My husband and I are currently in our motor home in La Manga on the Costa Calida in Spain. It is mid December and we are sitting outside enjoying the mild weather albeit a bit cloudy today. This is our first trip abroad in our Autotrail Chieftain which we purchased new in May 2012. Previous to this we had a Swift Sundance for a year which we loved but decided we needed something bigger for doing longer trips abroad. Being novices to the world of motor homing we subscribed to MMM fairly early on and have found it invaluable in helping us get to know the ins and outs of all aspects of this way of life!
We read with great interest the articles by Brian Fairbrother “The long road south” in the December 2011 and January 2012 issues; this was exactly what we were thinking of doing. Going to Spain for the winter to avoid the long cold days in England was very appealing and just the sort of adventure we were seeking. But we were new to motor homing as I said and a little nervous of taking on a trip like this as our first experience across the channel. We took inspiration and guidance from the very detailed article to plan our trip and once we had used our new vehicle in the UK several times began to feel a bit more confident to tackle this.
I am writing this really because I would like to thank Brian for his very helpful articles but also to encourage others who might not have done this sort of journey before to give it a go.
We left our home in Cheshire on the 1st December and travelled down to Folkestone on a lovely dry and sunny Saturday. We had booked the Caravan Club site at Black Horse Farm for an overnight stop before crossing the channel using Eurotunnel on Sunday 2nd December. It was very cold when we pitched up at Black Horse Farm so we turned on the heating and had a cosy evening watching Strictly Come Dancing probably for the last time for this series!
After a very comfortable night we set off bright and early for the Channel Tunnel, finding it with ease and checking in was a dream! We drove on to the train with no problem at all (and the Chieftain is a 9m long TAG axle vehicle) and within 35 minutes we were driving off in France. We would definitely do it this way again as with the help of a well-known supermarket’s vouchers it cost us a mere £27 return. What I had forgotten to take into account was that France is one hour ahead of us in December so we actually started the driving at 12 o’clock midday.
We followed Brian’s instructions and they matched exactly with what our Satellite Navigation system was telling us. This was very reassuring and made it easier for me as the co-pilot to be confident in our directions. (My husband does all the driving – you won’t catch me even considering driving this beast!). We filled up with fuel and I had planned for us to drive about 230 miles to our first stop over. We took a wrong turning in Rouen which was our fault but the Sat Nav put us right and we were soon back on track after a quick U-turn (well as far as you can make a ‘quick’ u-turn in a TAG axle motor home!)
We were heading for the Aire at Soligny La Trappe – one of the suggested stop overs in Brian’s article. But because of the later start than planned we ended up trying to find it in the dark – not the best way to do it. The village was quiet except for a gathering at the community centre as you enter and we completely missed the sign for the aire. In desperation after circling the village a few times I got out and stood by the signposts in the centre to study them in detail to see if we had missed something. When I turned round I saw the aire sign pointing back to where we had started. The cars at the community centre had all gone now and the entrance and sign to the aire was now clear to see! We parked up on a very dark large gravel area behind the community centre. We were the only van there and there was no electric or water so we switched on the gas, locked the doors and settled in for the night. It was fine actually and the next morning revealed where we were – next to the cattle market – which operates on a Tuesday; fortunately for us we were there on a Monday morning.
We set off again on the next stage of the journey and were determined to get to our next stop over in the light. We followed Brian’s route on past Le Mans, across the Loire and to Loudun. We cut the day short by stopping at the aire at Chalais just off the N147, a set of hedged bays with water, w.c., grey waste disposal and free electricity! It was a bit lonely though until another motor home pulled up alongside us and made us more relaxed. It is a good place to stop from the point of view that you have not gone off the route at all and all the facilities are available free – we hadn’t got used to this being the case a lot of the time in France.
The next day we continued on around Bordeaux which was very busy but we just took our time and it was no problem. We were heading for the aire at Cap Breton for our next stop over. We made this in good time even stopping off at a supermarket and getting fuel on the way. This is a massive aire behind the sand dunes and several vans were already parked up. There was no electricity or water though but we thought we would manage again with gas and the water we had on board. We went for a stroll over the dunes and watched the Atlantic waves crashing in on the beach. When we went back to the van the wind just got stronger and stronger and as we looked out of the windows, one by one the other vans moved off. We decided to do the same as we didn’t want to be battered all night by gale force winds. It was a bit hairy as we drove off – we were not sure where we were heading for – and then a large branch broke off a tree and hit the cab. Fortunately there was no damage but it scared us, the bang as it hit us was very loud. We drove on very nervously now through Bayonne, passed Biarritz and onto St Jean-de-Luz. As we drove through the town we spotted a number of motor homes parked up by the side of the road on a very crowded aire. We turned around and pulled in but were very unsure of whether to try and squeeze in to one of the spaces or carry on. A very helpful fellow Brit jumped out of his motor home and suggested we parked parallel with the road in front of his and several other motor homes. He said he had seen other vans do this previously and it wouldn’t be a problem. He helped us manoeuvre into the spot and we gratefully settled down for the night. It was not a very peaceful night however, mainly due to very heavy rain pounding on our roof but also the proximity of the road. We didn’t get much sleep at all and at about 6am a French motor home alongside us started his engine. We jumped out of bed thinking we would have to move to let him out. We didn’t have to do that but there were a few cross people as a result of him starting up so early! Wouldn’t necessarily recommend this aire but it was a welcome stop over for us even though we had little rest.
We left fairly early ourselves not surprisingly and headed for Spain via Irun to Pamplona. This is an interesting part of the route climbing up through the mountains and through several tunnels. There is a slow lane for all the trucks which struggle a bit but we were very happy with the way the Chieftain’s 3.0 litre engine coped. It was cold and there was snow at the top but none lying on the road. On the map this route looks very winding but you hardly notice it as trucks heavily use the route and they have clearly improved it so they can go this way safely.
We carried on to Zaragoza and found the campsite – Cuitad de Zaragoza. This is a municipal campsite with all the facilities you need and plenty of space. There are quite a few people who clearly live there and there were a couple of abandoned caravans but it was no problem. Would recommend it as a stop over but you wouldn’t want to stay there any length of time. There are no scenic views or any other attraction to keep you there but it is easy to get to and to set off from.
Since we were heading for La Manga we took the option of following stage 6 of the route recommended by Brian from Zaragoza on the A23 south towards Teruel and then onto the N330 towards Utiel. This is also a very interesting road, winding through the countryside and hills with not much traffic on it. One of our cupboard doors flew open at one point and we pulled off the road to shut it. The drop down was a bit steep and my husband had to reverse back a bit as the wheels were spinning. At this precise moment a Spanish police vehicle came up behind us peeping and gesticulating furiously! As we came to a halt he approached us and asked to see our documents and queried why we were reversing onto the road. Of course we weren’t actually trying to do that but he didn’t understand and said he would have to fine us as it was illegal to do this. My husband took him to where our wheels had been spinning and did his best to explain what had happened. Very quickly the policeman understood and instead of fining us said he would caution us and help us to get back on the road by stopping the traffic and watching us out. Spanish police can be very helpful!
We stopped overnight at the Kiko Park Rural campsite at Villargordo de Cabriel just off the A3 route from Valencia to Madrid. A very nice site and very quiet at this time of year; all the facilities available and a shop with some basic provisions too. On the seventh and last day of our journey we picked up the N330 again to Alamanza and then the A31 to Elche. Our Sat Nav took us onto the A7 towards Murcia and since it had been so reliable so far we followed it. We had originally thought we would head for the coast road towards Torrevieja but actually the Murcia route was fine although a bit busy around the city itself. We arrived at Caravaning La Manga in the afternoon of the 7th December, very pleased with ourselves and looking forward to spending a few weeks windsurfing, running, cycling and relaxing. Thanks to Brian for the excellent route and giving us the confidence to do it – it really worked for us and I would suggest other first timers give it a go!
Lesley & Mel Cole
Currently in La Manga, Spain