This is not an article complaining about tedious airport delays, overfilled luggage and excessive customs zeal. Today, I will try to record a 4,700 mile road trip in just 1200 words.
Dover from North Wales is a journey in itself, but easily accomplished in six to eight hours. It became a little disturbing when I realized that diesel was hard to find near the port. This was triggered by higher prices in France that pushed motorists and truck workers to fill loads in the UK. It was not good when we discovered shortages in France. But we overcame these issues by filling in a little and often, making the most of the courtyards with plenty of supplies.
In late March and early April (2022), we descended through a snowy, incredibly cold northern France. A southern route that led to Rouen, Le Mans, Tours and Poitiers, where we finally ran out of DAY-1. Making a stop at a nearby campsite, our surprisingly comfortable complex, equipped with air beds, provided makeshift accommodation after being disappointed by an Airbnb host. We woke up to a crisp, icy breakfast by the slowly winding Vienna River. A very pleasant experience.
Tired of our two-day trip, our next stop was a simple hop and a trip to Angoulême where we had booked another Airbnb near the main amenities. Time, finally, for a serious wine tasting and to get a taste of France. This was followed by an afternoon visit to the beautiful (and now peaceful) city of Cognac with its picturesque Grand ‘Place, endless narrow medieval streets and magnificent flower exhibitions. Cognac is a small but busy city. It is wonderfully cool and therefore a real pleasure to visit in the heart of the green, fertile Nouvelle-Aquitaine area.
With the nose of the car facing the mighty Pyrenees and the Iberian Peninsula beyond, the coordinates were set for Toulouse via the Dordogne and the stunning beauty of the city of Périgueux, home to the Cathedrale St-Front with its five domes. This was another perfect location to enjoy another light meal, a taste of locally produced foie gras, admire some elaborate and extremely expensive cakes before… more attractions.
Toulouse was not on our radar because the goal was to face the Pyrenees the next day. So we continued driving, hoping to find a hotel south of Toulouse. Finally we used a booking app to find nearby accommodations. We did! It was a room in a small family bungalow. To say it was comfortable is fair. Our room was literally just outside the family living room with a shared bathroom to start with. Fortunately our hosts were quite friendly and clearly were not used to hosting last minute guests like us. It just seemed a little “familiar” to those of us in a British mood. But for an authentic French experience – unbeatable!
After a slightly restless night’s sleep, dawn announced a visit to a nearby local Boulangerie where they were enjoying a European breakfast with an elderly but very French owner who happened to speak excellent English. Time to head to the snowy majesty of the high Pyrenees. If we played our cards correctly, Barcelona nodded.
The route over the snowy peaks was nothing but completely impressive. Some of the most unusual routes through the French / Spanish hinterland are a bit hairy and may not be for the faint of heart. But luck favors the adventurous and so the most spectacular view will be revealed by remote passages with narrow road tunnels carved into the ancient slopes.
The architecture and the general atmosphere are clearly alpine in these places. Bite yourself, because Barcelona is hiding nearby. Distance, peace and quiet will soon be replaced by the hustle and bustle of a vibrant European city.
The sights of Barcelona are nothing short of awesome. It’s a huge city, but we managed to cover all the major attractions from our downtown hotel just off Las Ramblas. Top tip: If you have a large car, avoid underground parking. They are built in the absolute bowels of the city. Access is NOT easy. Going out, even harder! It 25 € 25 to scratch your car. Luckily I got away with it. Just.
After a turbulent but strangely relaxing few days in busy Barcelona, we went a little off the track, embracing the Spaniard Costa until we reached a small seaside town called Benicarló. We chose to stay in the nearby larger and more picturesque town of Pêniscola with the magnificent castle at the top of the hill overlooking the sunny bay.
From here it was very far from Valencia to Benidorm. Surely ALL the world’s oranges are grown around Valencia? The plantations reach from horizon to horizon, miles by miles of oranges. I thought there was a lot in Portugal, but that was on another level.
I had never been to Benidorm. For me, it is a case of leaving all the clichés. This is a resort that is all things to all people. You can eat whatever you like, from cheap and cheerful cuisine to top cuisine. You can have Tex-Mex, Tandoori or Tapas. The choice is yours. And, Benidorm is far more beautiful than I would have ever imagined. The view from Benidorm Castle to the top of the old town (via “Tapas Alley”) is truly stunning, especially when it is all lit up at night. We will go back!
From Benidorm we headed to Seville for the celebrations of Holy Week, where about 50,000 people wore traditional robes to parade in 58 organized processions where the “costaleros” carry on their shoulders huge shining folds (religious statues). Fascinating spectacle!
Portugal was now clearly in our sights. From the glorious beaches of Huelva we soon crossed the Guadiana Bridge to spend some time relaxing in the sunny Algarve. Based in the Quarteira, we enjoyed several days in the south of Portugal before heading north to Lisbon, Ericeira, Sintra, Cascais, Mafra and all my favorite hangouts around. It was then north to a very windy San Martinho do Porto, Nazaré and Aveiro before heading north to Spain and the picturesque Basque Country.
Our time in the incredibly beautiful resort of San Sebastian, where the “pinchos” trump cards and people speak their own unique language was very short. But at least we still had the French Basque region to look forward to, where we spent some very pleasant days near the stunning Biarritz, Bayonne, Irun and St Jean-de-Luz.
The last days of this month-long excursion were spent in the enchanting city of Bordeaux, where the modern meets the classic in a great combination of styles. A huge network of narrow streets and alleys reveals a plethora of hidden bars and restaurants that cater to most tastes. There is also a very useful modern tram system that connects all the main areas of the city, the parks, the long river hike and various key suburbs that make Bordeaux an extremely easy city to navigate.
So, that’s how we did Portugal the hard way. It was also fun way and therefore highly recommended!