I think I’ve finally realized that Bruno and I are unreliable plan-makers.
Actually, let me rephrase that: You can absolutely depend upon us to make – and then change – our plans (the Travel Plans section of our blog can attest to this). Here, on the Mediterranean Coast of Spain, is yet another example of our reliable unreliability.
Original plan: Spend two slow-travel months on the coast of Spain, then take a ferry on April 29th from Barcelona to Italy, zoom up to Switzerland, leave our vehicle there, and spend three weeks in May visiting family and friends in France.
What actually happened: We relaxed on the coast of Spain for exactly two weeks before hightailing it toward France, reaching our family and our house ten days later, on March 25th.
In order to understand another total upheaval of our plan, it is necessary to explain the unfolding of a series of events and trains of thought over the course of our final weeks in Morocco and our first few weeks in Spain.
You already know that we’d originally planned to stay in Morocco a month longer, but that, at the last minute, we’d opted to head back to Spain because the Moroccan tourist visa renewal process proved more complicated than we felt like dealing with. So, with our sights set on two months in Spain, we booked a ferry ticket from Barcelona to Genoa for Totoyaya and ourselves. The logic behind this was that Bruno didn’t want to risk driving our vehicle through France because his papers are severely out-of-date. We’d squeaked through France the year before without being noticed, but he didn’t want to repeat that stressful drive.
We’d chosen April 29th because we wanted to arrive at Bruno’s brother’s place near Geneva before the first weekend in May, drive down to the south of France with him to celebrate their mother’s 80th birthday, spend a bit of time with family, and then head north to Germany where we plan to put Totoyaya on a ferry to Canada in time for summer.
Yet, over the course of our first few weeks in southern Spain, we began to silently ponder the virtue of this plan. I was thinking it and Bruno was thinking it but neither of us were talking about it. Our ticket was booked and paid for – the plan was seemingly set in stone. I was even talking to a few friends in Europe about meeting up with them along the Spanish coast.
The reasons we were silently second-guessing our plan were threefold. Let me list them from least to most important:
- We were feeling totally out-of-place in the camping culture of Spain. I’ve talked about the campsites full of retirees before so I’m not going to rehash this topic again, but suffice to say the feeling like outsiders in our supposed community was beginning to really get to us.
- Bad weather. It was unseasonably cold in southern Spain for March. Sometimes the sun managed to defrost the chill accumulated during the 6°C nights, but often the daytime wind and clouds kept that chill deeply embedded within us. Yes, I know my Canadian family members are rolling their eyes right now, but let me just say that when you live in a camper van, you feel the weather so much more. You don’t have proper heating, you don’t have sufficient space indoors to seek refuge when it’s cold. You eat outside, you shower in faraway public unheated bathrooms, you wash your dishes in cold water outdoors. If it’s wet, cloudy, or windy, you don’t have the option to cocoon yourself in a toasty warm house. You just have to face the cold. And the cold was becoming a pain in our sides.
- We felt the weight of responsibility at home. This was the big one. And the one I should probably explain a bit more in-depth.
Remember the post I made a couple months ago? The one about us selling our beloved Totoyaya? That may have come out of thin air for most of you, but for us it was the result of a long-time conversation that really came to a head in southern Spain.
In Africa, traveling in a tiny vehicle without a toilet or shower was no big thing. The weather was great and there were amazing, empty, cheap campsites in beautifully-located scenic chunks of nature. It was totally awesome!
In the Middle East, I started to feel the challenges of our lack of facilities-on-board. On the Arabian Peninsula there were no campsites, and we started having to think of creative ways of taking care of our daily needs, like showering with the bum guns of squat toilets in gas stations and bike riding to the nearest mosque for our morning, um, toilet needs. In Dubai, I took out a yoga membership and used their shower, and in Oman we camped on beaches so we could grab sand in our plastic bucket and turn that into a porto-potty. We used a lot of incense on the Arabian Peninsula.
In Turkey, things were better because there were campsites again, but the culture of those campsites started to change the closer we got to Europe. By the time we got to Italy, I’d come to loathe the mega-campsites that were more like pricey mini-retirement-cities. When I have to pay $30 to squeeze Totoyaya between two giant motorhomes on the edge of a busy road and then insert 1 euro coins into the shower for 2 minutes of water, I’ve lost the joy of camping.
The south of Spain offers four types of sleeping scenarios for camper vanners:
- Free parking, widely available. You can find a list of many of them online, and you will often see more when driving along (look for the agglomeration of parked camper vans). We tried this a few times, but it was so complicated for us to find a place for our morning needs (cough) that it wasn’t a practical option for us.
- Bush camping, technically illegal (we think). We did this a few times in northern Spain, when we were sure we wouldn’t get noticed or hassled, but southern Spain is much more populated and “dangerous” so Bruno didn’t feel safe using this option.
- Campsites, widely available year-long along the Mediterranean Coast. But as mentioned previously, they weren’t at all our scene. We occasionally found a few decent ones with a bit of space and at “decent” prices, but most of the time the campsites simply incited us to move on the next day.
- Camper Areas, sometimes available, and an interesting concept. They are essentially parking areas fitted out with some luxuries like basic toilets, showers, and facilities to fill and empty water. The prices are better than for campsites (usually between 7-12 euros), but you are still usually stuck between motorhomes and busy roads. This was our preferred accommodation option in southern Spain, but it still didn’t satisfy my soul. I missed what camping had meant to me in Africa – peace, solitude, and communion with nature.
As Bruno and I passed through southern Spain, the long-time theoretical conversation of selling Totoyaya became more concrete. It felt like now was the time. The time to create a more comfortable living situation, certainly, but even more importantly, the time to regain the freedom that this lifestyle had meant for us and that now we felt we had lost.
We began to seriously look at replacement vehicles. We discussed our lifestyle priorities and realized that we wouldn’t find what we were looking for in a lightweight vehicle. In France, Bruno’s regular driver’s license only authorizes him to drive a vehicle lighter than 3.5 tons – anything heavier and you need a truck driver’s license (C). This C license is a very long, and very strenuous process in France. To top all the vehicle stuff off, we’re trying to rent Bruno’s house on the beach by ourselves this year because we had had negative, unsuccessful experiences with rental agencies the previous two seasons.
So, here we were biding our time on the coast of Spain when we really needed to be focused on selling Totoyaya, passing the truck driver’s license, trying to find a new French-matriculated vehicle, and getting our house rental-ready.
All of these things would be easier to do from France.
Once our minds were made up and our plan had been turned on its head, we hit the road, fast. On the map, we’d only covered four fingers in two weeks. Now we would cover thirty in ten days.
If you’re going to do a road-trip, you could choose a worse place than the southern coast of Spain. The road is good (memories of harrowing African road trips come to mind), there’s accommodation and food everywhere, and if you stay away from the highways you can almost always drive along a road that literally skirts the coast. It’s the views that make this road trip worth it (though if you have time and inclination, there are tons of worthy town stops).
My memories of this road trip are almost all a blur of arid cliffs, whitewashed towns, and sandy coves, but I was smart enough to write down my impressions of different chunks of coastline as we drove past.
From Algeciras to Nerja: highly developed coastline, not very beautiful
From Nerja to Motril: lovely section, with a small parque natural, fairly lush flora, and quaint villages
From Adra to Almeria: not so nice, a lot of agriculture and plastic greenhouses
From Almeria to Aguilas: perhaps my favourite section of coastline, very rugged and arid, empty of human development, a large parque natural
From Aguilas to Benidorm: nothing special of note, more developed and more agricultural
From Benidorm to Gandia: less sea views but lovely rocks, fields, and traditional agricultural towns
From Gandia to Peníscola: nothing special of note, less coastal views and more towns and agriculture
Most of our tourism was of the drive-by variety, but we always did some exercise-tourism in the evenings. The Spanish believe the coastline belongs to all Spaniards; as such, almost all of Spain’s 5,000km of coastline is public. Restaurants and cafés line the coast, but even more wonderful are the seemingly-continuous promenades. Since Bruno and I were spending a lot of time sitting in the car, our evening routine consisted of finding the coastal promenade and going for a bike ride or speed walk.
When we hit-up Peníscola’s promenade, the first thing I saw was a fairy-tale-like fortified castle seemingly floating on the water. I’d been good so far and hadn’t asked Bruno to allow me any tourism stops during our road trip, but old Peníscola was calling to me. I had to see it.
Thus, we granted ourselves one final day of tourism before our arrival in France and the beginning of a non-nomadic period of our life. We did what we’d become accustomed to do in Europe: grab our backpacks and cameras, walk to the historical area of town, grab a map from the tourist office, and then wander the cobblestone streets. We gazed out at the sea and the coastline from the little fortified islet, we admired the old buildings (especially the one made entirely out of seashells), and we looked at a ton of restaurant menus. But the town was filled with tourists, the menus were expensive, and I was quickly over it. I was ready to head “home.”
As we drove past Barcelona, I felt a slight pang – it’s a city I keep planning to visit and keep missing – but I was too busy navigating Bruno on and off ramps and exits to dwell on it. It wasn’t until we reached that night’s campsite near Figueres and the border of France that it hit me. This was it: our final night in Totoyaya, maybe forever.
As Bruno and I wandered around the farm on which we were camped, a deep sadness washed over us. We visited the flower trees, vegetable garden, and small hot-spring waterfall nearby, and I felt like we’d reconnected with what camping had meant to us back in Africa, when I started this overland journey. Bruno and I had come so far – both literally and figuratively – since then, and now we were ending an era. We were moving onto a brand new chapter of our lives, one that would involve houses and driving tests instead of our trusty Totoyaya, the only constant since the very beginning.
Before you get too sad, dear readers, let me remind you of one thing: Bruno and I are reliable plan-makers in only one way – our unreliability. You’ll have to stay tuned of Wandering Footsteps for the continuing details.