The trip home was completely uneventful, with every flight leaving and arriving on time. Just like you like it to be.
Our first trip in two years was a success. During the 59 days we were there we covered almost exactly 6000 kilometers (about 4,000 miles), visited three countries and added one new country to our list in Portugal.
We had target three places for this trip. We really enjoyed Brittany, and Galicia. Portugal was also good but as we talked about earlier, it was closer to OK than wow. Maybe our expectations were too high. There were places we enjoyed particularly Porto. But there were not too many really memorable experiences. We might have to give Portugal another look in the future to try to get another feel for the country.
We are taking a break from Europe until September and have no specific plans for the US, but who knows what might come up. Until then see you.
The cover photo is a greatest hit picture not from Sens. Today was a simple drive up to Sens where we took care of a short list of shopping we wanted to do for some friends, washed François, and returned him to Eurocampingcars.
After that we hung around the hotel and had some Chinese for dinner. The last day is always kind of boring and a let down after having been on the move for a couple of months. But we are already looking forward to the next trip which we are thinking will be Croatia and Greece.
Today was packing and final preparation for turning François in tomorrow. I went for a quick walk in the morning down to the canal to see what boats had put in for the night. There was an American flagged boat, and a New Zealand flagged boat side by side. So there are a lot of different ways for foreigners to see Europe.
After packing Ton asked if we could do a shopping trip so that she could try to find a couple of gifts for friends. So we prepared François for travel and headed into a mall in Auxerre. The shopping trip was a bit of a bust as she didn’t find what she was looking for, so we will try again tomorrow in Sens.
The rest of the day was about preparing for the trip home and eating huge meals as we tried to empty the fridge. We did find time to relax in the evening with a good bottle of wine from Southwest France.
There is very little to talk about today. We spent the day cleaning, doing laundry, and taking inventory. Ton wants to have a written inventory at home of what we have here so we do not pack things that are redundant. Because we had been gone so long we lost track of what we had here, and found several items we had brought over were not needed. Ton decided to make a list of what was here to take home so we can pack a little leaner next time.
The couple who manages the campground love Thailand and when they found out Ton was Thai they went out of their way to tell her how much they loved the country. They are planning their vacation there for latter this year and have already visited before. The manager told us that his dream job would be in tourism in Thailand.
The plan for today was to go to Auxerre. I picked it last night because it was the first city we had visited in France. The first time we visited we couldn’t get into the campground because it didn’t open until two days later, and ended up staying in a campground just out of town. Today we had a short drive on nice country roads until we were about 20 km’s from Auxerre when the dreaded Deviation (detour) sign appeared. This time the deviation took us an extra 35km’s out of our way, but eventually we arrived at the campground. But as we pulled up the place was a zoo with bicycles everywhere. We didn’t know but there is a big bicycle race in Auxerre today, and of course the campground is full. It looks like we are not meant to stay in Auxerre.
We had planned to move to Megannes tomorrow to work on cleaning up François before our departure. So after a quick look at our options we headed over a day early. Megannes is a small town along the Bourgogne canal. It has a nice dock for canal boats and looks like a popular spot for people to put in for the day.
The town is a typical small town in France with a big church, a couple of nice looking cafes and a small grocery. But it does have a really large train station for some reason.
As we were walking back from town the wind was dead calm and the air was suddenly full with tens of thousands of gnats. For the entire walk back we were in a cloud of gnats, fortunately they were not the biting kind, just the get in your mouth, eyes and nose kind.
We picked Bourges as it moved us in the right direction and had a UNESCO World Heritage Site we could visit. The drive over was easy and today we elected to go across country and avoid the autoroutes. I should say we elected to avoid paying for autoroutes as we spent about 1/3 of the drive on a free section of the autoroute. But today was spent mostly on national roads which are wide and generally bypass big cities so it was enjoyable.
We checked into the campground which seemed nice before heading to the city center to check out the Romanesque Cathedral. Bourges is not on the typical tourist route and while the cathedral is quite beautiful it is a little rough around the edges. I think for that reason it charmed us and we spent more time than normal walking around checking it out.
Bourges has an interesting city center with a lot of half timbered houses, probably as many as any town we have visited, and you can see where attempts to build a tourism infrastructure have started. But for now it seems to be stalled, a lot of the storefronts are empty, and the ones that are open do not seem to be thriving. The locals seem to be heading to the newer part of town in the evening for fun, and there are not enough tourists to give the medieval town a sense of energy. We both thought Bourges has good bones for tourism and could quickly develop into a hot spot with just a little luck.
When we arrived back at the campground a large group of about 30 people were gathered around a bunch of cabins near us. They had arrived while we were in town. It looked like a family reunion or a reunion of friends. They were a little noisy but it was early. Then about 8pm a concert started complete with a sound system cranked up to rock concert standards. Our Dutch neighbors and I walked over to see what was going on and there was a poster of a guy displayed on one of the cabins and apparently he was the one singing. Well quiet time in the campground was listed as starting at 10pm so we shrugged and headed back. The concert was over before 10pm, but unfortunately the party carried on until 4:30 am, so we did not get a good nights sleep.
Today we are in Bergerac France which is a beautiful little city on the Dodrogne River. It is linked to the famous story of Cyrano de Bergerac. The book Cyrano de Bergerac is loosely based on the life of a 17th century French soldier, but the actual connection to the city of Bergerac is a little tenuous because while his family was from Bergerac he was born in Paris. That hasn’t kept the city from using Cyrano for marketing.
It is also one of the lesser known wine regions in France, but unlike any other wine region in France it produces roughly 50% red wine and 50% white wine, the rest of the regions in France tend to specialize. We like to find these lesser known wine regions and see what we like so that was our primary motivator for swinging in here for the day.
One of the difficulties in traveling here is figuring out when the reception areas at the campgrounds are open. The French take their lunch seriously and all but the biggest businesses close down during lunch. The problem is figuring out when lunch is. Yesterdays campground was closed from noon to 2pm but fortunately we arrived at about 1:50 so we had a short wait. Today we arrived into town about 12:10 so I told Ton they are probably at lunch so lets go ahead and get gas and make our final shopping run. When we arrived at the campground about 1:15 they were closed as we expected, but when I went to the office to see when they opened it turns out their lunch was from 12:30 to 3:30, which is exceptional even by French standards. So if we had hustled over when we got here we would have gotten checked in before lunch. There was already a Dutch group that had arrived right in front of us, so the two of us found a place to park out of the way and settled in to wait. Ton took it in stride and decided to knock out supper, a delicious clam pasta with pesto sauce. By the time lunch was over another 5 RV’s had arrived for a total of 7 squeezed into a very small parking area and spilling out into the street. Everyone took it in stride, and the third arrival who was Italian took charge of the order for reception based on arrival, and we were all settled in pretty quickly.
When I checked in the manager said I had never had a customer from the US before, and now I have had two in two days! We found the other American couple who rented a van in Spain and have been over for about the same time we have.
Bergerac is a charming town with possibly the best visitors center we have visited in Europe. Downstairs they have nice information on the region and local products. Upstairs they have a wine room featuring local wines, and daily a different local winery provides tastings. The winery today was very good and we enjoyed talking with the representative once she realized we were not part of the Spanish tour in the building, even though her and I were communicating pretty well in Spanish until I informed her I was American, whereupon she said can we speak English it is much easier for me!
There comes a point in every trip that marks the beginning of the end, and that is the day where the first priority in deciding where to go is moving us closer to the airport. That day was today for this trip. Todays destination was based on getting us about 300km’s closer to Paris, and hopefully finding somewhere interesting.
We are located close to Biarritz which is a famous seaside resort in southern France. We are only about 20km’s north of San Sebastian in Spain which is one of our favorite cities. We decided to check on the French side of the Basque country to see how France influenced Pinxtos which is one of our favorite foods.
The only problem was Spain had spoiled us with perfect weather for so long that we didn’t check the weather forecast and about 100 km’s before we arrived it started raining heavily and didn’t let up. So our investigation of the influence of French cooking on Basque cuisine will have to wait.
We had a very simple plan today, visit a winery. The Ribera del Duoro area has enchanted us. The river valley with rolling hills is one of our favorite landscapes, and this is a very beautiful valley. On top of that we have not had a bad local wine here so this area is pretty close to our idea of heaven.
The winery we visited is Vina Pedrosa and came highly recommended. The drive thru the countryside was scenic and relaxing, and when we arrived we were surprised by the large scale of the winery, for being located in a very small village in the backcountry of Spain it was quite large. A lot of the time in Europe we visit wineries that have been in operation for generations, but in the case of Vina Pedrosa it has been in operation since 1980. In fact a lot of the wineries in the Ribera del Duero are very modern. The region was kind of rediscovered in the 1980’s as a winemaking area. Of course the locals have been making wine here for centuries.
We were met by our host for the tour, and we were the only customers. We felt bad that she was taking an hour out of her day to give us a private tour, but she allayed our bad feelings right away, and treated us like a VIP on the tour. The winery only produces wine based on the Tempranillo grape which is one of the major grapes of Spain. They chose early on to specialize in only the grape that has been dominate here for centuries, and to work on producing the finest wine the region is capable of delivering.
The tour was very interesting, and we learned that for 7 years Vina Pedrosa was the official wine of the Vatican having been selected by Pope John Paul II in a blind tasting. During the Christmas mass each year the wine for the communion was Vina Pedrosa.
We really enjoyed our tour of Vina Pedrosa and the drive out to the winery. It was a nice ending to our visit here in the Ribera del Duoro. The last stop of the day was to top François with Diesel and LP gas, because tomorrow we need to be heading north as we are running out of time for this trip.
We woke up to Dutch being spoken all around us. The campground here is a mini-Netherlands village. It is a relatively small campground with about 30 spots and 23 of them are occupied by folks from the Netherlands. Apparently it has been written up in a popular camping guide there and is now a must stop place in Spain for the Dutch. Penafiel is part of a wine region called the Riberate and is in the early stages of developing vinotourism. It is a series of small towns along the Duoro River in a lovely river valley.
Our plan today was to walk into the town and explore so we stopped in the campground office and asked for some advice on a place to learn about the wines of the region. We were told to go to a wine store in town, they would allow us to taste some local wines and share some ideas. After poking around town and doing the obligatory visit to the church and the medieval tower we headed over to the wine store. When we walked in there were two charming ladies working there and they made us feel welcome. The challenge was that one spoke a spattering of English, and the other none at all. My Spanish can also be categorized as a spattering, and Ton doesn’t speak any so communication was going to be a challenge. It turned into one of the most memorable wine tastings we have been on. Between their minimal English, my minimal Spanish and Google translate we were able to get a feel for the wines and the region. Their passion was clear and in the end we walked out with two good bottles of wine and a wonderful memory.
This area is also known for a lamb dish called lechazo. We received a recommendation from the wine ladies on a good restaurant. The lamb is barbecued and we really enjoyed it. Our lamb for two could feed four, and Ton asked for a doggy bag as she wasn’t going to leave any behind.
There were two other interesting sites in town that we enjoyed. The bull ring in town dates back to medieval times and is nothing more than an enclosed square in town with a ring in the middle. The mult-story homes surrounding the square are privately owned but the town has the right since the middle ages to sell the views from the windows in the homes when there is a bull fight.
There is a large castle overlooking the city, and the hill leading up to the castle are covered in what looks like giant barbecue pits. They are chimneys to let air into a large network of caves that run under the hill. Apparently the caves are really extensive. Today most of them are owned by the largest producer in town and are used as wine cellars.
We headed back to the campground thinking we had a pretty quiet day, but when I looked at the Fitbit we had covered over 9 miles wandering around Pinafiel and the vineyards outside of town. So when we got back I took a little nap.
We had been debating whether to try to go into Madrid. We even looked at hotels as camping wasn’t a good option. But ultimately we decided to pass. Instead we headed out into the country to a wine region.
Today we are in the Ribera del Duero wine region of Spain. The Duero River is the same river that runs thru Porto Portugal where it is known as the Duro. Where we are today we are close to the source of the river, and in Porto we were at the mouth. It is a pretty dry around here and reminds us of the Yakima Valley in Washington. You have wheat fields and vineyards mixed together. The one thing that Ribera del Duero has that Yakima does not is castles. There is a beautiful one a mile or so from our camp site.
We were almost caught out as I did not think we would have any trouble finding space but when we arrived the young woman at check in told us they were going to be full and it was a good thing we were early. It also helped that she had lived in El Paso Texas for a couple of years when her dad was on exchange with the US Army. The campground is indeed full and the occupants are about 70% Dutch.
We ended up just relaxing for the afternoon and doing laundry. Tomorrow we are looking forward to trying some interesting wines.
Toledo is a beautiful city perched on a bluff above two rivers. It has been settled since pre-Roman times. It is a great city to defend if you are of a military mind and has been besieged three times in its history. The last time was during the Spanish civil war in 1936.
Today it bills itself as the city of three cultures because during the early middle ages it was a multi-cultural city with thriving Christian, Moslem, and Jewish populations. This lasted a couple of hundred years until the Inquisition came along and the non-Christians either converted or moved on.
Today one of the mosques and two of the synagogues have been restored and are available to tour. So today we hit full tourist mode visiting seven historical sites and the cathedral. The only problem with our plan is that it involved a whole lot of walking and in Toledo the walking is either straight up hill or straight down hill. My Fitbit told us at the end of the day we had climbed the equivalent of 86 staircases and covered over 11 miles, so we are both a little sluggish as we prepare the entry for today.
Our first stop for the day was a converted mosque. It was interesting because it was a neighborhood mosque dedicated to serve the population surrounding it and not the great mosque of the city. It was relatively small and for us an interesting contrast to all of the great mosques and cathedrals we tend to visit.
Ton really wanted to visit the Alcazar for the city so unusually for us we sprung for the entrance fee. A castle has been on the site since Roman times as it is the highest point in the city and commands the countryside for miles. In recent history it has been an armory for production of artillery, and the infantry school for the Spanish army. Today it is a museum dedicated to the history of the Spanish army going back to the late 1600’s. For me it was pretty fascinating, but after a while I even became a little overwhelmed looking at the arms and uniforms of Spain for the past 400 years.
It turns out the building was extensively destroyed during the civil war, when the local Nationalist forces (Franco’s army) held the building against the Republican forces for a couple of months until they were finally relieved by Franco in one of the first victories of the civil war. The most interesting exhibit was one that showed the office of the commander partly destroyed and with stray bullet holes. My guess is that it is more of a dramatic recreation than an accurate representation, but portrayed the extent of the damage the building received.
After a slow menu of the day lunch to recuperate from the morning walk. We set off to finish our tour of the city stopping first at a city church that played the same role as the mosque we had visited earlier, not a grand building but a neighborhood church. It was pretty inside.
We than visited the Jesuit church in town, and the Church of Santo Tome, which had an archeological dig going on in the back. The next stop was the prettiest of the afternoon. It was a Franciscan monastery that also had royal rooms in it. The church was ok, but the monastery and gardens were very beautiful.
Our last stop in the afternoon was at the restored Sinagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca. It started as a synagogue paid for by the Christian King of Castille around 1180. He commissioned Moslem architects to build it, so it has the feel of a mosque. In 1391 during the inquisition it was converted to a Christian church. Today it is owned by the Catholic church which explains why a synagogue is named after a catholic saint. Of the buildings we visited the synagogue while simple had an elegance that we both appreciated.
At that point we had one more building we could visit with our wrist band, but it was 350 meters (yards for our American friends) uphill from where we were, and if we walked the other way we could walk down hill to the bridge we needed to take to go back to the campground. When I presented Ton with the options, she did not hesitate to pick the bridge to the campground so our day in Toledo ended.
Today started with us continuing to chase Don Quixote in La Mancha. We headed to the town of Consuegra to check out their windmills to try to settle the fight between Consuegra and Campo de Criptana over who can claim to be the setting for the battle with the giants in Don Quixote.
There are a couple of more windmills at Consuegra and in between the windmills here is an old fort that goes back to the Roman era. This town was a frontier post during the wars between the Moors and the Christians over control of Spain, and never fell to the Moors because of the castle which was defended by the order of St. John. The view from the fort is impressive and it is easy to see why there has been a castle/fort here for a couple of thousand of years as the hill it is sited on controls the terrain for many miles in all directions.
Consuegra has the nicer of the windmills, but for me the town of Campo de Criptana feels a little more like the kind of town Don Quixote would end up in. So like many before us we punted on the idea that there was a right answer and just enjoyed the walk among the windmills.
Our final direction for the day was Toledo. It is a beautiful city in Spain and one of the tourism hot spots. Our initial plan was to get settled in the campground and then go for a quick exploration of the town before spending tomorrow there. Once we arrived to the campground it was pretty hot, and we both were feeling a little lazy so Toledo will have to wait for tomorrow.
Today was our Cervantes day. Cervantes is the author of Don Quixote and this region is the setting for the book. It is one of the great books of the world and both Ton and I love the story of the slightly delusional knight on an adventure thru the countryside of La Mancha.
We started the day at Campo Criptano which is a pretty hilltop town famous for its windmills. As Don Quioxte is a work of fiction many towns are able to claim that they are the inspiration for a scene in the book. Windmills like those found in Campo Criptano are common in the area but since we visited here first we are giving them credit. In the book Don Quixote identifies the windmills as giants that must be slain to protect the locals. He engages one of the windmills in a joust which he rather spectacularly loses.
We walked thru the town down to the square. La Mancha is a much less developed and peopled area of Spain. The towns tend to be small and sleepy. The roads are quiet and easy to drive on. We are enjoying driving thru the fields looking at the different crops. Right now it looks like they are bringing in the wheat crop, as well as garlic. We passed a couple of fields where the garlic is being picked and enjoyed the strong odor in the air as we went by.
The next stop on the drive was Puerto Lapice. In the book Don Quixote misidentifies a humble country inn as a great castle and asks the inn keeper to knight him so he can go about his quest to help the people of La Mancha. At the inn he also meets his lady Dulcinea who is a common women, but he sees as a women of beauty and virtue. Puerto Lapice claims that their inn is the inspiration for the inn in Don Quixote and since they are conveniently located on a freeway exit, it has have driven a lot of tourist traffic. The town itself is unimpressive, and for some reason mostly closed on Thursday.
Our last stop for the day was Almargo which does not make any claims to be the site of an event in Don Quixote. It does have a very nice and unusual town square, and in the 1500’s was one of the richest cities in Spain. We had a beer and a plate of ham for lunch in a bar on the square; remember Spanish lunches are from 1 to 3pm, we were closer to 3pm, before heading off to our campground for the night. When we checked into the campground the owner told me the restaurant would open for dinner at 8:30 pm, the Spanish have a really different concept of meal hours than we do.
After our ridiculously early dinner by Spanish standards at 6:45 we went for a nice evening stroll thru the vineyards and wheat fields around the campground. It was a nice day to end our day in La Mancha.
Today we spent most of the day in Cordoba. Yesterday we bought tickets to visit the Mosque/Cathedral of Cordoba. The building is a World Heritage Site and we have been wanting to visit it since our first visit to Spain.
Last night was our first warm and muggy night, and because of our location in the city core we had François locked up pretty tight so we could not get as much air as we would have liked. But despite that we still got a pretty good nights sleep.
After a light breakfast and some coffee we headed over to the Mosque/Cathedral. There has been a religious structure on the site since Roman times. The original Christian church was still standing when the Moors conquered Cordoba. The Moslem ruler made a deal to allow the original church to have a duel function as a church and a mosque for 25 years. After that he purchased the church from the local town and tore it down and built a giant mosque on the site. The mosque was considered one of the greatest buildings in the Islamic world and served as a model for mosques in many lands. After the reconquest the mosque was converted to a Catholic Cathedral.
It is a very interesting combination. The main building retains the feel of a mosque, but the exterior walls are covered with Christian art and chapels. The center of the building has been converted to a typical Catholic church with an altar and seating area. The building retains the arches and open feel of the original Moslem design.
There are hundreds of arches aligned in both directions in the main building and it makes the building feel giant, but somehow intimate. We spent about an hour and a half wandering thru the building which is much longer than we spend in most cathedrals.
After we finished with the cathedral to visit the Alcazar (castle). It again served as the center of government for centuries under the Romans, Visigoths, Moors and the Spanish. It also retains architecture features from both the Moors and Spanish.
For us the highlight of the Alcazar were the gardens. There are multiple distinct gardens spread out over a large area. We really enjoyed walking thru these gardens and spent another hour in the gardens before heading out to lunch.
To honor Cordobas history we had a lunch of Arab food. The restaurant was run by a young Egyptian couple. The food was good, and the building in the old town was interesting.
After lunch was done it was mid-afternoon and getting hot. We decided to shift to a new area of Spain for us, so tonight we are parked in a small town in the La Mancha region. Tomorrow we are going to follow the path of Don Quixote.