Sunday 15 November 2015

Meeting Fellow Travellers in Northern Spain

Sos del Ray Catolico

Andorra and Spain, 12th – 14th November 2015

We’re currently parked up on the outskirts of Pamplona, Spain, having left France behind and crossed two country borders.  The temperature’s dropped to 10 degrees outside now that it’s dark, but it’s been a clear sunny afternoon.  Confession: we’re feeling a little worse for wear today, having been up late with new friends and fellow motorhomers Julie and Jay of OurTour last night and maybe—maybe—having possibly consumed a little too much wine.

The edges of the road are marked with poles as a safety
precaution for deep snow - I imagine Andorra is a very
different place when the winter snow arrives
But first, Andorra.  We’d been umming and aahing over our last few days in France about how best to travel there, or even if to travel there at all.  The small tax-free country is situated in the Pyrenees mountains, so I wasn’t convinced about the viability of entering ski-resort territory in a hefty vehicle in November without winter tyres/snow chains.  A few quick internet searches beforehand and we were left with the overall impression that whilst the road in from Spain is generally pretty straight and a scenic drive, the French route is, according to WikiTravel, “a more stressful affair involving many hairpin bends”.  I wasn’t feeling optimistic when we left our overnight spot at L’hospitalet-pres-L’andorre, but as it turns out I didn’t really have too much to worry about.  The weather was fine, with clear blue skies, temperatures in the mid 10s and the only hint of snow being a sprinkling of white on some of the distant mountain peaks (winter season doesn’t officially start until December).

The road ribbons across the hillside bringing up
reminiscent feelings of the Transfagarasan pass
Once you cross the French-Andorran border, you have the option of taking a 3km toll tunnel which cuts out the worst of the mountain pass.  Not wanting to fork up the €11-ish price tag we opted to give the mountain road a go, and despite the foreboding mess of squiggly lines on the satnav’s screen, the roads were good quality (looking recently surfaced) and the hairpins were nice and wide.  We reached the first town of Pas de la Casa, and it was there that the fuel stations began.

Being a tax free country, fuel is dirt cheap in Andorra.  The going rate for diesel was €0.88/litre (that’s about 63p), with premium diesel being 3 cents extra.  Stations are dotted along the main road through the country a few hundred metres away from each other, presumably to cater for the constant flow of tourists and visitors from France/Spain dropping by to fill their tanks.  We put in a little on the way out of Pas de la Casa to keep us going to the other side of Andorra, and filled the tank up before leaving the country once we knew we’d got any mountain passes out of the way.  There’s a designated motorhome parking area at Pas de la Casa in a large car park, and in retrospect we should have parked up there and gone for a look around, because motorhome parking across the rest of the country wasn’t so easy.  Unfortunately it ended up being one of those places we only got to view from the inside of a windscreen, but it didn’t look like we were missing a great deal other than ski resorts and tax free shopping.  That being said, there might be areas of the country away from the main road that are a bit more interesting.

One area I noticed where it certainly isn’t cheap, however: roaming charges.  After spending so long visiting EU countries where calls/texts are cheap, it was a bit of a shock to the system getting the “Welcome to Andorra” text message pop through from Virgin.  £4 a minute?  £1 a text?  Daylight robbery!

Onwards into Spain

When we previously drove through Spain, we were mainly using the country as a way of getting from A to B, having decided to cut down to the Algarve to escape the bad weather.  As a result we passed through in a matter of days where we only really stopped travelling to eat and sleep.  This time around I think we’re paying more attention to our surroundings and getting to know the place a little more.

Road-wise, the place is fantastic.  Everywhere there are smoothly tarmacked roads, often dual carriageways, and barely any other vehicles using them.  I’m sure I’ve heard a lot of the roads are EU funded; I can’t understand how there was the demand for it when nobody is using them, but seeing as it allows us to get around so easily I’m certainly not complaining.  First impressions on the towns we’ve passed through: everything seems more spacious.  There are still a lot of terraced houses, but the rows of buildings seem further apart and there’s not really been any spots yet where we’ve been squeezing down tight roads hoping for no vehicles coming in the opposite direction.  The buildings are a lot less fussy; there’s still a lot of metal balconies all over the place, but they’re usually grids of straight lines rather than all the delicate wrought iron twists and swirls in France.

Our mobile internet, unfortunately, had chosen to go kaput in Spain.  Our SIM card is supposed to be Europe-wide and so far we’ve had success using it in every country with the exception of Romania, which we assume was due to poor coverage.  We’ve tried turning the MiFi on in four different places so far and got no signal in three of them and very weak signal in the fourth.  Matt needed to get online to take care of some urgent admin errands, so whilst we were driving west we decided we’d stop at the first Aire where we could get signal.  The first Aire we got to however at Tamerite de Litera (GPS: 41.86283 0.42803, free including service point) looked to be an alright spot so we decided we’d drive into the town to see if we would find WiFi at any bars.

Tamarite, being in the middle of the country away from any big cities, is definitely not a tourist town.  As such, there weren’t any convenient strings of bars/restaurants advertising free WiFi or similar.  There was one local bar on the main street that had a couple of customers, so we parked the van up and Matt had a wander inside to see if they had it.  The bartender didn’t speak any English, and he didn’t seem to understand WiFi no matter how Matt tried pronouncing it, only understanding when Matt got his phone out and showed him the WiFi settings.  After confirming they had internet Matt ordered a coffee and called me inside, where we tried to order me a coke.  We asked for Coca Cola which drew blank looks, so eventually pointed at a large decorative glass cola bottle behind the bar.  “Ah!  Coca Cola!”  The bartender said, pronouncing the O’s as in gone rather than as in cone.  Made me feel a little like I was having the great old Scone Pronunciation debate back in the UK.

The next day, after using the free service point (which is the first time where we’ve got use out of our ½ inch tap connector) we carried on, getting a couple of hours driving in before stopping at Arguedas.  Once more the roads were fairly empty; Spain, where are you hiding all the people?  At the Arguedas aire (GPS: 42.17383, -1.59158, free) there is a backdrop of cliffs with lots of dark holes which upon closer inspection reveal themselves to be troglodyte caves.  Inside the caves are series of connected rooms that looked like they’d still been in use until recent years.  Some are better preserved than others, with some having brightly painted walls and kitchen units still in place, whereas others were little more than crumbling holes in the rock.

The town of Arguedas seems to be a bit of a higgledy-piggledy place.  Near the cliffs a few more conventional houses still use the rock to form part of the wall structure.  As you get further into the town, some of the buildings looks relatively new and well maintained, whereas others a couple of houses away were derelict or in the state of being pulled down.  We did however find a WiFi zone, so Matt utilised it to check on his errands.  We’re a fan of the OurTour blog and knew they were roughly in the same area so we nipped onto their site to see where they were and found that their last mentioned location was a spot about an hour and a half away in the direction we were heading next.  We didn’t know if they’d still be around but we had details for the Aire there that looked nice enough (Sos del Ray Catolico, GPS: 42.49123 -1.21359, free including service point) so we decided we’d give it a whack regardless and see if they were about to say hello.

Julie & Jay with their parting bottle of Spumante!
Julie and Jay are another couple of bloggers ( who packed up their life in the UK and spent a couple of years travelling all over Europe and some of northern Africa with their dog Charlie in an old Hymer, Dave.  They wrote an excellent blog during this time that we’ve read and used a lot for research/reference over the last year or so. Dave has now been replaced by a newer Hymer named Zagan and two years has turned into as long as they want, having worked their way to financial freedom over the past couple of years back in the UK.  They were still at the Aire when we arrived so we nipped by to say hello, and ended up chatting for an hour or so whilst their dinner was cooking, talking about our experiences and the places we’ve visited.  Most of the motorhomers we meet are on shorter breaks for up to a couple of months or so, so it was great to be able to touch base with others who have been on a similar journey.  We left them to their dinner for the evening and returned to the van to get some dinner of our own, relaxing a little after a few busy days of driving and giving them chance to recover from a busy few nights partying we other Brits they’d bumped into.

Sos del Ray Catolico is a walled Medieval hilltop town that’s been very well preserved, with lots of the buildings having changed very little over the past 500-odd years.  We had a look around it the next day, noticing how strangely quiet the place felt.  We wandered for streets and only really came across a couple of people, right up until the point when we hit the main church and were greeted with the hustle and bustle of a tour bus group.  We spotted our first Menu Del Dia sign (€11), which bodes well for our time in Spain (but it’s going to have to wait a bit – Tapas is higher on the priority list). Jay’s written a good piece about the town here too, and you may recognise some people on there!

Back at the van, I made a mission of trying to get connected online.  Whilst talking with Jay and Julie the night before we’d remembered the existence of our old 3 sim card still in the van, so I nipped onto the 3 website and had a look.  £15 and a few minutes of time later and we were online straight away, with 3GB to last us for the next 30 days – a luxury after our usual 1GB a month!  Whilst I was busy online Matt got some car polish out and set to work on the marks on the van caused by vandals in the Camargue – we’re happy to say the marks are now gone so there’s no permanent damage, the only downside is we now have two conspicuously clean patches on the van that reveal how long it’s been since we gave it a wash!

Last night Jay and Julie invited us round for dinner (a nice chorizo and prawn risotto), and it was nearing midnight when we walked (or in my case stumbled) back to the van.   We cracked out some of the Spumante from our Italy stocks before working our way through their open wine cartons.  The great thing about meeting other travellers is that everyone has a similar mindset and it’s great hearing stories about places where other people have been.  Matt’s been eyeballing up potential plans for Morocco after hearing them talk about their time there a couple of years ago and highly recommending going with it being one of their top highlights of their travels along with Greece (which is also ours so far), so we’ll see how things pan out come the New Year.  Julie very kindly donated a bottle of Ribena from her stash, so Matt’s back on the squash after having just finished the last of his rationed bottle from Hungary’s Tesco! They’re a really friendly down to earth couple so we had a great evening with them and look forward to seeing them again at some point when we can return the favour and have dinner round at ours.

Today we’ve moved onto Pamplona, but given that I’ve probably rambled enough for one post, I’ll leave that until next time.  Farewell for now!

- Jo

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