We ended up visiting my mother and sister in Bristol in early December to carry out some routine family business and, more especially, to coincide with an early afternoon big-screen broadcast of Nutcracker from The Royal Opera House. Given all the difficulties of the past few years my mother had missed out on cultural outings and this seemed ideal – big screen for poor vision, wide comfortable seats, great sound system for hard of hearing, daytime showing to avoid a late night. Perfect! We even got to see a carol concert from my sister’s choir (Gurt Lush) the next night – what a treat!
It was a good visit and, for us, this meant an earlier getaway to Portugal than expected – we thought. To avoid the long drive through France and Spain in mid-winter we weighed the savings in fuel and other costs and opted to book the, fairly expensive, overnight Portsmouth-Santander ferry. It turns out that there are fewer ferries at this time of year and quite a lot of motorhomers with the same idea! We got the last cabin on the Bilbao ferry on 7th January. Although the distance is no greater than to Santander, the Cap Finisterre starts very late and makes a call in Roskoff to change crew which tips it into a second night.
We had a week to prepare Portia after the Christmas close down and while making a cup of tea we discovered a gas supply problem:-( We needed a new regulator:-(( With four days to go:-((( This seemed to mean two trips to Danum’s in Doncaster for a) model checking and b) fitting after ordering! Our fiercely crossed fingers and toes must have worked as they were able to fit us with the only one in stock in the space of two hours on the first visit:-)) Grateful thanks to Danum’s.
Fiercely cold weather was forecast as we set off on 6th. Portsmouth was a bit too far to confidently make the trip in one go and there is a friendly real ale pub near Oxford which lets you stay overnight in exchange for eating there or £20.00. We had baked ham with bubble and squeak and pints of something with a rustic name.
The heavy ground frost in the morning made it easy to get out of the previously very muddy car park and made us glad we had a day to spare. It was a 22:30 sailing and a handy roadside M&S provided a lasagne for a van-based meal while we waited dockside. We were grateful for this because just as loading was due to start, a three hour delay was announced! It was attributed to bad weather in the Bay of Biscay on the incoming sailing. They must have known about it for hours before they told us. We had heard about crossing the Bay of Biscay in winter – notorious for rough seas – and now it looked as if we were fated to experience it:-( We made it to bed on board at about 01:00.
The crossing was smooth as a millpond! This picture shows not only the lovely calm weather but the extreme shortness of the haircut I had had in anticipation of three months in the van. Do I like it? No. Is it practical? Yes. Short hair is actually a real bonus on the road if your vanity can cope.
A lazy day trying the various restaurants, cafés and bars and another night on board was followed by an early disembarkation in Bilbao and the main road south to León. Now, in my ignorance, I did not know there was a magnificent range of mountains just south of Bilbao. And that they were snow covered in winter:-( Only a skinny bit of snow down at road level, but enough to make you worry about van life generally. León is a pleasant city out the other side of the mountains, on the plain – and we all know what that means in Spain! And it did – that night and all the boring way across the plain the next day to our second stop. This was a paid and soggy aire in a small resort town beside a splendid lake where neither Neil nor I remembered to take a picture – probably worried about getting our phones wet! It would be a great place for a summertime stop but a bit damp and chilly for optimistic sun seekers in January. Here is a blurred snap from the van window as we crossed the bridge to the aire.
Portia had played a mean and heart-stopping trick down a steep and narrow road to get us here when another, less steep and less narrow, was available. Van life would not be the same without the regularly shredded nerves. At least you get a compensating vaguely euphoric feeling afterwards, when you are safely parked up and the heater starts working. And the kettle is on. And the fridge lights first time (which it does now we have a new regulator).
We had heard about the remarkable NOS data card for Portugal. €15 for fifteen days unlimited usage – yes, properly unlimited. Meaning non-stop Radio 4 and even streaming TV. First stop was therefore a NOS shop in Braga – identified on google maps. No more optimistic wandering around hoping to run across one at opening time! Success first time – no passport required, no one hour queue and it worked as advertised. Hurrah! On to Furadoura which offers a car park behind the sea dunes – definitely a place for two nights to take stock of being in Portugal. And the rain had stopped. It was still cold but sunny enough for a walk along the boardwalks and admire the raging Atlantic.
We also walked into the village post office and spent a cheery half hour discussing, using the medium of mime, how to register the van to use the electronic toll roads. Portugal has the most insanely complicated system of toll roads (three different types, one of which is only available to Portuguese registered cars as it transpired). Two passing young men, there only to buy a lottery ticket, joined in with their better English and smart phones, but we still left little the wiser. Back at the van Neil eventually managed to pay ten euros on line and we crossed our fingers that it would work when we whisked past the number plate-recognising cameras on high.
Next morning we had a panic about the water pump having packed up. The clean water, which we knew was not empty, stopped running mid-wash. The fuses were intact. Online help said there were many things that could go wrong and for that reason many people carry a spare pump. Oh bugger. Looking in the tank there were a couple of inches still left. The control panel said empty. Hmm. The water-filling station was, confusingly, a short drive away from the parking at a purpose-built service station. We filled, it worked. It fills until the control panel says 100%. Then a moment later it reads only 65%. Looking in the tank it is still full to the brim. There is a way to calibrate the control panel but it involves filling, emptying and refilling in quick succession which we are not about to do. In the meantime we will just have to monitor our usage more carefully.
At this point we just wanted warmth and sun. Although it goes against the grain to whisk through miles of historic countryside without stopping to look, getting south to the Algarve became a priority. Many mohoers disparage the Algarve as being a bit kiss-me-quick, others say you can discriminate between sites and avoid the horrors of the ex-pat Brit scene. Now we had our toll road permit sorted there was nothing to stop us taking the direct road and hoping it got warmer and dryer with each passing mile.