We drove further into the Pyrenees towards the spa town of Vernet Les Bains. Before we left our Esperaza aire we checked Google Street view to make sure that the roads were navigable, but we didn’t check any of the turns onto them.
We needed to turn off a narrow main road in Estegal village onto an even narrower street between two stone buildings. The Hymer simply wouldn’t fit. Much to the joy of the lengthening queue of cars behind us, we dallied a while until we realised that the only way we could negotiate the corner would necessitate scraping the length of the Hymer along an overhanging stone window sill.
We abandoned the planned route and pulled over onto some roadside waste ground to allow the increasingly impatient car owners behind us to pass. I turned the engine off while we researched an alternative route, checked the road on Google Maps, then turned the ignition key to launch us on our way again.
Nothing happened. The problem which has plagued us for the last six months had reared its ugly head again.
A quarter of an hour of me fiddling under the bonnet finally resulted in enough of a connection between battery and leads for Cynthia to start the engine. Making sure we didn’t accidentally turn the engine off, we drove the remaining twenty miles along increasingly steep and winding roads to Vernet Les Bains as quickly as possible.
Vernet Les Bains nestles at the base of the Catalonian’s sacred 9,133ft mount Canigou. The 2,000ft high town enjoys a very mild climate and over 300 days of sunshine each year. We missed all of them.
The weather really didn’t matter. We couldn’t find a garage in the town to investigate the starter battery problem, so we decided to have a relaxing day before moving to a location closer to a large town where we could find a garage to resolve our problem once and for all.
Vernet Les Bains was wonderful. The climate is mild, it has stunning scenery, a very popular spa hotel, and an easily accessible network of mountain paths.
We walked a few of the more gentle paths the following day. A gentle rain fell for most of the day, but a rain gentle enough to allow us to sit for an hour or two enjoying the mountain views.
The following morning, we drove 23km to Mont Louis, most of it vertically. We spent most of the hour-long drive in third gear, sometimes dropping down to second for dozens of tight and steep hairpin bends. The N116 is classed as a national route so it’s considered an arterial road, but in places we had to use the opposite side of the road to negotiate almost circular turns with the road forever heading upwards into banks of dense grey cloud.
Most of the aires we’ve stayed at in France have been a joy. They’ve been located close enough to the heart of picturesque villages to reach them by foot, but not close enough to prevent a good night’s sleep. The dank and dismal space at the back of a car park hemmed in by the steep stone walls of an almost empty village was the most unpleasant aire we’ve stayed on so far.
Not that we stayed there for very long.
Our priority was to resolve our starter battery problem. We phoned the AA, again making the mistake of calling them before France’s national two hour “munch” break. They didn’t bother looking for anyone to come out to us until 2pm, and then they chose the most remote contractor they could find. The mechanic drove his 3.5 tonne breakdown lorry fifty miles along steep and narrow mountain roads from Perpignan to reach us.
As with most of the many mechanics we’ve had the pleasure to spend time with over the last six weeks, he was as friendly as he was helpful. He couldn’t speak any English, but his enthusiastic mimes would have put Marcel Marceau to shame. Thanks to his communication skills we could easily understand him. Unfortunately we were more interested in his ability under the bonnet than on the stage, and that’s where he seemed to struggle.
He tried to convince me that the battery was dead. He did this by pointing at the battery and then laying on the ground with his arms and legs spread wide and his head lolling to one side. The mime was wonderful, but I knew his conclusion was wrong. I convinced him that the issue was with the connection. Eventually he agreed and then spent the next ten minutes fixing terminals to posts with yards of duct tape.
The engine started but Marcel warned me in a mime which involved him laying on the ground once more (battery dead), holding his finger and thumb together and twisting his wrist repeatedly (trying to start the engine). If I turned the engine off, the Hymer wouldn’t start again.
With an hour’s light left, and not wanting to tackle the mountain roads’ twists and turns in the dark, we immediately descended fifteen hundred feet to Saillagouse. There wasn’t an aire here in our guide to southern France, but most villages and towns have one. We drove slowly through the town considering options. We wanted somewhere away from traffic noise, but accessible to a large recovery vehicle if we needed transporting.
We discounted a number of unsatisfactory spots before Cynthia noticed a sign to an aire on a small car park next to the town’s school. Once the evening school run finished and the car park emptied, there was room enough for us to park in comfort.
I didn’t particularly want to drive down the mountain that late in the afternoon but, considering the weather the following day, our forced move was a blessing in disguise.
This aire, as with most on our travels in France so far, was free to park, but there was a cost to use both water and electricity. The unusual feature was that the sewage disposal point was behind a locked door underneath an integral potable water hose with a broken retractable hose reel. The hose nozzle, the part which fits into the motorhome’s freshwater filling point, inevitably came to rest in the sewage basin no matter how hard the user tried to secure it elsewhere. Fortunately we boil or filter all of our water before drinking it.
Saillagouse is a vibrant and friendly little town nestling in a valley surrounded by towering peaks. Like most of the towns we’ve visited so far, it likes to go to bed early. We often enjoy an evening walk exploring a new village or town, but rarely find shops, restaurants or pubs open after 8pm. We’re not bothered in the slightest. We’re ready to settle in for the evening by then.
We phoned the AA the following morning. We now have a direct number for their Paris office and we’re on first name terms with most of the staff. We asked them to find us a garage nearby which would be prepared to resolve the issue for us. They identified Garage Domenech on the outskirts of Saillagouse. We were told that they were very busy, but they would at least try to diagnose the problem if we took the vehicle to them.
Of course, the Hymer wouldn’t start. Marcel Marceau’s yards of duct tape had failed, so we were back to wiggling leads hoping to achieve a connection. Starting the engine took longer than the drive to the garage.
The garage owner was fantastic. Even though all of his mechanics were busy, he asked one to investigate the problem immediately. Then he told us that he could do the repair, but we would have to wait until after lunch, which appeared to start at Garage Domeneque at 11.30am.
Two and a half hours later, energised by three course lunches and flagons of wine, the staff of Garage Domeneque were ready to go to battle in our FIAT engine bay. After much thumping and cursing by two strong men, the battery was on the garage floor and the problem identified. The terminal wasn’t tightening on the battery post. A little welding work was needed to repair it.
One hour and €91 later we were on our way with, hopefully, one less problem to worry about.
We hoped that we could reclaim the repair cost. Oaktree Motorhomes make a big deal about the three year warranty that they offer through the RAC with any motorhome purchased from them. I was aware that the warranty was subject to at least two limitations which could affect any claims we wanted to make. Each claim is limited to £500, so I suspect the odometer and fuel gauge issues which need addressing soon won’t be fully covered because of the amount of work involved, but I hoped that we could reclaim the cost of having the battery terminal work done. I knew that there was also a restriction on the amount of time owners spend abroad in their motorhomes.
I phoned their claims line. The time limit is two months, which I thought was good news as we have only been away for a little over six weeks. The bad news is that we would have to return to the UK within two months, and provide documentation to support our return, if we wanted to claim.
The warranty, as far as we are concerned, is about as much use as a chocolate fireguard. Fortunately for us though, Oaktree Motorhomes is a very good company to deal with. A five minute phone call was enough to convince them to pay for the repair. What stars they are!
We decided to spend another night in Saillagouse. We had dodged exceptionally heavy showers all day. As dusk approached the showers merged and the wind increased to gale force. Just as we pulled onto our aire parking space for the evening, the wind speed suddenly increased again, and a forty foot high pine crashed to the ground in the adjacent school playing field.
Torrential rain bounced off our roof for most of the evening before a blessed silence at 10pm. Silent because heavy snow is very quiet. Fortunately for our travel plans, the snow soon returned to rain in Saillagouse.
Snow capped mountains rose high into a sky of the deepest blue the following morning. Vehicles coming down the mountain from our previous day’s stop at Mont Louis arrived in the town carrying six inches of snow. I am very pleased we moved when we did.
We had some important paperwork to do the following morning. I had two documents which needed printing, completing and posting. Most town halls, mairies, offer a printing service. Saillagouse’s town hall printed nine pages for us for less than £1.
We stopped off at the next town, Bourg-Madame, to post our international letters, then drove across the border into Spain after a thoroughly enjoyable toll free month in France.
We travelled by D roads all the way through France, often along roads barely wide enough to allow vehicles to pass. The driving was challenging, but worthwhile because of the scenery and the idyllic villages we passed through. The villages on our route often became nighttime stopovers. Aires were both plentiful and pleasant. Spain appears to be far, far different.
Vicarious Books produce a number of excellent guides to aires throughout Europe. They have two guides for France, one for the north and one for the south. Both are A4 and include details of over 3,000 aires. Most are free and many are in tranquil locations with wonderful views.
Their guide to Spain and Portugal lists just 449 aires in total. There is a charge for many of them, which is a shame because few have any aesthetic appeal. The aire we stayed at on Friday night was typical.
After a tiring drive down through the Pyrenees on Thursday on an endless series of viaducts over deep gorges and through tunnels carved out of towering rock, we looked for somewhere to stop for the night. We left the E-9 at Navas, and then left the town of Navas as quickly as possible. We halfheartedly looked for an aire, but the town had a run down appearance which didn’t inspire us.
Cynthia has a sixth sense for perfect wild camping spots. She directed me along a narrow road climbing back into the mountains. We pulled onto a gravelled layby at the top of a hill opposite the village of Gaià.
Gaià is an odd village. It has an old church and a town hall which has been converted into a popular Catalan restaurant. The village has no houses.
Cynthia was nervous. She’s read many online accounts about crime in Spain and the dangers motorhome owners face. I tried to assure her that she was probably more at risk during our travels in Devon and Cornwall than on a hilltop in the Pyrenees foothills.
We survived the night thanks to deadlocks on all the doors and a selection of razor sharp Global kitchen knives placed strategically throughout the motorhome. Few cars and no pedestrians passed during the hours of darkness. The only sign of life was a pack of three stray dogs at dawn, one stopping often to sniff its recently damaged hind leg.
Friday was a tiring and expensive motorway experience as we set off on day one of a three day journey down the length of Spain. We’ve decided that we probably want to stay in or close to Espéraza in the south of France for Christmas. The climate is mild, good food is plentiful, the scenery is wonderful, and the town is full of odd people. It suits us very well indeed.
We’ll spend Christmas there unless we find somewhere we like more in the next month. Unfortunately we have an appointment in Malaga next Monday where we also need to collect some mail which has been forwarded to us from England (Thank you Jane!).
We had two hundred miles to cover on Friday so had to resort to motorway driving. The driving is tedious, but easy. It’s also expensive. On Thursday we paid €11.27 before entering the 5km long Cadí tunnel. The motorway owners broke us in gently on Friday. We paid €2.50 at one toll booth, then a similar amount at another before a three hour stretch of motorway before leaving the E-15 north of Sagunto.
As we approached what we hoped would be the final toll booth of the day, we played a guessing game. “I think we’ll be charged €5,” suggested Cynthia. Because I’m much better at maths than Cynthia, I confidently forecast a fee closer to €10.
I inserted our ticket, then read and re-read the display to make sure I understood it properly. The charge was €28. I offered the machine one of the dogs in lieu of payment, but it didn’t understand.
At dusk we arrived at our first Spanish aire. I was a little nervous. The aire guide didn’t paint a particularly pretty picture. “The park adjacent would make a great boules court if it was not used as a dogs’ toilet”
It wasn’t too bad actually. Sandwiched between a graffiti covered wall and a working railway station, the location wasn’t going to win any awards for aesthetics. However, once the traffic died down and a deranged dog in a nearby house stopped yapping incessantly, the aire was quiet enough. Only two evening trains and a rotund rastafarian singing tunelessly and at great volume to the music restrained by his headphones disturbed the peace.
We didn’t stay there long. We had three hundred miles to drive to our next night’s stop at Playas de Vera on the coast between Cartagena and Almeria. The drive was as fascinating as it was varied.
We drove through lush countryside around Valencia. Endless orange groves, date and pepper trees added a little colour to the landscape for an hour to compensate for the drab and lifeless landscape which folled.
We pulled off the E-7 south of Valencia to top up our LPG supply. Ten days after our last fill and three days into our last 11kg cylinder, I knew we only had three or four days left. The diversion allowed us to meet some of the more outgoing locals.
Driving along a busy road through a pleasant enough suburb, we spotted a smartly dressed young lady standing at the roadside wearing a belt which doubled as a skirt and a pair of very high heeled red shoes. She smiled sweetly at the passing lorry drivers and gave many a friendly, almost suggestive wave.
A couple of minutes later we saw another lady similarly underdressed sitting close to the road reading a book. She looked as though she was waiting for someone. We assumed that they were both waiting for a lift to their office jobs.
We stopped a couple of minutes later to buy some fresh fruit, hoping that the young ladies didn’t think we were stopping to invite them on board. The roadside stand offered fresh oranges at a very reasonable price. For €10 Cynthia bought a 10kg sack of the sweetest, juiciest oranges I’ve ever tasted.
We topped up our LPG ten minutes later then rejoined the motorway for the most pleasant part of the journey through countryside laden with fruit trees. The drive took a turn for the worse when we skirted Benidorm’s high rise hotels, and then turned inland for half an hour through Murcia’s smog and desolate mountain landscape.
We left the motorway close to our target aire at Calnegre and drove along roads skirted by rock and rubbish until the sat nav announced that we had reached our destination, an aire described in our guide as “a less popular commercial aire than 88, but has more charm… the aire is open all year…”
Unfortunately we weren’t able to assess its charm because it was closed. I’m quite pleased really, because the site looked more like a large compound for fierce dogs than an aire with charm.
We reprogrammed the sat nav to take us 4km to “88”, the other Calnegre aire. Our sat nav sometimes reveals its twisted sense of humour, often at the end of a long day when a sense of humour is low on our list of priorities.
We were directed along a teeny, tiny road through a lunar landscape and signs of quarrying. After 500m we were instructed to “keep left and then go straight on”. Doing as we were told would have necessitated us skirting the narrow rim of a perilously steep quarry side and then following a steep and dusty track down into a dry river bed.
After a worrying three point turn on the narrow quarry rim, and one or two muted whimpers of distress from Cynthia, we abandoned the route to our second aire and looked for a third. We found a gem among aires.
The Camper Park Oasis al Mar close to Vera is, beyond question, the poshest aire we’ve had the pleasure of staying at so far.
It’s on an abandoned urbanisation in a well-to-do resort. The developer installed roads, footpaths and cycle paths but appears to have run out of money before he could build any houses. The aire is expansive, with room for sixty large motorhomes on five gravelled terraces.
There were twenty five motorhomes on the aire while we were there. At eight metres long including our bike rack, our Hymer was one of the smallest there. I had an acute attack of motorhome envy for a few moments until I remembered how happy we are with our little home. There were some monsters including a Concorde Liner similar to this one. This eleven metre coach costs over £300,000 new, ten times the cost of our thirteen year old Hymer. I hope they’ve had ten times the pleasure we’ve had out of ours. Somehow I doubt it.
We enjoyed a very peaceful night, then set off this morning for Malaga stopping briefly at nearby Playas de Vera to discover why the beach is so popular with people who like to take their clothes off. It’s supposedly one of the world’s top naturist resorts. Today’s weather was more suitable for sou’westers than swimwear though, so the skinny dippers sensibly stayed indoors.
Today’s drive has been the hardest day for the Hymer so far. The A-7 coast road from Almeria to Malaga is an endless procession of viaducts over bottomless gorges, 1,000m long tunnels through towering rock, diesel-burning long ascents and brake-scorching descents. On many ascents we could smell the engine overheating. The temperature gauge didn’t move though. Now we think that the temperature gauge has joined our growing list of broken controls.
We reached Malaga mid afternoon in plenty of time for a relaxing walk around the harbour as a treat for the long hours spent driving over the last three days. We’ve both been looking forward to relaxing in the sun watching the jet set mess about on their multi million pound boats, which is a bit of a shame. The weather is awful.
We’re parked in a litter strewn, graffiti covered car park beside a busy road a mile from the city centre. Heavy rain is hammering on the roof. Two suspicious looking young men are standing under a single umbrella trying and failing to shelter from the relentless downpour as they share an illegal smoke. From their restless jitters I suspect that it’s not a relatively harmless joint.
Welcome to Malaga.