In 1990 we took our second overseas trip in our pink sliding door split screen van, which was looking smart and shiny, having been painted pink and sign written with the Bughaus logo. It seemed a really adventurous plan to get the 24 hour ferry to Santander, drive across the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean, and then return through France crossing the channel at Caen.
I seem to remember a big motivating factor in taking this trip was to visit the VW dealership in Andorra which was reputed to have an exceptional range of new old stock parts- more of that later.
Given that this trip was 28 years ago I will be relying on memory, the photos from two rolls of film taken in those pre-digital days and the tatty European road atlas in which we highlighted our route and stopping points.
Brittany ferries operate the 24hour crossing from Plymouth to Santander. I remember it seemed expensive at the time and checking prices in 2018 a return sailing in July would be in the region of £775, plus £95 each way for a two berth cabin, plus meals – so it certainly isn’t the cheapest way of getting to Spain, but probably the easiest and most pleasurable way of getting there with your VW camper.
Having left Plymouth in decent English summer weather and spent much of the crossing in the cabin feeling a little queasy, we awoke the next morning to be greeted by the enveloping warmth of the Spanish sun as we approached Santander.
After disembarking in Santander, we headed west about 30 km to the delightful medieval village of Santillana del Mar, whose cobbled streets, balconies of flowers and traditional sandstone and brick buildings give a real taste of historic rural Spain. It is quite a tourist destination with countless small shops selling hand-painted Spanish pottery.
We then headed south to Burgos where we camped overnight and had our first experience of Spanish late evening dining which was well past the times our stomachs were requesting supper.From Burgos we headed east, firstly visiting the city of Pamplona famous/ infamous for the bull run which thankfully wasn’t taking place at the time of our visit.
We camped at 6 different sites before reaching the Mediterranean, zig-zagging across the Spanish/ French border 4 times before going into Andorra from Spain and out into France reaching the coast at Collioure just south of Perpignan. The quality of the roads was intriguing: you could be coasting comfortably along a recently made highway one minute, and the next be down to second gear negotiating potholes on virtually unmade roads. I think this was in the early days of EU funding for large infrastructure projects, but there was little evidence of any joined-up thinking.
We have never planned our routes meticulously for our camper van trips, preferring instead to have a general plan or destination. Having no fixed itinerary makes for an exciting trip, where we can linger in places which interest us and pass quickly through those with less appeal. Many of our most memorable times have been when we have come across places and sights which are unexpected, whereas places which are well known and much photographed can often turn out to be disappointing.
Mostly it has been easy enough to find campsites in the European countries we have visited in the camper (France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany) although there have been occasions when it has ended up being rather late by the time we have found a site.
Of the six sites we stayed at on the route there are two that remain in my memory for very different reasons.
The first was a spectacular site in the Parque National de Ordessa. The scenery is dominated by the great massif of Monte Perdido (3,355 m), and our site was surrounded by sheer cliffs of around 1,000 feet. Using our marked road atlas and a few photos we have a quick Google search would suggest that we stayed at Camping Rio Ara Ordesa.
The second was the altogether more quirky “Camping Rurale” near St Bertrand de Comminges. This wooded site boasted open air facilities such as urinals nailed around the base of a tree and a shower in a hollow tree stump. The toilets certainly had a view if only the minimum of privacy. Fortunately, the site was very quiet and probably used mainly by groups of children and young people who would all have been back at school given that we visited in September. I have been unable to find online anything that resembles what I remember from then so I can only assume it no longer exists or has updated its facilities.
And so to Andorra and the much anticipated VW dealership. My recollection of Andorra le Vella, the principality’s capital is definitely a place to be avoided consisting as it did of a gaudy street of shops with brash neon signs selling duty free goods. Again, I looked it up online to find it advertised as “A Pyrenean Paradise” and on further inspection I could not find any photos that matched with my recollection of the place. There are obviously some nice old parts to the town which we must have missed in our eagerness to get to the VW dealership but it is still clearly a top shopping destination probably more upmarket than in 1990. Shopping isn’t a priority for us when on holiday other than to get a loaf of fresh bread, a nice bottle of local wine and, on this occasion, a few new old stock parts.
We probably spent two hours in the dealership armed with a list of part numbers and a practically non-existent knowledge of Spanish. Our protracted interactions with the counter salesman whose English was as good as our Spanish, and who had to look up each part in an index card filing system which covered a whole wall, resulted in the purchase of a 1967 split screen van indicator switch and some split screen van king-pins. We were pleased with our purchases but had anticipated being able to purchase much more. And they were certainly a better buy than the rough whiskey we bought for a fiver from one of the many duty-free shops.
On reaching the Mediterranean, we made for the beach at Collioure for a much-anticipated dip in the sea. This was my first experience of going in the sea outside of the chilly shores of Britain and a much more pleasurable experience. After our dip we spent about 40 minutes on the beach before deciding beach holidays were not for us and continuing on our travels.
A spectacular drive along the Aude gorge was the next highlight. This road on a shelf in deep gorge with sheer cliffs to one side and a fast -flowing river to the other passes through dramatic overhanging rock and tight bends. A You Tube video seen recently shows a well-engineered modern and safe road. My recollection is of something far more adventurous and exciting, needing nerve and skill to navigate! None the less the surrounding landscape remains spectacular. Close inspection of the photograph below reveals the road hewn from the rock face with vertical cliffs above and a sheer drop below.
The fortified city of Carcassonne was our next destination, where we spent an enjoyable summer’s evening wandering around the walls of this historic town and wandering the cobbled streets with its many bars and restaurants.
From then on, we were covering much greater distances each day as we made our way up through France, using the autoroutes to pass by Toulouse and up to the Dordogne where we made an overnight stop. We continued to Limoges which we explored a little enjoying a tasty Cassoulet in a traditional French café and purchasing some of the famous porcelain. From Limoges it was on to Le Mans our only memory of which is playing pool in a bar.
Before our cross channel ferry from Caen we had time to visit Bayeaux to see the tapestry, described by the unparalleled Philomena Cunk (aka Diane Morgan) in her series “Cunk on Britain”, as “like a great big tea towel”.
So, I have managed to write 1492 words about a trip made 28 years ago. In recalling the trip, it does make me yearn to repeat it, although I wonder if it might be best made in reverse, saving the spectacular sights of the Pyrenean peaks for the end of the trip. Having said that I am also drawn to the idea of taking the ferry to Santander and heading west to the Picos de Europa, an area we visited briefly on a family holiday in later years.
Hope you get some inspiration for your camper trips from this blog, whether you are a meticulous planner or like us people who go with no plan and see what each day brings.