After spending much of January patiently waiting for our vehicle logbook (registration papers) and my residence permit to arrive, we were finally able to make our plans to leave the UK for a few months to start exploring Europe with the rough goal of meeting up with family from Australia in Croatia in July.
So we packed up Celtic Tart, mothballed Celtic Maid, and started our farewell tour visiting Jim and Chris on NB Sylph, Julia and Malcolm in Leicester, cousins Cheryl and Mick, friends Sue and Christopher, and cousins Julie, Phil and John before heading to Taunton in Devon to sort out our batteries and alarm system at Van Bitz. We had discovered at the beginning of this farewell tour on our first attempt at wild camping that our leisure batteries were collapsing and needed replacement if we were to be able to be off-grid for more than a night or two. After much research and discussion, we invested in two 100W lithium batteries and a monitoring system. Despite being a hefty investment, I am sure we will benefit significantly during our time motorhoming on Celtic Tart.
Whilst awaiting the completion of these upgrades we took the opportunity to meander around Taunton itself, visiting shops, pubs, and the castle.
Once the work was completed on Celtic Tart, we filled with gas and diesel and slowly made our way towards Portsmouth where we were due to get an overnight ferry to Santander on Friday 28th February. We had traveled more than half-way when we received notification that the departure point had been moved from Portsmouth to Plymouth and we had to turn around and head west again. We made it in plenty of time and lined up excitedly to finally be free to adventure in Europe.
The change of ports was made because of predicted bad weather and once at sea we enjoyed the rocking and rolling of the boat as it crossed the Bay of Biscay overnight from England to Spain. Apparently, it wasn’t rough but we certainly knew we were at sea!! The trip entailed about 24 hours at sea but was still the best and quickest way to get from UK to Spain.
Safely disembarked at the port of Santander, Spain we made our way to Carbaceno where we parked on an Aire (common to some countries in Europe this is a low/no cost area to park overnight that often also provides fresh water, waste water, and toilet and rubbish disposal), right next door to an elephant sanctuary. And our neighbours had a Hobby very much like ours. After a much better night’s sleep on land, we were soon availing ourselves of the refreshments in a nearby bar and enjoying the sunshine with our neighbours and their friends.
We ended up staying here a couple of nights before heading off to stock up with food and steadily head south with no urgent place to be. We had been recommended another Aire at Palencia that had a laundry and motorhome wash area, so we headed through the beautiful landscape (high bridges, deep ravines, snow-capped mountains and flowing rivers), along some very good motorways that certainly weren’t crowded, to reach the Aire late in the afternoon.
Over the next couple of days, we undertook to complete personal and vehicle maintenance, and then we ventured off to do a little sightseeing in the town including the Canal de Castilla – alas no familiar narrowboats to be seen!!!! The buildings in the town itself are rather beautiful so we have included some photographs to give you an idea.
Our next goal was Caceres – we made it there by late afternoon and alas too late for a pitch on the Aire. We drove to nearby Malpartida de Caceres and camped alone on a new Aire with 5 spaces. It had services but we didn’t need them. We also didn’t need having rocks thrown at us in the middle of the night either!!!! Just a few stone chips but we were out of there early in the morning.
We had been told of a lovely campground in Badajoz by the River Guadiana that flows through there. We inadvertently stumbled across a bike race through the city that prevented us from reaching it, so after picking up supplies and driving around in the heavy traffic for a couple of hours we took the advice of my sister, Yasha, who had been in these parts a year ago and headed across the border to Elvas in Portugal.
As it turned out this was a brilliant decision for many reasons. The COVID 19 virus had been steadily progressing throughout Europe and at this stage we were unaware just how much it would impact on our travels. Spain was about to be hit extremely hard and within a couple of weeks the borders of both Spain and Portugal were effectively closed, with internal travel restricted to those returning to their home address in their home country, and essential services. The ferries from Santander and Bilbao in Northern Spain to the UK ceased operating, making the only route available back to the UK by road through Spain and France and then by either ferry or tunnel. Given that I had been experiencing a persistent cold for almost a month at that time, taking the risk of being exposed to the virus in an already compromised state was not desirable.
So, we stayed a few nights in Elvas and explored the Fort de Graca and the walled city including its massive aqueduct at a safe distance from the very few other people out and about. Inadvertently we undertook the hair-raising experience of driving through the very narrow streets of the walled city narrowly avoiding a catastrophe when we were exiting through a very tight archway – about two cigarette papers either side!!!! I really must learn how to navigate properly!!!! We also availed ourselves of the Intermarche supermarket with the additional amenities of motorhome services and laundry facilities. The parking area right below the Fort was an excellent pitch only shared with a couple of other motorhomes and campervans during our time there.
Our next stay was a large Aire at Terragum – not much in the way of shops or services but a very pretty town and a gorgeous shop full of cork and leather bags and shoes. Alas no purchase this time but if we return…..
We had, after much discussion, decided to head in a generally southerly direction and made our way to Vila Vicosa – a town at the centre of marble extraction. In fact, the streets are all tiled in small pieces of marble and many of the buildings have impressive marble facades. The Aire in this town is collocated with the Bombeiros Voluntários – the volunteer fire service. We felt safe here.
We made our next stop Evora and were prepared to stop here indefinitely if required. We only needed to drive a short distance to top up with gas and diesel, several supermarkets and a laundrette were within easy walking distance and we were on an Aire with water and waste disposal. All around us cafes and restaurants were closing and within a few days the signs went up everywhere stating the government’s attempts to deal with the Covid 19 outbreak by closing almost everything. After the first state of emergency was declared it was only a matter of days and they announced the intent to close Aires and motorhome parks. The sign was put up on the Aire on Monday 23rd March and we started actively researching options. Air bnb’s were available but we needed somewhere to park the Tart. Returning to the UK or flying back to Australia were not favourable options either logistically or practically.
Thank goodness for social media. Following my brother in law’s sound advice, I joined a couple of motorhoming in Portugal facebook pages to check out what others were doing and to look for ideas. It seems there were many of us in a similar situation and lots of options – again not all suitable for us. And then I got a message from someone who had seen my posts and comments offering a potential solution.
Anthea (an Australian raised Brit) and her partner Gerard (South African) run the Vilamoura Rustic Motorhome Aire in Loule on the Algarve in Portugal. It is a small private park catering to those with simple needs and especially suitable for a couple of Aussies desperate to stay in their motorhome somewhere safe and secure to wait out this insidious virus.
So, on Tuesday 24th March we made the three-hour journey south to pitch up in our new and somewhat long-term address, safely behind gates and with everything we need to feel safe and secure. There started out by being only 9 of us here – the owners and 4 campsites, but as I write Christine and Dave have now returned to Scotland to access needed ongoing healthcare.
We kept a safe distance from each other and appropriately used gloves, masks, hand sanitiser and disinfectant on all shared surfaces. Andrea and Gerard have been fabulous in driving us to do shopping and encouraging us to take advantage of their gym and spinning studio to maintain exercise whilst here. In return Bob has been doing odd jobs around the park (building, repairing and staining outdoor furniture, cleaning up gardens and now assisting them to renovate their apartment), giving me time to…… well relax a bit, shake the cold I carried from the UK, and now finally write and publish this blog.
Our mobility lasted a short while and as for the future – I think my crystal ball got smashed en route!!! Hoping you are all safe and well and enjoying whatever new reality has evolved for you at this time.