory and a hack east to Camping Los Cantiles at Luarca. It also means that I can replace the photos lost earlier in the trip. And, because we were one nighters, we got the sea view site reserved for people coming the following day. We had stopped on the road at a very wholesome Logis-type restuarant for an equally wholesome lunch – great cooking but heavy – so we were not that hungry, but that is no excuse, so we wondered down the hill into Luarca in the evening. We were a bit disorientated and scratchy at first, but a sunset drink on a rooftop bar overlooking the harbour and we started to settle down and then dinner in a ‘the real thing’ restaurant with Spanish telly and all. Even fuller after that but the steep climb out of the village helped to settle the digestion.

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Friday 12 August
The view in the morning was even better, you do not get more clifftop than this. A bit of a shame that we could not stay, but at least today was destined to be a shorter run and into the Picos de Europa which we have visited before. We veered off the main coast road just after Gijon and straight on to a beautiful, wiggling mountain road. As we reached the top we got a fantastic view of the coast below and the mountains ahead.

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It was also a good warm up for Delilah on the mountain roads in readiness for our trek into the Pyrennees. We sneered at all the day trippers in the ‘mirador’ car park (viewing enclosure in english) in the inappropriate city shoes and clothes – although they were to get revenge when the Hillbilly Family got to Bilbao. We dropped back down to Cangas de Onis – gateway to The Picos de Europe – a bustling, riverside town. It was a toss up between a hotel and campsite – after over a week of camping, that particular credit was running a bit thin. But trying to get availability in a hotel, in a tourist town, for the weekend, in August…….well I should know better really! So, off in search of campsites. We headed towards the mountains and drew a blank at the first site near Avin – it was a bit too full and the space offered was a bit stuck in a far corner. So we headed to Arenas de Cabrales (through a village called Poo de Cabrales which raised moral in a sort of sniggering schoolboy way…..well at least one) and on to Camping Naranjo de Bulnes which we had stayed in 3 years earlier. It is in a glorious mountain setting – even better than we had remembered – and we played the one night only card to get a premier riverside plot which was reserved for the following day.

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Set up camp and walked 15 mins into Arenas looking for our favourite restaurant from 3 years ago, found it, booked it, went for a pleasant stroll around town and then sat down to our best meal of the holiday so far. The chorizo in cider sauce melted in the mouth and the traditional Fabada (bean stew with pork, chorizo and black pudding) was spot on.

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Saturday 13 August
A day of contrasts. We had gone further from the River Sella than we had planned, so the genteel paddle in canoes was replaced by a walk along the Cares Gorge. I had sold it as a pleasant stroll by the river in a cool shaded gorge. After the 300 meter climb in blazing sunshine on to a shadeless ridge with the river far below, my popularity was waning. Just as well we had booked into that comfortable hotel in Cangas for the following night. By the time we stopped for lunch, after a couple of hours walking, the troops moral had ebbed a tad. What happened to the ‘we can do anything’ kids who took on the Italian Alps? I guess the answer was an extra 7 or 8 degrees centigrade. It was hot, but we made it back down for a table-filling drinks round of water and coke. Worth it? Of course for the dramatic mountain scenery – the Picos are not as ranging and grand as other alps but they back a lot into a small space.

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So back to Hotel Cepada on a ridge overlooking Cangas and a somewhat over complicated dinner in a riverside restaurant – getting spoilt and all food critcy now! Then bed with a loo just next door, such luxury and well worth it for team moral.

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Sunday 14 August
More luxury we as just showered and went down to a great breakfast spread of pastries and cold meats and cheeses with a view across to the mountains. We left the hotel with some reluctance, but with the knowledge that we were staying in the lap of luxury having booked into the Melia hotel in Bilbao – we got a good deal, honest. We navigated through Bibao to the hotel without a single raised syllable – thanks Google Maps! The garage doors opened as we arrived and we squeezed Delilah into her luxury underground accommodation and went to inspect ours, not bad at all. Even with our Spanish adjusted body clocks we were hungry by 4pm, so off to the Guggenhiem for a Scooby snack in the cafe. The girls then did the Gugg while I snuck back to actually do a bit of work – unheard of, but there you go. We teamed back up in time to get down to the old quarter of Bilbao (great tram system by the way) and wandered around aimlessly in that dumb Emmett type fashion that we all see at home and sneer at – not so clever now. Everywhere was packed and it actually had the temerity to spit with rain, so we shot into the nearest restaurant for a spot of grub and people watching. The latter was more successful than the former, but it got the job done. Back to another ensuite night, we must be careful not to get spoilt.

Monday 15 August
Ascension Day in Spain, which means a bank holiday. It also means that the shops are closed again and the girls are starting to think that I had planned this. I never, honest. Another fine breakfast which recovered me some ground, especially with Rosie. Then off to the Museo de Bellas Artes, Bilbao’s version of the National Gallery. Well worth a visit when you are next in Bilbao – which is well worth a visit itself by the way. Shelly and I had an early morning run to give the teenagers a bit more lie in time and tired our necks out more than our legs with so much to see. Into town after the gallery in search of somewhere to eat that evening and for lunch. We had the weight responsibility of finding somewhere for the Welch’s because we were meeting up at the end of their trip to celebrate. We dropped into Cafe Iruna, right next door to their hotel, only to find that there was no restaurant that night. A quiet word of warning – if you go to Bibao in the first two weeks of August, apart from missing Ascension day shopping, you will find a few restaurants closed for both weeks as the owners go on holiday then. Apparently from the Saturday after Ascension day it it is fiesta time and it did look as if the city was waiting for something. But, kerching, whilst at Cafe Iruna we did our first proper pintxos; a lunchtime drink and a selection of tapas – except in the basque country it is strictly called pintxos – and it was good, vey good. Then we went in search of Frank Gehry’s favourite restaurant (he built the Guggenheim) El Perro Chico but it was closed for the holidays….typical. However our honour was saved as we met the Welch family that evening took them straight to pintxos at at Cafe Iruna, 50 yards away, a bout of people watching at Plaza Neuva and then to the table that we had booked at Ria Oja in the Casa Viejo (old quarter) for dinner and we were even almost last out of the restaurant – ar’n’t we just the cats about Bilbao town. A great night, thanks Jon, Tod, Stan and Joe. Off to the Pyrennes tomorrow.

Tuesday 16 August
Stuffed ourselves at breakfast and still not manage to make it value for money – bloody hotels! We got out of Bilbao thanks to some good navigation by Shelly and hardly a cross word – I was just asking for clarification, honest. A bit of a blast on the Autovia\Peage today. Out of Bilbao, past San Sebastian and on to Franzia – how good is my basque (or bask as Shelly just spelt it, but she didn’t know what I was talking about ……apparently)! It was busy through to Bayonne but thinned out as we headed to Pau – sounds a bit like the opening lines at a dinner party…how was the traffic…sorry, but these things are important. It was damn hot, again and the girls were sweltering in the back. Another classy lunch on the picnic/beach blanket in a motorway service station. We skirted around Pau and headed in towards Lourdes with loads of fridge-type campervans coming the other way – us, superior, surely not. They had obviously just finished with Ascension day celebrations. Oh, and we had a good two or three proper camper sightings ie VW and T2. VW snobs? Too right, but our comeuppance will come one day with phone calls to the rescue services. We had a little navigational slip in Argeles Gazost which ended in disaster……we ended up with us shopping in Aldi, not an experience to be repeated! We found the campsite, Pyrenes Natural, and just as described in Cool Camping it is very well run. We set up camp in the heat with wilting teenagers helping in spates. You know it is true Ellie and Rosie. For supper we took advantage of the take away boeuf bourguignon and chips. Who says camping has to involve cooking?

Anyway, nice campsite.

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And a nice view.

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Wednesday 17 August
And the kids win the first vote. The camp site have a pre-organised horse ride and, in a moment of weakness, Shelly let us put the family Tregoning on the list. Typically she got the worst horse and we set off at quite a lick. But the scenery was fantastic and it was once to be back in the saddle (for at least three of us). Then it was back to the camp site and, to make Shelly’s day, we attacked 2 weeks worth of washing – the royal ‘We’ of course. We did manage to escape the kids for a nice walk up towards the Lac d’Estaing, it was great to stretch the legs and ease out the serious kinks from our jaunt on horseback. Back to the camp site for beer and gin – and the real bit of genius for this camp site – another take away. The lapin was particularly good.

Thursday 18 August
The day of the big walk, well biggish. I had scoped out a circular walk that we could do from the camp site – which meant no remaking of beds and detaching Delilah from her awning. It was hot and we started a bit too late so the one and a quarter hour climb in the midday sun did not entirely meet the teenagers approval. Worth it for the view? You decide.

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I thought so too, but Rosie is setting off back home in the last picture! And we only saw a about four or five people all day.

Friday 19 August
After Le Grand Trek the previous day we had promised a little less yomping today and it was hot again, so it was not difficult to agree the less sweat deal. So it was off to the Point de Espagne just beyond ski ski resort of Cauterets. It was just over the ridge from the campsite but involved a 50 min drive down the valley and back up again. On the other hand walking over the ridge would have a 1000m climb and would definitely have involved teenage tantrums! Cauterets was busy and quite attractive as we drove through. It would have been interesting to see it in the winter, but then again, why ski in the Pyrennes? Point de Espagne, at the head of the valley, has a glorious waterfall and a very beautiful lake plus a very large car park and a chairlift to take you up there, so it was not exactly all our own. It was a bit like having some of the best mountain views on Oxford Street. And, to my enormous shame, we took the chairlift……a dozen hail Marys and fifteen hill runs to make up. But we managed to walk on a bit and escape the crowds – Lac de Gaube was mesmerising as was the Glacier d’Ossoue above it. A classic example of cirque glaciation as I explained to my fascinated family……as if. We did manage the walk down the hill and back to camp for another cheat supper from the camp kitchen – the Coq au Vin won this time. Photos of the walk will follow if the Motorola will deign to talk to Shelly’s camera.

Saturday 20 August
The hottest day so far. I do not detect too much sympathy emanating from British shores, but this is tough. Decided that the only option was to spend the morning at the camp site down by the river where we lazed and rebuilt the dam. Back to camp for a spot of lunch and then we piled into Delilah for the excitement of the day, rafting down the river Gave. We thought we had picked the perfect day for rafting with the mercury hitting 30 plus, but we had not figured on the bit where we get into wetsuits and life jackets, wait in the sun for everyone to also get into their finery and then climb into a delightfully warm coach glistening with sweat and suntan lotion – us not the coach. If I was a coach operator, I would definitely not hire to rafting companies. Anyway, down to the river still glistening and then glistened through the briefing before the relief of getting on to the water and cooling a bit with a liberal bout of deliberate splashing. It was not exactly the Zambezi in full spate but it was fun with about seven rafts, at least one crazy French crew and the instructors encouraging high jinks. A thumbs up afternoon. after a relatively lazy day we felt we could not cheat on supper again so broke out the BBQ – I must work out how to use it, but we got there in the end.

Sunday 21 August
Back on the road once again and it actually felt quite good after 5 days in the same place. We were heading little further west in the Pyrennes to Camping Les Tilleuils at Gedre near Gavarnie. We got to the site quite early, wandered around and ended back at the plot we first thought of as usual – then moved the whole lot three feet to the left! Then set of to Gavarnie which was very spectacular looking up to a high semicircular ridge which forms the border with Spain and a dramatic waterfall. The only problem that it was just little bit easy to get to so we had to weave our way through the tat shops and coach groups – a bit like Ray Mears meets Flambards. But we just kept looking up at the mountain and it really was too hot for proper walking anyway, so we lazed around the river and then headed home. Gavarnie is definately worth a visit, but don’t expect to have it to yourself. BBQ sausages a la Shelly for another triumphant supper despite the crap BBQing.

Les Tilluels is not as ‘all there’ as the last site – no shop, bar, cold drinks….. But a fantastic setting, it just feels that bit more mountainy.

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That is us bottom left.

Monday 21 August
Actually got up and out early today to walk up to the cirque next door to Gavarnie, Cirque Estaube. We all got everything together in amazing time and we were on the walk by 9.50 (approximately). We had promised to start high so it meant wiggling up a single carriage way mountain road which the old bus managed with ease.

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Not bad eh!

Then we had to walk over the ‘barrage’ (or dam in english) – definitely not my favourite moment’ scary things dams, bit of a phobia actually. But it was worth it as we walked alongside Lac de Gloriettes.

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Also not bad eh.

Then we headed up alongside the river and up towards the cirque and it was really nice not to surrounded by the world and their wives – a bit more serious walkers around us this time. We did a good there hours but we must come back and do the full 8 hour circuit from Gavarnie some time. That said it really did feel as if we were up in the mountains

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and the mountain gods even obliged us with some rain, but it was still better than the stifling heat of the previous days.

And what do you having earned all those exercise brownie points….unearn them with a fine lunch which we did in the Hotel Breche de Roland (quite nice by the way and worth remembering) in Gedre. There also happened to be a mini luge run right next to the hotel so we all had a little digestif run on the luge, predictably Rosie and had to go down twice. It wasn’t exactly dare devil and thankfully, there is no photographic evidence of a 47 year old man elbowing 6 year olds embarrasingly in the queue to get to the front. Back to camp for a light supper and the good news that we could get into the hotel in Bidart for 2 days. So that, plus 2 days in another hotel in St Jean de Luz for 2 days, means a nice spell of luxury ahead. We have have earned it.

Tuesday 22 August
On the road again today from the Pyrennes to Bidart. It is not a long journey so we decided to take the scenic route which involved a 1000m climb up the Col du Tourmalet on our way out of the Pyrennes. For those who are cycling enthusiasts, the Col du Tourmalet is a highlight of the Tour de France when the competitors have to do an unrelenting 17km climb at the end a days riding. It has a bit of a cult status amongst cyclists and their were a lot of them heaving themselves up the Col in homage to their heroes. Anyway, our little hero made it up without frying the engine and down without burning up the brakes. Here she is half way up the Col.

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Just as it flattened out we pulled into an are fringed with oak trees to our most tranquil roadside lunch yet.

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It was quite a relief to burn along the Peage for a few kms after the wriggling up and down the mountain roads – particular as Delilah let’s off on an uncomfortable whiff of petrol when she has to do a hard right hand turn – well we all get old and lose a bit of control. Bidart and Hotel Itsas Mendia was our destination. The hotel was even closer to the beach than I had anticipated, but I do have to admit to knowing that it is a bit of a surf ‘location’. A nice, comfortable hotel with views across to the Pyrennes but we could not see the peaks which were shrouded in clouds. I managed to nip in for a quick surf and then we went to dinner at a basque restaurant in the village. A nice village by the way, with a pleasant church and plaza and a fairly laid back vibe, but not daggy like some surf towns.

Wednesday 23 August
What, rain! So we went inland to check out the villages along the foothills of the Pyrennes. For future reference, we liked Ainhoa and Sare, but were less impressed with St Pee de Nivelle and Ascain. The countryside close to La Rhune (a 900m mountain) was wooded, lush and fairly unspoilt but it got busier and suburban as we got to Urunge and generally closer to the coast. Nipped in for a second surf and made up for a rather frustrating early morning session and then hit the local pizzeria fo supper. We ran into an exhibition of local dancing in the square on the way which tempted us into a quick bout of the Furry dance as we wended our way back to the hotel.

Thursday 24 August
Had a peak at the waves first thing, but nada, so went back to bed. But when we finally rose, the sun was out, so we cleared out of the hotel and hit the beach as we only had to go 15 minutes down to the next spot. A full beach but it was nice to get some sun and do a bit of swimming. The water was much warmer than Portugal thanks to the North Atlantic Drift – a bit too hot for 3/2 wetsuit. Then on to St Jean de Luz and hotel Zazpi in the afternoon. If Bidart was a village then St Jean de Luz is definitely a town. A mix of shopping crossed between St Ives and Bath, lots of pedestrian walkways and a large crescent of beach full kids clubs, activities and, on a hot day, bodies. We settled into our room at Zazpi quickly and then hit the shops. The final count was that I actually probably spent as much as all the girls put together, a surprising result but we still have the final day in Bilbao with open shops. We tried to get into the ‘just like mama cooks’ restaurant that the hotel owners had recommended but it was full when we arrived and still a queue when we went back at 9 pm. But we managed to get a table at a fish restaurant which sprawled out of the, now closed, fish market. Not bad at all.

Friday 25 August
What, rain? Shelly and I went for an exploratory run out of town on the coast road and just about succeeded in dodging the rain showers. Plenty of peering over hedges trying peer into the houses on ‘millionaires row’. Rosie had spotted a sushi restaurant so we gave it a go for lunch and it was actually very good – a nice change from the somewhat rich basque cooking. By the time we came out the sun had come out so it was up to the rooftop terrace at Zazpi for a bask and dip in the pool. Nice views from up there as well.

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Hotel Zazpi was a real treat. The owner, a construction engineer had hired an architect and filled the garden with a new wing on q wonderful basque town house. It was strange to see the original exterior of the house as you walked from the corridor into your room – but it was all done very effectively and beautifully designed. The kids, on the other hand, were just impressed with the bath in our room which allowed them to sit in the bath and watch the wide screen.

So they had a bikini bath screening.

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This time we got to Chez Pablo as it opened and were third in the queue, sad but at least it was reassuring to see how popular it was. It was worth it. The kids definitely gave the steak and confit of duck the thumbs up – you did not get the choice, the steak came so rare it was still mooing which suited Ellie just fine. The squid in ink was fantastic but rather rich, so I had to help, but it was hard to tear myself away from the crab gratin. Rolled out of Pablo’s and home to massage stomachs.

Saturday 26 August
Squeezed Delilah out of the underground car park which was a touch and go – interesting trying to drive with your head sticking out of the window trying to look at the roof as well as in all the normal directions. We set off back towards Spain in the rain (such poetry)? Strangely the most suitable campt to staysite I could find was in a place called Mundaka which might ring a bell to surfers as a bit of a ‘spot’. We got to Mundaka in clearing skies, found the camp site and started the usual ‘new site’ rigmarole of; deciding if we want to stay, looking for the best plot and then deciding how to orientate Delilah and the tent for maximum privacy, none of which is easy on a busy spanish camp site. Portoundo is not the quietest site we have stayed but we settled into a spot surrounded by no less than four other bay windowed campers – which helped relieve the choice of camp site nerves. The exchange of stories about vw camper quirks was also reassuring – at least our fuel gauge works and most of the fuel stays in the tank. This time we just parked Delilah and bunged up the tent before going for a spot of lunch – learning the lesson that setting up can be tense enough without being hungry as well. We had seen restaurant at the entrance to the site as we arrived so decided to give it a go. It looked a tad posh but we spotted that there was another bit to the restaurant. It was fast food basque style. There was a rank of rotissaries which must have contained over 100 chickens and a numbering system for ordering just like the cheese counter at a supermarket. But it was not just chicken the basque staples of chorizo and black pudding were also on the menu along with whole legs of ham. We got trayed up, laid our own table and even worked out when to go back when our number was called to stagger back with our tray of food. After a busy day all we wanted to do was to chow down so it suited us just fine. We went back down the hill to finish the set up and walked into the village into the middle of a festival which seemed to mainly involve wearing blue shirts and kerchieves around the neck – so much simpler than Flora Day. My eyes however were pretty much glued to the water because there was a decent swell and, despite the disruptive wind, the famous Mundaka left was trying to work. There was a crew of 20 or so wallowing on some fairly flat waves until local lad rode the rip/river straight out back and showed how it should be done. I would have loved to have given it a go but we had just arrived and the board was back at the camp site…….! The rule for Mundaka looks like, just either side of high tide to make getting across the current to the break easier but I did not get to test it because it went flat from then on……phew! Back for more fast food for supper, this time with a bit of live music as well – a few basque favourites.

Sunday 27 August
Woke to find the rest of the family still well in sleep mode, so went for a run into Mundaka. It was obviously fairly quiet and it was just the street cleaners clearing the detritus from the previous days festival. Mundaka has some beautiful old houses and a picture book harbour – not at all like a surf town, but then the wave does not work very often. I ran through town and found what I thought was a coast path, but it ended at someone’s garden gate – just makes you realise how lucky we are to have our coast path. I found the road and had a look around the corner towards Bermeo, but that did not look as attractive as Mundaka. Back to camp and stirred the family to get up and out and off to the beach on the other side of the bay. The only problem with Mundaka was that the beach was the other side of the river. We squeezed Delilah out of her plot and went all the way round to the other side of the bay. It was obviously the last Sunday of the Spanish holidays because there were cars lined so far up the road from the beach that, once we found a spot, it took us 15 minutes to walk back to the beach. We approached the beach with some trepidation, how could there be enough beach to fit that many people? But we were saved by two other Spanish traits, they like to sit very close together and they do not like to walk too far – so we found a spot which actually gave us a two cat-swing exclusion zone. It was reasonably low tide so I grabbed the fish and did some little wave surfing so that I could at least say that I had surfed near Mundaka! It was nice to have a day on the beach, so we stayed late and then went back to the camp for a hot dog sausages, rice and lentil supper. It sounds worse than it was and was a relief not to eat anything fried.

Monday 28 August
A bit overcast today so we took advantage and had a lazy day. Or at least the kids did, Shelly and I somehow managed to end up walking into Mundaka twice and back up the estuary towards Gernika once. The latter was surprisingly pretty, a bit like the Helford River back at home, except that here we had a little island to walk around. One day away from fried food was all I could manage so I forced the family back into Mundaka for an evening drink and supper in a restaurant under the town hall. All the cooking was over charcoal which helped to reduce the oil intake – Rosie and I shared an enormous fish and Shelly declared the fish soup the best yet. It was what you would call a ‘real’ local restaurant and the bar attached to it was obviously the local old boys favourite watering hole.

Tuesday 29 August
Typical, we could have gone to the beach if we had had this sunshine yesterday, instead it was a fairly warm decamp, but we took it slowly as it was the last – lots of brushing mud and careful folding. Now the shoe was on the other foot as the non-leaving campers looked on with dismay at our ritual of fastidiousness – it had been me watching each departure up to now with shaking head…….until today. We had decide to go the slow, coastal route to Bilbao and it was worth it. Winding roads up ecalyptus clad hills with broad green valleys below and a little more care in keeping the old buildings than we had seen elsewhere in Spain. The towns with beaches had been overly ‘resortified’ but the rest was beautiful. We had booked back into the Melia in Bilbao, so we knew roughly where we were going, but we were coming in from the opposite direction so congratulations to Shelly for faultless navigation – we were getting better at this.

Nice rooms with a nice view of Bilbao

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Checked in and, being the ‘Cats about Bilbao town’ that we were after our previous stay, it was onto the tram (including doing all the right ticket validation stuff), got off at the right stop, and walking unerringly to Cafe Iruna for pinxtos for lunch. We even did a not bad job of the pinxtos ordering. Then it was time to make up for the lost shopping days and we descended on the shoping streets which were really rather good, our opinion of Bilbao just kept rising. By the time all four of us had finished we looked even more like the ‘Cats about Bilbao town’ in our new gear and the the share value of Zara had risen a good few points! We couldn’t get into El Perros Chico for supper but the hotel booked us into a restaurant we had peered into questionly last time, Victor Monte in the main square of the old town, Plaza Nueuvo. Well looked after by a ‘Joey from Friends’ lookalike waiter and another fullsome basque meal but in very atmospheric surroundings with lots of chatter and pintxosing.

Wednesday 30 August
Our last Melia breakfast was a good’un and then Rosie, Ellie and I tried to do more shopping whilst Shelly returned to the Gugg (as we Bilbaons call it). But we were shopped out from the previous day and only managed two orange spatulas from Habitat and they took at least half an hour to let me pay for them which, in a grown up way, I managed to put down as a cultural experience. We all met at the Gugg and then went into town for lunch. We walked past a chinese restaurant and made the mistake of not continuing. Chinese food in Spain? Worth a try? A bit of a change from fried everything? I can only quote my words as we left an hour later, “I told you so”. Spanish chinese food is not too dissimilar to the English variety, it is just fried a bit……lot more. So we waddled back to the hotel laden with frying oil and monosodium glutamate. Showered, packed up, and took Delilah out of Bilbao and off to Santander. We got to Santander with just enough time to drop into a chocolatier on the water front and order churos and hot chocolate (churos is doughnut shaped like a frankfurter which you dip into hot chocolate that you can stand a spoon up in). This final assault on our stomachs was a fitting final culinary fling before we left Spain. We got onto the ferry leaving Delilah sandwiched between two bays and cruised home. She made it, well done Delilah.