After the African leg of our journey was completed, we turned our compass north and aimed towards Western Europe. When we arrived at the port of Algeciras, our first site was the lightened up Rock of Gibraltar. It was way past midnight, so we picked to camp at the edge of a marina on the Spanish side, looking straight at it.
A rather impressing view from the top of our rooftop tent! The next day, although in the middle of February, Europe said good morning to us with a beautiful sunny day. So after a quick chat with our neighbors and fellow campers, we took a walk across a small bridge in order to reach Gibraltar. As we found out, the only way to get further ahead into the old city center was to walk through the country’s small airfield (literally cross the runway where planes land).
On the other side, a towering 5km-long limestone ridge rises 426m above sea level, positioned strategically at the jaws of Europe and Africa. With its Palladian architecture and picture perfect Barbary macaques, Gibraltar makes an interesting day break away from the white towns of Spanish Cádiz province. Playing an admirable supporting role, “the Rock” with its traditional red pillar boxes, fish-and-chip shops and creaky 1970s seaside hotels, overstates its Britishness with pubs and afternoon-tea shops all over its tinny streets. For the record, Rochelle finally felt like home since here they speak English as well as Spanish, with a singing sound mix of the two.
So finally the “ASK! Days” were over. So far, throughout Spain as well as Morocco, I had the role of asking or trying to communicate with locals for directions.
With our Gibraltar visit completed, we crossed back into Spain and moved towards Marbella. Here our itinerary included catching up with some of Rochelle’s old friends (while sipping tinto) and an unforgettable free overnight stay by the beach, with our first campfire for this trip. Marbella is a clearly resort orientated city and must be packed during summer months. So with the weather still warm, we considered ourselves lucky to be here this time of the year. Something that was about to change as we proceeded further north and the February cold weather started catching up on us.
The first victim was Rochelle as at this point the cold and flu symptoms made their appearance as we visited Seville, a truly gorgeous city. Worth mentioning here is that when it comes to medieval cities, Western Europe is without a doubt unbeatable, with some cities blasting you away straight from the start while others slowly win you over. Seville sits somewhere between as it does a bit of both. Walking through its historic centre, we found ourselves captivated by its colossal gothic cathedral, small palaces, baroque churches and winding medieval lanes while flamenco street artists made sure to remind us that the centuries-old tradition is still alive. While history reverberates all around, Seville manages to keep an impressive balance between the here and now and its glorious past.
Rochelle’s health started taking a turn for the worse, with high fever from a chest infection as we entered Portugal. That was mainly the reason that at our first stop in the Algarve region we were forced to book into a hotel and take some time off for recovery. This region is considered Portugal’s tourist Mecca during the summer months, with breathtaking cliffs, golden sands, scalloped bays and long sandy islands. As we were here off season (February) we could not really enjoy any of the above, so we narrowed our visit to getting our bearings around small coastal cities.
This quest brought us through the town of Tavira, a charming town with a hilltop castle, an old Roman bridge and a plethora of smaller gothic churches. Then it was the party-loving Lagos, a fishing port with picturesque cobbled streets and pretty beaches, including Meia Praia to the east and Praia da Luz to the west (we visited both under rain by the way). And finally it was Faro, the regional capital, an attractive town with a palm-shaded waterfront, well-maintained plazas and a small pedestrianised centre with outdoor cafes.
At this point, after a week or so on Portugal’s coast and with Rochelle feeling a bit better, we both agreed that the camping options had to be postponed. The weather had beaten us so we turned our compass inland and drove north where Portugal’s landscape unfolds in all its beauty.
Along our way we visited medieval castles and frozen-in-time villages, while finding cheap accommodation for the night proved to be easier than expected. One enchanting place worth mentioning would be Évora, a small city with narrow, winding lanes, a striking medieval cathedral, a Roman temple and a picturesque town square.
One thing to keep in mind if you plan to eat out in restaurants here in Portugal is timetables. Here lunch is served until 2:00pm and dinner after 7:00pm.That means that any other time in between there is no service. In our case that was hard to coordinate, so each one of our attempts to find something to eat outside that time zone ended up in a big fiasco.
With the weather pushing us to our limits (we are not winter people), it was time to visit Portugal’s cinematically beautiful capital, Lisbon, a city that is spread across steep hillsides overlooking the Rio Tejo. Lisbon has been captivating visitors for centuries and we were no exception to the rule. Windswept views at breathtaking heights reveal the city in all its beauty.
Beside all its Roman and Moorish ruins, white-domed cathedrals and grand plazas, we found that the real delight of “city discovery” is hidden in getting lost into the narrow cobblestone lanes in the city centre. We found ourselves picking up rides in the bright-yellow trams that clatter through curvy tree-lined streets without any specific destination. Locals stroll through old quarters while village-life gossip is exchanged over fresh bread and wine at tiny restaurants. Lisbon’s rhythm of life is spectacular, with the Portuguese capital gliding slowly through time without trying to catch up on the crazy rhythms that other revival capitals of Europe have.
We had a date to catch and we were running out of time though, so we needed to push on to Porto. Here we had arranged to go by our rooftop tent manufacturer for some small repairs that our tent needed. After some great hospitality and an exchange of travel stories with the owner, we entered the city. Porto looks like a pop-up town, a colourful mix of medieval relics, soaring bell towers, extravagant baroque churches and stately beaux-arts buildings piled on top of one another. It is a lively, walkable city with chatter in the air and a tangible sense of history as well as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
For our last stop in this unique country we picked to follow the river upstream from Porto till we reached Duro valley. Here the port-wine grapes are grown on steep terraced hills, punctuated by remote stone villages. If you come the right time of the year, you can admire the dazzling white almond blossom trees or visit one of the artistically restored wineries.
Winter is the slow time that the wine matures, so winemakers have all the time in the world to explain the process as well to allow you to taste some of their magnificent wines. This last experience was probably one of the best we had in this country. So the circle was completed and it was time to move on.
On our way north, we found ourselves back in Spain and through the Basque country on our way to Pamplona, a city that is home of the wild Sanfermines (the Running of the Bulls) festival. We chose not to stay and pushed onwards ending up in stylish San Sebastián (Donostia in Basque). This is an upscale resort, complete with an idyllic location crowning Bahía de la Concha. This natural setting, with its crystalline waters, a flawless beach and the green hills on all sides, cannot be anything else than captivating.
This is one of Spain’s true culinary capitals, with more Michelin stars (16) per capital than anywhere else on earth. Yes, it did cross our minds to be honest and we were tempted to try having dinner in one of them but the prices were forbidding, at least for our budget. Instead we based ourselves in a small guesthouse in the cliffs and explored the city center on foot limiting our food experience in the numerous tapas bars that had always something new and interesting delicacy for us to try.
After two days we crossed the border and entered France’s Atlantic coast. With quiet country roads winding through vine-striped hills and wild stretches of coastal sands, this is where France gets back to nature. Since we were “thirsty”, we pointed our route towards the 1000-sq-km wine-growing area around the city of Bordeaux. Bordeaux has over 5000 estates where grapes are grown, picked and turned into wine.
If you are like us and have your own wheels, you can visit many châteaux that offer tours to walk-in visitors. In our case, we went for the top-line of Châteaux Margot and Châteaux Petrus. Now you might think that we partied like rock stars in both of them. No, this is the really rich man’s world and all we were able to do was a short walk because if you want a tour, it needs to be planned in advance and it is pretty costly.
That brought us to the next destination that was in Rochelle’s top bucket-list to visit and we had talked about it since the first day we met. The city-port under her own name, La Rochelle, was without a doubt in our itinerary. Known also as La Ville Blanche (the White City), La Rochelle was one of France’s foremost seaports from the 14th to 17th centuries. The city has arcaded walkways, half-timbered houses and ghoulish gargoyles, rich reminders of its seafaring past.
The early French settlers of Canada, including the founders of Montreal, set sail from here in the 17th century. Here it was the first time that I had no word in Rochelle’s decision to buy every conceivable souvenir with her name written on it. We were saved by the fact that it was Sunday but other than that, we got back in the car with a big bag of souvenirs and moved further north.
Next up was Mont St-Michel, a must stop highlight for anybody who visits this side of the world. On a rocky island opposite the coastal town of Pontorson, connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway, the sky-scraping turrets of the abbey of Mont St-Michel provide one of France’s iconic sights. The surrounding bay is notorious for its fast-rising tides: at low tide, the Mont is surrounded by bare sand for miles around; at high tide, just six hours later, the bay is submerged.
This place feels up anybody’s expectations for a medieval castle at its best. An unbeatable travel in time lies in front of you and walking through its streets is by far a top notch experience. Unfortunately during our visit we were not lucky to have a clear day but although it was raining, the beauty of the site was fascinating. Even our under lighted pictures and videos came out fantastic.
As a last stop in our tribute in France, we tangled the D-Day Beaches where early on 6 June 1944, allied troops stormed 80km of beaches north of Bayeux, codenamed (from west to east) Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. The landings on D-Day ultimately led to the liberation of Europe from the Nazi occupation. The most brutal fighting on D-Day took place 15km northwest of Bayeux, along the stretch of coastline now known as Omaha Beach, where today except the war memorials and relics of the era, this glorious stretch of fine golden sand is lined with sand dunes and summer homes.
Leaving continental Europe behind was a milestone of our trip and after a quick overnight in Calais, we drove in the Eurotunnel that France and UK have constructed. An underwater tunnel connecting mainland Europe to the UK, a train ride of 30 minutes that you basically drive in your vehicle to a train that takes you across. On the other side lies England. Here is where we had scheduled to drop Voukefalas off at the shipping company that will transfer him to Australia. During our last weeks in Europe we visited friends and spent some quality time with people that we had not seen for a very long time. With minimum time spent on visiting sights, the date that we had to deliver Voukefalas came. So one rainy day we drove through London and waved goodbye to our car. A rather sentimental experience, I admit. It is funny that when you share so many beautiful experiences even with just a piece of metal, you still get attached to it. So long, buddy! Take care, we will see you on the other side.
As for us, we took a flight after a couple of days and arrived in Perth, Rochelle’s homeland. Here we intend to spend some quality time with the family and recharge our batteries while waiting for Voukefalas to arrive. Rochelle has not lived here since at least ten years, so she cannot hide her excitement! What lies ahead though is for next time. So stay tuned, the Overlanddiaries crew never stops exploring!