Thursday 19 November 2015

Pamplona and San Sebastian

Spain, 15th – 18th November 2015

From our previous spot at Sos del Ray Catalico we headed via Pamplona to San Sebastian and from there started travelling west along the northern coast, staying at a series of free Aires, except San Seb which cost a whole €3.25.

San Sebastian - Donostia
After the late night drinking with Jay and Julie we were both feeling a bit rough but had woken up before the alarm, so for the first time while we’ve been away we started the day watching a DVD in bed. After an episode of Lost and some orange juice we were feeling more up to it so got up and organised. Jay and Julie were getting on their way to start heading into the Pyrenees so we said our goodbyes and shortly after we used the service point and headed off too.

Palacio de Vallesantovo
Sangüesa looked an interesting town when we drove through the other day so our first stop was here for a look around. Sangüesa dates back to the 9th century but its main development started around the 12th century when it became useful to have a large town on the pilgrim’s route from France to Compostela. In 1312 it gained the title “La que nunca fallo” - the place that never let us down, in response to its defence of the Navarre borders against the Aragon kingdom. When asking the lady in the tourist office if she spoke English she replied with “a little” then proceeded to give us lots of information about things to see in the town and the surrounding area in good English. We walked around the streets looking at the Church of Santa María la Real which has Romanesque architecture with carved figures on the front depicting various scenes, and the Palacio de Vallesantovo, a baroque building that is free to look inside and had a small art gallery in one room.

It seems we have a bit of a wait ahead of us...
We drove into Pamplona with the intention of chilling at the Aire for the rest of the day to finish recovering from the previous night, then moving in the morning to a parking area close to the centre that Julie had given us the GPS for. After having some lunch by mid-afternoon though we were feeling up to visiting the city so headed over to the closer parking area (GPS: 42.82086 -1.65646). Pamplona is well known for the Bull Run that takes place for several days each July, where people run in front of the bulls as they follow a path from the city walls through the streets to the bull ring. We found it to be an attractive place, where despite the buildings being several stories high, didn’t feel claustrophobic and there were several open plazas. We walked down streets of cafés, bars and small shops to the bull ring, which is the third largest after Madrid and Mexico City, and followed the path of the Bull Run out of town. There was the occasional shop selling bull run related tat but not too much to make it feel tacky. We decided to move back to the free Aire (GPS: 42.84027 -1.66520) for the night where it was quieter and more peaceful. While Jo got on with writing a blog entry I made us ratatouille for dinner. She didn’t know what was more surprising, me cooking a veggie meal, or me saying that it was quite nice!

On the way out of Pamplona we did our first Spanish Lidl shop which we came away impressed with after the French Lidl’s and had forgotten how cheap things were, particularly alcohol. Cans of lager worked out at €0.73/l and 1l briks (cartons) of wine were only €0.59! We took a free stretch of motorway into San Sebastian, or Donostia as it’s called in the Basque language that’s used in this region.

Pamplona Aire
Carton €0.59/l or twice as much for it in a
Low cloud that we set off driving through then went back into again further along the route to Pamplona

We got parked up in the Aire (GPS: 43.30803 -2.01425, €3.25/24h in winter, Free service point) where there were four other British registered motorhomes, the most we’ve seen in a long time. Nobody was about though so we chilled in the van for a while then walked down into the town around 5pm. It’s quite a nice 45 min walk down to the old town past the university to the seafront then along the promenade around the bay. Our plan for the evening was to sample some pinxtos, the local Basque version of tapas, which in many places is laid out on the bar. At the first bar we went into I used my pre-prepared script to order some drinks, “Hola, dos vino del casa blanco por favor” to which the bartender looked at us like we were mad, “too long” he said, “dos blancos” is all that’s required. He tried teaching us several other Basque phrases too that he was getting me to repeat and use on him. Unfortunately we’ve forgotten what they are, but the chap was an entertaining character. We went to another two pinxtos bars using our new phrase for ordering wine which worked fine although didn’t get us the cheapest house wine we were aiming for that Julie had told us about, but it wasn’t expensive anyhow at €1.80-2.00 a glass. The first two places we went in seemed more tourist focussed where you selected some food and paid upfront, while the last one appeared to be a more local place that you selected what you wanted and could go back for more, then paid at the end with the bartender, who didn’t speak English, remembering/noting what you’d had. Here they also automatically heated up, grilled or fried the items, whereas the others were cold but we’d seen people getting them warmed up in a microwave behind the bar. I particularly enjoyed a piece of grilled chorizo wrapped in bacon and sandwiched between some baguette. We think we prefer tapas overall but it was a good experience and we’d do it again with some more research or somebody more in the know to show us the best places and items to have. Before starting on the pinxtos bars we’d called into the tourist office for a map and info on the busses in preparation for later (€1.65 single, no 5 or 25 to get back to near the Aire) but as it was only around 8pm we decided to have a stroll home.

In the morning Jo got our accounts and other records up to date then we saw our neighbours return to their van so I popped out to say hello. Matt (another one) and Ellie are taking a year off to tour Europe in Heidi their Hymer and are currently 11 weeks in having started in Britain and Ireland, followed by France, and had just entered Spain. They are the first people we’ve met that are doing a similar thing to us, and they also have a blog (check it out at They came for a look in our van and we ended up chatting for a while about our travels. They had to get going as their parking ticket had expired but they are travelling in the same direction as us so we exchanged contact details and are hoping to meet up with them further along the road to have more time to talk over some drinks.

We got the bikes out and cycled down to the seafront; there’s an excellent cycle path that starts near the Aire and continues all the way down to and around the bay. After parking the bikes at the port near the old town we walked up the hill Urgull to the castle where there are great views over the city and the bay with the mountains in the background. Making a beeline back to the Aire before our ticket expired, while packing our bikes away we met an English couple that had just arrived and came over. They were on their way back to the UK after a couple of months travelling up the Costas and gave us a useful tip that some Cepsa fuel stations have laundry facilities attached, similar to the French supermarkets, so we’ll be keeping an eye out for these.

With all our water tanks done, on the way out of town we somehow ended up on a section of toll road without realising until we saw the toll booths ahead, despite our sat nav being set to avoid them and not seeing it marked on the sign in as we joined it. Luckily it was only €1.58 though so no worries. We pulled off into Orio for a lunch stop, finding a car park down by the sea that was marked with blue bays which we weren’t sure if they should be payable like in other countries as there was no sign of a machine or any notices about. Further along the road we stopped for the night at an Aire at Zumaia (GPS: 43.29284 -2.24685, Free inc. service point) where we noticed the sign said maximum 12h but a series of other motorhomes were parked up so we settled for the night. It faces onto a river but with the view obscured in places by bushes and is located amongst an industrial estate and next to some sort of fabrication business so there was noise that continued into the night but not enough to interrupt our sleeping.

The new Aire on the port
During a morning walk along the river bank path into the town I spotted 4 or 5 motorhomes parked on the dockside overlooking the water on the opposite side of the river in what looked a good spot. We found a bakery for some fresh bread and nice looking large pain au chocolats. Back at the van, looking more closely at the sign it has recently been changed to a service point and short stay parking here and the overnight (up to 48h) parking is now on the port in the place we’d spotted. We called there to check it out on our way out of town (GPS: 43.29585 -2.25327, Free) and cruised on to Bilbao where we had difficulty with the many motorway junctions and ended up having to loop back on ourselves. We stopped to look at the private Aire which was still open and has great views over the city from its high position but was pricey at €15 so we weren’t going to stay, instead we parked on the parking area next to it for some lunch. We noticed Matt & Ellie’s Hymer was there so nipped over to say hello and spoke about our plans for the next couple of days. We investigated an Aire at a hostel down the road (which for €6-10 was meant to include electric, WiFi, showers and breakfast!) but they weren’t able to have vans there while the Aire was still open so we continued on our way calling for diesel at only €0.999/l.


We tried a potential free overnighting spot at Laredo next to the beach which would’ve been nice but there were several council signs with no motorhome symbols and fines of €40/m2 listed so we just got out for a look at the beach then kept moving. Taking a new non-toll motorway towards Santander that wasn’t on our sat nav (that’s only 7 months out of date) and came off to another free Aire at Lierganes (GPS: 43.34484 -3.74137, Free service point). The parking is near a railway line but our details said they were only 3 carriages long and stopped at night, and we found they didn’t make much noise when they were running.

From here we’re heading on to a spot not far away next to a wildlife park where you can see elephants in their open enclosure which will make a change.

- Matt

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