Picos de Europas by Carawagon.
Summer in Northern Spain. Reproduced courtesy of Land Rover World Magazine
Toby Savage and girlfriend Jo, take a meander through northern Spain in their Series 2a Carawagon.
Summer holidays on a beach have never appealed to me. I’m bored stiff within a couple of hours. Like many Land Rover enthusiasts I crave a spot of adventure, wild open spaces and warm evenings spent around a barbecue eating good food washed down with a local wine. With this in mind and Jo’s enthusiastic agreement, we opted to spend two weeks camping in Northern Spain in the Carawagon. When all set up for a cosy night under the stars the Carawagon, with awning and portable shower, becomes as mobile as an hotel room, so to give us the option to visit local markets, bars and restaurants we took along our Honda 90 on a small trailer. This had the added advantage, that if money ran short we could always do a spot of Pizza delivering to fund the trip!
Emerging from the ferry into the hot midday sunshine of Santander we drove around the busy town in search of a restaurant for lunch and a chance to work out our route. We had a ten year old Rough Guide to Spain and three large scale Michelin maps of the area. Using a combination of both we planned to avoid the big industrial areas of the north and find the unspoilt bits. Neither of us speak a word of Spanish so ordering lunch was amusing as the waitress spoke no English. However, my impersonation of a large fish swimming in a strong current seemed to do the trick and a large Gilt Head Bream soon appeared, grilled with garlic and served with chips.We decided to potter along the coast for a couple of days, then head south into the Picos de Europas mountains. These jagged peaks rise high above the road which follows a very narrow gorge. It becomes rather claustrophobic, as there are no stopping places and the summer traffic was quite dense. We eventually reached Potes. A busy town in the heart of the Picos. Parking our big ‘rig’ was impossible, but we had our secret weapon. Parked up a few km’s out of town, we unloaded the Honda and rode into town, able to park anywhere.
That evening we camped at a new camp site overlooking Riano and the reservoir, Embaise de Riano and were rewarded with a fine sunset against the mountain backdrop.Green lane adventureHeading south west out of Riano we took minor roads across the Castilla y Leon. This high, lush, landscape offered many chances to explore smaller, remote, tracks. Unhitching the trailer and chaining it and the Honda to a suitable tree, we dived off into the undergrowth, the Carawagon now in it’s element. These rough tracks run all over this part of Spain and no one minds you using them. Taking care to mark a GPS waypoint of where we had left the bike, we first climbed steeply through a wood of mature oak trees, twigs breaking under the wheels, as the profile of the Land Rover forged a route through the undergrowth. We saw no one and after climbing for half an hour emerged from the tree line onto a plateau with commanding views of the mountains behind us. The engine seemed a little hot so I parked facing into the breeze and raised the bonnet to cool things down before we continued. We took a different route back safe in the knowledge that we had a waypoint for the Honda. This took us further south and eventually our path was blocked by a small river. I got out assess the depth. The water was so clear it was easy too see that it presented nothing more than a pleasant splash, so was easily crossed.
As we emerged from the river the ground beneath us changed from brown to red as our wet tyres left a distinct pattern on the hard baked track. We rejoined tarmac some 10 km’s south of the Honda and backtracked to collect it from its secure tree.The off roading demon in me satisfied for the time being, we continued west to Astorga for a spot if culture. The Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi designed the fabulous Palicio de Gaudi in 1888 and a few euros spent on admission was very worthwhile. The interior is as dramatic as the facade and a flamenco guitarist was playing on the steps as we emerged. A small group of robust Spanish ladies dancing to his tune. By now the weather was very hot and a lakeside camp seemed a good idea so we headed south to Lago de Sanabria, soon finding a campsite that met our requirements for minimal people and some shade. Easing the Carawagon between the trees gave all a chance to cool down as we walked down to the lake side and took a refreshing dip against a backdrop of mountains reflected sharply in the still water.Woodland campingIt was our intention to visit Santiago de Campostela in Galicia so having refreshed ourselves by the lake it was time to head northwest into an area on the map that showed no camp sites (they are marked on the Michelin maps in much the same way as they are on our O.S. maps). We drove a lot that day and searched, in vain, for a camp site.
Being totally self sufficient in the Carawagon we can sleep anywhere, so headed for another lake, reasoning that it would be good for a dip to cool us down. We found Embaise de Portemouros, about 30km south of Santiago. It was 9.30 pm and we had driven all day, so were tired and in need of a good meal. It looked the perfect spot until we got out to find it was infested with mosquitoes. It had taken a good hour to get out there so we were reluctant to travel much further. We drove back up to the road where we unhitched the trailer and took a steep track up into some well established woodland. Within a couple of km’s there was one small area that was level so we returned to collect the trailer which was than dragged up the track, whether it liked it or not, to the level spot. It was here, under a canopy of eucalyptus trees, that we camped for the night enjoying an al fresco shower in the woods, before cooking up a good meal on the Carawagon’s rear door mounted gas cooker . Jo was convinced she heard wolves, bears and all manner of monsters during the night, but hard evidence suggested rabbits!Before leaving England we had heard a programme on Radio 4 about the 18th century Pazo de Oca gardens. Finding them only a stones throw from where we had camped we paid them a visit. Four euros gets you in to this big Galician garden. The Palace traces it’s roots back to the 13th century, but the gardens were formally laid out in the mid 18th century and feature extensive water ways and exotic shrubs. From here it was a short run up to Santiago where we arrived in time for the city’s biggest festival in honour of St James. We had notice Pilgrims scattered along the road as we approached the city. They would have walked at least 100 kms to qualify for the Campostela (the traditional Latin certificate of pilgrimage) on reaching Santiago.
This pilgrimage has seen quite a revival in recent years and thousands, many of them young, make the trip by walking, cycling, or on horseback, staying in dedicated refugios, to arrive in Santiago for the Festival of St James. We found a good camp site on the edge of town and arrived by Honda 90! The firework display at midnight was astounding and broke every health and safety law imaginable. Thousands of spectators crammed into the square in front of the Cathedral, when, on the stroke of midnight, tons of explosives were ignited. The display lasted 20 minutes and will remain ingrained in my memory for a long time.The rain in SpainWith a ferry to catch it was time for us to load up and head east. The weather along the northern coast of Spain is renowned for showers and it lived up to its reputation. We arrived in the fishing village of Luarca in drizzle, found a campsite up on the cliffs above the town and rode in. The harbour, built in a natural cove, has a Cornish feel to it. Boats bobbing in the water and fish restaurants dotted around the harbour’s edge. We took full advantage of La Maison de la Mar and ate well before wobbling back up to the hill soaking wet to an equally wet Carawagon which, being a Land Rover, leaks a bit. Fortunately the bedding was dry and we slept well. Hoping for some good weather to dry things out we were frustrated with heavier rain as we continued east back to Santander.
We had the heater on and clothes hanging up in the back of the Carawagon trying to dry them, but to no avail. We spent our last night in Spain at a camp site in Santilana del Mar, just 20 km from the port with yet more rain, but a very dry bar just down the road where we sought sanctuary.In the morning the weather had not improved and we were faced with the task of loading the trailer onto the roof rack and the Honda into the back of the Land Rover. (This saved a few bob on the ferry ticket by reducing the overall length) We had covered about 2000 km’s with perfect reliability and had slept every night in the Carawagon and cooked most meals either on the two ring cooker, or a disposable barbecue. We had camped in some good campsites and even roughed it for a night in the woods. We felt we had lived the Land Rover dream. All that remained was to get home and hang up the awning and ground sheet in the garage to dry, re stock the cupboards with rations and the Carawagon will be ready for our next adventure.FactfileRoute driven: Toby and Jo took the A67 west from Santander, joining the minor CA131 at Torrelavega, along the coast to Pesues. From here they took the N621 south to Potes, then Riano. From Riano they took the N621 southwest, then a variety of minor roads across to Leon. Then the N120 west to Astorga followed by more minor roads to Puebia de Sanabria for a night at the Lago de Sanabria.
From here rapid progress was made on the fast A52 up to Ourence, thn the N525 on to Santiago. From Santiago they took the N634 northeast to the coast, then back to Santander on the N634 coast road.Best places visited: On the coast; Santillana del Mar, San Vincente, Llanes, Cudillero and Luarca, a lovely fishing harbour with many good restaurants. Inland; Potes in the heart of the Picos de Europas, Astorga for Gaudi architecture, Lago de Sanabria to cool off, Oca for the Pazo de Oca gardens, Santiago de Campostela, the third most important city in Christendom after Jerusalem and Rome, and Mondonedo on the way back to the coast.Destination info. The northern regions of Spain; Asturias, Galicia and Castilla de Leon are where many Spanish and French take their summer holidays. For this reason it is unlikely you will bump into fellow Brits and few people speak English. The coastline has a lot of heavy industry, but it is easy to escape that and find traditional fishing harbours similar in character to those found in Cornwall.
Further south are the dramatic Picos de Europas mountains and the great plains of the Castilla de Leon with many opportunities to venture off road. Santiago is a big city with masses of entertainment and tourist sights. The roads are of excellent quality and in 2000 km’s Toby and Jo saw no speed cameras.
Vehicle info. 1970 Carawagon fitted with 200 Tdi engine, LT77 gearbox, Allisport intercooler, GKN Overdrive. Extensively modified for comfort and speed by Toby over the last 10 years.Weather
Info. Take your brolly. The rain in Spain falls all along the north coast. Further inland expect very hot weather.
You'll Need. Michelin maps 571, 572 and 575. Toby and Jo also found the Rough Guide to Spain invaluable for seeking out hidden treasures.
Getting there. You could drive all the way across France, but the easier option is to take a ferry directly to Spain. P&O offer sailing's from Portsmouth to Bilbao. Britanny Ferries sail from Plymouth to Santander. Toby paid full high season rate of £939 for two adults and Carawagon on the Britanny Ferries sailing, including a cabin with window. “Last summer I did the Portsmouth to Bilbao with P&O and can confirm that although more expensive, I prefer the Britanny Ferries crossing for service and facilities on board” adds Toby. Take binoculars as it is common to spot dolphins and wales in the Bay of Biscay.
Toby Savage August 2006