Visiting Portugal – the hard way!

This isn’t an article moaning about tedious airport delays, overstuffed baggage and overzealous customs officers. Today, I will attempt to chronicle a 4,700 mile road trip in just 1200 words.

Dover from North Wales is a trek in itself but easily doable in six to eight hours. It got a tad worrying when I realized that diesel was getting difficult to find near the port. This was caused by higher prices in France prompting motorists and lorry operatives to fill up in the UK. It didn’t bode well when we also discovered shortages in France. But we overcame these issues by topping up a little and often, making the most of forecourts with ample supplies.

At the end of March and into early April (2022), we weaved our way down through a snowy, unseasonably chilly northern France. A southbound route that led towards Rouen, Le Mans, Tours and Poitiers which is where we eventually ran out of puff on DAY-1. Stopping off at a nearby campsite, our surprisingly cozy air bed equipped estate car provided impromptu accommodation after being let down by an Airbnb host. We awoke to a crisp, frosty morning by the side of the slowly meandering River Vienne. A very pleasant experience.

Angoulême

Weary from two days traveling, our next stop was a mere hop and a skip to Angoulême where we’d booked another Airbnb close to central amenities. Time, at last, for some serious wine tasting and getting a flavor of France. This followed an afternoon visit to the beautiful (and by now balmy) city of Cognac with its picturesque Grand ‘Place, endless narrow medieval streets and splendid floral displays. Cognac is a small but busy town. It’s wonderfully chilled and therefore a real pleasure to visit being at the heart of the lush, fertile Nouvelle-Aquitaine region.

With the car nose pointing squarely towards the mighty Pyrenees and the Iberian Peninsula beyond, the coordinates were set for Toulouse via the Dordogne and the stunningly beautiful city of Périgueux, home to the Cathedrale St-Front with its five domes. This was another perfect location to enjoy yet another light lunch, a taste of some locally produced foie gras, marvel at some ornate and exceedingly expensive cakes before… more sightseeing.

Toulouse wasn’t on our radar because the aim was to tackle the Pyrenees the following day. So we kept on driving, hoping to find a hotel south of Toulouse. We eventually used a booking app to find nearby accommodation. We did! It was a room in a small family bungalow. To say it was cozy is fair. Our room was literally just off the family’s living area with a shared bathroom to boot. Luckily our hosts were friendly enough and clearly not unaccustomed to hosting last-minute visitors such as ourselves. It just seemed a tad ‘familiar’ for those of us with a British disposition. But for an authentic French experience – unbeatable!

Pyrenees

After a slightly uneasy night’s slumber, the dawn heralded a visit to a nearby local Boulangerie where a continental breakfast was enjoyed in the company of an elderly but very French proprietor who just so happened to speak excellent English. Time to head for the snow capped splendor of the lofty Pyrenees. If we played our cards right, Barcelona beckoned.

The drive over the snowy peaks was nothing if not utterly spectacular. Some of the more out of the way routes through the French / Spanish hinterlands are somewhat hairy and may not be for the faint hearted. But, fortune favors the brave and thus the more spectacular vistas would be unveiled from remote passes with narrow road tunnels carved into the ancient hillsides.

The architecture and the general ambience is distinctly Alpine in these parts. Pinch yourself, because Barcelona is hiding close by. Remoteness, peace and tranquility will soon be swapped for the hustle and bustle of a vibrant European city.

Barcelona

The sights of Barcelona are nothing short of awesome. It’s a huge city but we managed to cover all the major sights from our city center hotel just off Las Ramblas. Top tip: If you have a largeish car, avoid the underground car parks. They’re built in the absolute bowels of the city. Access is NOT easy. Getting out, even trickier! It’s 25 € to scuff up your car. Luckily, I got away with it. Just.

After a hectic but strangely relaxing few days in bustling Barcelona we went slightly off-piste, hugging the Spanish Costas until we arrived in a small beachside town called Benicarló. We opted to stay in the nearby larger and more picturesque town of Pêniscola with its fabulous hilltop castle overlooking the sun-drenched bay.

From here it was a long haul past Valência towards Benidorm. Surely ALL the world’s oranges are grown around Valência? The plantations reach from horizon to horizon, miles upon miles of oranges. I thought there were lots in Portugal but this was on another level.

Benidorm

I’d never been to Benidorm. For me, it’s a case of dropping all the clichés. This is a resort that’s all things to all people. You can eat whatever takes your fancy from cheap and cheerful to top drawer cuisine. You can have Tex-Mex, Tandoori or Tapas. The choice is yours. And, Benidorm is far prettier than I’d ever dare imagine. The views from Benidorm Castle at the top of the old town (through ‘Tapas Alley’) are genuinely awesome especially when it’s all floodlit at night. We’re going to go back!

From Benidorm we headed to Seville for the Easter Holy Week celebrations where some 50,000 people put on traditional robes to parade in 58 organized processions where the “costaleros” carry huge candle lit pasos (religious statues) on their shoulders. Fascinating spectacle!

Portugal was now clearly in our sights. From the glorious beaches of Huelva we soon made our way across The Guadiana Bridge to spend some chill-time on the sun kissed Algarve. Based in Quarteira, we enjoyed several days on Portugal’s southern flanks before heading North to Lisbon, Ericeira, Sintra, Cascais, Mafra and all my favorite haunts thereabouts. Then it was north to a very windy San Martinho do Porto, Nazaré and Aveiro before heading towards northern Spain and the picturesque Basque Country.

Our time in the insanely beautiful resort of San Sebastian where ‘pinchos’ trump tapas and the people speak their own unique language was far too short. But at least we still had the French Basque region to look forward to where we spent some very enjoyable days close to stunning Biarritz, Bayonne, Irun and St Jean-de-Luz.

Bordeaux

Our final few days of this month-long jaunt were spent in the majestic city of Bordeaux where modern meets classical in an extraordinary fusion of styles. A vast network of narrow streets and alleyways reveal a plethora of hidden-away bars and restaurants catering for most tastes. There’s also a very useful modern tramway system which links all the main areas of the city, the parks, the grand riverside esplanade and various key suburbs making Bordeaux a remarkably easy city to navigate.

So, that’s how we did Portugal the hard way. It was also the fun way and therefore comes highly recommended!

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